To most new wave fans, the Waitresses are a fondly remembered part of the '80s one-hit wonder pantheon, even in spite of the fact that that one hit was a cult phenomenon that didn't even reach the Top 40. Yet "I Know What Boys Like" was the sort of daring, instantly memorable pop nugget that epitomized the era -- all cool detachment, subversive wit, and an irresistibly off-kilter dance groove. Lead singer Patty Donahue's dry, cheeky attitude supplied a not inconsiderable sex appeal, but even if she was the band's focal point, their true voice was guitarist and founder Chris Butler. Butler was responsible for the vast majority of their material, and often wrote from a distinctly female point of view, tailoring his work to fit Donahue's personality. Most critics and fans felt the band had more to offer than just "I Know What Boys Like," but tension within the group during the recording of their second LP led to their premature implosion.
Chris Butler and Patty Donahue were both living in Akron, OH when the Waitresses were conceived, and had been involved in the Akron/Cleveland-area music scene that spawned the likes of Devo, Pere Ubu, and the Dead Boys. Butler had attended Kent State University and participated in the notorious 1970 anti-war demonstration where protesters were shot by the National Guard (an event that also galvanized the future members of Devo into formulating their world view). Butler kicked around the local music scene for several years before forming the Dadaist, avant-new wave band Tin Huey, which drew inspiration from Captain Beefheart and the freewheeling jazz-rock of Frank Zappa and the Soft Machine. Tin Huey released one album, Contents Dislodged During Shipment, on Warner Brothers in 1979.
In the meantime, Butler had written and recorded "I Know What Boys Like" in 1977. He performed every instrument on the track, and recruited friend Patty Donahue to handle the vocals; under the name Patty Darling, Donahue also sang on another track called "Astronettes," which Butler credited to the "fake band" the Waitresses, taking the name from a favorite T-shirt of Butler's friend. One Waitresses single appeared on the tiny local Clone label, though it featured only Butler on vocals and instruments. Some of these early tracks later turned up on Stiff Records' The Akron Compilation and on Clone's two Bowling Balls from Hell samplers.
Following Tin Huey's dissolution, Butler settled in New York City, where he took "I Know What Boys Like" to an A&R rep he knew. It ended up landing him a deal with Island/Polygram affiliate Ze Records, upon which point he set about forming a real band as quickly as possible (the then-nonexistent group was not, as he told the label, back in Ohio). He sent word to Donahue, and she agreed to join him; in the meantime, he formed the first Waitresses lineup, thanks in part to connections with former Tin Huey sax player Ralph Carney. That initial lineup featured Donahue, Butler, free jazz saxophonist Mars Williams (who'd been working as Anthony Braxton's copyist), onetime Television drummer Billy Ficca, keyboardist and Akron expat Dan Klayman, bassist Dave Hofstra, and backing singer Ariel Warner, a friend of Donahue's.
The Waitresses made their live debut on New Year's Eve, 1980, and spent the next year or so honing their chemistry and building a following. They contributed the track "Christmas Wrapping" to a Ze Records holiday release in 1981 while completing their debut LP, 1982's Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?. A case of stage (or, more accurately, studio) fright led to Warner's exit from the band during the recording sessions, while bassist Hofstra left after its completion to focus on acoustic jazz, and was replaced by Tracy Wormworth. Released as a single in early 1982, "I Know What Boys Like" was a cult sensation in both the U.S. and U.K., although it climbed no higher than number 62 in America (it did, however, make the Top Ten in Australia). It also earned the band an invitation to perform the title theme to the sitcom Square Pegs, starring a young Sarah Jessica Parker. "Square Pegs" appeared on the stopgap EP I Could Rule the World if I Could Only Get the Parts, which was named after a re-recorded Tin Huey track and also compiled "Christmas Wrapping" (which was later covered by, of all groups, the Spice Girls).
In the middle of sessions for their second album, tensions between bandmembers reached a boiling point, and Donahue wound up exiting the group for a short period. In the meantime, Butler attempted to replace her with Holly & the Italians singer Holly Beth Vincent, but the transplant didn't take, and Donahue soon returned to the fold. The resulting LP, Bruiseology, was released in 1983 to a comparatively muted response; many found it less cohesive than its predecessor, unsurprising given the more difficult circumstances surrounding its creation. Donahue left once again, and the rest of the group crumbled; Butler threw in the towel by year's end, and the Waitresses effectively ceased to exist. Donahue went on to become an A&R rep, while Butler became a producer, and later returned to his more avant-garde roots via his solo work in the '90s. Lung cancer claimed Donahue's life on December 9, 1996; she was only 40-years-old. The following year, King Biscuit Flower Hour issued one of the band's live shows on CD. ~ Steve Huey