It’s been fairly well documented how the Kingdoms of Funk and Disco splintered off into many different factions around 1980 or so. In truth, there were always several different approaches to both genre’s, mainly tied to region. One of the great ironies of the early ’80s era is that even after the terms “Disco” and to a lesser but signifigant degree, “Funk”, fell out of favor in the marketing and description of music, the Funk itself survived in many different guises. Early ’80s genre’s such as Post Punk, Dance Punk, New Wave, Electro, Boogie and Post Disco all kept people on the dance floors as well as the sound systems rocking. One of the primary influence’s it seemed, for anybody touching Funk in the early ’80s, was the sleek, sophisticated funky sound introduced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic. “Out Come the Freaks” by the Detroit band Was (Not Was), is a excellent stomping example of this early ’80s Funk groove. Was (Not Was) led by Motor city friends Dave and Don Was, was a very diverse ’80s group that always included the funk very prominently in it’s mix. “Out Come the Freaks” is a tight, slick funky song with a dance floor seducing beat and much more lyrical depth than most songs of it’s era.
The song begins with accapella choral vocals repeating the songs hook and chorus, “Woodwork squeaks and out come the freaks.” After several repetitions of the title, a synthesizer makes a deep resonant tone that revs up the groove. The groove that’s introduced is uptempo and dancefloor based in the tradition of Chic, with a tight bass groove that was the first thing that caught my attention. The song also features funky rhythm guitars scratching in the back in fine Chic style. The combination of solid up front bass and rhythm guitar gives the song it’s sophistifunkated Chic feeling. When the groove kicks in a prototypical early ’80s rap does as well. The rap features a smooth conversational voice with a nice rhythmic syncopation, that could almost be jazz poetry like Oscar Brown Jr, but is a little bit more rhytmically aggressive. The rap carries the idea of the song, starting off in a manner that would influence Whodini’s classic, ‘The Freaks Come Out at Night”, “When the sun comes down/they hit the streets/in the bars/the try to meet/some other stranger/to ease the pain/of living alone/till it drives them insane.” They go on to paint cautionary tales of singles playing the dating game, again highlighting the underlying danger that accompanies the night life. They paint an early ’80s landscape that features young men suffering from Vietnam War PTSD and women out chasing rich men “even if they have no hair (don’t worry she’ll get him a toupe). This slice of life lyrical imagery and lyricism is paired to very funky, well produced, clean music, with nice touches like a saxophone riffing during the dance breaks.
“Out Come the Freaks” became a recurring motif Was (Not Was) would use to illuminate the absurdity of people in their life times, with the group recording three versions spanning 1981 to 1988. Every time they do it they add new lyrics and new sad yet realistic characters around the idea of “woodwork squeaks and out come the freaks.” Don Was, the bass player and co founder of the group, has moved on to being a seminally important producer, producing quality albums and songs for many artists who generally carry that high honor of being considered “legends” in the music industry. But 1981’s “Out Come the Freaks” shows that even by the early ’80s, the Funky beat was still considered a conduit for both moving people physically and describing the times in which we live in. And the image of “The Freak”, popular in disco and funk, from social dances to songs like Chic’s “Le Freak” and Funkadelic’s “Freak of the Week”, would go on to become one of the defining subject matters of ’80s urban music, from “I Need a Freak”, to Whodini’s aforementioned “The Freaks Come out at Night.” In the hands of Was (Not Was) “The Freak” was not just a supreme lover, but also, a representative of our troubled times.