By Cait Brennan
One of the most adventurous, imaginative, and irreverent bands of the 1970s and ’80s, The Tubes made a career—a whole new art form, really—out of being much too much.
The band existed in an alternate reality, almost inconceivable from our point of view, when bands could attack all different kinds of music, from every angle and attitude, in every genre now known or yet to be invented. In their time they were avant-garde madmen, merry pranksters, X-rated performance artists, art school punks, agents provocateurs, AOR gods, and—in a fitting twist of irony—actual Top 40 pop stars, becoming for a brief moment the very thing they were always sending up. Whether it was high concept or low pop, innovative composition and brilliant musicianship was the order of the day.
Now Real Gone Records has reissued two of the group’s essential yet long out-of-print early albums, Young And Rich and Now, the latter of which has never been issued on CD in the US, ever. It’s a welcome and wonderful addition to the Tubes’ catalog.
Born in Phoenix as two bands, “The Beans” and “The Red, White and Blues Band,” the group really didn’t become “The Tubes” until they relocated to San Francisco and the two bands merged (they were briefly “The Radar Men from Uranus”, which definitely had potential.) The Tubes immediately distinguished themselves with a raucous, taboo-busting burlesque stage show that combined formidable musicianship with sexually charged theatricality, including video displays, life-sized props, and anything-goes production numbers with acrobats, choreographed dancers, and dozens of other “cast members.”
Their edgy originals were complemented by riotously ironic covers, such as Marty Robbins’ classic “El Paso,” complete with lead singer (and the song’s protagonist) Fee Waybill being shot to a bloody death (complete with exploding fake blood packs straight out of Sam Peckinpah.) Synth genius Michael Cotten and drummer Prairie Prince immediately demonstrated an astonishing gift for visual and production design, creating stunning murals, backdrops and production elements that elevated the band’s shows beyond mere rock and roll.
Contemporary reviewers compared the band to everybody from Captain Beefheart to Frank Zappa to Stan Freberg, but they were looking in the wrong direction. At any given moment, the Tubes were at least a good decade ahead of their time. Witness their second LP, Young And Rich, a sharp satire of ’80s consumerist America with a suitably New Wave cover. But Young And Rich came out in 1976, the year of “Afternoon Delight” and Frampton Comes Alive. Can’t say they didn’t try to warn us.
Produced by Ken Scott (Bowie, Supertramp, Devo, some band called the Beatles), Young and Rich improves upon the characters and themes in the band’s self-titled debut album, with lush orchestration and complex, tight arrangements that distilled, as much as was possible at the time, the satirical madness of the Tubes’ high-concept stage shows.
Like Alice Cooper, another band with Phoenix roots, the Tubes dove headfirst into theatrical “shock rock,” but on a vastly more sophisticated scale. Bill “Sputnik” Spooner, Mike Cotten, Prairie Prince, Fee Waybill, Vince Welnick, Roger Steen, and Rick Anderson excelled at creating and orchestrating dozens of bizarre, transgressive characters.
Lead singer/provocateur Fee Waybill portrayed a variety of roles in the Tubes’ bizarro world, but none greater than Quay Lewd, Waybill’s amped-up, dragged-up, drugged-out parody of egomaniacal rock and roll lead singers. (Quay Lewd—you know, like Quaaludes, get it? What? They don’t make Quaaludes anymore? Well, there goes my weekend. If the Tubes had been a British band he would have been called Man Drax. There, I’ve said it.)
Waybill brought a coked-up platform-shoed Pentecostal fire to Quay Lewd, and while the full effect (and Waybill’s formidable showmanship) can perhaps only truly be understood live, Quay Lewd’s glam shadow looms large over the first two Tubes albums. Like their self-titled debut (and its “White Punks On Dope”), Young And Rich features a healthy share of “anthems of wretched excess.”
“Tubes World Tour” is a hi-test four-minute travelogue/boast of their road exploits with characteristically charming Waybill excess. Fee makes way for some fine vocal performances from his bandmates. “Pimp” is a jazzy, dark, unglamorous monologue from the title character, written and sung by Spooner; “Brighter Day” is written and sung by Roger Steen as “a love song to an unspecified object.” And “Slipped My Disco” is another suitably bizarre “incredible but true” Spooner gem.
“Don’t Touch Me There” is a sharp girl-group pastiche that was a frequent over-the-top theatrical showstopper in the Tubes’ live sets. The Tubes’ Re Styles is one of the great unheralded female rock singers of the 1970s. An amazing onstage performer audacious enough to match Waybill’s antics, Styles contributed to some of the Tubes’ most memorable records (including “Mondo Bondage” and the FM staple “Prime Time”). Arranged to Spectorian perfection by Jack Nitzsche, “Don’t Touch Me There,” a breathless duet with Waybill, may be her finest hour (but don’t count out “Prime Time,” from 1979’s Todd Rundrgren-produced Remote Control—bring that one out again too, Real Gone Records!)
Just in time for the flag-wavin’ freedom-train Bicentennial, “Proud To Be An American” manages to send up both Elvis Presley and, somehow, 20 years in advance, “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” Welnick rocks the boogie-woogie keys, Sputnik goes full Sun-sessions rockabilly, and with lines like “It’s impossible to give equality and justice to inferior foreigners too jealous to trust us,” it feels uncomfortably timely 36 years on.
“Method frontman” Waybill’s finest moment here might “Poland Whole/Madam I’m Adam,” in which Waybill drifts into a drug-fueled nightmare reverie of “fascination and abomination on a biblical Broadway stage” that sounds suspiciously like God directing a porno.
“Stand Up And Shout” is a great piano rocker co-written by Ray Trainer and Mike Condello and a popular item in Condello’s late 1970s band Elton Duck’s sets. Indeed, one can’t help but see parallels between characters like Quay Lewd and Hub Kapp, the bloated phony rock star from Phoenix’s Wallace and Ladmo Show. Condello, musical mastermind of the Wallace show’s rock and roll spoofs, produced Sputnik Spooner’s first solo album (with Spooner as “Warren S Richardson Jr.”) and contributed to early Tubes tours.
For all the humor and satire, there’s an undercurrent of world-weary despair in some of the Tubes’ storylines, never more so than the album’s closer, the soulful, rueful, tragically-hip title track. Never has being “young and rich, with everything I desire, and everything I need, in every room” sounded so empty. Welnick’s grand piano is mournful and magnificent, perfectly complemented by David Paich’s Hammond work.
1977’s Now is a pivotal moment in the band’s development. Originally envisioned as a double album before original producer John Anthony (Roxy Music, Genesis, Queen) left the project under murky circumstances, Now is a comparatively stripped down rock and roll effort, with vastly simpler orchestration and arrangements than the previous high-concept Tubes records. It’s also a much darker tour than its predecessors, almost Tubes Noir, with Waybill’s over the top persona downplayed in favor of a more subdued approach.
“Smoke (La Vie En Fumer)” sets the tone early, with a lounge-noir ode to the smokiest of rooms featuring Waybill as the nicotine-fueled anti-hero. Spooner takes lead vocal duties on “Strung Out On Strings”, describing the tragic travails of a guitar addict. “Golden Boy” is a heartfelt bluesy memorial to former Beans drummer Bob McIntosh, who passed away in 1973.
Roger Steen co-wrote and sings lead on “I’m Just A Mess.” Ex-Santana fusion funkmaster and second Tubes percussionist Mingo Lewis drives the Afro-Cuban-Martian-psych-rock exploration “God-Bird-Change.” Sputnik also sings lead on a particularly engaging cover of Captain Beefheart’s “My Head Is My Only House (Unless It
Beefheart himself plays sax on “Cathy’s Clone” featuring the awesome Re Styles. Described in the liner notes as a “mechanized sendup of Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’,” “Cathy’s Clone” was written by the late actress, singer and radio personality Jane Dornacker, who toured extensively with the Tubes and co-wrote the equally great “Don’t Touch Me There” on Young And Rich. According to Prince, Beefheart came into the studio, smashed out a light and played the blistering solo on the record.
“This Town,” written by Phoenix music impresario Lee Hazlewood, hearkens back to the band’s roots. A modest 1967 hit for Frank Sinatra, “This Town” was envisioned as an opening for Waybill to take on a Sinatraesque stage persona, complete with a swinging horn arrangement from San Francisco bandleader Dick Bright. “Pound Of Flesh” appears to be Fee Waybill singing about the dimensions of his penis. And “You’re No Fun” feels like an Aja-era Steely Dan sendup, interrupted about halfway through by a hard-rock tempo change and some of the finest musicianship you’ll hear on any Tubes record (or anywhere else for that matter).
And that, in the end, is the thing that endures. Take away the satire and stage mayhem and there’s still an embarrassment of riches in Spooner and Steen’s lyrical guitars, Welnick’s expressive piano work, Rick Anderson’s propulsive bass lines, and Mike Cotten’s pioneering analog synth work (especially on the ARP). Prairie Prince gives a tour de force performance on the drums, matching power with precision and demonstrating once again that he belongs on the shortlist of the greatest rock drummers who ever picked up sticks. And Waybill’s voice is capable of great emotion, delivering the goods on that rogue’s gallery of characters he brought to life on stage.
The band recorded five albums for A&M records before leaving for Capitol, an era that would lead to some big commercial hits and slick, popular FM album cuts. As the video era finally dawned, the Tubes appeared in Xanadu battling the evil big band forces of Olivia Newton-John. Waybill and Welnick also appeared in the cult treasure Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. Members of the band did a Japanese soap opera, and even appeared in a “Fishin’ Musician” segment on SCTV. And in 1983, a decade after their start, they broke through on MTV with “She’s A Beauty,” introducing the band to a new audience just in time for the whole thing to go boom.
Despite their great records, the Tubes were really made for an era that hadn’t yet come, an era when their amazing multimedia videos and stage show clips could be seen and appreciated by a wide audience. Indeed, it was their audacious 1974 “video demo” that got them signed to A&M in the first place. With a tantalizing sampling of clips from the Tubes’ massive archive starting to appear on YouTube, perhaps they’ll truly get the appreciation they deserve. For now, this excellent reissue of Young and Rich and Now is a welcome start.
Young and Rich and Now were released by Real Gone Records on March 27 and are available to order in a two-CD set from the label’s website.