The TUBES – ” The Albums “

Posted: January 8, 2021 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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The Tubes photo by Jorgen Angel and Redferns

The Tubes captured the imagination of the British public in 1977 when they were forced to tone down their stage show by the local government authority in London. Word got out that the “Mondo Bondage” Tour was perverse and depraved. However, the publicity did them no harm and they established themselves as an essential “live” act during this period with characters like “Dr Strangekiss” and “Quay Lewd” adding spice to their theatrical show.

The group were formed by vocalist Fee Waybill with guitarist Bill Spooner and college friends Vince Welnick (Keyboards), Michael Cotten (synthesizer), Roger Steen (guitar), Rick Anderson (bass), Prairie Prince (drums) and Re-Styles (dancer).

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Their music – as reflected on their Al-Kooper produced debut in 1975 – was loud and brash but the early albums never quite lived up to the stage act which was subsequently immortalized on the double-album “What Do You Want From Life”. When The Tubes lead singer Fee Waybill sang ‘What Do You Want From Life?’ on the San Francisco based band’s self-titled debut album, The Tubes (1975) he was asking a rhetorical question laced with a great deal of sardonic intent. Acting as a kind of fulcrum between Steely Dan at their most venomous and New Radicals at their name-calling peak, The Tubes offered a virtual rock cabaret with delicious asides, lashings of erotica, amazing musicianship and drop-dead funny lyrics. Another of their best-known tracks (they should all be) is the anthem ‘White Punks On Dope’ which turned a mirror on the West Coast’s most pampered, in much the same way that the Dan had done on ‘Showbiz Kids’.

The tongue-in-cheek and deliberately over-the-top ‘White Punks On Dope’ would go on to be one of the songs that united the British and American new wave movements. It became a top 30 UK hit single in 1977, the year that that the band recorded their celebrated What Do You Want From Live album at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. The stirring ‘White Punks’ later inspired a cover by Mötley Crüe.

“It’s about a bunch of rich kids we knew,” said co-writer and Tubes guitarist Bill Spooner. “You see all those ads on TV about drugs in the ghetto, and they say, it’s not their fault. They were born poor, and all they had to turn to was drugs. Well, in San Francisco, we know a whole bunch of these kids that are so rich, and they’re all strung out, and they’re total derelicts. So you don’t have to be poor to be a derelict.” “Some took ‘White Punks on Dope’ literally,” the Tubes’ drummer Prairie Prince said in October 2018. “We were also advocating anti-drugs as well. A lot of our friends died and overdosed and passed out, and lot of rock idols we knew were passing in front of our eyes. We had to make a statement.”

“White Punks On Dope” climbed to No.28 in the UK, which was the Tubes’ highest-ever singles placing, but they would enjoy a fleeting Top 40 appearance with the subsequent live album that contained the song.

Kooper later said that he produced The Tubes as if it was the score for an imaginary Broadway musical. From the outset of ‘Up From The Deep,’ it’s an endearingly oddball, episodic soundscape with myriad influences, tempo changes, big strings and much more.

‘Haloes’ for example, has a melodic and edgy urgency somewhat reminiscent of Todd Rundgren, with a great drum pattern from Prairie Prince. The gentler elements and vocals of ‘Space Baby’ meanwhile, recall Steely Dan. They typify a notable recording debut by a band who never took themselves too seriously, but had huge talent to reinforce their individuality.

But it takes more than out and out humour to make a great band. The Tubes paid the genre the utmost respect. They were sticklers for fine detail and understood that, after all, they were part of the consumer culture they threatened to behead. They had to wait years to receive their just desserts, ‘She’s A Beauty’ became their first number-one single and attendant album. “Outside Inside” awoke a whole raft of folks to their stylish sound. But they were great in 1975 and fantastic in 1983 when they opened for David Bowie on his Serious Moonlight tour. They played with Dolly Parton and Cher (on the latter’s TV Special) and got them to take part in an outrageously camp and dramatic episode called ‘The Musical Battle to Save Cher’s, Soul Medley’; they headlined at Knebworth with Frank Zappa and Peter Gabriel, toured with Todd Rundgren (one of their many fine producers) and played various shows under such pseudonyms as Metal Corpses.

If you’ve never made a visit to Tubes-land, we’d suggest that should be rectified.

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Though based on the West Coast for logistical reasons (San Francisco’s underground culture was their oyster) most of The Tubes were actually high school and college friends from Phoenix and neighbouring Scottsdale, Arizona. They were an amalgamation of two groups – The Beans and The Red, White and Blues – spending five years working up an act with songs to match their grandiose visions. Lead singer Fee Waybill would be Kway Lewd, the obnoxious, drugged and drunken rock star wannabe, while his female accomplice Re Styles strutted like a leading actress in an adult movie. With Prairie Prince on drums, future Grateful Dead pianist Vince Welnick the MC, Roger Steen and Bill Spooner in charge of axe work and stellar riffs, and Michael Cotton lending an Eno-like synthesiser charisma (let’s not forget bassist Rick Anderson, the butt of many an on-stage prank), The Tubes built such a reputation that Al Kooper (Bob Dylan, Blood Sweat and Tears etc) was hired as a producer and made a damn fine job of it. The Tubes (1975) starts with a sublime bubbling melody for ‘Up From The Deep’ and the moods change constantly, all to the good. ‘Mondo Bondage’ and guitarist Bill Spooner’s ‘Boy Crazy’ are further highlights.

Follow-ups “Young and Rich” and “Now” coincided with The Tubes turning their attentions to the European market and the superb ‘What Do You Want from life?’ (recorded at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1977) collates all the goodies to date with a class and élan that is beyond the ken of lesser mortals and predicates the rise of New Wave as the coming dawn. Definitely one of the great overlooked live doubles is this. It even includes a version of John and Paul’s ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. Way cool.

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The Todd Rundgren produced “Remote Control” was hailed as a masterpiece in some quarters and slagged in others, but if you were on message and on-trend there was nothing to dislike here. Same goes for “The Completion Backward Principle” where they work with Toto’s David Foster and Steve Lukather on a smart pastiche of management jargon and motivational syndrome, then sweeping the world via Japan. The re-mastered version is the way to go here. This album spawned the monster hit ‘Talk to Ya Later’, showing everyone that The Tubes were also masters of the multi-media video in long or short form.

“Outside Inside” (1983) is widely considered to be another classic. Boasting a cast of dozens, including specialists like Lukather, Bill Champlin, Jay Graydon, Curtis Mayfield and Chuck Finley, The Tubes recouped with ‘She’s A Beauty’ (number one) and ‘The Monkey Time’ and embarked on a successful world tour. Their final album from this original era is another Todd Rundgren gem, “Love Bomb”, a quasi-satirical concept about relationships. Ironically, soon as it was done, Todd nicked Welnick and Prairie Prince for his own band.

We also have a slew of top compilations. These include The Best of The Tubes, a handy primer of all later the creamy stuff, and companion disc, equally slick. The Best of the EMI Years which taken together should give you extra insight into this truly eccentric outfit. When you see their name on an album you’re guaranteed entertainment and enlightenment. Great music, plenty of humour. Exactly what you want from The Tubes. The best advice here is to start at the beginning. Up from the deep and off you go.

The band finally folded in 1984. Waybill went on to write songs for AOR balladeer Richard Marx amongst others. Although the rest of the band continued to tour under The Tubes name, Bill Spooner and Vince Welnick spent some time with The Grateful Dead. Re-Styles became a landscape gardener.

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  1. Hey thanks this was a good read. I didn’t know much of The Tubes at all and now I feel I’ve got a good starter knowledge

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