Shape-Shifting with The Tubes

Somewhere, down deep inside each one of us, a Tubes song is playing. Possibly it's "White Punks on Dope" or it might be "What Do You Want from Life." Unfortunately, it is probably "She's a Beauty." The pre-punk, post-glitter rock of this bright band with its long, sparkly roots here in Phoenix has, during its more-than-40-year history, infiltrated our psyches.

So how come more of us don't think The Tubes are really bitchin'?

The best answer is a simple one: The Tubes have always been misunderstood. Like innumerable pop bands before them, The Tubes — who were inducted into the Arizona Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame a couple of years ago — have shifted shapes during a long career, going from glam rock showmen to Todd Rundgren-produced-progressives to power-pop hit-makers to elder statesmen of rock, issuing a dozen albums and nearly as many hit singles along the way. Their die-hard fans don't seem to mind that within the space of five years, the band went from groundbreaking glitter punks playing the hottest grunge clubs to singing a duet with Olivia Newton-John in a Gene Kelly movie choreographed by Kenny Ortega. But the rest of us are having a hard time forgetting that leap from crazed showmanship and musical excess to slick hit singles about lost love. And some of us just plain refuse to forgive The Tubes for making that leap.

The Tubes' long, snaky rock history commenced as The XLs, a late '60s Beatles cover band that played dives all over Phoenix. The high point of their local glory came when they won a "Battle of the Bands" competition at Christown Mall. The XLs eventually became The Beans and, after merging with another local group called the Red, White and Blues Band, relocated to San Francisco in 1969. Now called The Tubes, the new band featured John Waldo Waybill (who now went by the first name "Fee") on lead vocals, Bill Spooner and Roger Steen on guitar, and Prairie (né Charles) Prince on drums. The new band quickly cultivated a glam rock persona and a huge following among rich white kids in San Francisco, with an attention-getting live act that featured dancing cigarettes, tap lines, and acrobat routines.

The band's shtick involved spoofing Z-grade sci-fi flicks and the very showbiz glitz-and-glam excess they themselves offered. Taking a cue from David Bowie, who'd just retired his own alter ego, Ziggy Stardust — and perhaps as a nod to the wild stage costumes of Elton John, who then routinely appeared on stage wearing feather boas and covered in glitter — Waybill assumed the onstage persona of a loudmouthed, drugged-out rock star named Quay Lewd, who stalked the stage in eight-inch platform wedgies and light-up eyeglasses. The band's theatrics were an instant hit, and they were signed to A&M Records, which released the band's first album, produced by rock icon Al Kooper. The lead single, "White Punks on Dope," took the band's sneering pose further, scoffing at the very same clutch of proto-punks who were their fans.

Pop culture historian Lisa Kurtz Sutton thinks a lot of folks didn't get all the nudging and winking that was going on. Sutton remembers The Tubes as glam-rock refugees who played the Whiskey a Go Go, mostly to the same crowds she saw at Lou Reed and David Bowie concerts; the same punked-out tweakers who were hanging at the Roxy Theatre at a new musical called The Rocky Horror Show.

"We didn't know if Fee Waybill was kidding or not," Sutton says, "and we didn't care. He would come out onstage in these giant platforms and sing about white punks on dope, and we weren't trying to figure out whether it was cool and new or a commentary on wanting rock music to be cool and new. All we knew was it was loud and catchy and, well, cool and new."

All that cool and new translated to hot album sales. The first LP and several follow-ups did well, most notably a live recording, What Do You Want from Live, and Remote Control, a concept album produced by progressive rock wunderkind Todd Rundgren. But as their following grew, the bands' shows became more elaborate and more expensive to produce. Crummy sales of the fourth Tubes album and the high cost of keeping them on the road led to A&M's dropping both the act and its forthcoming album.

Anxious to work and in need of cash, Waybill and his bandmates recast themselves as a corporate rock band and signed in 1980 with Capitol Records, where they were teamed with pop maestro David Foster, who'd most recently papped-up the band Chicago, which was suddenly having hits again. The summer before the release of the Foster-produced Completion Backwards Principle (which spawned the hit singles "Talk to Ya Later" and "Don't Wanna Wait Anymore" and included fan favorite "Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman," a throwback to the band's early schlock-cinema-loving days), the Tubes signaled their shift into more conventional, radio-friendly material: They appeared as an unnamed rock band in the Olivia Newton-John musical bomb Xanadu, a crappy campfest whose featherweight ELO soundtrack pinched off a half-dozen Top 20 hits that year.

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3 comments
Lefty
Lefty

Nice aeticle but to really capture the early Tubes you shoud have expounded on stage show with all of the dancers and characters. I love the Spinal Tap reference. I first saw them in 1975 with the Ortega choreography, Patty Hearst, Dr. Fee, Dr. Strangekiss, Quay Lewd. I was never quite sure if they were spoofing us or spoofing spoofers. They were an MTV band five years before MTV. But they always rocked.

Sorgan
Sorgan

The writer nails it.... most of the early fans who got the joke moved on after they switched to Capitol... they had morphed into a different band. I had read an interview with Fee years ago where he stated that they had made a conscious decision to go mainstream. After 12 years of being in the business and scrapping by financialy... they decided it was time to fish or cut-bait and hired mainstream producers to get them to the next level. I am a long time fan and while I initially liked the "new" stuff.... I always go back to the A&M records for my listening pleasure. I try to catch the band live at least once a year... they are still exciting to see live, even though some of the bits are getting old; i.e. Mondo Bondage

 
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