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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.

"It was kind of sad," recalls Sutton, who attended one of the band's newly tame shows at about this time. "They had belonged to that whole glitter rock era, but then I went to see them at the Waldorf in San Francisco in 1980, and they were wearing suits. Quay Lewd came out at the end of the show, just like he always did, but it wasn't the same. We knew they were about to go mainstream, and my friends and I sort of dropped them around that time."

Meanwhile, radio listeners were just discovering the band. In 1983, the band struck pop pay dirt with the Top Ten "She's a Beauty" from the Foster-produced Outside Inside LP. Despite that album's success, Capitol dropped The Tubes, who attempted a return to their roots with another Rundgren-produced LP, the aptly titled Love Bomb. Fans who might have cared that the band was attempting to recapture its once-progressive toehold on rock had moved on. To Americans who remembered "She's a Beauty" but knew nothing of "White Punks on Dope" and Quay Lewd, The Tubes were just another nice pop band they heard on the radio from time to time — slotted in their memories alongside REO Speedwagon and Foreigner.

"It's really too bad," says Sutton, who still owns the six-foot-by-six-foot mockup of The Tubes' first album cover, which she rescued from LA's Tower Records Westwood in 1980, when she worked at the store. ("I keep hoping Fee Waybill will call to say he wants it," she confesses. "It's taking up a lot of space in my garage, but I can't bear to just throw it out.")

"The Tubes were kind of Spinal Tap before anyone even thought of a real rock band that was commenting on itself," Sutton says. "They evolved quickly into a band that wanted hits, and I think some of their genius got lost along the way."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela

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