Music News

The Tubes Have Lived Several Lives in 40 Years

It might not pack the same mental hot flash as having Tom Jones ask you "What's New Pussycat?" or Chubby Checker requesting your help twisting something, but having Fee Waybill, lead singer of The Tubes, tell you in so many words he may have to "Talk to Ya Later" comes pretty damn close.

The reason our phone interview was interrupted was an urgent incoming call about a changed flight. Waybill had spent the past hour on hold with an airline, listening to "Classical Gas," before getting a human who ultimately disconnected his call after Waybill gave his credit card number.

Apparently, his Tubes "Young and Rich" credit card is still not accepted everywhere. For the man whose band has lampooned crass consumerism and business motivational speaking over the years, this bureaucracy must seem like corporate payback.

On the other end of the corporate payback divide, the Phoenix-born band, which took theatrical rock to decadent heights, is giving back to its longest-standing supporter, rock station KDKB, by performing at the station's 40th anniversary show. At the time of the station's inception in 1971, future Tube members Roger Steen, Prairie Prince, and Waybill had been Bay Area residents for two years.

"Roger and Prairie were in a trio (The Beans) with another bass player. I was friends with them and wanted to get the fuck out of Arizona. I said, 'Can I come along? I'll haul the gear.' And I was their roadie. And we all moved to San Francisco because Prairie had a full scholarship to the Art Institute and the band didn't want to break up.

As it turned out, Prince would have a lifetime of fine arts and graphics employment as the Tubes' designer. "Prairie did every album cover, posters, every T-shirt, every backdrop, anything that had anything to do with something artistic in the Tubes, Prairie did it," says Waybill. "And he still does it all."

When The Beans kicked out their bass player and couldn't find another one, they lured Bill Spooner's Phoenix quartet The Red, White and Blues Band to join them in San Francisco with the promise of better pot than the shitty Mexican weed they were smoking in Arizona. The bands merged into a supergroup, and Waybill, a drama major during his time at Arizona State, emerged as lead vocalist when Spooner wanted him to sing Marty Robbins' "El Paso."

"And I said, How about if I dress up in some hokey cowboy outfit with furry chaps, and in the end, when he gets killed, I'll have a blood bag under my shirt and squirt fake blood all over the place?" laughs Waybill. "That was the first theatrical thing we ever did. So I did that and everyone thought it was hilarious, and it just built from there. And we would write songs that had some kind of social commentary or social sarcasm and put a visual aspect and put some visual character to it, like the wacky drug addict rock star who can't stop taking Quaaludes long enough to sing, and can't walk on his platforms because he's too wasted. And so we wrote 'White Punks on Dope.'"

Waybill's brainstorm eventually grew — or metastasized, depending on whom you ask — into a 45-person operation on the road, with a truck, dancers, props, and choreography (the band employed Kenny Ortega, who did Michael Jackson's This Is It).

"It ate us alive, pretty much." Waybill says. "We never made any money. The whole show just sucked us dry. Every tour."

Unlike acts like KISS, who had an "A show" and a cheaper "B show" for lesser markets, or a cleaned-up version for the sensitive Bible Belt, The Tubes brought a true Tubes show anywhere they went.

"We hardly ever played the South — they didn't get it. They don't understand sarcasm. Or parody. Back in those days, we weren't compromising our art for anything. A couple of times, I got arrested. In some cities, the promoter who booked the show would want an obscenity bond. We'd come into town, the assistant DA would show up, and he would say, 'Unless you can prove to me that there's not going to be any nudity or bad language, you're gonna have to pay $10,000.' And we'd just lie our asses off and say, 'No. No nudity or bad language.'

"Back then, the dancing girls would come out topless, and we'd do Tom Jones' 'It's Not Unusual' [with] me holding their tits the whole time. That got a little too racy, and we got busted for nudity. Then they would put pasties on their nipples. Then we couldn't get away with that after a while, and then they would wear flashy bras. We got away with a lot in the beginning, and then it just got harder and harder."

In less-litigious times, The Tubes could drag a full-blown Harley onstage blasting away exhaust smoke into the audience. Or rev noisy, smelly gas chainsaws. "Then you couldn't do that, but you could have an electric chainsaw. Well, an electric chainsaw doesn't make any noise, and they don't smoke and they're not smelly. The bigger we got, the more money that was involved."

The Tubes were getting bigger, particularly in Europe, but they weren't necessarily selling more records. As Waybill tells it, "In the old days, people would come to a Tubes show, [and] the next day they wouldn't rush out to buy the record; they'd rush out and develop their film."

"Our first five albums on A&M never got much airplay. You wouldn't hear 'White Punks on Dope' on radio. Our first album had a warning sticker on it that said 'The lyrics on this album contain the word dope'. Can you imagine that today? Obviously, it would be some kind of huge joke if you did that. But A&M Records were serious!"

The Tubes got dropped from A&M but signed with Capitol, streamlined their operation, and concentrated on Top 40 radio.

"We got David Foster to produce our best record, The Completion Backwards Principle. Some people thought, 'They're not weird anymore; they sold out for mass appeal,' and we had two big hits off that album."

This commercial kiss of life came at the height of the music video era, which you would think would also seem tailor-made for the visually extroverted Tubes.

"I wasn't a big fan of MTV," confesses Waybill. "Everybody thought MTV is gonna catapult you to superstardom like Duran Duran. MTV was really straight; they kept wanting to censor us. We were too weird. No tits, no this, no language."

Waybill's original video idea for "She's a Beauty" was based on the movie Freaks. When they couldn't get 600-pound fat ladies, bearded women, and sausage boys past the censors, they offered up a plan B that still contained plenty of nudity, which MTV wouldn't show unless it was airbrushed or chopped out. Leave it to The Tubes to wring out the puritanical out of MTV.

"Of course, the managers and the record companies wanted us to play their game, and we didn't want to do it," says Waybill, who split in 1986, rejoining in 1994. Trimmed down to a five-piece, the reconstituted Tubes have lasted 16 years, as long as the initial run but with fewer props and a lot less pressure.

"I still do Quay Lude with big shoes, we still play the hits, and there's no manager trying to tell us what to do or whose ass to kiss. Now it's a lot more fun. There's not so much flesh to press. The one downside to the theatrical genre that we created for ourselves was that the music was discounted. They're just a big dog-and-pony show, just a big tits-and-ass show, and it's not about the music. That's the way it worked, but I certainly wouldn't change it for the world. We had a good time and still do."

This time around, The Tubes are doing a live show based on Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita with some Satyricon thrown in. Waybill does a Pavarotti song in the set. And their Pope character has turned into a toga-wearing gladiator punk in Roman sandals.

To a consummate showman like Waybill, that's not a spoiler alert. That's advertising.

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic