Friday, August 15, 2008

From Xanadu To T.R.A.S.H.

The Tubes’ career traversed a myriad of musical styles, often daring to be different, occasionally opting for the safer commercial ground, but rarely if ever dull. My first experience hearing a song by The Tubes came via the soundtrack to the film ‘Xanadu’. It’s possible that a large portion of people reading this post have just been tempted to move to another webpage upon hearing the reference ‘Xanadu’. Well, at the risk of incurring universal scorn I’ll put my hand up and say not only did I like the film (I mean it was just pure cheesy escapism for the sake of it) but I really enjoyed the soundtrack, and the diversity of music styles it offered up. The Tubes contribution came via the song ‘Dancin’ which combined a melody of Olivia Newton-John doing the Andrews Sisters clashing with The Tubes ripping out a thrash guitar/synth rock piece. The band had a cameo appearance in the movie itself during the elaborate production number. It just plain worked, and it symbolised the underlying ethos of The Tubes as a musical entity - to dare to be different and damn the consequences.

The Tubes origins can be traced back to the late 60s. At that time guitarist Bill Spooner, keyboardist Vince Welnick and bassist Rick Anderson played together in an Arizona based outfit calling themselves the Beans, though on occasion under the moniker Radar Men From Uranus. The trio relocated to San Francisco during 1972 where they joined forces with guitarist Roger Steen and drummer Prairie Prince. With the addition of keyboardist Michael Cotton and former roadie, now vocalist, Fee Waybill (real name John Waldo), the Beans morphed into The Tubes.

The Tubes quickly gained a reputation for indulging in warp-rock theatrics at their live gigs, at once celebrating decadence and mayhem, fusing cutting edge, often erotically themed performance art with their richly satirical music, supplemented by an entire ensemble of singers/dancers/actors. Singer Fee Waybill was often the focal point, shocking the audience with his antics via the guise of numerous stage personas, including Dr. Strangekiss and country singer Hugh Heifer. The band’s shows regularly climaxed with Waybill channelling the character of Quay Lewd and belting out The Tubes unofficial anthem ’White Punks On Dope’. I’m thinking U2’s Bono may have gained a degree of inspiration from both Waybill and The Tubes live antics, with his own alter-ego ‘MacPhisto’ on U2’s 1993 Zoo TV Tour - but then both owe a debt to Bowie/Ziggy or Peter Gabriel circa Genesis years. The Tubes once played an infamous support slot for Led Zeppelin in San Francisco, when in front of a sell out crowd 60,000 the band threw giant amphetamine tablets into the crowd. Even the legendary Zeppelin had a hard time following that act.

The Tubes signed to A&M Records and released the eponymous debut LP in 1975 (US#113), produced by Al Kooper. They quickly followed this up with ‘Young And Rich’ in 1976 (OZ#55/US#46), which featured the crudely anthemic ‘White Punks On Dope’. The song was a minor hit in the U.K. (#28) late in 1977, at a time when the punk culture was at its peak, and coinciding with The Tubes touring the country. The other song to chart was ‘Don’t Touch Me There’ which gave the band their biggest Australian hit (#26). The Tubes then attempted the concept album ‘Now’ (US#122) in 1977, which flopped miserably, but the band did gain some momentum on the back of their outrageous stage reputation. Musically The Tubes earlier output could best be placed somewhere on the stylistic spectrum between Sparks, Television and New York Dolls. Add to that more than a semblance of theatrical rock, hinting at the band’s appreciation for such gems as ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, and you begin to get the impression of a band with a clear case of multiple personality disorder.

Waybill’s notorious stage antics on occasion went too far, resulting in personal injury, the most serious effort being in May 1978 when he fell off stage, breaking his leg and ripping tendons in his ankle. This incident rather interrupted the band’s momentum and cut short the European tour from which their 1978 album ‘What Do You Want From Live’ (UK#38/OZ#87/US#82) was compiled. Licking their collective wounds, The Tubes returned to the U.S., where they recruited the prized services of producer Todd Rundgren for their next album project. 1979’s ‘Remote Control’ (US#46/UK#40/OZ#70) was unashamedly another concept album (let’s face it concept was where it was at back then) taking firm satirical aim at the cultural and social influence of television. The album saw The Tubes adopt a platform as disco-provocateurs, and realised the minor hit single ‘Prime Time’ (OZ#49/UK#34). But the album’s lukewarm reception in the U.S. in particular, contributed to the band being dropped by A&M soon after. Tracks for a proposed 1980 album ‘Suffer For Sound’ were shelved following Waybill’s refusal to contribute any vocals, in protest at the band’s conflict with A&M.

A few years ago I stumbled across a collection of The Tubes music, titled ‘T.R.A.S.H.’ - short for ‘Tubes Rarities And Smash Hits’ - one of the more clever acronyms I’ve come across. It was an eclectic mix of songs, and given it only featured eleven tracks, the compilation only offered a small window into the world of The Tubes, but it was enough to capture the interest of anyone open to exploring that strangely intriguing realm. Originally released in 1981, it also featured tracks from The Tubes circa 1970’s, which arguably represents a more adventurous period in their evolution.

When The Tubes signed to Capitol Records they didn’t abandon their eccentric approach, or conceptual ambitions in the recording studio. Their first album for Capitol was 1981’s ‘The Completion Backwards Principle’ (US#36/OZ#74), which thematically was based on an actual sales training instruction manual. Musically The Tubes had shifted to a more commercially palatable formula, that led to radio friendly tracks such as ‘Talk To You Later’ and ‘Don’t Want To Wait Anymore’ (US#35/OZ#36/UK#60) becoming MTV favourites, introducing The Tubes to middle America for the first time.

With dozing suburbanites and disenfranchised youth now at their anarchic mercy, The Tubes then scored their biggest commercial hit with ‘She’s A Beauty’ (US#10) in 1983, thanks in no small part to its provocative promotional video (provocative for 1983). Sales for the song’s source album ‘Outside Inside’ benefited greatly (US#18/UK#77), and the album also yielded the minor hits ‘Tip Of My Tongue’ (US#52) and ‘The Monkey Time’ (US#68). But with their new found mainstream acceptance, came some necessary compromises in terms of their innately innovative and eccentric tendencies, leading to charges of The Tubes aligning themselves with the same generic corporate driven entertainment machine which they had so reviled and parodied in years gone previous.

1985’s ‘Love Bomb’ (US#87) did exactly that, bomb on the charts, despite the Todd Rundgren written/produced radio hit ‘Piece By Piece’ (US#87). The Tubes disbanded in 1986, with keyboardist Vince Welnick going on to play with the Grateful Dead in 1990. In 1993 a revamped line-up of The Tubes reunited, featuring Waybill, Steen, Anderson, Prince and new keyboardist Gary Cambra. They recorded the 1996 album ‘Genius Of America’, a more mature and polished work, but as always challenging to its audience and with something on offer to please most anyone. The single lifted was ‘How Can You Live With Yourself’, written by Richard Mark with whom Fee Waybill had worked with previously. In the decade since The Tubes have reconvened on a number of occasions, touring extensively, and releasing the albums ‘Tubes World Tour’ (2000) and ‘Wild In London’ (2005) to document the band’s journey into their fourth decade of existence.

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