The Tubes - Biography
By Bill Kopp
The Tubes successfully combined rock, theatre and satire. Their biting combination of offbeat subject matter, complex yet muscular arrangements, and provocative presentation pushed the boundaries of rock like few before or since. Most modern visually-oriented acts owe a debt—knowingly or not—to the Tubes.
In late 1960s Phoenix, Arizona, two separate groups—the Beans (led by guitarist Bill Spooner) and the Red White and Blues Band (then fronted by vocalist David Killingsworth)—often shared billing at gigs. In the early 1970s both groups moved to San Francisco and morphed into the Tubes. Their wild onstage antics and theatrical approach gained notice, and in 1974 they were signed to A&M Records.
The group's self-titled LP was released in 1975 to an indifferent marketplace (Billboard #113), and critical reaction was mixed. Titles like "Mondo Bondage" and the group's signature "White Punks on Dope" made airplay unlikely. The music on The Tubes was progressive and hard rock, peppered with bizarre left-field musical detours like a cover of the 1940s tune "Malagueña Salerosa." Onstage, vocalist Fee Waybill donned a leather bondage mask for "Boy Crazy" and "Mondo Bondage" and acted out the songs with the help of female dancers. Despite competent production, the group's experience with producer Al Kooper was not a happy one; as they recounted a few years later in the tune "I Was a Punk Before you Were a Punk," "the producer we got was a jerk."
The clever and provocative cover art was designed by the design team of drummer Prairie Prince and keyboardist Michael Cotten; the pair would enjoy a long and successful design career outside the group, and would lend their talents to the distinctive packaging of most Tubes LPs.
The eclectic Young and Rich (1976) debuted several songs that became centerpieces of the group's live act. "Don't Touch Me There" was an R-rated pastiche of Phil Spector's "wall of sound" production style, and featured an arrangement by Spector's longtime collaborator Jack Nitzsche. Trademark Tubes humor was well in evidence on "Proud to Be an American" and "Tubes World Tour," and the group's versatility was showcased on "Brighter Day" and "Slipped My Disco." The album charted far better than its predecessor, peaking at #46 on Billboard's album charts. "Don't Touch Me There" reached #61 on Billboard's Pop Singles chart.
In 1977 The Tubes released Now., an adventurous, arty and obscure disc that A&M found virtually unmarketable (Billboard #122). They poked fun at the punk movement with the glam-meets-garage track "You're No Fun," went off on a jazz-fusion excursion with "God-Bird-Change" (featuring Mingo Lewis on percussion) and added another showpiece in "Smoke (La Vie en Fumer)." Still, casual listeners would be put off by the cover of Captain Beefheart's "My Head is My Only House Unless it Rains." The Tubes were making a bid for acceptance with one hand, while scaring listeners off with the other, and they knew it: in the liner notes, guitarist Steen implored, "If you can figure out how this album fits together, call the office."
Down but not out, The Tubes rallied to produce What Do You Want From Live, an excellent audio document of their onstage mayhem. Recorded at a single date in London in 1977, the album (originally a 2LP set) distilled everything that made The Tubes special into a single package. For the first time on record, the group's progressive leanings meshed seamlessly with their satire. Waybill worked the crowd on “What Do You Want From Life?" besting that song’s studio version. A cover of the Beatles "I Saw Her Standing There" made the musical point that the fab four and the Damned aren't all that far apart. And "White Punks On Dope" was presented with all its pomp and spectacle intact. A collage of press clippings and photographs played up the sensationalistic, shocking visuals of the group's stage act. The live album gave the group a commercial boost, peaking at #82 on Billboard's album chart.
Newly energized, The Tubes roared back with their finest album to date. Working with producer Todd Rundgren, the group turned out a concept album, Remote Control, a skewering of TV culture. Rundgren acted as a de facto Tube (arranging, producing, engineering, singing, playing and co-writing some tracks). Remote Control concentrated the group’s act into a commercial, compelling record. All of the group’s strengths were on display: ambitious, sweeping arrangements (“Getoverture”), satire (“TV is King”), and retro-romantic duets (“Prime Time”). And—perhaps at Rundgren’s urging—The Tubes explored new territory: the soaring proto-power ballad. “Love’s a Mystery (I Don’t Understand)” showed a new side to the group: the ability to create radio-friendly material. Remote Control successfully balanced the group’s commercial aspirations with their artier obsessions. For their trouble they were rewarded with the #46 spot on the Billboard charts.
The size of the group (seven or eight members plus dancers and crew)—coupled with the demands of their extravagant live show—made it hard for The Tubes to turn a profit. They re-entered the studio to record what is known as The Black Album or Suffer for Sound. In the wake of Remote Control’s relatively middling success, A&M rejected the album and dropped The Tubes from its roster. (One track from the rejected sessions would later surface on an A&M odds-and-sods collection, T.R.A.S.H.)
Signed by Capitol Records, The Tubes staged a second comeback with 1981’s The Completion Backwards Principle. Brilliant Cotten/Prince packaging presented the band in a mock-corporate guise, complete with grey suits. The music was concise, and continued in the group’s inimitable style, but—in a bid for commercial success—on record the group was augmented with members of MOR group Toto. David Foster’s slick production served to polish their sound with a radio-ready sheen: “Talk to Ya Later” was a hit (Billboard #7 on Mainstream Rock singles chart) and “Don’t Want to Wait Anymore” charted as well. The album reached #36 on Billboard charts, their best showing to that point. The music balanced rock muscle and funkiness, while maintaining humor on cuts like “Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman.”
Though their stage show was scaled back to cut costs, the group kept up their onstage antics. With the rise of MTV, The Tubes’ act-out-the-songs approach found a wider audience. For the borderline-misogynistic “Mr. Hate,” Waybill held a female hostage at knifepoint before being gunned down by unseen snipers; on “Sushi Girl” Waybill had some lascivious fun with female dancers festooned with purple tentacles.
Capitalizing on the success of The Completion Backward Principle, the group re-entered the studio for Outside Inside. The dance oriented rock album served up naughty tracks like “Wild Women of Wongo” and “Tip of My Tongue.” The group moved in a number of exploratory directions: “Wongo” featured a guitar-synthesizer interlude with bizarre time signatures, and in places the group channeled 1970s soul music. The album’s opener was the massive hit “She’s a Beauty” (Billboard #1 Mainstream Rock, #10 Pop Singles, and a huge MTV favorite). Outside Inside reached #18 on Billboard charts, the group’s commercial zenith.
On paper it looked good: at their commercial peak, they reunited with Rundgren to produce 1985’s Love Bomb, building on the dance-rock foundation they had developed. But the songs were weak, and musical experimentation led down blind alleys. A few good ideas (like the mashup “Theme From a Wooly Place”) ran too long, and the album lacked focus. The now-requisite power ballad (“Come As You Are”) paled in comparison to earlier efforts, and Rundgren’s usually ace production was brittle. Even the Cotten/Prince artwork seemed tossed-off. The record tanked (Billboard #87, the group’s poorest showing since the 70s), and Capitol dropped The Tubes from their roster.
Fee Waybill left the group for a brief solo career and some acting gigs; the group replaced him with an old friend. But David Killingsworth’s sub-Jim Morrison rock poseur persona was a poor fit, and he lacked Waybill’s humor. The mid-80s Tubes recorded a couple of albums’ worth of material, but without a record deal, it all remained unreleased. Synth player Michael Cotten left to pursue his graphics career full-time; Prairie Prince continued his career as an in-demand drummer-for-hire. Vince Welnick took the keyboard spot with the Grateful Dead. Bill Spooner left to get clean and sober.
By 1996 a new version of The Tubes had formed: Waybill returned as front man; guitarist Roger Steen, bassist Rick Anderson and drummer Prairie Prince also returned. The album, Genius of America was an improvement over Love Bomb, but sounded dated. While the group re-established themselves as a performing unit, little in the way of new material has come out since 1996.
The classic lineup (including Spooner, Cotten and Welnick) reunited for a few shows in the early part of the decade. After years of combating depression, Welnick took his life in 2006. As of early 2009, Michael Cotten was at work on a multimedia history of the band. Meanwhile, though their groundbreaking days (and large-scale commercial viability) are behind them, The Tubes continue to tour regularly and remain an entertaining, provocative live act.