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Darted In Your Armchair Episode 3: The Tubes Star in Ma Vie en Fumer

Whole world is smokin’…can’t stop choking…it’s how you do me. My future’s burned to ashes, love’s gone out of fashion…it’s how you do me.”

Being in a rock band has its perks, sure. The bright lights, the adulation, the writhing throngs of groupies with all of the hot love to give, the money, and recreational substances of every stripe and gram you can dream of. But there’s the dark side. (The last sentence must be pictured as being intoned by Christopher Lee hosting a black mass, please.) There’s less than optimal ticket sales, bad reviews, one cranky groupie who is tuckered out after getting herpes from the super-handsy road crew, finding out that all the coin you earned is long gone in your now ex-managers/record company’s pockets, and that sweet green you just smoked was laced with PCP. In short, the dream can get bad news bears really fast, which is why it takes guts, heart, passion, and testicular/fallopian fortitude to survive in the business.

And boy howdy, there are few groups that possess such inner tenacity and brass-ball-action like The Tubes. As of the time of me writing this article, the band is still performing live with four of their original members, which already puts them fathoms ahead of any of their peers that are still touring.

No living creature or artist can survive without suffering the slings and arrows of the masses, the money men, and most insidiously of all, the dreaded music critic. (Species names: Homo Christgau Bungus.) In 1977, The Tubes released their third album, Now. Producer wise, they went from Ken Scott for the previous year’s Young & Rich to another British producer John Anthony. On paper, this is going from esteemed produce A to esteemed producer B, with some of Anthony’s credits being Genesis’ Nursery Cryme, Queen’s self-titled debut (along with the great Roy Thomas Baker), and with Chris Thomas, Roxy Music’s juggernaut musical masterpiece, For Your Pleasure.

By 1975, Anthony had moved to the United States and become the head of A&R (Artists & Repertoire) over at A&M records. His time with The Tubes, from various reports, was stormy and depending on who you ask, involved everything from tales of sneaking LSD doses to unsuspecting members to the band wanting more control and all but ousting Anthony from the rest of the recording session. The one thing that seems definitely true was that at the end of the day, the band themselves produced the finished product.

1977 also saw the band get new management in the form of the brash Rikki Farr. Farr has the kind of bio that strikes the mind with the question, “Why is there not a documentary on this man?” The son of famed British heavyweight boxer Tommy Farr, who fought the great Joe Louis back in 1937, Farr’s biggest claim to fame is as a music festival promoter, with the legendary Isle of Wight festival being the brightest baby out of his legacy. He also played music and was a member of the fictional band, “The Count Downes,” in the Harry Nilsson mondo-obscuro cinematic oddity, Son of Dracula. (Seriously, A*P*E is out on Blu ray and Chasing Amy was released via Criterion, but Son of Dracula is not in print? The film world is a weird world.) Other notable figures that were in the fictitious band was Keith Moon, Leon Russell, Bobby Keys, and Peter Frampton. 

What does that have to do with The Tubes? Not a lot, but the next time you are asked to play six degrees of Harry Nilsson, you will be armed and ready. You’re very welcome!

“What about Now?”

Now, other than the classic line-ups’ final album, 1985’s Love Bomb, is one of the band’s most misunderstood albums. Musically, it is a strange beast. It is still quintessential Tubes and beautifully features the band’s growing technical chops, but it is also a different animal from the first two albums. Listeners expecting the next “White Punks on Dope” or “Don’t Touch Me There” were sorely disappointed. There’s cheeky humor that is often expected from the band that is not prominent on Now, save for the album’s sole lyrical weak spot. (I’ll get to that one in a moment.) There’s cleverness aplenty and even an inquisitive maturity all throughout. In a fit of brutal honesty, even I, when I finally got my mitts on this one, years ago, was initially disappointed. Not proud of it, but if anything, this album is a grower, not a shower and after revisiting off and on for the subsequent years, it has revealed itself to be one of the best in the band’s canon.

The tone is set with the very first track, “Smoke (Ma Vie en Fumer).” Written by Bill Spooner, Mike Cotten, and Vince Welnick, “Smoke” is prime-ready proof of the band’s growing evolution as artists and musicians. The nightclub piano, double percussion, helped by the band’s adding Mingo Lewis, an accomplished jazz drummer in his own right, and the ambiances of world-weary desperation all make this one of the band’s brightest sonic gems. Fee Waybill’s vocals, which were great on the earlier records, are even richer and more distinctive here. When he sings, “If I were you, I’d try to getaway. Your life is smoke and the world is my ashtray,” you are compelled while being hit with the gravitas of a narrator whose life is a dead-end built out of cocktail-dregs and joyless one-night-stands. He was always talented and charismatic but was fully coming more into his own by this time.

“Smoke” would arguably become the best-known song off of Now. During the live shows of this era, Fee would often be dressed like a modern-day Sam Spade, who would inevitably get beaten up by dancers wielding enormous cigarette props. (Between this and the countless falling into the amps as Quay Lewd, no one can accuse Fee of not suffering for his art.) The band would also reprise the part of the song, along with “Mondo Bondage” (!) in Cher’s 1978 ABC TV special, Cher…Special, as the infernal act to counteract Dolly Parton’s heavenly angel. Oddly enough, “Smoke” was never released as a single, which is possibly due to the record company either not knowing how to promote the album properly or an overall lack of faith. Which is too bad, since there is something both slinky and apocalyptic going on within this song.

On the other hand, if you’re living alone and you think that it makes it.

Why must you go out every night?

After our sad-eyed tango, we move on to “Hit Parade.” Penned by Spooner and Welnick, this is a song that deals with possible dual metaphors centering on the titular hit parade. Whether you’re playing in a rock band or bluffing that your life or relationship is better than it is, the song is dealing with the dangers of the illusory. Danger is a strong word since there is not a fire and brimstone warning, but more just the emptiness of pretend. The refrain of “…it feels so real” repeats over and over, hammering the point home that the seeming reality can be a great dancer, but you’ll ultimately be alone on the dance floor.

Music-wise, it sports a gorgeous melody, bordering a 1950s sound with a 70s-style vibe. (With the ‘50s invocation, think less Little Richard and more like the Everly Brothers.) The piano playing, courtesy of the late and oh so great Vince Welnick, is brilliant, swooping into some near-Martin Denny type territory. Welnick, who I think tended to get a bit overlooked by the theatrics and the frontmen, was a top-tier player whose multi-talents are put to prime use all throughout this album. “Hit Parade” is a fierce standout that brings an emotional gravitas in such an unexpected way.

But I never dreamed how far, I’d go with that guitar.

Gave this fat boy wings. Strung out on strings

From lounge-love-sick blues to an autobiographical ode, there’s the Spooner penned (along with Michael Evans) “Strung Out on Strings.” If there was a contest for a Tubes song that should be a rock & roll standard yet never was, it is this particular tune. In an interview for the YouTube channel, Parlour to Parlour, Spooner refers to the song as the “…story of my life…” right before performing a blistering acoustic cover of it. That alone speaks to the power of the song as an inherent single being. It’s great here, with all of the layer cake-sonic-flourishes and it’s fantastic with nothing but Spooner and an acoustic guitar.

Speaking of production, Now is an album that some people, even a few of the band members, have referred to as “overproduced.” I’m a mere music lover and writer, so far be it for me to say that any member of The Tubes, is wrong. What I will say though is that I respectfully disagree. There is a LOT going on in the production, even more so than when compared to the bulk of their discography, but that is not a bad thing because there is a cohesion to it all. The flow is there and even better, it is stronger than a muscle man who just snorted up a mountain of whey powder.

If that doesn’t sell you on the album or especially “Strung Out on Strings,” maybe the lyrics, “Buy yourself a marimba! Don’t let me catch you pickin’ strings” will…because they absolutely should!

 He wasn’t perfect. He was a better man than me.

When he withered and he died. I tried and I tried.

But I still can’t see.

The worst kind of sadness and pain are the ones that ache in pure vain. With great art, that eternal sickness is never a danger, which is exactly what the band did when they created the next track, “Golden Boy.” This song was written about Bob McIntosh, who had been the drummer for the proto-Tubes band, The Beans, and passed away from cancer at the obscenely young age of 24. It always feels like a losing game to ponder the presence or absence of justice with loss, but it is one we all play. I certainly pondered it reading about McIntosh, who was reportedly not only a helluva fine drummer but also a great guy who was into clean living years before it was considered fashionable. (If it ever really was popular in the music world.)

Writer (and Vince Welnick’s mother), Jackie Dewey described Bob in her 1980 article for the San Diego Reader, “My Son, a Member of the Tubes,” as “…the original Mister Straight, a gigantic talent, the original health-food nut and physical fitness buff, highly intelligent, low-key…an amazing kid.” A paean to such a man is a tall order and one pulled off with bluesy-sad-eyed beauty and fitting heaviness. The melancholy never grows in danger of sounding insincere and trite.

“Golden Boy” is a hard number to follow, especially when you’re talking about mood and emotion, but the band found a worthy fit with their cover of “My Head Is My Only House Unless it Rains.” Originally written by Don Van Vliet and performed by his band, Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band for their 1972 album, Clear Spot, it takes on a faithful though slower tenure with, appropriately enough, Spooner taking on the vocal duties. (Van Vliet and Sputnik were good friends and the former even appears on this album on a later track.) Both take on the song are heartful and unbelievably tender. This is a way to do a love song that is touching without evoking being stuck at either junior prom or being a bridesmaid/groomsmen at the worst wedding in the world.

From loss and love to badass instrumentals inspired by Japanese anime, the next track is the multicolored funk-punch-fist that is “God Bird Change.” Credited to Mingo Lewis, this song would be just as at home in an all-kaiju-attack flick or a gritty Italian crime-action film, which is perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to something that isn’t Spooner wearing a turban and being credited as “Swami.”

In a weird twist of musical fate, “God Bird Change” would go on to be covered by jazz fusion artist Al Di Meola on his 1982 album, Electric Rendezvous. It’s actually not bad though it sounds like it would be better suited for a TV movie than a Fernando DiLeo film. Also, it turns out this swerve is not so strange once you realize that Mingo was one of the players on Electric Rendezvous. Better Di Meola covering this than “Pimp.”

It was a September night. The night was turning warm to cold.

My baby said she’d hold me tight. The autumn brought the Springtime home.

When you’re talking poetic lyrics, emotional honesty, and sweet-lensed nostalgia with unfiltered reality, then you need “I’m Just a Mess” on your playlist. Judging from the information I could glean from discogs.com, this was the only single released from Now and would also go on to appear on the A&M-era Tubes comp, T.R.A.S.H. (Tubes Rarities & Smash Hits). Written by Spooner and Steen, “I’m Just a Mess” is about reflecting upon love in the past. The narrator, in this case, Steen, reflects that, “…I like the way, you looked that day..when our love, it was new…” with the admittance that, “…And if I saw you again, I’d just have to say…sometimes, you’re just too plain to see. Then again, you’re just like me…” Pseudo-folkie-bro-singers take note, THIS is how you write a song about a past love in a way that is honest without inserting cliche or ego fantastical grandstanding. Add some stellar guitar work and powerful singing, both from Roger on lead and the background singers and you have a gem.

How do you do? I see you smiling.

Do I look familiar? Do you know my name?

The Everly Brothers might have been “Cathy’s Clown,” which means they would have been up and swallowed whole by “Cathy’s Clone.” This Jane Dornacker penned-gem uses a science-fiction theme for a girl who needs a break from the heartbreak of life, as well as running from the “…personal hell of love’s sad story.” It could be funny but is eerier and sonically singular, with ample help from the aforementioned Van Vliet with his jazz inferno approach to the sax. It’s also the first and only time on disc (not counting the original version of “Prime Time” that was included on T.R.A.S.H.) where Re Styles gets to sing solo and she is absolutely great. She approaches it with a torch singer savagery, with her vulnerability gnawing at the wires. Going by this and “Prime Time” (both versions, including the main one where she duets with Fee), it is too bad Re didn’t sing more on the records. Then again with three band members already doing vocal duties, I can only imagine how the pickings could get slim.

From the annals of the fantastic to the downtrodden genius of Lee Hazlewood, the next song is a cover of the man’s 1967 tune, “This Town.” It was first covered by Frank Sinatra the same year, which is perfect given how much gold Lee created with his daughter, Nancy. The Tubes approach it with a slow burn that gradually grows big, with Fee giving it the tired-eyed spark that Hazlewood would undoubtedly love or at least knowingly respect. (Hopefully, the man was still alive when Now came out, but I couldn’t find any evidence of Hazlewood’s opinion of the piece.) The band re-creates this song in such a way that it would be cozy on a Broadway stage. (Think more Fosse and less generic-razzle-dazzle.)

The follow-up to “This Town” is the album’s weakest track, “Pound of Flesh.” Fantastic title choice and the band brings this musical A-game as always. The only real deficiency is Ron Nagle & Scott Matthews’ lyrics, taking inspiration from the comic book back page ads and dick jokes. Which sounds better than it plays off. That kind of mix would have been better handled by anyone in the actual band, especially Steen or Spooner. Instead, it just comes off limp. (That’s right. I can make dick jokes too!) On a more positive note, there’s some fun synth work here and Fee’s bringing the boss with his pipes. The opening guitar riff is crunchy and weirdly reminiscent of Aerosmith’s “Same Old Song & Dance” from their 1974 album, Get Your Wings. (Let’s take a moment of silence to honor the era where Aerosmith was a purely down and dirty rock band and wouldn’t have been caught dead doing dreck like “Don’t Wanna Close My Eyes.”)

Thankfully, the last song on Now, “You’re No Fun,” brings us back to A+solid consistency, with the song credited to the entire band. There’s a fierce pessimism rattling on here, with a song containing the simple message of confronting someone who has “…done your best to wreck my life…” It could also be viewed as a betrayal of being confronted about personal addiction with the line, “…You say I’m loaded constantly. I think you’re more messed up than me.” It’s a riveting and heavy way to end the record, which probably didn’t win them many new fans at the time.

With fans and new listeners alike, Now seemed to be regarded as, at best, an anomaly and at worst, a gross misstep. The core of any kernel of truth often lies in the middle, though, that said, I can’t with any clear conscience call anything on this record, save for maybe “Pound of Flesh,” a misstep. It was a step alright…a multitude in fact, but how is that a bad thing? Playing it safe as an artist is often personally unfulfilling, as well as a surefire way to make sure that any critical scorn you get is well earned.

That was not the case with Now. There are more beloved and better-selling albums that have about as much edge and texture as minute old gelatin, proving that injustice and bullshit, much like the mythical devil, come in several guises and forms. The band grew and experimented with this album, resulting in creative gold. It might not be literal gold, which is not fair. Romanticism fails reality and integrity rarely pays the bills. Now was not released officially to the CD format until 2004 via the United Kingdom label, Acadia. As of me writing this, it is currently out-of-print, though still relatively inexpensive to obtain.

The Tubes were and are an underrated band, hence this mini-series of articles and with that, Now, much like the men and women behind it, is challenging, fascinating, smart, fun, and like nothing else out in the stratosphere. You and I deserve better than the pink slime and mc-fast-soulless-gummy-dummies that have been foisted upon us for eons. The Tubes and Now are the real deal, so love yourself and open yourself to something with substance and color.

After all, life is way too short for creative anemia.

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About Heather Drain

Heather Drain is a fringe culture writer who has written for Dangerous Minds, Video Watchdog, Lunchmeat and Cashiers du Cinemart. She has also been a contributor to The Rialto Report, The Projection Booth, Paracinema, Cinema Head Cheese and, on occasion, as a guest writer at both Rupert Pupkin Speaks and Turner Classic's Movie Morlocks blog. Heather currently writes for Art Decades as well as her own site, Mondo Heather, and is the Music & Culture Editor at Diabolique Magazine.

One comment

  1. Terrific article providing focus on a band that deserves much more attention. This series has been a blast to read and here’s looking to more in the future.

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