“In a day we’ll know, oh we’ll know, yes we’ll know
‘Bout a heart that’s strong and a mind that is wrong
Take my hand and see all the things you can be.”
1976 was a fascinating year in America. It was the country’s bicentennial, with cinemas around the states playing everything from John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie to Shaun Costello’s adult-horror film about an enema bandit, Waterpower. Music-wise, it was even more blazing, giving listeners such a diverse array of records, including Rush’s 2112, The Residents’ Third Reich & Roll, Kiss’ Destroyer, Blue Oyster Cult’s Agents of Fortune, Parliament’s The Clones of Doctor Funkenstein, and Abba’s Arrival. Among that sea of colorful standouts are The Tubes and their follow-up to their self-titled debut, Young & Rich.
Now, following up a strong debut can be a daunting prospect, especially when you can practically smell the frothing anticipation from assorted music critics just itching to foul it up with “clever” observations and negative-nancying all over the place. (Robert Christgau, this means you. More on that one in a bit.) The easiest thing in the world any artists can do is to try to recreate every riff, motion, and pose from their previous hit album. The Devil knows that is usually the route the band’s corporate masters want them to turn to! But creative laziness is a deadly sin that was never on The Tubes’ docket, especially in 1976.
Young & Rich came into my own life via a record hunt at my local Salvation Army. While my friends were getting more into the 1990s “alternative” music scene, my junior high self was finding the true alternative to middle-of-the-road banality in the music bin. This would be my first Tubes album, standing out from the scores of forgotten Hugh Montenegro, Andy Williams, and the requisite eleventy copies of Frampton Comes Alive, was this beacon of sonic light. While I was already familiar with The Tubes, it was seeing a live performance of “White Punks on Dope” on an old repeat of the UK music show The Tube on MuchMusic during the 1990s. It was this moment that planted a huge seed of searching within and not too much later, a well-worn but still in great shop vinyl copy of Young & Rich was in my hot, sweaty little teenage hands.
What my ears and mind would discover is an album riddled with cheeky humor and more than a little biting commentary on American consumerist culture. This combined with the band’s strong musicianship grows more pronounced over a multitude of repeated listenings. Compared to the first album, both have songs that are blatantly fun (“Mondo Bondage” vs “Don’t Touch Me There), dark (“Boy Crazy” vs “Pimp”) and rock-boogie-anthems (“White Punks on Dope” vs “Tubes World Tour”), yet the debut and Young & Rich are firmly their own creatures. Now, The Tubes were never an act that could be described as wholly heavy, but they were not opposed to throwing some deep shadows lyrically and musically. It’s in the debut album and it is even bolder here. So grab your tight white-tee with its Michael Cotton/Prairie Prince airbrushed portrait of your rock and roll mug and let’s start the show.
The album begins with one of the most fun life-on-the-road rock songs in the entire genre with “Tubes World Tour.” Leave it to this band to take a subject that was flirting with cliche in ‘76 and was full-on dead and bloated by the 1980s. (Case in point. Bon Jovi. Just Bon Jovi.) “Tubes World Tour” is the raucous flipside of something like Bob Seger’s ultra-overrated-overplayed-and-overblown “Turn the Page,” listing the different cities and experiences the band had encountered on the road with a zesty sense of slack. (Plus who would you rather hang out with: Bob Seger or Fee Waybill? If you picked the former, you are cut out of my will permanently.)
Lyrically, the song runs the tour gamut from adoration and love (“The kids were screaming for more in Baltimore”) to incarceration (“They threw us in the slammer when we did it in Miamer. Mondo Bondage blew their minds!”) and even has foreign-language wordplay with “Tres chouette mi amore” being incorporated. Yes, the band merged French and Italian here, with the rough translation being “Very nice, I love you.” (I had to rely on Google translate for this, so your mileage is going to vary.) We even get to hear Fee do his best sleazy-lounge-lizardly impersonation of Maurice Chevalier when he sings, “Ah-ho-ho-ho, thank heaven for little girls..” in the song. In essence, it’s got everything one would want in a rock song about a band on tour.
From the light to something a little harder to peg is the second track, “Brighter Day.” Roger Steen takes on lead vocal duties, which is always a good thing. The song starts off seeming like a slightly bluesy-rock song, with Steen singing “Baby, I’m in love with you. I can’t get it off my mind” but as the song progresses and builds and morphs into something a little more epic and haunting. For the promise of a brighter day, there is the implication that the current situation is considerably dimmer. The ethereal female background vocals only add to the roux of the song, being simultaneously beautiful and haunting. The light at the end of the tunnel is a hopeful thing but the journey is where it can get stormy. It’s a slow burner but once the wick is lit, it will stay aflame in your head long after the music has stopped spinning.
Tell me your plan. You’re gonna write your own show, you foolish thing.
Baby, you’re young and you’re stupid & I’m gonna shine it on, if you know
what I mean.
Speaking of shadows, track three gives us one of the band’s best and more infamous deep cuts, with the Bill Spooner penned and sung “Pimp.” Name me a finer song that has the lyric, “Can’t you control your bitches?” and I’ll slap you in the face with a glove. Now despite that isolated lyric and the title of the song itself, this is less a cheap titillation of a gag and more of a nasty slice of life. According to both the album’s liner notes and an essential interview with Spooner conducted for Bill Kopp’s Musoscribe blog, there were dual inspirations for writing the song. The first one was from reading Nelson Algren’s 1956 novel, A Walk on the Wild Side, which Spooner describes in the Kopp interview as “…kinda my manual for many years.” The Algren novel influenced everything minus the chorus, which was inspired by the band’s encounter with two ten-year-old would-be-robbers who the band ended up giving a ride. Overhearing one of the kids saying to the other, “Can you control your bitches?” informed one of the most standout songs from the album.
There’s dark poetry about this song, between the repetitive invocation of “bloodshot eyes” and the true-to-life and very unsexy power-play and abusive manipulation that comes with the territory. “Pimp” is a perfect antidote to the more modern-day reimagination of pimps as something glamorous. Exploiting office, food, factory, or in the case of this song, sex workers, is an ugly thing and Spooner brings that raw and beautifully executed honesty to it. The beautiful voices of the backup singers, once again adding an angelic quality to the proceedings, but instead of highlighting the shadows and promise of a brighter day, it’s more of a mournful contrast. It’s a great song about characters whose lives are not going to end well.
Speaking of the backup singers, the Tubes had an absolute powerhouse stack of vocalists for Young & Rich. There’s Jane Dornacker aka Leila from Leila & the Snakes, as well as Julia Tillman Waters and Deniece Williams. Waters was a massively prolific backup singer, who worked for artists ranging from Kinky Friedman and Peter Criss, all the way to the absolute king of rock-funk, Mr. Rick James. Williams has an even more storied career. In addition to being a successful back-up singer, had chart success on her own, including a duet album with Johnny Mathis in 1978 (That’s What Friends Are For, which spawned the hit, “Too Little Too Late”) and a big solo hit in 1984 with “Let’s Hear it For the Boy” from the Footloose soundtrack. She would also go on to have success singing in the gospel field, which must have felt like a million miles away from recording with The Tubes.
From the streets to the stage, the next track is the boogie-rock anthem, “Stand Up & Shout.” Unlike the majority of other songs on the album, “Stand Up & Shout” was not written by any members of the band but instead by the pair of Mike Condello and Ray Trainer. While both may have not been formal members of the band, their roots with the Tubes were notable. Both gentlemen were in the band Condello, who released the 1968 album, Phase 1. What that record lacked in commercial success, it more than made up for it by also featuring one Bill Spooner on vocals and guitar. Trainer and Condello were also in an early band, called Last Friday’s Fire, which was notable for having one of their songs (“I Can’t Help Feel the Way I Feel”) produced by the one and only Lee Hazlewood. Coincidentally, the B side for their single for the song “Something’s Happening” is a track called “Stand Up & Shout,” which is the seed of what would become the Tubes’ version.
After “Young & Rich,” Condello would form another cult rock band in the form of Elton Duck. This power-pop group featured a pre-Bangles bassist, Michael Steele. They would go on to be signed by Clive Davis to Arista Records and record an album, that for murky reasons, was shelved. One theory that has popped up in that precious landmine known as the comments section on YouTube, is that the band were at loggerheads with Davis over the band’s name. The name is admittedly a bit goony, but then again it’s not like Davis and company had no idea what they were calling themselves when signing them. The album would get finally get released in 2012 as part of a fundraiser for the Mike Condello Music Scholarship Fund. (Condello passed away in 1995.) This release sported both a song penned by Spooner (“Only a Few Days”) and a cover of “White Punks on Dope.”
“Don’t Touch Me There,” the fifth track and one of the band’s most popular songs and has remained a live staple over the years. Written by Ron Nagle and Jane Dornacker and sung by Fee Waybill and Re Styles, “Don’t Touch Me There” is a pseudo-1950s pastiche (think “Leader of the Pack” with less death and more burlesque-bawd) that plays to sexual repression in a hilariously obvious way. It was also the first recorded song where Re got to sing a lead vocal, adding a sultriness so thick that you would swear it was some Tennessee Williams humidity. Fee plays off of her beautifully, which was further amped up during live performances during the 1970s, complete with Re on a motorcycle and Waybill leering and groping in a way that only he can make endearing. (That, ladies and gents, is what we call charisma.)
Nagle was a successful songwriter, whose work was performed from artists ranging from Barbara Streisand to Paul Kantner from Jefferson Airplane/Starship. He would also go on to co-write the song “Pound of Flesh” with Scott Matthews for The Tubes’ third album, Now. Nagle would go on to become a sculptor and a professor of ceramics at Mills College from 1978 until his retirement in 2010. Jane Dornacker was a potent part of Tubes history, especially during this era. It was Jane and her band, Leila & the Snakes, that became the band’s backup singers and dancers in 1975. For a band so firmly rooted in theatrics and American satirical burlesque as The Tubes, you need a proper core of talent for such roles.
Eventually, Leila & the Snakes would strike out on their own, releasing an full-length LP in 1978. The band would only find minor cult status, though one of their members, Pearl Harbor, then credited as Pearl E. Gates/Pearly Gates, would go on to find bigger cult status with her group, Pearl Harbor & the Explosions. In addition to music and theater, Jane did some acting, including an appearance in 1984’s The Right Stuff. Towards the end of her life, she worked as a traffic reporter for the Joey Reynolds Show on WNBC Radio in New York City. It was while working there that she passed away due to a helicopter crash while doing the live traffic report. Dornacker was a true firecracker of an artist and woman and deserves to be remembered more for her work and life than dying too young in an accident.
My baby said quit. I told her I wouldn’t.
If she asked me today, I’d say I couldn’t.
For those of us who have the groove in the heart but not so much in the body, The Tubes created one of our greatest paeans in the form of “Slipped My Disco.” Written by Spooner and Roger Steen, “Slipped My Disco” is not only the best ode to back pain and bad dancing, but it might be one of the funkiest, between the good-as-gold backup singers, the danceable synthwork from Michael Cotton and Vince Welnick and Spooner’s own soulful vocals. When he sings, “…just another white boy with the disco blues…,” he means it.
Following that is one of the bands peppiest sounding and lyrically vicious songs with “Proud to be American.” This is some beautiful satire at its most cynical, commenting on the perils of blind patriotism, consumerism, and absurdist pop culture. It’s like if “What do you want from life?” but with more jangly pianos, doo-wop harmonies, and lyrically darker. All of this can only mean one thing…yep, we have another lyrically textured gem from Sputnik Spooner. Fee takes the lead vocals and gives it the smarmy bravado that a song like this warrants. Everything from Smokey Bear to Southern Comfort to revolution and constipation gets namechecked. Now, check out the following lyrics: “…’Cause it’s impossible to give equality and justice to inferior foreigners too jealous to trust us.” Damn. Talk about searing right to the bitter smear of an extreme American conservative’s heart. The scary thing is that the type of confused patriot that the song is parodying would probably just say “Hell yeah” to this song with the irony dissipating like a clown in quicksand.
How does one follow up this bit of sonic bite? With one of the Tubes best and weirdest deep cut gems, that’s how! “Poland Whole/Madam I’m Adam” is more than just a song. It is an experience. There’s the gentle, cosmic-style intro with Spooner, possibly as God himself, singing “Come in Adam…”, giving his first creation abstract directions. Then through the magic of production and some sweet synths, a tonal shift occurs with Fee coming in as the titular “Adam.” The Bible’s first man, though, might in actuality be a hapless working actor who has found himself in a play described as, “…fascination and abomination on a Biblical Broadway Stage….Dinosaurs eatin’ like veggie burgers at the snack bar out front in the lobby.” Adding to the delirious high surrealism going on is that the “Poland Whole” section of the song is towards the end, with the only lyrics being, “Poland Whole, all people what’s cold.” I love this song to a nearly fascistic level and with good reason. It’s uber-tastical!
I could respect a man who had it all
And he tossed the ball away.
I know that I’m not that kind.
I wouldn’t mind having a chance thrown my way.
Ending the album is the title track and boy howdy, is it a keeper. Remarkably sparse and somber, both in terms of tonality and orchestration, “Young & Rich” is a quiet and moody-in-the-spirit song written from a place of struggle and bordering poverty. It’s also as smart as it is understated, cleanly achieving lower class angst with none of the Bog Seger/Mellenhead grandstanding theatrics. From the haunting chorus to Spooner’s vocals, “Young & Rich” is a song that a casual Tubes fan could call uncharacteristic, but a die-hard will call exceptional and classic. (And if they don’t, they are wrong.)
Young & Rich, much like the band itself, was a critically misunderstood album. Notorious pink-boy-masquerading-as-a-cool-writer-music-critic Robert Christgau, who wrote, “Since it’s my instinct to detest this group, I was dismayed to catch myself chuckling at “Tubes World Tour,” “Slipped My Disco,” and even “Proud to Be an American.” I was even more astonished to conclude that “Pimp” might be serious. Further investigation turned up no additional satisfactions, but revealed a movement away from Al Kooper’s general parody of the hard and the heavy toward a more eclectic satirical style reminiscent of (they should be so funny) Stan Freberg.” Okay dude, calm down. This kind of smuggerton condescension bugs fiercely. If you’re going to be snarky in your critical write-up, you’d better be clever, funny, and have some heart. This is the same man that gave the Swans a bad review, so at least the Tubes are in some fine, respectable company.
Similar to the cover art for the self-titled album, Young & Rich features yet again Re Styles’ hands, though instead of ripping open the sleeve, she is sleekly presenting an embossed credit card. Right down to the glossy pink nails, this art could easily pass for any number of actual credit card magazine ads from the era. Utilizing such a prominent symbol of American consumerism that went from being a status symbol to a representation of massive debt was a calculatedly brilliant one, especially for a band that was never afraid to poke fun and occasionally skewer their own culture.
On a side note, the special thanks section of the liner notes is one from the books. In addition to its sheer size, which is fairly mighty, we have mentions of Tubes choreographer Kenny Ortega, who is noted as “the Pomeranian Pele—dance: 10, looks: 3”, dancer “Sadistic” Leroi Jones for his “cruel eyebrows,” Jane Dornacker, credited here as “Leila T. Snake,” for her being “den mother at the bummer tent,” and my personal favorite, Gerrit “Beef” Graham. (The latter has an uncanny physical relation to Tubes drummer, Prairie Prince, for what it’s worth.) Even more impressive than Graham getting a mention is the one and only Don Van Vliet, the genius painter and man behind Captain Beefheart, who is thanked for Being (Don Van Vliet.) Fair enough.
In the scope of The Tubes’ whole career, Young & Rich tends to get overlooked more now than ever, despite “Don’t Touch Me There” being a bit of a cult hit and getting radio airplay during the 1970s. It would even go on to be covered by the heavy metal band Lizzy Borden for their 1987 ep, Terror Rising. It’s a remarkably faithful cover with Betsy Bitch from the band Bitch doing guest vocals. It’s no “TV Glotzer,” but it is certainly worth checking out .
As of this writing, the only way, at least Stateside, to get an in-print copy of the CD is via a box set titled The AM Years. Even the band’s final classic line-up album, 1985’s Love Bomb, got a very nice remastered release via Cherry Red Records. (For the record, I love that album too, but it did not do nearly the commercial business that Young & Rich did. More on that in the future though.) That said, Young & Rich is shine of an album, that is just as rewarding now as it was in its initial release. Despite some critical naysayers, The Tubes’ musical palette is a rich and diverse one, something that would become even more apparent as the 1970s raged on.