“Rock & Roll? They’re gonna cram it down your throat!” gleefully threatens dancer, choreographer, and current-day film director, Kenny Ortega, looking like, for all the world, a disco Dracula. (Which is, of course, a fantastic look.) Many a band can try to grab at such a macho-man-aggro claim, but in the case of The Tubes, they owned it like the biggest peacock at the rock and roll zoo. Step aside, Mick and company! Go back to Crowley elf island, Zeppelin! Take a hike, Rod Stewart!
For any rock band worth their veritable vinyl salt in the 1970s, there were two rites of passage that they must go through: record a live album and record a double album. If you can unite the two together? Even better with the end result bringing on the sonic indulgent sweet spot. It certainly didn’t harm Peter Frampton’s bank account, with 1976’s multi-million dollar seller, Frampton Comes Alive. For a band as famous for their live shows as The Tubes, it was only a matter of time before the band entered the concert album arena.
1978’s What Do You Want From Live is an important double-dose of vinyl for two very important reasons. Getting this particular era of one of rock’s most underrated sons and sister of the San Franciscan stage documented was paramount for the band both creatively and commercially. But even more importantly, it was the ultimate test to the critics that knocked their studio efforts in the rush to state that the band only thrived on outrageous and occasionally lewd live performances. In other words, all surface, with little to no substance, which is absurd for anyone with decent ears and a mind that is at least 2/3 open. So, what better vehicle to prove the naysayers wrong by recording and releasing the live music sans the theatrics?
The answer is twofold: never ever listen to 99% of rock critics and hell yes, of course What Do You Want From Live proved every single naysayer from Chi-town to Shambala! Even if they don’t realize it, but who wants to hang out with a bunch of bitter Chets and Betties? The metaphorical cross that every musical act that employs a visual theatricality in their stage shows bears is the danger of being viewed as a mere novelty. There were some exceptions since bands like Genesis were and still are well regarded while their then lead singer, Peter Gabriel, was often dressed like a flower or a magical bubbled-up toad-creature. Now, any band viewed as shock rock was often dismissed musically, with groups like Alice Cooper, Kiss, The Plasmatics, and The Tubes all being viewed as visual exploiters as opposed to talented and often vital musical creators, which all of them were and are.
In short, dress up like a geranium, win the critic’s hearts, but throw in some nudity, explosions, or fake blood, and get the status quo cold shoulder. It’s like the Oscars but with lower-paid publicists.
A fact about The Tubes that never gets mentioned enough is that there are PLAYERS in that band. The musicianship is just that tight, so when you mix that the sharp vision of The Tubes that saw a future in multimedia years before it was ever seen as a viable creation. The thing about shock tactics is that they will not garner you anything more than a quickly forgotten gasp when you don’t have things like genuine talent, heart, and guts. It’s that same sticky DNA material that forges banned books. True redeeming values can and should be defined by the willingness to go outside the box, if not flat outset the structure on fire. Rip it up and start again.
Speaking of fire, What Do You Want From Live is pure, 150% FUEGO! It is sheer sonic proof that The Tubes has substance in spades. It’s a sizable entrance into the band’s work of this particular time period, which was post 1977’s Now but right on the verge of creating their fantastic-concept album, Remote Control (1979.) It was this cusp that would mark the band’s subtle evolution with their satire on American culture getting sharper as their subsequent work becoming more polished.
The album was recorded in November 1977 at London’s famed Hammersmith Odeon. The Hammersmith has also been the location for a number of other classic live albums, including Twisted Sister’s Live at Hammersmith 1984 and Kate Bush’s Live at Hammersmith Odeon 1979. (Talk about musical diversity, despite the sameness of the titles!) What Do You Want From Live was recorded in the UK, but the album would be mixed in the sunny California berg of Burbank at Kendun Recorders. This place was notable for being the home of many a great album being mixed, mastered, and/or recorded there, including Rick James’ Fire it Up, Iggy Pop’s New Values, Heart’s Dreamboat Annie, and Cheap Trick’s In Color, just to name a few.
Fittingly enough, the sonic proceedings begin with “Overture,” which begins briefly with the sound of TV channels being changed right before Kenny Ortega’s aforementioned car-cash-crash-slick-as-Texas-oil-salesman-high-on-purely-granulated-white-sugar spiel. Fast-paced drums lead us into a Tubesian melody, starting with “Up From the Deep,” which was fittingly enough, the first track off of the band’s self-titled debut. It slips into “Young & Rich,” which results in loud applause, resulting in Bill “Sputnik” Spooner sounding genuinely touched as he responds with, “Hey! Thank you!” They go into a brief instrumental section of “Madam I’m Adam” before cuing up a sans-vocal version of “Mondo Bondage.” The whole piece ends with a quick chef’s kiss of “White Punks on Dope.”
Good evening, London and the show has officially begun!
Which big bang of a song from the Tubes early-mid 1970s catalog will get the show started here tonight? “Tubes World Tour?” “Don’t Touch Me There?” Nope, and in fact, they begin with the first of many songs that never appeared on any of their studio albums. “Got Yourself a Deal” touches upon themes of isolation, loneliness, and even desperation as the song’s narrator sings, “…sat up in bed. Eyes open wide. Saw only one place left I could crawl that was inside…” His goal is rock & roll because that sole passion is the only way out of this fragile, mottled existence. Of course, since this is The Tubes, they successfully pair dark subject matter with an upbeat tone, as the chorus goes, “…You got yourself a deal. Beg, borrow, or steal…” Between the title and chorus being a semi-allusion to the hoary American TV game show chestnut, Let’s Make a Deal, while dealing with serious themes of despair all point to the direction the band would soon be heading with the Remote Control. There’s also the vibe that if anything is the most stress-inducing game show ever, it is the music business.
The next song is the Roger Steen penned “Show Me a Reason” which is yet another song that has never been featured on an official studio album. How many established bands would do this on their big, double-decker live album? It has a breezy rock flow, edging on the non-lame fringes of MOR and features a particularly tasty guitar solo from Steen. “Show Me a Reason” serves a pleasant appetizer to the main course feast that is “What Do You Want From Life?” Any song that starts with Fee Waybill singing out, “Oh yeah! I’m Tony Rellinni!!!” is going to be a stunner. I honestly don’t know who this Tony fellow is and I am more than likely spelling his name wrong. Who in the blazes is Tony Rellinni? Is he any relation to Madison, that similarly quixotic character from Ray Dennis Steckler’s musical-monsters-a-go-go-fun-flick, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living & Became Mixed Up Zombies? Is it Realiny? Releni? Rahlini? Why must you haunt my dreams, Fee Waybill as Tonee Riuniti?
This is one of the band’s best known and most beloved songs, to the extent that the title of this live album is a slight play on words referencing the best tune about the most absurdist game show ever. If you had to pick just one of the group’s dozens upon dozens upon and then even more dozens of songs to be the best one for audience interaction, “What Do You Want From Life?” is the obvious big daddy. From the early 1970s onward, the Tubes have always had a lot of fun with this song and even change up the prizes each tour, all the while picking out some lucky (almost always a young lovely lass, cause Fee is channeling a sleazy game show host but also? Dudes.) contestant fresh out of the audience.
For this particular night in London, Chrissie is the auspicious winner, with some of her prizes including a lifetime supply of Canada Dry Ginger Ale, thirteen cases of alcohol every day, and courtesy of Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols, the largest safety pin in the world. The trick is that Chrissie can only pick one. It’s a tough choice but she picks the alcohol. (I pray it was a giant inflatable can of Schlitz to represent her real-but-not-really prize.) Also, in this particular version of the song, instead of the classic end line invocation of “…a baby arm’s holding an apple?,” we get “…or a poke in the eye with a blunt stick!.” In that case, alcohol is most definitely going to be needed.
There’s a particularly kick-ass rendition of “God Bird Change,” followed up by another instrumental entitled “Special Ballet.” This fun and slightly moody piece features a rare solo writing credit for Michael Cotton and clocks in just above a minute long. Also? You guessed it. Never featured on a studio album. Eat that, Frampton! (Actually, my apologies since Peter Frampton seems very nice and is an incredibly talented player. Sorry, Sir. You were also hilarious in the funeral scene in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie.)
Something a little more cozy-in-a-familiar sense for the listener’s wee ears is the one Tubes song that could perfectly sum up the romance between crazy-eyed Crackers and blonde-tressed Cotton from John Water’s cult phenom Pink Flamingos, “Don’t Touch Me There.” This rendition might be my favorite version of this song. Re Styles has never sounded better and you can feel the kinetic energy between her and Fee bouncing off of the vinyl grooves. From no touching to too much touching, the band moves on to another big staple, with “Mondo Bondage.” This is faithful to the studio version though it has the additional advantage of getting to hear Fee’s grunts and screams raw and live, giving the cheeky song a borderline creepy edge. Also, it is this specific version of “Mondo Bondage” that was used on the band’s 1981 T.R.A.S.H. compilation.
Not in the T.R.A.S.H. version is Bill Spooner’s post song banter, where he notes that, “You know, every night after that number, whenever I get in those kinds of situations, I always feel like I need a cigarette right after that.” Pairing that with the mental image of Fee menacing one of the female dancers (usually Re around this time period) in leather underwear and occasionally assless chaps is further proof that Bill Spooner is THE MAN. He is also providing a smooth sequence to “Smoke (Ma Vie en Fumer),” the best known and one of the strongest tracks off of the band’s highly underrated Now album. As the music starts to kick in, Bill adds, “I’m gonna watch you guys for a while. Do something!” Again, THE MAN. Even better, we get this longer version of a great song, so it’s a bonafide track for champions, made by champions.
“Crime Medley” is up next, with a smooth montage of various TV crime show themes, including notes from Dragnet and Perry Mason. This is another non-studio album track, though sonically would have been at home on Now or especially Remote Control. The way The Tubes were able to process American TV culture and re-thread it into a pastiche that is both darkly witted and revealing is such a massive strong suit that few give them credit for. American culture is a processed one, bathed in the sickly light of a TV screen, computer monitor, or smartphone. Our castles are tacky mansions built on stolen land, so you might as well have some fun and boogie down to a permutated version of The Untouchables theme.
While The Tubes are unlikely to ever be called a punk band, their ability to be occasionally savage with their irreverence and not sound like anyone else puts them near the ley lines of punk adjacent. Also, creating and performing “I Was a Punk Before You Were a Punk” helps, with Fee coming out as a highly aggro character called Johnny Buggar. When Johnny’s not beating up randos or threatening the rest of the band, lovingly referring to them as “The Dirtboxes,” he sings on this track as well as a slamming cover of The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There,” complete with a blatant nod to the main guitar riff from The Damned’s “New Rose.”
There’s a long drum solo, courtesy of percussion royalty, Prairie Prince. After that, the man of the hour, the man with the power and a groinal bulge that would make even the most hardened of harlots take pause, Quay Lewd comes out. For the Tubes neophytes reading this, Quay is this Anton Artaud meets coked-out rock start glam-rock caricature that quickly become a huge fan favorite. The Quay medley is a raucous one, starting with an abbreviated version of “Young & Rich.” Quay cuts it short by crowing out, “Stop! What was that bitch’s name, anyways?” They slide into “You’re No Fun,” which is a song I never typically associated with Quay’s big-dick-energy hot-glam-mess approach, but it’s always great to hear. From what I can tell, this is one the band only pulled out during this particular time period. That’s a bit of a shame, because it is a gem of a deeper cut.
After that, it is full tilt classic Quay time, with rollicking versions of “Stand Up & Shout” and, of course, the uber-grand finale of “White Punks on Dope.” Hearing the latter live feels like a gilded-ribbon enclosed present from the rock and roll angels, because as great as the studio version is, the live version is epic with an E-P-I-C times 9. It never matters how long the song goes on because when it wraps up, you’re left wanting more. If there is a heaven above, there is another dimension where the song just keeps going and going.
What Do You Want From Live is more than just a hyper-terrific live album by a band that delivered more than most while getting half the credit for it. It’s also a peek into a colorful period of time for the band. The band that created the first three albums and the one that recorded Remote Control onward are the same creature, both literally and metaphorically. That said there would be a sophisticated shift from here on out. The Tubes, unlike a lot of bands from the early 1970s, evolved with the times but without fully sacrificing the little strands of DNA that made them unique in the first place. This album gives us the chance to hear this change happen midway through the process, which is fascinating. I’m hard-pressed to think of any other seminal live albums that can claim that, as well as retaining so many deep and never-to-be-studio-recorded cuts.
Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t give some credit and love to a man I briefly name checked in the beginning of this piece, Kenny Ortega. While never a formal member of the band, Ortega was absolutely a key component and contributor to the group’s stage shows and video art for over ten years. In a 2008 interview with Variety, Ortega noted that he actually turned down a lead role in the San Francisco production of Jesus Christ Superstar to become the choreographer, dancer, and art director for The Tubes. Before Ortega, the band had the vision and creativity to pull off a lot of the multi-media aspects, but it was bringing Ortega into the fold that took everything to the next level. He was the glue needed to make the show and visuals tight, all the while providing all the extra oomph to make a brilliant raw idea into a polished one. Ortega would go on to have a successful career as a film director, helming such popular titles like Hocus Pocus (1993) and the High School Musical movies. From Mondo Bondage to Disney, now that’s a career shift.
The Tubes steadfastly remain one of America’s most vital bands in that Grand Canyon-sized pit of critically underrated and undervalued artists. Any band that can make you rock, woo you, boogie, mourn, and chuckle, all the while pointing out the various nooks and crannies that is the English Muffin surface of my homeland’s pop culture, is one to be cherished.
Up next, it’s prime time for the The Tubes.