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Darted in Your Armchair: The Tubes in What Do You Want From Life?

“Tell me how you want it. And that’s how we’ll play it”

“Up From the Deep”-The Tubes

In the wilds of the United States, in the middle-of-the-back-road small cities, the big towns, and even the little burgs, there’s always a song to be sung and music to be made. It’s the kind of tunes and expressions that give an unfiltered eye–sometimes loving, other times cynical, but always with a knowing wink, into the pop cultural and societal meat of America. This seed was planted in Phoenix, Arizona but would come to full bloom in the beautiful coastal city of San Francisco, California, in the form of the rock band The Tubes. If Devo are the pioneers that got scalped, then The Tubes are the groundbreakers who got thwarted by music critics, Capitol Records, and, weirdly enough, by a taste of mainstream success. Yet, throughout their career they commented on everything from future generations being bottle fed on electronic entertainment to the rise of what would become the Yuppie culture during the 1980s and to this day, the band still do not get the proper credit they have earned. But when wrongs exist in this world, then the only option is a reaction of action, so ladies and gents, let me fully introduce you to the pop-rock-punk-rock-TV-is-King-heart-songs-heart-burn-decadent-mad-bad-surrealistic sideshow that is The Tubes.

1972. The same year that had George Carlin getting arrested for obscenity, the beginnings of the Watergate scandal and the debut of The Price is Right, which is inexplicably still going strong, also resulted in the genesis of The Tubes. The band was built from the key players of two separate bands; The Beans and The Red, White, & Blues Band. The Tubes would become, right out of the starting gate, a very different animal from either band. While there are no any public recordings from The Red, White, & Blues Band to my knowledge, there was a limited edition 10-inch vinyl of three of The Beans’ songs released through Light in the Attic records, entitled Spill the Beans, in November of 2016. This recording appears to feature almost every founding member of Tubes, including both Bill “Sputnik” Spooner and Roger Steen on lead guitar and lead vocals, bassist Rick Anderson, drummers Bob McIntosh and Prairie Prince, keyboardist Vince Welnick, and even soon-to-be lead singer, Fee Waybill, on backing vocals. According to the band’s Wikipedia, so yes, your mileage may certainly vary, The Beans were incorporating theatrics early on with a performance entitled, “The Mother of Ascension,” which is something that was definitely come into strong play with The Tubes.

From the beginning, The Tubes were bringing something different to the table. Classic harmonies and blues-rock vibes mixed in with piano, synths, double-drumming, two lead guitarists, and a complete openness to being fearless with both sides of the creative coin. Humans are visual creatures often before we are anything else, so the theatrics helped get them noticed early on over the music, for better or worse. However, unlike other musical artists who had used theatrics before, namely Alice Cooper, Screaming Lord Sutch, and Screaming Jay Hawkins, the emphasis was less spooky and more kooky and satirical, serving some high irreverence realness.

Case in point, was their band-within-a-band, Jesus Bongo & the Millionaires. The name alone is amazing, like a fundamentalist Christian preacher who is also a side-chimp from some long destroyed episodes of Lancelot Link. Predating Devo’s own Christian-themed alter ego band, Dove, by a few years, The Tubes as Jesus Bongo not only played live but also appeared in the 1972 film, The Resurrection of Eve. The latter was The Mitchell Brothers’ follow-up to their massive hit, Behind the Green Door (1971), sharing the same star from the latter, Marilyn Chambers. The Resurrection of Eve is a fascinatingly somber and artsy journey into the titular character’s life from a childhood marked by abuse to an adulthood marked by love, codependency, accidents, and ultimately, self-fulfillment and realization. We only get a small sample of Jesus Bongo and cohorts during a tame, 1950’s-themed party scene, with most of the band wearing what looks like wigs, save for a pretty visible Fee and two quick cuts of Vince Welnick on the keys. Both in the film’s credits and the film’s poster art, they are billed as The Tubes.

A year later, the band’s future chanteuse, muse, and dancer, Re Styles had a small but notable supporting role in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s chakra-art-supernova, The Holy Mountain. Billed as Re Debris, she plays the mistress of Klen, a corporate style art dealer. Not too long after the film’s release, she would become a colorful and vital part of The Tubes legacy. While most bios always note that she was Prairie’s girlfriend, which is true, Re’s place in the band’s overall landscape was an unforgettable one and would come to more prominence in the future.

Continuing on the audio/visual front, one innovative feather in The Tubes’ cap was their use of video. Way before they would get signed to A&M records and record their first album, the band was utilizing the then-still-new technology of video to help fully flesh out the Tubes musical experience. Demos are part of the musician gig and creation process, but The Tubes must have been one of the very first bands to have made a video demo. Thanks to Michael Cotton, another founding member of the band who was responsible for both synthesizer work as well, along with Prairie, the band’s visual art direction, there are a number of clips from this early, pseudo-prenatal period of the band that can be seen on YouTube, even including a Jesus Bongo performance. Even in the early stages, the band was already primed for a one-of-a-kind experience for one’s eyes and ears. Maybe you could put them next to the Mothers of Invention or Captain Beefheart….maybe…but even then, they were too singular and certainly too different be mired in the AOR or hard rock scene and too catchy to be full-on experimental.

Fee Waybill of The Tubes performs on stage in 1977 in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo by Jorgen Angel/Redferns)

By 1974, they were already doing full shows at the Winterland venue in San Francisco. The playlists featured both “Whiz Quiz,” (a proto-game show-themed song, making it a precursor to “What Do You Want From Life?”) and “Crime Medley.” The latter’s performance involved Re playing Patty Hearst with weapon-in-hand. Keep in mind, 1974 is the same year that Hearst was kidnapped, brainwashed, and violated by the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army), resulting in her taking a part of an infamous San Franciscan bank robbery. Security cam footage of Hearst wielding a semi-automatic M1 carbine gun during the robbery was all over American media and was no doubt being framed by episodes of Let’s Make a Deal and The Price is Right.

The band’s willingness and sheer ease at mixing pop cultural commercialism absurdities with darker themes is one that, among many other reasons, makes them one of the most vital and critically important American rock bands that came out of the 1970s. Let the middle-aged and brain-bloated hodads have their Margaritavilles and sense of quit. Mainstream rock was about to be invaded by something far more colorful, smart, and anti-white-bread that they would earn a loyal fan base, some disgust, and even the occasional protest.

In 1975, The Tubes were signed to A&M Records and recorded and released their self-titled debut album. Created in 1962, A&M was founded by successful musician Herb Alpert (of “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” fame, among many others) and record executive Jerry Moss as a more musician-friendly alternative to the more corporate minded labels. June ‘75 delivered an absolute gem of a first record, all wrapped up with iconic album art of a woman’s hand with bright-red lacquered nails ripping up the cover with the band’s name looking like it was squeezed out by a crimson-colored gel toothpaste tube.

The album opens with “Up From the Deep,” which is a fitting start to begin this journey. Musically, it builds and soars, as if you’re emerging out of the bottom of the ocean’s floor and surging towards the surface. The vocals set the stage, with Bill Spooner singing, “Tell me how you want it and that’s how we’ll play it” with such beauty and emotion. Just a tiny handful of minutes and we’re already into the thick of it now and lucky us! Directly before the song begins, we hear someone speaking in Japanese, which according to a comment on songfacts.com, is an excerpt from a commercial for the company Teijin. (A company that is still massively huge in 2019.) This same audio will pop back up later on at the end of the album, la ronde style.

The strings of “Haloes” soon swell in, providing further heart, soul, and sincerity, three things that bloom brightly on side one. (Here’s where we have a moment of silence for the nearly-lost art of album sides when an artist could purposefully orchestrate one half to have its own personal flavor different from the other side, but yet still have the twain meet at the end to form something new and whole. Digital and CDs are a gas but can lack texture.) There’s a shared theme with this and the next song of feeling out-of-place and trying to really connect to something or someone in this world. With “Haloes,” there’s the beautiful refrain of, “Looking through the eyes of one that knows. The world is small, but I can make it grow.” It’s that all-too-tangible emotion of feeling alone but still hopeful. It’s being an emotional or spiritual maverick and a moving settler in an unfamiliar and occasionally hostile landscape.

Speaking of which.

There’s got to be a time and place/For me to cease this endless search

And settle down with my own race/And never, ever, ever be a Space Baby

“Space Baby”

Taking the themes of isolation and finding a sense of belonging and mixing in a science-fiction element, the next track is the absolutely perfect “Space Baby.” Between the well-timed back and forth lead vocals with Spooner as our narrator and Fee as the titular Space Baby and the really big sounding production courtesy of the legendary Al Kooper, all forge together to build this interstellar universe within the song. Fee’s talents of expression and the ability to emote as a character in singing really shine, something he will continue to build upon even more over time.

Going for a slight left turn before side one is over is the traditional Mexican folk song, “Malaguena Salerosa.” Unlike the band’s later tongue-in-cheek, raucous cover of the Captain & Tenille already moldy-oldie, “Love Will Keep Us Together,” their version of “Malaguena Salerosa” is played straight, featuring some really lovely vocals from Fee. (A singer, whom much like Blue Oyster Cult’s Eric Bloom, is a massively underrated vocalist.)

If side one is the peek into heart, soul, and exploration, then side two is a tribute to fine-tuned rock & roll chaos. In short, bliss! It opens with one of the band’s more notorious tunes, “Mondo Bondage.” A delirious ode to the pains and thrills of the tied-and-whipped-lifestyle, accompanying one of the band’s most fun and controversial stage segments, complete with Fee half-naked in leather and in a gimp mask attacking Re Styles. Later variations would have the tables turned with Fee attacked by three Tubes dancers, including some egg-abuse while Waybill intones, “Sunnyside up!” And yet, The Eagles are more famous? Granted, I would rather tango with a drunk machete juggler then see Don Henley semi-nude in bondage gear! The song has some really clever wordplay from Spooner, including the fabulous/infamous rhyme, “I could run off to Jamaica, if this bondage I could break-ah.” Apparently, Sputnik took critical heat for this but things like humor and irreverence don’t historically play too well to critics. (Exhibit A: Robert Christgau.)

After that, we have another of the band’s bigger cult songs, “What Do You Want From Life?,” starting the ball rolling on the TV culture commentary front. (Just exchange “TV” for your streaming service of choice and revel in the fact that not much has changed.) “What Do You Want From Life?” is just as much about shallow goals and aborted dreams as it is about life being the most absurdist game show. It’s where we can win everything from a dream date in knee pads with Paul Williams to a Third Reich swizzle stick, not to mention the most creative slang for a phallus ever, a baby’s arm holding an apple. Much like “Mondo Bondage” before it, this is one of the band’s most popular live theatrical songs, with Fee as our intrepid toothpaste-smile and sleazy-style game show host who ends up picking out an audience member, usually a pretty girl, to play along. In one performance, the prizes included a trip to a post-nuclear reactor meltdown Three Mile Island and a complimentary gas mask. Also, side note, the late, great Jeffrey Lee Pierce briefly sings a line from this song during an televised interview with his band, The Gun Club, for Spanish TV back in the mid-1980s. If it’s good enough for Jeffrey Lee, then it is good enough for you and me.

From the funny and wryly satirical, to one of the most catchy and vicious songs in the band’s discography, we have “Boy Crazy.” Penned by Spooner, the song’s about a teenage girl whose “… eighth-grade teacher taught you what to do…” which has all sorts of disturbing implications. From there, the band sings about how she ends up as “…another waitress with an IUD. Went to the clinic, you got it free. There’s something missing, but you don’t know what. Someone should tell you, I’d rather not,” effectively painting a depressing and captivating picture of a lost soul flushed around in a culture that could and still can’t be bothered with treating adults as complex human beings, much less teenagers. Make that teenager a girl with a tampered with sex drive and still developing hormones and forget it. In the 70s, an age of the assorted rock odes to the wild childs and groupies, “Boy Crazy” is the sobering flip of the raucous teenage rock party coin.

That said, when it comes to destroying rock & roll damaged lifestyle stereotypes, there is one Tubes song that lives for it and I mean lives. We’re not talking about regular people fighting through genuine horror, like addiction. Nope, it’s the one percent class slumming, whether it’s a rock superstar or just some trustafarians snorting and smoking up their privilege. We’re talking some “White Punks on Dope!”

Other dudes are living in the ghetto. But born in Pacific Heights, don’t seem much betto.

“White Punks on Dope”

This is one of the band’s big daddy songs and for excellent reasons! It covers the sweet spots of being smart, funny, over-the-top, and rock-show-bonkers. It’s so good. It would also go on to be covered by both Nina Hagen, under the title of “TV Glotzer” and later on, Motley Crue. The former is a ton of fun and a colorful re-interpretation of a classic song in a way that only Nina Hagen can do. The latter….ehhh. Motley Crue has done much better things, but this isn’t one of them. (Though it is still better than their intensely misguided cover of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK.” Yikes.) Stage show wise, we have Fee’s character of Quay Lewd, which took the Tower of Babel that is the mythos of burnt-out rock stars and obliterates it in a hailstorm of metaphorical piss and literal glitter. The mere sight of Quay, stumbling about in 18-inch silver platforms, sporting some huge white bewigged hair, smudged on make-up, sometimes wearing pants, sometimes wearing strips of fabric barely covering an oversized phallic apparatus, and often sporting light up glasses spelling out the word, “Quay,” is positively legend. It’s Rod Stewart, Elton John, and Mick Jagger all thrown into one sweaty, acid-laced blender. The song is even better and great enough to end the album, as the choir sings higher and higher and Quay mumbles in panicked tones, “I’m fucked up!” and with everything rushing to the climax of a toilet flushing, then laughter, and lastly, the Teijin commercial from the beginning.

Like so many great works, The Tubes debut album wasn’t a huge financial success and received some misguided critical reviews, including noted writer and pretentious cranky-pants Robert Christgau calling the work, “So ugly it may be the American version of Genesis” and then graded it a “B-.” Not the worst review in the world, granted, but talk about someone not really cluing into the music itself. Being misunderstood and undervalued, especially as they would become known more and more for their live shows and theatrics, will be something that continually plagues the band and their discography, for the rest of their career, unfortunately.

The album is dedicated to two key people from the band’s early years. The first dedication is to their late drummer, Bob McIntosh, who had passed away at age 24 from cancer before they recorded their debut. They would go on to further pay tribute to McIntosh in the song “Golden Boy” for their 1977 Now album. (A little more on that in the near future.) The second dedication is to the “father of progressive radio” himself, Tom Donahue. Donahue had passed away from a heart attack the same year the band released this album, with him being only 46 years old. He was a radio pioneer who eschewed the top forty format, favored deep cuts, and rarely shied away from playing a long-form track. Judging by this dedication, his historically solid-as-a-rock taste in bands, and at least one photo of him on stage with Re Styles that was floating around the internet at one point, it feels like a safe assumption that Donahue was a good champion of the band. Both men left this Earth way too soon.

Bands with stellar debuts sometimes peak right then and there and spend the rest of their careers scrambling to recapture lightning in a bottle. With The Tubes, the band is the lightning in the bottle and were destined to only get better, bigger, and bolder. To quote a line from Tubes dancer, choreographer and future High School Musical (2006) director, Kenny Ortega, “Rock and roll, they’re gonna cram it down your throat.”

Buckle up kids, cause it is going to be a bumpy but never boring ride.

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.

4 comments

  1. Heather, I devoured your long and loving tribute to the underrated art-rock ensemble that staged one of my top ten favorite live entertainment experiences on May 22 1976 at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin. My memories of it are ecstatic, fractured, and hallucinatory due only partly to the ingestion of 3.5 grams of hand-picked (by me from a cow pasture in Batrop county) psilocybin mushrooms. A minor quibble with your essay is the short shrift given to Kenny Ortega, the group’s artistic director for ten years, a likewise underrated, highly-collaborative, multi-hyphenate artist, partly–when not mostl responsible for some of the most innovative, liberating, and challenging popular entertainment of our time, not the least of which was the helming of two stellar feature films: the Halloween classic, “Hocus Pocus,” and the criminally-unappreciated, joyfully-subversive, class-war musical, “Newsies.” Any evaluation of The Tubes legacy should give at least as much props to Ortega as George Martin gets with the Beatles. But, like I said, it’s a quibble, exposing a personal pet peeve–that Ortega’s protean skills, massive energy, exuberant leftist advocacy have often been thwarted by Hollywood suits. Mostly, I wanted to say thanks for another great article. You’re on an outstanding roll. XOX

    • Tom,

      Thank you so much and no worries, I’ll be going more into Ortega’s contributions to the group in upcoming article-episodes.

      All the Best,

      Heather

  2. Steve Robinson

    Fantastic piece, be sure to announce on twitter when you do any further articles on the Tubes, I’ve just dug all my old albums out to pour through this evening 🙂

  3. It saddens me to think that they will be largely remembered only for their MTV years, but we’ll always have the live performances which were a televidiot’s fever dream!

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