The Tubes – White Punks on Hope
by Ken Sharp
Despite issuing a string of artistically inventive albums – The Tubes, Young and Rich, Now and Remote Control and a celebrated live stage spectacle showcasing the wild theatrics of lead singer Fee Waybill – by the turn of the ‘80s The Tubes were quickly going down the proverbial tubes. That is, until the entry of producer David Foster. With Foster at the helm overseeing the band’s The Completion Backward Principle and Outside Inside albums and also forging a songwriting partnership with Waybill, the band scored major commercial success bolstered by the hit singles “Talk to Ya Later”, “Don’t’ Want To Wait Anymore” and “She’s a Beauty.” Now more 40 years since their formation, The Tubes are still going strong, touring and intermittently releasing new music. In advance of their upcoming February 8th show at The Canyon Club in Agoura Hills, CA, we spoke to Tubes founding members Fee Waybill, Roger Steen and Prairie Prince.
What can fans expect from your current show?
Fee Waybill: We’ll be playing songs that cover our entire career. We try to do the iconic songs and songs from all the records. We never do Love Bomb songs ever. We used to do “Piece by Piece”, that’s the only song we’ve ever done from that record.
Two musical mavericks, The Tubes and the Alice Cooper Band, sprung from the same music scene in Phoenix. Both bands were iconoclasts.
Prairie Prince: We were all associates in the music scene in Phoenix. I think that our unique identify and slant on our art comes from the brain damage from growing up in that heat in Phoenix, Arizona. (laughs)Alice even wrote about it in his song “Refrigerator Heaven.”
Fee Waybill: Everybody just stayed in the house all day long watching TV because it was brutally hot. It was one hundred and twenty degrees for six or seven months of the year and imagination sprung from being cooped up. What’s funny is years later there was this undercurrent happening of “there’s an Alice Cooper spy at our show” or that we were spying at one of his shows. That we were going to steal ideas from each other. I don’t know that he ever stole any ideas from us and vice versa. Alice surrounds himself with the theater and with other people dressed in outfits with big props and big sets. I become the theater itself and become the characters. I immerse myself in the action and whatever vignette we’re trying to portray.
Remarkably, it was almost 40 years ago that the band’s debut album was released, which was produced by Al Kooper.
Prairie Price: We’d been working in the studio locally in San Francisco before we got signed to a label recording all of that music. We were open to having a producer come in and have his way with our music. Al was a big fan of our music. He was really open to our ideas. Together we molded that first record from songs we’d been performing and recording for the last five years.
Like much of The Tubes catalog, the band is all over the map stylistically, did that hurt you?
Prairie Prince: We just couldn’t be satisfied with a specific genre or style of music. We loved so many so many other kinds of music. Like “Haloes,” which Roger Steen wrote. It was his vision and he didn’t change it too much. “White Punks on Dope” was really more Bill Spooner’s style of music. We had three of four different writers in the band and we tried to meld them into a style but it was almost impossible. The Tubes didn’t have a recognizable style from album to album and that didn’t work to our advantage. We were artists and trying to stick to our ideals and it left us in the dark.
What made the Tubes so distinctive is the band’s unique musical and lyrical approach.
Fee Waybill: First and foremost we were all huge Beatles fans. The Beatles changed my life. When the Beatles came out I was in high school and I lost it. I’d sing Beatles songs all day long. Then when Jimi Hendrix came out I became a huge fan. In our current show we cover a Hendrix song (“Third Stone From the Sun”). We all loved Captain Beefheart. On our third album, Now, we covered a Beefheart song (“My Head is My Only House When It Rains”). We had him come and do a guest appearance on the record. He played alto sax on “Cathy’s Clone” and another song. We were huge Beefheart fans, huge Zappa fans and loved the intricacy of their music. It was just so different. It was not your typical bubblegum, poppy shit. Before we got our record deal we used to do really weird songs that had really weird time signatures. When we met our first producer, Al Kooper, he said, “This is just too fuckin’ weird.”
The Tubes are renowned for your outrageous performances with Fee Waybill leading the charge as front man. What does he bring to the equation?
Roger Steen: Fee is the relentless ham. In the most positive way, he just has to be the center of attention. It’s something I don’t have. I’m not a self promoting salesman. That’s not me but he’s that guy. His greatest character is obviously “Quay Lewd” which has stood the test of time. Now when Fee comes out as “Quay Lewd” in our shows it’s like a sea of cell phones. (laughs) Fee is all about the costumes. If he has a costume problem the song’s probably not going to be in the set.
Real Gone Music (www.realgonemusic.com) has recently released the band’s second and third albums as a two-fer, Young and Rich and Now, with great songs like “Tubes World Tour”, “Don’t Touch Me There” and “Smoke.” Two underrated albums, how do you look back on those releases?
Roger Steen: I enjoyed Young and Rich more than any of the other records we did. That was such a great time to be in LA, working at A&M Studios with Ken Scott (Bowie/The Beatles) as a producer. There’s a lot of good songs on that record. The album didn’t get great reviews but the sound quality is top notch. It was a great time for The Tubes. Our first record was really well accepted and we got good reviews. That’s when we were now starting to be somebodies. We were like the cool guys in town. We were on the rise and Young and Rich reflects that excitement. We still had all the potential and hope and life was good at that point. With the Now album, we kind of lost the thread with that record. A lot of those songs are over-compressed and over-produced. I don’t think our producer, John Anthony, had enough control over us. Everybody had their finger on the board. (laughs)
For me, the Todd Rundgren-produced 1979’s Remote Control is the band’s best.
Prairie Prince: Remote Control was our last record for A&M. We were all Todd Rundgren fans. I’d done some artwork for him. I did the Healing album cover. Todd came to our show at the Knebworth Festival and hung out with us for a couple of weeks. He dug the band and we started talking about him producing our next album. We had some music with lyrics but Todd said, “Why don’t we do a concept record?”
Fee Waybill: I came up with the concept for Remote Control. It wasn’t an original concept. I read the book Being There [by Jerzy Kosinski] about a boy that grew up watching television and his whole life experience, his idea of love, wealth, came through watching TV. I thought it was the greatest thing I ever read. I wrote this 20 page treatise about the boy who grew up watching TV and tried to make it more contemporary. I gave it to Todd and told him this is what we wanted to do. We didn’t have any songs that lyrically connected with the concept. The great thing about that record is it was so spontaneous. We’d come in the morning and we all sat around and talked about it, how does it start. “Turn Me On” is the first song, turning on the TV. We’d write the lyrics and music together and go all day long. Then we’d break for dinner and come back that night and start recording it. It was the greatest thing because one of the biggest pitfalls to songwriting is second guessing yourself. Todd was willing to be spontaneous and he’s willing to just go with your gut and your instinct. We didn’t have a lot of time and didn’t have a lot of money so we didn’t have the luxury of going back and changing it fifteen times and trying thirty different guitar solos.
Roger Steen: We shared the writing credits with Todd on that record because he was like a guy in the band. The most impressive thing to me about Todd is he was always one step ahead. He always knew what was needed next and he’d have it. He was our captain. We all respected Todd and we all really clicked, what we thought was funny or was interesting. On that album Todd made us sing higher than we’d ever sung before. A lot of those parts were three or four of us singing those parts together all standing on our tip toes trying to get these notes (laughs). It gave it that huge background sound.
Fill me in about those unreleased songs.
Fee Waybill: They’re songs from a record that was supposed to be called Suffer for Sound. After we did the last released record for A&M, Remote Control, that was the end of our deal. Remote Control didn’t do that well, “Prime Time” did okay. The label was pretty much ready to release us and we got them to give us one more shot. They really didn’t want to do it. We told them we wanted to produce it ourselves in San Francisco. They said, “Okay, we’ll give you half the money. Do the basic tracks and do rough vocals and then send it to us and if we like it we’ll give you the other half.” And that pissed everybody off. So we said okay, took the money and started recording it. We were all upset because it looked like the label was going to dump us and we wrote all these very negative songs. We did the basic tracks but I refused to sing rough vocals on the record because I was so pissed. “This is bullshit, either they let us make a record or they don’t. Fuck ‘em!” Then somehow they gave us the rest of the money to finish the record. We turned it into the label and they said, “This sucks, we hate it, we’re not releasing it.” So they released us instead. We added four tracks from that original recording and they’re pretty good. I tried to pick songs that weren’t so negative. I put on the song “Holy Water,” a song Roger wrote called “Dangerous.” One that I wrote called “Dreams Come True,” which is really positive and one that Bill wrote called “Don’t Ask Me.”
In concert, The Tubes were a multi-tiered experience, delivering great music and theatrical spectacle. Explain where the band’s visuals ideas gel from.
Prairie Prince: My mother and Michael Cotten’s mother encouraged us to do our music but also incorporate visuals into our show – into a theatrical sense. We’d have these group sessions where we’d pound out different ideas and talk about favorite movies and TV shows which influenced us in our lives. Art. Other bands. We’d incorporate all of that in our shows and try to come up with something unique – different from other bands. Everybody was pretty wowed about our shows. To this day, people come up to me and say “that was the greatest show I’ve ever seen!”
What is the status on the long awaited Tubes documentary?
Prairie Prince: Michael Cotten, our keyboard player, has been working on that for some time. He has two or three hours of interviews with the band, the dancers, roadies and all our producers. We got Al Kooper to go back in the recording studio and put up “What Do You Want from Life?” from the original master and he starts messing around with the mix. It has all kinds of live performances as early as 1965. Me and Roger had been playing together since ’65; we’d known Bill Spooner and Rick (Anderson) for many years. So there’s great footage of that and early performances of the band in San Francisco. Our friend, Kenny Ortega, who was instrumental in a lot of The Tubes production stuff, has started his own production company and might release it.
For more info on The Tubes: www.thetubes.com
Tubes tour dates: