The Tubes are a San Francisco-based rock band, whose 1975 debut album included the hit single, “White Punks on Dope”. During its first fifteen years or so, the band’s live performances combined quasi-pornography with wild satires of media, consumerism, and politics. They are perhaps best-remembered for their 1983 single “She’s a Beauty“, a top 10 U.S. hit with a frequently-played music video in the early days of MTV and in the 1980 film Xanadu singing the rock portion of the cross-genre song “Dancin'” opposite a big band.
The Tubes started as a group of high school friends from Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona. Two Phoenix bands, the Beans and The Red, White and Blues Band, both relocated to San Francisco in 1969 and eventually merged. The new band’s core membership remained largely intact for more than a decade: Fee Waybill (real name John Waldo Waybill) (vocals), Bill “Sputnik” Spooner (guitar, vocals), Roger Steen (guitar), Prairie Prince (real name Charles L. Prince) (drums), Michael Cotten (synthesizer), Vince Welnick (piano), and Rick Anderson (bass). Singer Re Styles (born Shirley Marie MacLeod) (vocals) and ex-Santana percussionist Mingo Lewis were also fixtures for much of the band’s early history.
Show business excess was a common theme of the band’s early work, with Waybill sometimes assuming the onstage persona of “Quay Lewd” (a pun on Quaalude), a drunk, drugged out, barely coherent lead singer, wearing flashing glasses and stilt-like tall platform shoes.
The First Album
The Tubes’ first self-titled album The Tubes (1975) was produced by Al Kooper. The track “White Punks on Dope” was an “absurd anthem of wretched excess” and a tribute to their rich, white teenage fan base in San Francisco Since then the song has been covered by Mötley Crüe, and the German rock musician Nina Hagen took the tune and set new lyrics to it (not a translation of the original lyrics), titled her work TV-Glotzer (“Couch Potato“), and used this song as the opening track of her own debut album Nina Hagen Band, released 1978 on CBS/Germany Records. The album track “What Do You Want From Life?”, which became another of the Tubes’ signature songs, satirizes consumerism and celebrity culture and climaxes in a “hard-sell” monologue by Waybill, which name-checks celebrities such as Bob Dylan, Paul Williams and Randolph Mantooth and well-known products of the period including the Dynagym exercise machine and a host of American vehicles including the Winnebago and the Mercury Montclair.
The Second Album
The Tubes’ second album, Young and Rich (1976) on A&M Records, was produced by Ken Scott. It featured the hit “Don’t Touch Me There”, a suggestive duet between Waybill and Re Styles, which was arranged in classic “Wall of Sound” style byJack Nitzsche. The song was co-written by Ron Nagle and Tubes dancer/vocalist Jane Dornacker, who died in a helicopter crash in 1986.
The Third Album, A Live Album and then The Fourth Album
The Tubes’ third album gave way to thematic experimentation with Now (1977) and after their live record What Do You Want from Live (1978), recorded during their record breaking run at the Hammersmith Odeon, London, England, the fourth album for A&M, Remote Control (1979) was a concept album produced by Todd Rundgren about a television-addicted idiot-savant. The cover of Remote Control shows a baby watching Hollywood Squares in a specially made “Vidi-Trainer.”
The Music Videos
One critic opined that with their media savvy and theatrical skills, The Tubes were born to create rock video, but arrived several years too early.However, the band did produce at least one collection of music videos, which were issued on the 1982 Pioneer Artists laserdisc “The Tubes Video” (this videodisc contained versions of twelve of the band’s hits, including “White Punks on Dope”, “Mondo Bondage”, “Talk to Ya Later”, and several others from yet-to-be-completed “The Completion Backwards Principle” album, in slickly produced music videos based on the group’s stage shows).
The Live Shows
The Tubes put their creativity and art skills mainly into their live performances, in which songs could be full fledged production numbers, from a beach movie parody for “Sushi Girl”, to leather clad S&M hijinks in “Mondo Bondage”, to the game showantics of “What Do You Want from Life?” At their peak, their live act featured dozens of other performers, including tap dancers and acrobats. The Tubes’ stage productions were choreographed by Kenny Ortega and featured cast members Jane Dornacker, LeRoy Jones, Michael Holman, Michael Springer, Cindi Osborn, Heline Gouax, and Mary Niland from 1975-1977. From 1978-1979, the cast included Sharon Collins, Caty Bevan, and Loryanna Catalano. The Completion Backward tour featured Shelly Pang, Cheryl Hangland, and Cynthia Rhodes. From 1983-1985, Michelle Gray (who later married Todd Rundgren) and Cheryl Hangland were principal dancers. Several crew members — including Tour Manager Steve “Chopper” Borges, Lee Collins, and Gail Lowe — made frequent appearances on stage in various roles as well.
The Tubes’ live shows in the late 1970s and early 1980s were rife with allusions to mainstream film (Dr. Strangelove, Rollerball, Saturday Night Fever, Grease), then-forgotten B-movies (Wild Women of Wongo, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman), music (Tom Jones, punk rock, a medley of Nelson Riddle television themes), contemporary pop culture (Patty Hearst, the Viking program), television (Let’s Make a Deal, Fernwood 2Nite, the anime Raideen), and literature (Nelson Algren‘s A Walk on the Wild Side), presaging the subcultural reverence and over-the-top theatricality of later groups like The World/Inferno Friendship Society.
These shows were expensive to produce, however, and while they earned the band a reputation for being one of the most entertaining live acts of all time, by the early 1980s, they found themselves short of money.
Their Ouster from A&M, and Their Tenure with Capitol
Their proposed fifth album, the self produced Suffer for Sound, was rejected by A&M, who dumped the band instead, finishing out its contract with the oddities collection T.R.A.S.H. (Tubes Rarities and Smash Hits) (1981).The band was signed to Capitol Records by Bruce Garfield and Bobby Colomby, scaling back the live shows and redesigning itself as a straight laced rock band, teaming with producer David Foster.
The Fifth and Sixth Albums
Their fifth album, The Completion Backward Principle (1981), another concept album, featuring the classic rock staple “Talk to Ya Later”, presented itself as a motivational business document, complete with shocking pictures of the band members cleaned up and wearing suits. The band also had their first Top 40 hit in the United States in 1981, “Don’t Want to Wait Anymore” (recorded almost entirely by Spooner, without Waybill’s participation). The sixth studio album, Outside Inside (1983), followed a few years later and yielded a few hits, including the number 10 (USA) hit “She’s a Beauty“.
The Seventh Album, and Their Ouster from Capitol
In 1985, the band teamed up with Rundgren once again for their seventh album, Love Bomb. With Bruce Garfield and Bobby Colomby no longer with Capitol, The Tubes were dropped just as they were going on a national tour in support of the album — a tour that would leave the band a half million dollars in debt, forcing them to play low-budget gigs for a year to pay off their debts.
Waybill had already released an unsuccessful solo album (Read My Lips, on Capitol Records) in 1984, but during this time, he had also happily enjoyed a fruitful writing partnership with fellow Capitol Records label mate Richard Marx, their most popular and well known collaboration being “Edge of a Broken Heart”, recorded by the female band Vixen. Waybill left the band in 1986 (“Fee broke up”, one band member said). leaving the band without both its musical director and lead singer.
Later in the year the remaining members of the band took on a longtime friend from Phoenix, Arizona, David Killingsworth, as lead vocalist. Killingsworth was the singer in the Red and White Blues Band with Prairie and Roger. Michael Cotten relocated to New York to pursue a career based on his artwork, stage design and production, and is considered one of the country’s top production designers. In the fall of 1988, Bill Spooner traveled his final tour with the band and left in early 1989. Vince Welnick departed as well to take to the road with Todd Rundgren in 1989 and then joined the Grateful Dead in 1990. Gary Cambra joined on keyboards and guitar in 1989. He and Roger Steen took over most the lead vocal duties after Killingsworth left in early 1990.
In 1993, Waybill rejoined the band. This lineup toured Europe and released two CDs, a compilation and the 1996 album Genius of America. David Medd joined in 1996 to play keyboards alongside Cambra. In 2001, the band released a live CD, The Tubes World Tour 2001, and continued to tour.
The One-Off Reunion
On April 22, 2005 a reunion show took place at the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz, CA, with Waybill, Steen, Anderson, Spooner, Welnick and Cotten. 2005 also saw the release of their live album “Wild in London”.
The Tubes Project, and Other Milestones
Michael Cotten started “The Tubes Project” in 2005, to save and digitize the band’s reel to reel and video tape archive. The collection had been kept in the closet of Tubes fan club president Marylin Wood’s son after being discarded in the late 1980s. Included in the vault are full color shows taped for TV at Bimbos in San Francisco, 1975 and VARA TV from the 1977 European tour. Over 70 interviews were conducted with band members, crew, managers, cast and friends such as Re Styles, Todd Rundgren, Al Kooper, Devo and David Foster. Hundreds of photos were scanned and compiled from band members and fan collections for use in the hour and half documentary, which was edited and shopped for further financial backing, gaining interest until the economic crash of 2008. No further plans have been discussed since about any planned release of any of this material.
Pianist Welnick, who long suffered from depression, committed suicide on June 2, 2006.
Cambra left the band in 2006 leaving David Medd as their sole keyboardist.
On September 23, 2007, the remaining members of the Tubes reunited in Phoenix for their induction into the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame.
On November 10, 2009, “Mondo Birthmark” a CD of previously unreleased rarities was released through the label Fuel 2000. The package was designed by Michael Cotten and Prairie Prince with rare photos and interviews of the group. The demos also feature former member Bob Macintosh on drums.