By Alex Distefano
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Series of Tubes
Fee Waybill’s band have survived more than three decades of rock. Somehow
A comment on a Tubes video on YouTube says this about the band: “They defy explanation.” That says it all and obviously makes a music critic’s job trickier.
Formed in San Francisco at the start of the ’70s, the Tubes spanned decades and the fashions that came with them, evolving from snide glam rockers to mad scientists with the Todd Rundgren-produced concept album Remote Control. After cleaning up their sound, they peaked in 1983 with the Top-10 hit “She’s a Beauty” (you know it: “One in a million girl”) before becoming damaged goods a few years later.
But here we are in 2009, and the Tubes are active. In fact, they’re planning an archival CD this year and a DVD anthology to boot. So how exactly does a band carry on with so much baggage?
“Nobody wants to worry too hard anymore,” says front man Fee Waybill. “It’s more of a hobby now. Everybody’s got another life.”
Waybill lives in California and runs a commercial-real-estate company. He had initially left the band in the late ’80s, though they continued on a bit longer with a new singer.
“I couldn’t take it anymore,” he remembers. “The work and the drugs—I couldn’t handle it.” He settled in LA and became a professional songwriter, working with Richard Marx. He returned to the Tubes in the ’90s after getting an offer for a massive European tour. Since then, they’ve kept the touring modest. “Now, it’s a lot more fun,” he admits.
More than anything, the Tubes remain known for the cutting satire they brought to songs such as “White Punks On Dope” and the Grease-inspired “Don’t Touch Me There.” Waybill says satire was in the band members’ blood, growing up sequestered in the test market of Phoenix, Arizona, where residents were force-fed a series of failed commercial ventures, from a trampoline-filled parking lot to a giant plastic slide that caused rampant rug-burn.
“We were very sarcastic and cynical because all this stuff never worked,” he says. “And then, as we got into the music business, obviously all that cynicism was reinforced. With the drug situation in the late ’70s . . . that’s where ‘White Punks On Dope’ came from. All these rich kids would spend all their money on cocaine. This attitude was constantly reinforced by the society we lived in, so it kept spurring us on to more sarcasm, more parody, more comic relief on the sad state of affairs.”
Recycling every excess of the absurd microcosm that was the music scene, ?the Tubes expanded from sharp-eyed proto-punks to elaborately theatrical showmen, still spiking catchy anthems with bilious commentary.
“We kept doing it and found a niche with this tongue-in-cheek stuff,” says Waybill. “In retrospect, I think it diminished the music. When you do this kind of material, people say it’s all about the act.”
With that said, the Tubes still include as many costumes and character-based songs as they can in a set. Waybill will change costumes at least six times, donning stilt-like boots for the role of addled rock star Quay Lewd. At a recent benefit concert at the Fairplex in Pomona, the Tubes opened for ZZ Top and the Foo Fighters—Dave Grohl is a good friend of Waybill’s—and rolled out the familiar motorcycle and female singer for their live version of “Don’t Touch Me There.”
Waybill appeared in a few movies during the Tubes’ initial lifespan, including a cameo in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and playing a rock star in Xanadu and the new-wave cult classic Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, which was finally released on DVD in September. He recalls the bright young leads of the latter (Diane Lane, Laura Dern and Ray Winstone) and nearly getting beaten up in the bars of Vancouver alongside members of the Clash and Sex Pistols, some of whom were in the Stains. This was before the Tubes’ commercial breakthrough with 1981’s The Completion Backwards Principle and 1983’s Outside Inside.
“They kept saying, ‘Don’t take acting lessons. You’re so natural,’” Waybill recalls. “‘So natural?’ Shit, that was my life. Playing a down-and-out rock & roller? It wasn’t like I had to act.” He’s pleased with the film’s warm reception on DVD, but he looks back on his stab at acting with the kind of acidic humor you’d expect from the man behind the Tubes.
“The only parts I ever got were ‘rock star,’” he says, laughing. “‘Burned-out rock star comes back to town.’ I was like, ‘Fuck this.’”
The Tubes, the Walter Michaels Band and Pranxter perform at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930; www.thecoachhouse.com. Fri., 6 p.m. $25.