By Ken Sharp
In concert, The Tubes were a must-see act, thanks in part to the crazy antics of frontman Fee Waybill. But even thought the group packed venues worldwide, it just couldn’t crack the charts. But the dawn of the 1980s changed everything, as the band teamed up with producer David Foster for “The Completion Backward Principle” and “Outside Inside,” and generated the hit singles “Talk to Ya Later” and “She’s a Beauty.”
Goldmine’s Ken Sharp spoke with founding members Fee Waybill, Roger Steen and Prairie Prince about the band’s evolution. The Tubes continue to tour — and intermittently release new music; you can find out more at www.thetubes.com.
Goldmine: It was almost 40 years ago that the band’s debut album was released, which was produced by Al Kooper.
Prairie Prince: 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.
Roger Steen: Before we went in and recorded that album, Al got us in a room for two weeks and just drilled every song over and over, rearranged things and meticulously looked at everything from a producer’s standpoint. It was a great way for us to start out our recording career.
GM: Were you surprised that listeners gravitated so much toward “White Punks on Dope”?
PP: Not really. It was always meant to be an anthem. We were all doing a lot of drugs and partying. That song was written about how all of our newfound friends with rich parents in Pacific Heights and Hollywood, they were kids that didn’t want to grow up in a rich society. They wanted to grow up with kids that were having fun. Later “W.P.O.D.” was all over San Francisco, and it had other cult following that gravitated to that idea. It’s just one of those things that caught on at the time. I don’t think you could write a song like that today and have anybody give a sh*t about it (laughs).
GM: Like much of The Tubes catalog, the band is all over the map stylistically. Did that hurt you?
PP: We just couldn’t be satisfied with a specific genre or style of music. We loved 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 or 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.
GM: 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, and 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 sh*t. 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 fu**in’ weird.”
GM: The Tubes are renowned for your outrageous performances with Fee Waybill leading the charge as frontman; 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 gonna be in the set.
GM: Fee, you understood intuitively that the combination of music and visuals are a powerful team. Where did that understanding originate?
FW: I was a theater major. I’ve been an actor my whole life. I was born in Omaha, Neb., and they had a movie theater there called the Bijou Theater, and my mom used to tell me before they started the movie, I would get up onstage at 5 years old and do a little show in front of the patrons, just dance around and do crazy stuff. Then we moved to Arizona, and we used to do assemblies where I’d do little acting bits. When I was in fourth grade, one of the first things I did was lip sync this funny novelty song about Custer’s last stand called “Please Mr. Custer.” I would dress up like a cavalry guy, and then at the end, I would die and do this thing where I’d stiffen my whole body and fall flat onto my back. Everyone thought that was so great. I was doing pratfalls, stunt falls, in fourth grade (laughs).
Performing was always in my blood. Then when I got to high school, we had a big theater department, and its director was a guy named Joseph Esile. They had a singing group called The Scottsdale Singers, and we used to do Handel’s “Messiah.” I was the first one put into this varsity singing group as a freshman, because they thought I was so good. So Joe Esile took me under his wing. He was on my case all the f**kin’ time: “Do this, do that!” But he made me better. I remember going into his office and asking him, “Why are you always on my case?” And he said,” You’ve got something. If I didn’t really care and think you had something special, I’d ignore you.” He believed in me and gave me the confidence I needed. I started becoming involved in plays — “The Music Man,” “Oklahoma,” “Most Happy Fella.”
Every year, we’d do three or four big musicals and do the whole production. Then I went to Arizona State and got more serious and became a drama major. I managed to get out of the draft and dropped out of school. I moved with a bunch of hippies in this idyllic place called the Verde Valley in northern Arizona. People walked around naked; everybody was f**king everybody. I was friends with Roger (Steen) and Prairie (Prince). They were part of a trio. I told them, “Come up to the mountains. It’s really cool, we’ve got a big swimming hole, and all the girls swim naked.” They’d drive up with their equipment and a big generator and set up in the f**kin’ desert and just play with eight of us watching. Prairie got a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute and decided we’ve gotta move to San Francisco. They asked me to come along and help them. I started off as Roger’s roadie and somehow wound up becoming the lead singer.
GM: In concert, The Tubes were a multi-tiered experience, delivering great music and theatrical spectacle. Explain where the band’s visuals jell from.
PP: My mother and Michael Cotten’s mother encouraged us to do our music but also incorporate visuals into our show in 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 uniquely different from other bands. Everybody was pretty wowed about our shows. And to this day, people come up to me and say, “That was the greatest show I’ve ever seen!”
GM: Real Gone Music 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?
RS: I enjoyed “Young and Rich” more than any of the other records we did. That was such a great time to be in L.A., working at A&M Studios and with Ken Scott as a producer (Bowie/The Beatles). 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. Alot 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).
GM: Todd Rundgren produced two Tubes albums, starting with 1979’s “Remote Control.”
PP: “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?”
FW: The bad thing about the record is we were completely unprepared. I came up with the concept for “Remote Control.” It wasn’t an original concept. I read the book “Being There,” about a boy that grew up watching television and his whole life experience — his idea of love, wealth — came through watching TV. The way he looked at the world was what he learned about while looking at television. 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. Ironically, originally, we were gonna be called The Boob Tubes until we settled on the name The Tubes.
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. If it’s not perfect, f**k it; it’s about the feeling. 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 15 times and trying 30 different guitar solos.
PP: We all were pleased with that record. I remember us all sitting around with him writing lyrics. When we went into the studio, Todd said, “We don’t have anything that sounds like the pivotal song.” He started playing guitar and came up with the riff for “TV is King,” which is so great and so Todd sounding. Every song has so much of him, because he put so much of himself into it. He was hired to produce the record. This was a thing I heard when I worked with him on XTC’s “Skylarking” album. They were like, “He’s putting too much of himself into this record,” and he said, “Listen, you hired me to produce it, and that’s what I’m gonna do.”
RS: 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 tiptoes, trying to get these notes (laughs). It gave it that huge background sound.
FW: “Prime Time” was not originally a duet. Originally, it was a song Re (Styles) sang all by herself. The record company said, ‘We want that to be the single, but we can’t put out a single with a girl singer who’s not familiar to anybody who knows the Tubes. You’ve gotta put Fee on it.” So we had to go back in after the record was done and re-record that song as a duet.
RS: ”Remote Control” is the first album where our keyboardist, Mike Cotten, had a big influence on the song structures, the direction of the chords and key signatures on songs like “Turn Me On” and “No Way Out.”
FW: Over the last 25 years, we’ve probably done more songs from “Remote Control” than anything else. “Remote Control” is being reissued on CD and it includes four bonus tracks that have never been released.
GM: Fill me in on those unreleased songs.
FW: 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 OK. 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, “OK, 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 p**sed everybody off. So we said, “OK,” took the money and started recording it. We were all upset, because it looked like the label was gonna 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 p**sed. “This is bullsh*t; either they let us make a record, or they don’t. F**k ‘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.”
GM: The band’s work on “The Completion Backward Principle” and “Outside Inside” with David Foster ushered in much-deserved success with the singles “She’s A Beauty,” “Don’t Want to Wait Anymore” and “Talk To Ya Later.”
FW: We’d made five records for A&M and never had a hit and didn’t really sell a lot of records. We were weird and had this incredible reputation for this insane live production. But we weren’t reaching the masses in terms of sales, and they dumped us. We were bleeding money, and they had to constantly give us more money. We were constantly having to sell off any piece of publishing. I think we sold every bit of our publishing that we owned when we were at A&M. We’d be stuck on the road, out of money and say to the label, “OK, you need to send us 25 grand,” and they’d say, “OK, well, we want another 10 percent of your publishing.” I think all we had left was 7.5 percent of the publishing. Back then, publishing was sacred, and we wouldn’t include that in any kind of record deal. We got this one manager who said, “You want money for more touring? You gotta give up something.” We never had real radio hits before we started working with David Foster. We didn’t have a “She’s a Beauty,” “Talk to Ya Later” or “Don’t Want to Wait Anymore” on any of our early albums. The only song of ours that stuck was “White Punks on Dope,” which they re-released on our live album (“What Do You Want from Life”). “Prime Time” did OK, and “Don’t Touch Me There” from our second record made the top 40. When we signed with Capitol Records, they said, “We’ll give you a three-record deal; the second record is an option based on what happens with the first record.” We went through a lot of producers before we found David Foster. The great thing about Foster was he had never done a real rock and roll album; before us his last record was “Boogie Wonderland.” We were always big R&B songs and always tried to have that kind of flavor with our music. When we met him, he had that background and feeling. We worked on some songs, and he melded some of that rock and R&B together, and we went, “Wow, this guy is amazing!” But what happened is we had all these great songs — “Amnesia,” “Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman,” “Mr. Hate” — all these wacky, out-there songs. When we got near the end of the first record he said, “We’ve got this great power ballad, “Don’t Want To Wait Anymore,” which I wrote with Vince (Welnick) and David — but we don’t have a rock and roll hit. The band wrote a couple of songs, and he goes, “No, no, no.” That was when he said, “I’ve got a guy who can do this for us.” And that’s when David introduced me to Steve Lukather. Luke, David and I wrote “Talk to Ya Later” in about 20 minutes!
We presented the song to the rest of the band, and they couldn’t deny it was incredible and gonna be a hit, but at the same time, it pissed everyone off that he would go outside of the band even though the result was great. Sure enough, it went to No. 1 on every rock chart; I think it was No. 1 in 19 countries, and that allowed us to do the second record with Capitol.
RS: Foster was the beginning of the fracturing of the band. He was an up-and-coming producer who’d had big-time success, and he had to get results. He kind of ran over the band and made it his own, taking the band out of it. Vince Welnick was a really great keyboard player, but he didn’t really have time for Vince; same thing with Bill (Spooner). It was like a personality divide. I tried to make excuses for him for it, because he was under a lot of pressure to deliver a record, but you look at guys like Al (Kooper) and Ken (Scott) — they tried to make a Tubes record, not an L.A. record. We wanted to create hits. Individuals in the band may have had that sensibility, but together with all of our contrasting ideas, it distorted our strong songs to the point where they were diffused a bit.
GM: Is it true that on “Talk to Ya Later” Foster brought in studio musicians?
RS: Oh, yeah. But to his credit, Foster did give me a chance to play on it, but I felt like, “This is (Steve) Lukather’s riff, so he should play on it.” There was no way I was gonna beat Lukather that day. It would take me a week to get something together, and I don’t move that quickly (laughs). He was the man. It’d be like an amateur tennis player going up against Roger Federer. Prairie played on it, but that was it; no one else in the band played on it. We finished “Completion Backward Principle,” and Foster felt we didn’t have a hit so he was like, “Let’s see if we can make a hit,” and he brought in these session players. It was great that it was a hit, but it bothered me that virtually none of us played on that song besides Prairie.
GM: “She’s a Beauty” was an even bigger hit from the band’s second Capitol album, “Outside Inside.”
FW: Due to the success of “Talk to Ya Later,” we now had a proven track record. Foster said, “OK, now we’re gonna do another one,” and Luke, David and I wrote “She’s a Beauty.” Then that went to No. 3 on the charts. Naturally, the rest of the band who weren’t involved in “She’s a Beauty” weren’t happy. Prairie played on it, Mike (Cotten) did some synthesizer sounds and Bill Spooner sang one of the three background vocal parts. The other singers were Bill Champlin of Chicago and Bobby Kimball from Toto. David Paich from Toto did the keyboard solo. Foster was comfortable with those guys because they were big-time session players. Some of the guys in our band had a drug problem. Foster didn’t like to work with Bill Spooner, because he was too high on drugs. So we had the big success with “She’s a Beauty,” and they said, “We’re ready for the third record” and picked up the option to do another record with Foster as producer. The single that was supposed to follow “She’s a Beauty” was our cover of the Major Lance hit “Monkey Time,” a song written by Curtis Mayfield, which I did as a duet with Martha Davis of the Motels. It came out great — R&B turned Tubes. Martha’s manager, Val Garay, sh*tcanned the single. He decided it would negatively impact the upcoming Motels album. He got them to stop the release and kill the whole momentum we had with “She’s a Beauty.” We tried to replace it with the song “Tip of My Tongue,” but it didn’t work. The whole momentum died, but we had a massive hit with “She’s a Beauty.”
Foster doesn’t have a lot of détente with bands; he doesn’t give a sh*t about the band. He’s one of the best producers I’ve ever worked with, but for him, it was all about the record; it wasn’t about the pride: “If you’re too hung over from last night’s debauchery, I’ll get someone else.” Foster sat down with the band and went, “Look, we wrote ‘Talk to Ya Later’ and ‘She’s a Beauty,’ and we never had anything to follow it up with that was of that caliber, so this time I want to write four or five songs with Fee and Luke, so we had a hit and one or two follow-up singles. On the other side of the record, you guys can do whatever the hell you want. You can produce it and get as wacky as you want. You can completely go off the deep end — no rules, no restrictions.” The band wasn’t crazy about that idea, and it was like rubbing it in their faces. On the one hand, I totally understand where they were coming from, and on the other hand, I was the one going, “Just do it! This is gonna be the biggest record we’ve ever had, and it’s gonna change our lives.” Of course, I wasn’t the one being told, “You can’t play,” nor was Prairie. So the band flipped out. It was me against the band. The band was always seven chiefs with no Indians. I was never the leader of the band. I wasn’t the guy who made the decisions and told them, “It’s my way or the highway.” It never worked like that. I had become the frontman and ostensibly the leader of the band as far as perception went, but it really wasn’t like that in the internal politics of the band.
They wanted to go with a producer who would let them get away with whatever the f**k they wanted to do. Todd’s not a perfectionist like Foster is. If it feels good, he’ll let it go. He kind of smothers imperfection with quantity. If the background vocal isn’t perfect, he’ll put three more on top of it.
GM: So six years later, Todd Rundgren’s back producing the band’s last album for Capitol, “Love Bomb.”
PP: He put so much into that record, even going so far to help us build the recording studio where we did most of the overdubs. We had our own warehouse, and he helped us build the control room. We did the basic tracks in Berkeley at Fantasy Studios, where CCR recorded, and then we moved over to our studio. Todd had a Fairlight synthesizer, and he was very innovative with his use of sampling on the record, which became so popular.
RS: Fee was spending a lot of time in L.A., trying to do his solo record, and that created a fracture in the band. Bill (Spooner) wanted to be in control, so that was going on, too. Fee wanted little to do with that album. I was there pretty much every day. Todd came up with some stuff on “Love Bomb” that blows my mind. He wrote a lot of the words on “Feel It” and “Come As You Are.” Side Two of “Love Bomb” is a really nice piece of music. It had the first sampling I’d ever heard.
FW: I hated that record, and I still hate it. I just don’t think it was done very well. I don’t think Todd put the time and effort in. I brought “Piece by Piece” and “Stella” in. But for the most part, I think I only sang three songs on the whole record. They rebelled and said, “We’re gonna do it our way.” The record company flipped out, management flipped out, the booking agent flipped out. Everyone said, “This is a huge mistake; don’t do this. Just make one more record the way Foster wants to make it, and then you’ll be able to do whatever the f**k you want, ’cause you’re gonna be huge.” I went to L.A. to do my solo record with Foster and wrote with a bunch of different guys. It didn’t have the fluidity of a Tubes record. It was my voice, Foster’s production and had a lot of great songs, but it didn’t have the magic that The Tubes had. They went to San Francisco and did the record in our warehouse. They had fun, but I think the production was shoddy. Ultimately, “Love Bomb” was a disaster. It ended our career.
PP: Out of all the producers we worked with, Todd got the band best. We shared the same kind of vision. David Foster, who produced two of our biggest albums, had a different vision, which leaned more commercially, which was not bad or good. Todd leaned more on the artistic side. We were caught somewhere in the middle. Some of the band, our management and the record company wanted us to be more commercial, and some of us wanted to stay an art-rock band.
GM: Speaking of Rundgren, I saw the 1985 tour which featured a Tubes-Utopia co-bill, both bands self-destructing at its conclusion. What went wrong?
PP: Our label dropped us while we were on tour promoting the record. We didn’t know why. They just said, “We’re finished with you guys.” At that point, we were trying to make our art work, and our management had failed us.
RS: At that time, I didn’t feel getting dropped was that big of a deal. We’d always landed on our feet. I felt like we were gonna be OK.
GM: Pick one or two Tubes songs that epitomize the attitude of the band.
RS: I’d pick “Up from the Deep” and “Haloes.” That‘s a nice taste of how to open the doors and see what The Tubes are. GM