Thursday, August 11, 2011
Back in the early 80s, I have recollections of coming home from school and, like many other kids I knew at the time, turning on the TV to the ABC (there was just the one ABC channel back in the day, kiddies) to watch the Kenny Everett Video Show and The Goodies (or Wayne and Schuster if one of the other shows was on hiatus). Both shows seemed so anarchic in comparison to umpteen repeats of Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie on the other channels. How we looked forward to seeing Kenny do a Brother Lee Love routine or to see The Goodies' Bill Oddie hit someone with a black pudding in the name of his martial art, Ecky Thump.
Every day, for a time, before these shows would start there would be a rock video clip to fill in time. Whoever was the pop 15-minuter of the day (Adam Ant, Racey). One particular week, the clips were all devoted to a band I'd not heard of called The Tubes.
After that week, they would never be far away from my record player.
They had just released their latest album, The Completion Backward Principle, and had recurited video director-of-the-minute Russell Mulcahy to direct a video album to accompany the record - this may well have been the first one of its kind. Not that I was to know it yet, but The Tubes had been around for a while and were very much into theatrical shock-rock, like say, Alice Cooper. Unlike the Coop, the emphasis was less on horror and more on society parody of manners. Their act got them banned in someplaces (I have a feeling that included Australia, but am not sure), so it was no wonder that the clips shown that week on the ABC were more tame than what they were usually known for. Still, "Sushi Girl" in the 6.30pm time slot was pretty incredible for the day.
In fact, The Completion Backward Principle saw the band at Capitol Records with them trying to take a more commercial bent than previous records had been. The sheen that producer David Foster gave them gave a slickness absent from their earlier more creative records. They might have wanted top 40 success, but on their terms. Still, the first single, "I Don't Want To Wait Anymore" didn't garner (in Australia anyway) huge success. Maybe a song with a lazy lyric like "Trapped in the freezing cold / Barely alive, had to make love to survive" didn't deserve to make it. Maybe the world didn't want another Toto.
If we only go back a few years prior to 1975 however, The Tubes released their first album eponymously titled on A & M, and it was a million miles away from the -admittedly very catchy - pop of Completion Backwards Principle. "The Tubes" had songs of bondage, bored spoiled rich teenagers, sex, rampant consumerism, floating in space, and even a song about themselves. There was one love song, but of course The Tubes would not do anything conventionally. It was an old mariachi number.
The seven piece band were all incredible musicians, and were led by the charismatic and energetic Fee Waybill. He had a number of stage personas with more costume changes than Barbara Streisand. The Tubes definitely believed in putting on a show, not just a concert.
So what's happening musically on their first album? I've already mentioned mariachi, but there's all sorts of art rock touches with crazy time changes. That statement could put many off, but it's not supposed to. Whereas a lot of the art rock or prog rock was taking itself very seriously with lengthy songs and keyboard solos all out of proportion (and I say that as a Rick Wakeman fan), The Tubes used their musicianship to serve the song, not their egos. Melodies are very strong on this record. They definitely share a sense of humour with Frank Zappa, but are far more interesting musically here than anything I ever heard from the Mothers of Invention (don't shoot me down, but I can't whistle a Zappa melody).
Before I get to the two obvious highlights of the record, I'll mention a couple of other gems. The album opens with a strong statement of intent with "Up From The Deep". The band are offering their audience an introduction to themselves and want to please them ("This is how you want it / Then that's how we'll play it"). It plays like a mini symphony and has a shitload of weird time changes, but is nothing like Yes. It's not taking itself seriously, but is still musically majestic. Their sesne of humour comes to the fore with the catchy and yet sardonic "What Do You Want From Life?" Their statement on consumerism and peoples' superficiality in general is still funny enough to not make us feel shitty about it. It's also possibly the only pop song to make mention of "a baby's arm holding an apple".
Ostensibly, The Tubes were a very visual band and it's probably in a live context that they worked best, certainly with these next two songs I wish to mention: "Mondo Bondage" and "White Punks On Dope". Yet, these songs are both so forceful, that even if you never saw them live, the theatre of your mind can present images that might have made Fee Waybill himself blush. Certainly watch them on Youtube (the band should have sued) - with no kids around, of course - but the songs without visuals still stand up. WPOD is their take on bored rich white Californian kids of the early 70s (though it's probably still applicable now, and is certainly not geographically specific). I guess Billy Joel did a similar thing at the time with "Captain Jack". The Tubes' song is more a tribute to excess (with Waybill dressed in platform shoes, wig, and early 70s Elton John glasses) as well as a mockery of those who partook, whereas the protagonist in Jack actually sounds bored and lives just to score his next hit. On stage, WPOD looked like an inspiration for Spinal Tap!!!
As for Mondo Bondage, if the song wasn't so good, you'd feel guilty listening to it or watching a clip. Surely some sleazy 1970s ...ahem...adult film has used this song as its soundtrack. On the surface this could be a song about feeling one is tied up in life and wanting to break out of a rut. On the other hand, it's probably just a song about bondage. A very intense frightening song - but I'm sure the band thinks we're supposed to find it funny.,and it is....sort of.
I'm sure that when music critics are writing about the bloated excess of 70s rock, it could be all too easy to include this album and this band in general as an argument in their favour. That, however, would be doing discredit to The Tubes who were really more about taking the piss (no jokes on any Genesis albums that I can recall) - they just happened to do it with a myriad of time signature changes. Search this album out,or view them on youtube.