The Tubes: They came, they outraged, they conquered
The Tubes shocked and rocked in equal measure – here the most theatrical band of the 80s talk about breaking boundaries, assless chaps, and balancing art with outrage
If you spend any time in a government-owned facility in the Greater Los Angeles Area, you’ll probably encounter The Tubes’ frontman John ‘Fee’ Waybill working his day job. Ten years ago, when the dream of rock stardom had faded, Fee joined his ex-wife’s family business. The man who shocked audiences in the 70s as his outrageous drunk, coked-up, glam-rock alter ego Quay Lude now helps manage a million square feet of commercial property. If you’re employed by Los Angeles social services and your toilet flush breaks, he’s the man you call.
“It’s an insanely brutal job,” says Waybill. “Every email is ‘urgent’, every phone call is, ‘When’s the plumber gonna be here?’”
But Waybill is a natural. His father was an engineer who helped build Arizona’s first resort hotel and he passed on the knowledge to his son. “I got skills,” says the man who fashioned Quay Lude’s first platform shoes out of jumbo-sized tomato juice cans.
But like a rock version of Clark Kent/Superman, when John Waybill finishes his working week, he turns into that other guy. “During business hours I help fix leaky toilets. At weekends I get away from it all by singing with The Tubes.”
This October, Waybill leaves the day job behind for a month when the group play the UK and Germany. And even The Tubes can’t believe it. “It amazes me,” says guitarist Roger Steen. “But we’re something for people to get off the couch and go look at – ‘Hey, check out these idiots, they’re still jumping around.
In the 1970s, The Tubes were America’s most outrageous band. They merged sex, satire and biting social commentary with virtuoso art rock. Their live shows featured bare flesh, dancing girls, roadies dressed as giant cigarettes and a prosthetic penis. Stranger still, they then had a run of pop hits in the 80s. Then it all went wrong.
And yet here they are in 2016, still touring with four original members. Those four – Waybill, Steen, bass guitarist Rick Anderson and drummer Prairie Prince – grew up in Scottsdale and Phoenix, Arizona in the 1950s and 60s.
In 1979 The Tubes released Remote Control, a concept album about a TV addict. It could have been autobiographical. “In the summer when school was out, it was too hot to do anything except watch TV,” says Waybill. “All these sitcoms, game shows and cowboy shows like Hopalong Cassidy.”
When the visual overload became too much, Waybill and his siblings jumped off the roof of their house into a four-foot-deep paddling pool in the back yard: “Then we’d cool off and go back inside and watch more TV.”
“We were all stuck in the burning desert, frying our brains with television,” confirms Prairie Prince.
It was here, in this sizzling Death Valley climate, that The Tubes gestated. The Beatles’ appearance on TV inspired them all. By the mid-60s, Prince and Steen were playing in one high school group; Rick Anderson and future Tubes guitarist Bill Spooner and keyboard player Vince Welnick were in another.
Meanwhile, Fee Waybill was the all-singing/acting/dancing star of his local high school. “I was the theatrical Broadway play guy. I did them all – Camelot, The Sound Of Music, Oklahoma…”
In 1969, Prairie Prince took up a scholarship at the esteemed San Francisco Art Institute. The rest of his band and their truck-driving roadie, Waybill, went with him.
Spooner and Anderson’s band, now called The Beans, joined them soon after on the West Coast, but it was impossible finding gigs for two unknown groups. By the early 70s the two bands had merged, with Waybill graduating from roadie to backing singer (“I said: ‘I’ll stand here and wear some dopey outfit’”) to eventually becoming The Tubes’ frontman-meets-circus barker.
The band, completed by synth player Michael Cotton and second drummer Bob McIntosh, staged theatrical ‘mock-rock’ shows that parodied the pulp sci-fi and cowboy shows of their youth. They played anywhere that would have them: strip bars, biker bars, the art institute canteen…
“[Promoter] Bill Graham put us on as support at the Fillmore West when anyone weird came to town,” Waybill recalls. “We got compared to Alice Cooper, but we were more deviant and had more social commentary than them.”
The Tubes were about more than music. Cotton and Prince were their artistic directors and created backdrops and posters. Female dance troupe Leila And The Snakes and Prairie Prince’s girlfriend, vocalist Re Styles, joined them on stage. Kenny Ortega, who would later work with Michael Jackson, was The Tubes’ choreographer. “Kenny was and is a genius,” says Waybill. “He made all these crazy ideas coalesce.”