The Tubes Live in California: Review

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The Tubes (Photo by Thomas K. Arnold, used with permission)

They can still pull it off.

More than 40 years after they stormed onto the music scene with “White Punks on Dope,” The Tubes delivered an energetic two-hour set of blistering rock ’n’ roll, injected with an ample dose of weirdness, that truly made it seem as though time had stood still.

A band like the Tubes, with such an outrageous and unique musical signature, could easily have become a parody of itself (are you listening, Kiss?), particularly with a stage show centered around the sexual flamboyance of front man and lead singer Fee Waybill, who’s now pushing 70.

But not these guys, most of whom have been with the band since its beginnings in San Francisco (by way of Phoenix) back in the mid-1970s. Something of a bridge between glam-rock and the emerging punk bands, the Tubes defied categorization but whittled out their own niche with a dazzling debut album, produced by Al Kooper, that also featured such quirky classics as “Mondo Bondage” and the sardonic putdown of consumerism, “What Do You Want from Life.”

Their stage show, too, was to standard 1970s rock concerts what Howard Stern was to radio—an extravagant, theatrical circus of outlandishness—with lots of bare skin, dancing girls and a giant dildo, choreographed by none other than Kenny Ortega, who later found fame with Michael Jackson and the movie Dirty Dancing.

Nearly half a century later, the stage show has been toned down (no more girls, no more dildo) and guitarist-songwriter Bill Spooner, the band’s creative architect, is long gone.

But other than that, it all still works: the music, the stage shenanigans, Waybill’s magical, mystical rapport with the audience, many of whom are repeat customers (the Tubes play San Juan Capistrano’s Coach House pretty much every year). That’s because from the opening strains of “Talk to Ya Later” to the final encore, an amped-up reprise of that same song, it was perfectly clear that the Tubes weren’t just going through the motions.

They were having fun. No, scratch that. They were having a blast.

Watch the Tubes in their ’70s heyday performing “White Punks on Dope”

The band opened the show clad in suits, a nod to 1981’s The Completion Backwards Principle, a concept album spoofing a corporate business meeting that gave the band their first top 40 single, “Don’t Want to Wait Anymore.” They proceeded to play the entire album, beginning with “Talk to Ya Later” and including such perennial live favorites as “Mr. Hate” and “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman.”

Even at 68, Waybill is as charismatic and charming as he’s ever been, a towering, imposing maniac with a flair for show business, with an emphasis on the “show.” He ran through a series of costume changes, from his opening appearance in a white dinner jacket to a Tubes t-shirt for the twin encores of “She’s a Beauty” (the band’s biggest top 40 hit, peaking at #10 in 1983) and “Talk to Ya Later.”

In between came everything from a Japanese kimono for “Sushi Girl” to a red satin smoking jacket for “What Do You Want from Life.” For “Mondo Bondage,” Waybill came out in his trademark black leather bondage suit, albeit with the stage lights mercifully turned way low (Fee may still be Fee, but an exposed 68-year-old man butt… well, you get the picture). And for “White Punks on Dope,” Waybill brought back his notorious “Quay Lewd” character, a drugged-out transvestite with two-foot-tall platform shoes, a feather boa and a long, curly blond wig.

Fee Waybill of the Tubes as Quay Lewd (Photo by Thomas K. Arnold, used with permission)

Waybill, whose real first name is John, and who before the band got signed was their roadie, may have been the star of the show, but he wasn’t the only standout.

Related: The Tubes’ debut album came out in 1975. What were the other great albums of that year?

Guitarist Roger Steen, like Waybill an original member of the band, repeatedly affirmed his stature as one of the most underrated guitarists of the classic rock era. Particularly compelling was his extended solo during “Don’t Want to Wait Anymore,” another song off The Completion Backward Principle, which marked the beginning of the band’s transition from a theatrical novelty to a brief but potent mainstay of MTV and rock radio.

Tubes drummer Prairie Prince (Photo by Thomas K. Arnold, used with permission)

And Prairie Prince amazed during a drum solo on the tail end of the Tubes’ mashup of “Let’s Make Some Noise” and “Stand Up and Shout.” (Classic rock fans, take note: Prince was the original drummer in Journey, before they made any recordings, and also toured and recorded for 16 years with the reconstituted Jefferson Starship assembled by Paul Kantner in 1992 after the Mickey Thomas-led embarrassment came to an end.)

Also around since day one was bassist Rick Anderson, with keyboardist David Medd the only “newcomer” (he joined the band in 1996).

A final note: For some reason, YouTube videos of recent live shows by the Tubes simply don’t do the band justice. They need to be seen, heard, experienced in the flesh. Nonetheless, here they are performing “What Do You Want from Life?” in 2015.

The Tubes have other shows scheduled. Tickets are available via their website or here.

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Thomas K. Arnold

Thomas K. Arnold is publisher and editorial director of Media Play News, a home entertainment trade publication. Before venturing into home video, he spent more than a decade writing about music. He was rock critic and columnist for the San Diego County Edition of the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Magazine, and contributed reviews, features and interviews to Billboard, the Los Angeles Times, Goldmine, Relix and other music publications. In 1979 he founded Kicks: San Diego’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, which he turned over to an associate two years later to engineer the comeback for Gary Puckett and the Union Gap.
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  1. Ratbone
    #1 Ratbone 12 February, 2019, 00:20

    The Tubes best album is “Remote Control”. It’s a masterpiece.

    Reply this comment
  2. Jim
    #2 Jim 12 February, 2019, 06:50

    Saw this band in Columbia, MD. on a double bill with Todd Rundgren, and they stole the show. Great musicianship/theater – money well spent ! Would love to see them again if they ever come East.

    Reply this comment
  3. Da Mick
    #3 Da Mick 12 February, 2019, 11:27

    Well, we’re all much older. But I saw The Tubes on the tour that became their live album back in the mid-seventies, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything that intensely great before or since. The show was just simply amazing. Saw them in a much reduced version (like the video above) at a club gig in the 90s or early 00s, and though the theatrics were gone, along with some of their original members, they were still a great band. Their songs are like no one else really. They were so outrageous visually in their early days that their music became just a backdrop for the show. But it stands up on its own. For never really “making it,” which in itself is a travesty, I have to hand it to them for hanging in there.

    Reply this comment
    • Sluggobeast
      Sluggobeast 12 February, 2019, 22:01

      Yup, saw them do a couple fantastic shows in late ‘70s in NYC. Was real impressed with their musicianship, which went beyond the hype/press they got. Would go see them again, given the chance.

      Reply this comment
    • Ezyrider
      Ezyrider 14 February, 2019, 17:23

      You’re absolutely correct. I was at the live album show back in the 70’s also. The best (and underated) theatrical, progressive rock band around. Have seen them a dozen times since that 70’s show & got to meet Fee. He sells real estate back in California when the band is not touring. It’s funny that he was originally a roadie for the band before he became lead singer and spokesperson. Great Music from a Great Band.

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  4. Classic Dave
    #4 Classic Dave 13 February, 2019, 22:36

    Ansley Dunbar was the original drummer for Journey. Great article, though.

    Reply this comment
  5. Cisley
    #5 Cisley 16 February, 2019, 20:58

    I saw them in San Francisco in either 1976 or 1977 and really enjoyed them. I had no idea they were still performing.

    Thanks for the article.

    Reply this comment

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