The Tubes were a much different band before David Foster met them. They were originally the sex-addled crossbred spiritual offspring of Zappa and The Mothers and the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, a punk/cabaret/performance-art conglomeration that liked to combine shock with their rock. At the beginning of the ’80s they were homeless as label A&M had no way of marketing what they did. Not even the guidance of producers Al Kooper or Todd Rundgren could wedge them into anything more than cult band status. When the band landed on Capitol Records, they did so with a major makeover. Dressed up in corporate suits and ties, not giant foam phalluses, with hair neatly trimmed and slick the arrival of The Completion Backward Principle was equally tidy. They were still weird, as the songs on the album attested to, but they were now subversively so.
In 1983 on the follow-up album Outside/Inside, some of the old kink crept back into The Tubes (again under the direction of Foster), but not only did they navigate the mainstream, it garnered them the biggest hit of the band’s career, either before or since. The album opener “She’s A Beauty” sounds on the surface like any song about a guy pining for a woman out of his league. Listen closer to the lyrics and one finds vocalist Fee Waybill isn’t talking about just any unattainable female — he’s talking about a woman working the booths at a sex show. “She’s right here behind the glass,” Waybill sings like a raunchy sideshow barker. “She will give you every penny’s worth, but it will cost you a dollar first.”
What “She’s A Beauty” had that earlier Tubes didn’t was the faintest hint of the cautionary tale. “But don’t fall in love, ’cause if you do, you’ll find out she don’t love you…” as well as other key lines would suggest this is a warning and not an enticement. Don’t mistake this as anything more than what it is, and heaven help you if you should fall. You’re not her knight in shining armor; you’re just her job for the hour.
The rest of the album isn’t as complex but is often as entertaining. The band puts up big slabs of corporate rock (before it was a terrible thing to be corporate rock) with “No Not Again,” “Out Of The Business,” and the should’ve-been-a-single “Glass House.” The album doesn’t have the heavy-handed, obvious David Foster track like The Completion Backward Principle‘s “I Don’t Want To Wait Anymore” which could have easily been on one of his productions with Chicago, and in fact the whole is a lot funkier than either the producer or the band had been in my recollection. “Tip Of My Tongue” is a good example of this.
A better example, but one not lacking any mystery, is the cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “The Monkey Time” which is a duet between Waybill and The Motels’ Martha Davis. This wouldn’t have been the duo’s sole time together as they, alongside Clarence Clemmons, appeared in the movie Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure as “The Three Most Excellent People In The Universe,” but if you purchased Capitol’s CD of Outside/Inside you’d never have known. For some reason the label substituted Davis for backup singer Michele Gray (future wife of once and future Tubes producer Rundgren). These things happen, of course. Contracts and rights sometimes get jumbled up and stretched out, and amends have to be made.
The odd thing is that Capitol then released the Best Of The Tubes disc and, lo and behold, that disc has “The Monkey Time” with Davis. I have never been given a satisfactory answer for why “The Monkey Time” warranted so much monkey-business.
You would think that the steady climb meant at least one more charter for The Tubes, but behind the scenes Waybill was preparing to leave for a solo career. There was jockeying to make sure the solo Read My Lips would not undermine the momentum of the band. Foster was out, Rundgren was back in. The resulting Love Bomb failed to produce a chart-topping hit, alienated both longtime fans and many of the new wave of fans garnered from the previous two efforts. The band would break up, some members would go on to be a part of Rundgren’s solo backing band. Vince Welnick famously joined The Grateful Dead in the notoriously hard-to-keep-filled keyboard position, but he never had the chance to go on record with the group. His term was after the release of Built To Last which would precede Jerry Garcia’s death. Welnick committed suicide on June 2, 2006, after battling depression for 10 years.
The Tubes would return for another studio album. Genius Of America was released in the 1990s, but the band was signed to an independent label that dealt with established but dormant groups. They weren’t alone. Other groups like Asia and 10cc would also chart these waters, and suffer the same conclusion of not doing particularly well outside established fan-base sales. They have toured and released concert recordings.