March Through Time: The Tubes

Satirical group? Yes. Hard rockers? Sometimes. Progressive band? Now and then, yes. Punk? Not quite, but the spirit was there. One of the greatest live acts of all time, the Tubes got it right on their albums more often than not. Save for a brief time in the early ‘80s, they were destined to remain a cult act. But what a cult!

  • The Tubes (1975) – Punk wasn’t quite a thing in ‘75 when this album was released, but the Tubes were prescient in seeing it coming. Even with its sometimes grandiose production (thanks to Al Kooper), the debut has punk energy alongside the satire. An auspicious and eclectic debut.
  • Young and Rich (1976) – A strong follow-up with loads of great tunes and attitude to spare. This record built on the creative success of the debut and set the template: satire wrapped in ambitious, high energy songs.
  • Now (1977) – Arguably the eclectic approach was taken in extremis here, resulting in the band’s least commercial offering (a Captain Beefheart cover? What?). But there are still a handful of classics, including “You’re No Fun” and “This Town.”
  • Remote Control (1978) – Nobody saw a concept album coming, and in some ways this really isn’t one. With the best production yet (thanks to Todd Rundgren) and a great set of songs, it looked to point the way toward a very bright future. Deeper analysis here.
  • What Do You Want from LIVE (1978) – As effective as the studio albums are, live onstage has always been the best way to experience The Tubes. And this double LP recorded in London is a searing document of their live show. It featured some new material, too, something that set it apart from many of the era’s live releases. Alas, A&M dropped the band.
  • The Completion Backward Principle (1981) – Scaling back their expensive live show didn’t dull the band’s sharpness. Even with the involvement of producer David Foster and several members of Toto(!) this is a great record, full of snark and visceral, arena-sized rock.
  • Outside Inside (1983) – Less commercial but perhaps even better than its predecessor, this record found the Tubes with what looked like a renewed career. Great songs, too.
  • Love Bomb (1985) – And then came this. Members of the band look upon it as their high water mark. I find it near unlistenable, thanks in large part to a rare Rundgren misstep: the brittle, sterile production aesthetic is wrong-wrong-wrong. With a couple of notable exceptions, the songwriting is weak, too.
  • Genius of America (1996) – A decade later the band returned with some fundamental lineup changes having occurred (no Bill Spooner) and with lead singer Fee Waybill’s songwriting partner Richard Marx (no, really) helping out. It’s better than all that would suggest, but the band’s audience had long since moved onto other things.

Fun fact: Several years ago I had commitments from all but one band member to cooperate on a book telling the history of the Tubes. Then, one dissenting member (I’ll leave you to speculate on that individual’s identity) scotched the whole thing. In unrelated but relevant news, a long-gestating documentary by keyboardist Mike Cotten – begun some 15 years ago – has yet to appear. The band’s story deserves to be told, but it doesn’t seem to be happening.