Since their formation in 1969, Bay Area rockers the Tubes have honed a craft that no other act has come close to matching: live theatrical rock. Their concerts are the stuff of legend, with outrageous stage props, costumes, dancing girls and the memorable alter egos of Tubes singer and frontman Fee Waybill. The Tubes paved the way for “This Is Spinal Tap,” Devo, the Plasmatics and a whole new era of musical performers.
The Tubes got early notoriety for appearing in the Mitchell Brothers’ 1972 film “The Resurrection of Eve” (starring Marilyn Chambers), playing Elvis Bongo and the Millionaires. Their cult following grew, and in the 1980s they achieved megastardom with hits like “Talk to Ya Later,” “Sushi Girl,” “I Don’t Want to Wait Anymore” and “She’s a Beauty.”
Labor Day weekend saw the Tubes playing to a huge home crowd at the Sausalito Art Festival, looking and sounding as sharp as they ever did. The enthusiastic crowd chanted along with their 1975 anthem “White Punks on Dope” and lined the barriers after the show hoping for Fee Waybill’s autograph.
Marinscope’s Bradley Gray sat down with Waybill at the Sausalito Art Festival and chatted about the Tubes’ journey.
Bradley Gray: What inspired the outrageous stage shows, and how did it grow into what it became?
Fee Waybill: It started with Kenny Ortega. From the very beginning, we did the theatrics. It just kept getting bigger and bigger. That’s why we call ourselves the Tubes, because it’s a visual reference to television, the boob tube. That’s why. It started small and developed over the years. We built our own props out of cardboard and Mylar. The bigger it got, the more money we spent on it, until it just ate us alive. It was an insane production and it was so expensive and so over the top that it just sucked us dry.
BG: I know there was a time in the 1980s that you guys went out on the road, lost your contract and came home broke.
FW: Yeah. That was the major turning point. We went out on the road for years and years, and always got tour support from A&M Records. When we’d run out of money, they’d make us sign for extra records or take our publishing or something. We left A&M and signed with Capitol, and did three more records there. Our last record for them, called “Love Bomb,” was a disaster. We went out on tour, Capitol fired us, we lost a fortune and came back home. We spent a lot of time playing smaller dates, and paid back all the money we owed. At the end of the payback, I left. I packed up and moved to L.A.
In L.A. I met Richard Marx, started writing some songs with him and made a lot of money.
BG: Were you able to retain any publishing rights or do you still get any Tubes royalties?
FW: Oh no. Nothing. I think we owned 7½ percent of our A&M publishing royalties. Capitol was a little better, but we sold off the publishing a little later.
So I left, and we didn’t get back together until seven or eight years later.
BG: Tell me about some of your memories of playing shows in Marin.
FW: [Lead guitarist] Bill Spooner used to live in Mill Valley. So we played in Marin a lot. New George’s, and some dinky little hole in Fairfax, a tiny little bar; I can’t remember the name. One of our first gigs in Marin was at Dominican College in San Rafael. It was Catholic, and we did a total balls-out show. The funny thing is that during the middle of the concert, the nuns came in and made everyone leave. All of the college kids had to be out of the hall. So when the lights came up after we did “White Punks on Dope,” the whole place was empty. The nuns said “Screw this band!” We couldn’t see because the stage lights were so bright. So the house lights came up and there was nobody there. We never got hired back to play Dominican College.
BG: I saw you play at one of the Day on the Green shows in Oakland.
FW: Yeah, Sept. 17, 1983. It was my birthday. We had just done a big tour with David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, playing football stadiums all around the country. That was a great tour. That show was the biggest local show we’ve ever done.
Bowie loved us. He would stand on the stage every night. He just went crazy. I must say that he was just a little too enamored of me. A little too in love with me. Scary. I wasn’t down with that, even though I’m from San Francisco! It was a really fun, great time.
BG: You are the most visual rock act ever. How visual are you when you aren’t on stage or in your personal life.
FW: I’m no more visual than anybody else. I live in Venice Beach, I ride my bike around, I go to Gold’s Gym, I work out, my trainer and I go to the beach after every workout and we go swimming.
BG: Was there ever a time you couldn’t go to the grocery store?
FW: Not really. Everybody thinks they’re a star in Venice Beach.
BG: Is the Tubes a full-time job for you?
FW: No. We only do about 35 shows a year. I run a business, all day long. My wife and I have a commercial property development company. I manage a million square feet. We buy commercial property, we handle only government leases, develop real estate and lease it back to the government. We have a management company that maintains them. My whole life, I’ve been on the stage trying to make everybody happy. So that’s what I do. The government cries about everything. Nonstop complaining, all day long: the roof leaks, heating isn’t hot enough, the air conditioning isn’t cold enough. We’ve got another urinal with a leaky handle, marked “urgent” in the e-mail. I don’t do urinals. But I smooth a lot of feathers.
BG: Of all of your alter egos and onstage personas, Quay Lewd stands out as the most memorable.
FW: Quay Lewd started as an amalgam of Rod Stewart, David Bowie, David Johansen, Robert Plant and all the quasi-homosexual glam-rock gay lead singers with platform shoes in the 1970s. Quay is a parody. It’s satire. People missed the whole concept of parody. They didn’t get it. If you listen to the lyrics of “White Punks of Dope,” it’s about not taking drugs. It’s total satire! It’s the story of our lives: They didn’t get it. They were too clever. There’s your headline: They didn’t get it. We are underappreciated and unknown.
BG: What will the Tubes be remembered for in the history of rock ’n’ roll?
FW: Our legacy is theater rock. There aren’t very many bands that ever did anything theatrical. Genesis, Alice Cooper, Bowie in the early days, and maybe the Plasmatics. Very few bands could hold a candle to the type of theatrical production we did in the heyday. It’s never been repeated.