Like Zappa, Was (Not Was), or Steely Dan, the Tubes lived at the place where chops and jokes converged. At the Tubes’ worst, they made inexplicable mini-rock operas called “Poland Whole/Madam I’m Adam”. At their best, though, it was impossible to tell where the chops ended and the jokes began. When you hear a vivid acoustic guitar solo jump from the mix during their lovely shuffle “Brighter Day”, even the record’s engineers seem in on the joke. Like all those chops/jokes bands, the Tubes recognized the absurdity of choosing rock for a career, the deep hilarity of proving themselves at a place called the Whisky a Go Go. Yet musically they could be pretty impressive. As Pauline Kael described Steve Martin, who came up in L.A. clubs around the same time as the Tubes: “It’s… as if first he came out and said, ‘Imagine a clod like me dancing like Fred Astaire’... [and then] he dances like Fred Astaire.”
The San Francisco band’s newly reissued second and third albums, 1976’s Young and Rich and 1977’s Now, are essential listening for anyone who hasn’t heard all the rock music released in the ‘70s and still wants to. They’re also essential for Captain Beefheart completists, collectors of songs that rhyme a bunch of “-ation” words, and Sinatra sendup aficionados—see also “Wedding Vows in Vegas” by Was (Not Was), not to mention Randy Newman’s “Lonely at the Top”. And never forget Lizzy Borden fans: the L.A. metal band covered the Tubes’ girl group homage “Don’t Touch Me There”, in a version that remains the most memorable song on that Best of Metal Blade Volume 3 sampler moldering in your closet.
If you ever make a mixtape paean to Southern California, you could find worse openers than “Don’t Touch Me There”. The overwrought teen-lust duet was produced by Hollywood fixture Jack Nitzsche and written by a band called Leila & the Snakes. It evokes both Phil Spector and Rebel Without a Cause with lines like “The smell of burning leather as we hold each other tight / As our rivets rub together flashing sparks into the night.” The Tubes used it to elevate their garish stage show and get an AOR hit. “Touch” is shameless, expensive, careerist, goofy, and it oozes showbiz from start to finish. As you read this, it’s probably playing on the jukebox of some retro diner while an aspiring actress waits tables disguised as Natalie Wood.
The Tubes’ live show was their reason for being. Young and Rich opens with the self-aggrandizing “Tubes World Tour” (“a mighty important crusade!”), and many of these songs make a lot more sense if you imagine them plugged into some dadaist revue. Frontman Fee Waybill sings “Proud to Be an American” in full hiccuping rockabilly character, and while it’s not necessarily better than Lee Greenwood’s unrelated song of the same name, this salute to “Constipation, consternation / Open-hearted palpatations / MUS-CU-LAR DYS-troPHY!” would make for an exciting and health conscious fireworks display. Sputnik Spooner plays one heckuva guitar break, too. Other character songs include the Sinatra cover “This Town” and the sci-fi “Cathy’s Clone”, featuring Captain Beefheart on alto sax squiggles. And then there’s “Pimp”, a racially dicey bit of soul minstrelsy arranged by one of the guys from Toto. Only in L.A.
All this sounds about as appealing as gagging yourself on parade candy, but rest assured that the Tubes could play. I mean, there’s still plenty to gag at, but the band’s chops allowed them to wring indelible musical moments from their novelties. Listen to how the ace “Tubes World Tour” riff stretches into a spacey interlude, or how “You’re No Fun”“eerily evokes the Dan before it decides to rock out. Jokes like “Slipped My Disco” could be lyrically excruciating, but the Tubes’ disco expertise was never in doubt. The band’s cornpone energized their music. Their cover of Beefheart’s “My Head Is My Only House When It Rains” remains the least interesting tune on Now because they played it the straightest.
Still, it’s all a little… diffuse. Ideas and chord changes and song parts run all over the place. For all the entertaining moments, nothing here matches the undiluted impact of their (still plenty weird) ‘80s hit “She’s a Beauty”. In the liner notes, drummer Prairie Prince admits that one Now song “has too many effects on it, like it was trying to be weird when it shouldn’t have been.” He succinctly sums up these albums’ problems and their charms.