Friday, February 15, 2008

The Tubes -- "White Punks On Dope" (1975)

While rock acts have been playing it safe for years with their content and shows, you rarely find one that truly set out to tip the boat from the start. The last act that I can think who set out to provoke outrage and buzz from the starting gate and had great commercial success was probably Frankie Goes To Hollywood ("Relax," "Two Tribes").

In the 70's decade, one of the most head-turning rock acts to climb on the national stage was The Tubes. While their most commercially successful work was in the early 80's when they decided to forgo their outrageousness for actual record sales, you'd find it hard to believe that the band that had the hit singles "Talk To Ya Later" and "She's A Beauty" started off in a completely different direction.

Bursting out of San Francisco with a tailwind of buzz, The Tubes infused heavy satire and theater into rock, casting their targets at the media, consumerism, rock genres and sexual deviancy. The stage was surrounded by a number of actual TV sets, like something out of Max Headroom, where the large band would change costumes frequently between songs.

With dozens of performers, The Tubes staged a mini-musical around each song, a concept that pre-dated MTV music videos and set them squarely ahead of their time. The Tubes was my first rock concert ever when I saw them in Buffalo in 1975, and you just didn't know where to look first.

A paen to S&M, "Mondo Bondage," featured some serious whip action from model-ish backup Re Styles on lead singer Fee Waybill. The marvelous "What Do You Want From Life" mocked social career climbing and blatant consumerism, with all kinds of crazy product props the cast would whip out in synch to the list that "every American citizen" is entitled to, including "a new Matador, a new mastadon, a Maverick, a Mustang, a Montego, a Merc Montclair, a Mark IV, a meteor, a Mercedes, an MG, or a Malibu, a Mort Moriarty, a Maserati, a Mack truck, a Mazda, a new Monza, or a moped, a Winnebago... hell, a herd of Winnebago's... we're givin'em away!" And for a real curve ball, they'd do a fairly straight cover of The Captain and Tenille's "Love Will Keep Us Together."

Every concert's grand finale was Waybill getting into his cross-dressing, drugged-up glam rock character Quay Lude, in sky-high heels, crazy big hair, tight pants with his butt cheeks hanging out, and a huge guitar shaped like the letter Q, all meant to mock David Bowie, Alice Cooper and The New York Dolls. The band broke out into what is certainly their classic anthem, "White Punks on Dope," lampooning bored rich heroin-taking Hollywood kids. Of course, at the number's end, Quay Lude OD's and keels over for good.

Teenage had a race for the night time
Spent my cash on every high I could find
Wasted time in every school in L.A.
Getting loose, I didn't care what the kids say

We're white punks on dope
Mom & Dad moved to Hollywood
Hang myself when I get enough rope
Can't clean up, though I know I should
White punks on dope
White punks on dope

Somehow, legendary producer Al Kooper had to rope this all in to their debut album. The songs were a mixed bag, but a few of them really rose to the occasion like "White Punks On Dope," which was the ideal climatic album closer. In keeping with the band's edginess, a number of lyrics had curses, so they had to be edited down to get some kind of radio play.

You're in for a special treat with Tubes videos because you're never going to see anything like this again. Below is the band performing "White Punks On Dope" on the great British TV series "Old Grey Whistle Test" -- in full costume and props. It's amazing to see this many people on stage playing this song. Then an amazing 1976 local San Francisco news report about the band, and a lengthy wonderful archival montage of early concert performances.

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