Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Tubes - how they conquered London, 1977

Without doubt, the most spell-binding rock show I have ever seen was staged by The Tubes at the Hammersmith Odeon in November 1977.  The group were not all that well known in the UK, having never played there before. But they caused a sensation by booking a week’s residency at the famous London theatre and putting on an outrageous, hilarious and sexually explicit show that blew everyone’s mind. 

The review of the show written by the NME’s Paul Rambali said, “If you saw them, you will probably feel conned next time you hand over the notes to watch some other group merely stand there and play.  The Tubes are a spectacle unlike any other. They present a relentless onslaught of humour, outrage, parody, idiocy, music and costume – a feast for the senses.”
How does a band that has never played in the UK, and doesn’t have a hit record, create enough of a buzz to sell out a week of shows?  They had also made plans to record a live album. They must have been damn sure of themselves.  The pre-show hype was a testament to the power of the NME in the 1970s, because without any other publicity, save for a few plays by Capital Radio's Nicky Horne, there was no other way for them to spread the word in those days. The NME was still the bible for rock fans and their coverage of the US scene had always been first-rate.
Here was a good example - the NME writer Mick Farren spent time with The Tubes at their rehearsal studios in LA. He described their act as “satiric mania choreographed with split-second timing. The Tubes may play for laughs but the laughs are delivered according to a spot-on orchestration. They don’t amble into a rehearsal studio, down a few beers, blow a joint and then put down an hour and half of lackluster boogie and call it a day. Both musicians and dancers work out under the uncompromising direction of choreographer Kenny Ortega.” On the Columbia Studios soundstage, the show was going though its full dress run-through and Farren observed:  “It’s nothing short of magnificent. The only words you can use are ones like sensory overkill. The act doesn’t leave you alone. One moment it’s the band in white intern coats playing straight techno-rock. Then it’s a dance troupe on the lam from Star Wars, and then there’s the punk pastiche. Except, pastiche or not, The Tubes can cut harder and deeper than 90%s of the new wave.”

The band’s first two albums in the mid-70s established the template for satirical pieces about show business, consumerism and sex, with titles like White Punks On Dope,  What Do You Want From Life, Don’t Touch Me There and Mondo Bondage. 
Good as those records were, the songs really came alive on the stage, where The Tubes could put their creativity and art skills to work.  Not only that, they could really go to town on the outrage, with bondage, simulated sex, exploding TVs, live chainsaws and a cascade of semi-nude dancers.  Naturally, they were banned from several of the more conservative states of America. And with a group that contained eight musicians and several dancers, this was never going to be a commercially viable operation unless they could take the show to the big venues.  So there was a lot riding on the European tour. Lead singer Fee Waybill acknowledged that The Tubes needed to make it as a headline rock act, to cover the cost of their large touring group: “I think we’re primarily a rock and roll band. We have to establish ourselves as that. We have to convince these promoters that we are not just a visual act – that we can kick ass.”

Well they did that alright. In common with everyone who saw it, the NME’s Paul Rambali was blown away by the London show: “The stage exists in a continual chorus of activity that veers from anarchic chaos to precision orchestration with virtually no breathing space. The band continually assail the senses with extremes of spectacle. After doing their duet ‘Don’t Touch Me There’ from a motorbike, Fee Waybill strapped backing singer Re Styles between two video monitors for ‘MondoBondage’.                  
The finale was the appearance of Quay Lewd, Waybill’s obnoxious glammed-up rock star with three feet high platform shoes. Rambali wrote: “Quay sang a song, fell over, insulted at least half the audience, fell over, did ‘Stand Up And Shout’, fell over, then told us, “this is the audience participation bit. When I say ‘stand up and shout’ you lot all shout…erh…’go down on me you bitch!

“Eventually he settled for having the whole audience shout “you bleedin wankers” on cue, fell over and finally was buried beneath a toppling 50-foot speaker column.”

Rambali concluded his review thus: “I have never witnessed anything remotely like The Tubes. Neither, to judge from the rapturous response and conversations afterwards, had anyone else. Amazing”

It really was, musically and visually remarkable. I saw them again in 1978, at the Knebworth Festival on the bill with Frank Zappa and Peter Gabriel. And again in 1979 at Hammersmith, on the ‘Remote Control’ tour, where they were supported by Squeeze (that’s another story…). But that first time in 1977 was shockingly good.

'White Punks On Dope' performed by The Tubes on the BBC 1977

The NME's review of the Tubes, published on 19th November 1977

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