This is a part of our full coverage of the 2018 80s Cruise. Read more about the floating music festival here.
The band that was the most hotly debated on board The 80s Cruise were no strangers to controversy. The Tubes emerged from the post-hippy art scene in San Francisco in the early 70s and spent much of their early years being threatened with jail for what some considered lewd behavior, so facing an audience with some perplexed faces was likely old hat.
“Did you see the lead singer pull that bottle out of the crotch of his skin-tight silver pants, drink the liquid in it and put it back in his pants?” asked Shannon Price. She wasn’t alone in finding the band’s concert somewhat unsettling. Another audience member was overheard asking, “What the **** did I just watch?” as he left the theater. There were plenty of people confused by the band, but many appreciated the unusual performance.
“The Tubes should do a comedy act. They crack me up,” remarked John Clark of Dallas.
The band found a unique niche early in their career by putting on outrageous shows that straddled the line between “performance art” and “concert.” As lead singer, Fee Waybill, described it to Herald de Paris in 2016, “It was a circus every night, with topless dancers, one legged ballerinas, trapeze artists and women’s panties.” Merging music with dance, comedy and satire, they found willing audiences in New York and Los Angeles.
The band signed with A&M records and took their unique shows on the road, often courting controversy. A series of shows in the UK were canceled because there were fears they would be too risqué. In the U.S., they were sometimes asked to sign wavers guaranteeing there wouldn’t be any nudity onstage. What ended the years of outlandish gigs wasn’t the band bending to societal norms, it was the high price of art. Traveling around with scores of extra performers and elaborate sets was expensive and the band ended up losing money on every tour.
Besides losing money on the tours, they weren’t selling a lot of albums. They were dropped by A&M, but eventually signed with Capitol. The expensive stage shows disappeared, replaced with a new, radio friendly album. The Completion Backward Principle was released in 1981 and with it, mainstream success for the record and its two singles, “Don’t Want to Wait Anymore” and “Talk to Ya Later.” The release of 1983’s, Outside Inside, gave the band its biggest taste of success when the video for “She’s a Beauty” helped catapult the song into the top 10. When the follow-up album, Love Bombfailed to build on the momentum of Outside Inside, the band was dropped, and Waybill eventually left for a time.
The Tubes have left the extravagant shows behind, but as the audience on board discovered, there was still a lot of weird in their toolbox. The songs they included in the 75 minute set revealed how unique the band has been in the rock lexicon. Songs like, “Telecide” and “TV is King” both celebrate and ridicule the television culture of the late 70s. Their version of a love song came in the form of the funky, “Tip of My Tongue” with Waybill impishly singing, “Never been too cunning/I’m no linguist/But I can tell you this/Ever since I left you I’ve been lost/I’m walking in a fog/We can lick this problem/We can work it out.”
Waybill had several costume changes including a straight jacket for “Mr. Hate,” but it was when he walked onstage wearing a carnival barker suit that most of the audience hopped to their feet to sing along to, “She’s a Beauty. They never had a chance to sit back down as the band played the somewhat oddly placed cover of The Beatles’, “I Saw Her Standing There” before finishing up with, “Talk to Ya Later.”
The audience clearly enjoyed those last three, familiar songs, but the song they will remember most was played earlier in the set. As the rest of the band played, “Tubes World Tour,” Waybill left the stage and returned dressed as his alter ego, “Quay Lewd” to sing, “White Punks on Dope.” The character with its signature spandex and 12” heels was original conceived as an homage to The New York Dolls. If Price was shocked by Waybill pulling a bottle of booze out of his spandex pants and taking a slug, she likely would have been scandalized by the sizable dildo the singer usually pulls out of the costume. Which was probably the way The Tubes would have preferred it.