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The Tubes: San Francisco Punk in 1975
San Francisco has always been something of a backwater in the music industry. Considering its size and stature as a metropolitan area, the penchant for creativity and rebellion that runs throughout its history and culture, and its proximity to the giant record companies in nearby Los Angeles, the Bay Area should be a much more notable musical incubator.
Granted, during the hazy Flower Power days of the late 1960s, San Francisco produced several great bands in a wide range of musical styles. The Jefferson Airplane, Sly and The Family Stone, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Credence Clearwater Revival were all seminal bands that made a profound impact on Rock and Roll, R&B, and world music. But by the mid-1970s Janis Joplin had passed away, Sly and The Family Stone and Credence had broken apart, the Jefferson Airplane had softened into Jefferson Starship, and The Grateful Dead were branded as the go to group for people who wanted to re-live the Flower Power era. Other San Francisco artists with great potential in the early 1970s-- like progressive blues band Journey and blue-eyed blues singer Boz Scaggs-- turned to churning out bland pop fare.
The Amazing Tubes
The one standout Bay Area artist that retained their cutting-edge sensibility through the mid-1970s was a flamboyant, rebellious, sometimes over-the-top group called The Tubes. People from outside the Bay Area may know The Tubes from their early 80s hits “Talk To Ya Later” and “She’s A Beauty.” But thousands of music fans in The City (as San Francisco is known in Northern California) remember The Tubes from their outrageous stage shows, impeccable musicianship, and punk/progressive songbook from the mid-1970s.
As a high school teenager on the San Francisco peninsula in the mid 1970s, The Tubes were a sensation. Their eponymous 1975 debut release featured classic punk prototype songs like “White Punks on Dope” and “Mondo Bondage,” along with more melodic and lyrically profound songs demonstrating their range and musical virtuosity (“What Do You Want From Life?,” “Boy Crazy,” and “Haloes”). Remember—these songs were developed for their elaborate, live stage shows in 1974 and before-- preceding by several years coinage of the term “punk” to describe the musical style.
In 1976—when The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Patti Smith, The Clash, and Blondie were still little-known or unsigned bands-- The Tubes followed their promising debut record with Young and Rich, a more mainstream rock record that still retained an edgy, urban Rock and Roll ethos. The opening track—“Tubes World Tour”-- was a hard-edged, driving Rock song that chronicled the band’s shocked reception at various cities where they appeared. Songs like “Pimp,” “Brighter Day,” and “Poland Whole/Madam I’m Adam” brought the low, urban sleaze aspect of punk into melodic focus. “Stand Up and Shout” and the Phil Spector-influenced “Don’t Touch Me There” presaged the simplistic retro-rock milieu many early punk bands looked toward as they brought a new sensibility to the bloated, formulaic state of mid-70s rock.
By the time of The Tubes’ third LP release, 1977’s Now, the band was beginning to show signs of fatigue with being years ahead of their time and misunderstood. Only a few songs—like “I’m Just a Mess” “You’re No Fun,” and the cover version of Frank Sinatra’s “This Town”—retained the band’s initial spunk. Nevertheless, it might be The Tubes’ most musically complex record in terms of its orchestration.
In 1979, The Tubes tapped the legendary Todd Rundgren to put them back on track by producing their fourth studio LP, Remote Control. Although not widely evident at the time, Remote Control was a concept album based on Jerzy Kozinski’s novel “Being There.” An acclaimed film starring Peter Sellers was released the following year based on the same novel.
The Tubes’ fourth studio record was superbly crafted, exceptionally well-produced, and recorded when the band were at the absolute top of their game. Yet Remote Control was a huge disappointment critically and commercially. The Police, Talking Heads, Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, The Cars, and The Knack were suddenly achieving a great deal of success with the formula that The Tubes had pioneered half a decade earlier. Nevertheless, Remote Control initially got mediocre reviews. Its pop-designed single “Prime Time” stalled at #34 on the British charts and failed to make any impact in America. Only years later did reviewers begin to appreciate the album—it’s now highly regarded by most top rock journalists.
The Tubes reappeared several years later in a re-tooled and re-branded form on another record label, but their initial spirit appeared to have been crushed in what Joni Mitchell had referred to as “the star-making machinery.” The subsequent Tubes hits—the aforementioned “Talk To Ya’ Later” and “She’s A Beauty”-- were a sanitized, pale imitation of the band at its outrageous and creative height, stripped bare of its spirit.
The Tubes aren’t alone in being devoured, re-packaged, and put out into the public space as a zombie version of their former selves in the name of commerce. But as one of the few representatives of the San Francisco musical ethos, the loss of their independence and artistic freedom was a deep wound for The City’s musical tradition.