By Ira Kantor
From their earliest days, art-rock collective the Tubes set about creating a musical experience that seemed to borrow the best elements of Alice Cooper, Let’s Make a Deal and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, all while establishing the group as true innovators and originators complemented by raucous, over-the-top tracks like “White Punks On Dope,” “Mondo Bondage,” and “What Do You Want From Life.” Google “Quay Lewd” + “The Tubes” to see what I mean.
The dawn of the 1980s though would lead to changes — a new label, a new band makeup, a new look, and most importantly, the band’s most substantial commercial success. It all began with their sixth album The Completion Backward Principle, a terrific piece of AOR that helped make the group darlings of music television as they shifted from shock rockers to true salesmen of their product.
Currently performing the album in its entirety on tour, the group hits the East Coast in December for dates in Hartford, Connecticut (Infinity Music Hall), Plymouth, New Hampshire (The Flying Monkey Movie House & Performance Center), and Westbury, New York (The Space at Westbury Theater) before closing out the year with dates in California.
I recently chatted with Tubes frontman Fee Waybill about the creation and legacy of The Completion Backward Principle and what fans can expect from the now five-man group in the year ahead.
Can you take me through the time of making The Completion Backward Principle. Your prior album, Remote Control, had a different look, sound and concept. What was going on for the Tubes at that time?
What was going on at the time was we had just been released from A&M Records after making five albums there. We had a great live reputation. We were doing a lot of live shows in big halls but we didn’t ever really have a radio hit. We weren’t selling records or not enough records to pay for all the costs that we incurred there. So we left A&M and we went to Capitol Records and the A&R guy who signed us was a guy named Bobby Colomby and Bobby Colomby had been the drummer for Blood, Sweat and Tears. He had turned into an A&R guy. They gave us a three record deal at Capitol but each record was an option on their part. Each record was contingent on how the record before it went. So he said, “We’re going to give you a deal but you gotta reach more people. You gotta get on the radio.” Pretty much it was down to you better get on the radio if you’re going to get a second chance at Capitol Records.
So they put us together with a guy named David Foster and it’s funny because we were huge fans of Earth, Wind & Fire and he had just produced “Boogie Wonderland” with Earth, Wind & Fire and they had a number one song with “After The Love Has Gone.” We loved that album [I Am]. Obviously Remote Control had very little R&B kind of feeling to it but we had always loved that kind of R&B music. When they said David Foster we all just lost it. He came up to see us and immediately we could tell the guy was brilliant. We sat down and started playing him the songs that we had and we had about a year to write. In between record companies there was about a year where we weren’t signed to anybody or making any records. So we had a lot of material and we started playing Fos the material and I think one of the first songs we played him was “Amnesia.” He picked up the chords immediately, sat down with us, started playing and went, “Well what if you do this and you kind of make the ending pay off and fix the chorus like this…” Immediately we just went, “Oh my God, this guy knows what the hell he’s doing; this guy knows his shit, my God!” So immediately we clicked.
At the time the record company was looking for a power ballad. At the time everybody was having a big hit with power ballads and we had never really been a band that survived on power ballads. We were a rock and roll band. So Fos said, “What do you have in the way of a power ballad because that’s what they’re looking for. They’re looking for a power ballad.” Journey had had a big hit with a power ballad; REO Speedwagon had had a big hit with a power ballad and he said well what do you got in the way of a power ballad? And our keyboard player Vince Welnick — God rest his soul — he said, “Well I got this kind of progression I’ve been working on” and he started playing “Don’t Want to Wait Anymore.” David went, “Oh my God, this is it, this is perfect!” He sat down with Vince and learned the chords and started playing with him. David would always say — I’ll never forget it — he would always say, “Songs have to pay off.” And we would go, “Well what do you mean, pay off?” He goes, “You’ve got to build it up — beginning, middle and end — but at the end you’ve got to come. You’ve gotta pay off. It’s got to make you orgasm at the end.” He sat down with Vince and immediately he went, “OK, it’s not paying off. The ending doesn’t pay off. How about if we put in this modulation here, we go up a half-step and repeat the chorus…” Like a heartbeat he turned it into the song that it is. And it pays off like nobody’s business at the end. We were hooked. We immediately went, “That’s it, you’re the guy!”
We thought it’s so corporate to be formulaic in the way everybody copies everybody. When one ballad becomes a number one song, they all gotta jump on the bandwagon and do another ballad and another ballad. We thought, OK, well we’ll do that but we kind of had a sarcastic notion of the whole thing and right around that time a friend of ours named Paul Knotter in San Francisco in an old record bin found this record called “Completion Backward Principle.” It was a sales technique. It was by this guy who would go around to sales businesses in the 50s and teach their employees who to sell stuff. This was back when they were going door-to-door, like selling encyclopedias door-to-door. His whole concept was imagination creates reality and his idea was you imagine the completed sale before you walk up to the door to try to sell your vacuum cleaner — “Completion Backward Principle.” That was his whole principle — you visualized it before the sale. You turned it around. We thought it was hilarious. We went, “Oh this is so perfect for the big corporate record business.” Little did we know 45 years later what the big corporate record business would turn into, but we thought, “Oh it’s so corporate; it’s so formulaic. It’s so copycat.” So we did the record and kind of adopted this principle as the concept of the album and we all went out and bought suits. We incorporated it into the show. We all bought grey flannel suits and we put Velcro in them so they were all tear away. We used to have a thing called the “Business Dance” and we’d all come out as businessmen with umbrellas and briefcases and we’d do this dance on the stage and that kind of introduced The Completion Backward Principle. Then we’d rip the suits off and then go into the rock and roll. Kenny Ortega was our choreographer at the time and Kenny Ortega — the guy has gone on to become world famous and a super genius — helped us put it all together to do this show.
It worked. I mean we had a hit. Our first Top 20 record was “Don’t Want To Wait Anymore.” They released it as the first single and then they released “Talk To Ya Later,” and “Talk To Ya Later” went to Number One on the rock charts — actually Number One in 17 countries — and we were off and running.
That’s kind of why at the beginning of the year we sat down and said we’d like to change the show. Our last show was kind of a tribute to Quentin Tarantino and the Pulp Fiction movie. A lot of times we’ll take an old movie that we just love and kind of make it our theme. We did it with La Dolce Vita before that. We always want to come up with some kind of a theme to this year’s show. So we said, let’s do that. We had never done that before. We had never played a whole album in order before and I know a lot of other bands have done it. It’s not a new concept but we said let’s go out, get new suits, we’ll play the whole thing in order top to bottom and start the show that way. A couple of the songs we hadn’t played for 20 years or more. We had to go in and learn them. But we spent a lot of time rehearsing and putting it together.
We did a home video — Completion Backward Principle — it was called The Tubes Video, but it was an hour-long home video from mostly that record. In the video I do a talk, kind of a 1984 George Orwell double speak speech. I did it in the video and so I said “I want to do Tube Talk again.” It seems so appropriate now since our politics are mostly all double speak. A lot of bands will do it on like their 20th anniversary or 25th anniversary of some big hit that they had and this is actually the 38th anniversary so it’s not necessarily an important number but just the timing seemed like this is so perfect right now. That’s all we get out of Washington is double speak pretty much so we went this really hits home. The first hour of the show is Completion Backward Principle and we do it all in order and pretty much just the same as the record. Then we do all the other songs people want to hear. They want to hear “What Do You Want From Life” and “Mondo Bondage” and “White Punks on Dope.” We do “Out Of The Business” and “She’s A Beauty.” Then we spend about another hour doing all those other songs. So it’s about a two-hour show and we try to encompass all of the highlights of our career but the focal point is Completion Backward Principle.
One of the interesting things I noticed is the video for “Don’t Want To Wait Anymore” features only one band member, guitarist Bill Spooner. Did Bill actually sing the lead on the band’s first big hit?
He was the lead vocalist, it wasn’t me. In fact, funny story — we were in the studio with Foster and I normally sing most of the songs on the record and Bill traditionally would sing one song or sometimes two songs. In the first five albums we did before this Bill always sang a song on the record. Before on Remote Control, he sang “Only The Strong Survive.”
David Foster is in the studio late at night and they’re combining tracks…There was only David and Humberto Gatica, he was the engineer. None of us was there, just them. Bill came into the studio late at night. It had to be midnight or later. He was just drunk out of his mind. Just completely gone. He came in and he was complaining to David and Humberto. We were pretty much done with the record and he hadn’t gotten to sing a song on the record. All the vocals had been done. I had already sung this song. Bill came in and said, “I didn’t get to sing anything. I want to sing a song.” They went “OK, OK, figuring let’s indulge him, he’s drunk. They said, “Well, what do you want to sing,” and he said, “I want to sing ‘Don’t Want To Wait Anymore’.” So they said, “OK, fine, go ahead. They stuck him out in the studio, put a mike up. And they tell me — I don’t know if it’s true or not — but they said he did that vocal in one take. He sang like his throat was going to bleed. I mean he sang like he was going to herniate his esophagus and blood was going to spurt out all over the microphone. He did such a take — it’s still unbelievable when I listen to it. I still try live to do what he did that one night. David and Humberto just kind of stood there and went, “Oh my God, fuck! This is ridiculous!”
The next day, I came into the studio to continue recording and work on the record doing overdubs or something and they went, “Fee, come here.” They kind of pulled me aside and they told me, “Bill came in last night and he was really drunk and he did a lead vocal on ‘Don’t Want to Wait Anymore’ and I think you gotta listen to it.” And I’m thinking “Oh fuck, this is going to suck. No way.” And they played it for me and I just stood there and went, “Oh my God, oh fuck!” It blew me off the table. I said, “You can hit delete on my vocal. This is it. This is the vocal. You have to use this. It’s just ridiculous.” And even though I had written the lyrics and Vince wrote the music, this was my song; this was my baby because I knew it was going to be the first single. I just went, “Man, I don’t know what to tell you but this is great. This is way better than the version I did for sure.” So that was it. They used his vocals.
What was Bill’s reaction to that?
Well, I mean, he sang the song. We went out on tour and he tried to recreate it. I don’t think he ever did live. But he was pretty good. I mean, Bill was a really good singer. He had a really good high-end voice, really good inflection. He was always a great singer from the very beginning. So he pulled it off. He could sing that song. We went out on that tour — Completion Backward Principle — he sang it every night.
In tandem with new hit singles, did MTV have influence in getting the band out to bigger audiences?
Oh yeah! That coupled with the fact that we were actually on the radio and that “She’s A Beauty” went to like number two on the Billboard Hot 100. That was the highest charting record we ever had. We never had a number one record but “She’s A Beauty” might as well have been Number One because it was on the charts for about 12 weeks, always in the Top Five. It just changed everything. It was massive.
MTV started in ‘81 and that was when we started with Capitol Records and we did all these videos and the “She’s A Beauty” video. The whole thing just took a leap forward and we went from playing little thousand-seaters to 15,000-seaters. Playing hockey rinks and basketball courts and arenas. So it changed everything.
Were hit singles a goal for the band when it first started in the 1970s? Were you aspiring to have hits at that time?
Well not really, no. Not really. Of course everybody wants a hit single. We wanted a hit single but I mean we did what we did. It was art for art’s sake. The first single they ever released was “What Do You Want From Life” but they cut out the whole end part…All these kind of snippets from TV. They cut that out because they thought, “Oh people will think they’re a novelty band.” We just kind of went, “What the fuck — are you kidding me!” That’s the whole thing; that was why we loved that song.
On the second record, they released “Don’t Touch Me There,” which was also kind of a novelty song. It just seemed like the record company never really got it. There was no single from the third album. The fourth album was a live album and they re-released “White Punks On Dope.” What’s funny is on the first album that had “White Punks On Dope” on it [The Tubes], they put a sticker on the outside of the album saying “The lyrics on this album contain the word “Dope.” I mean that was in ‘75, OK?
I don’t know, I think Herb [Alpert] and Jerry [Moss] thought, “These guys are cute and this is kind of our cult band. It’s not the Police. They’re not going to release singles and make a lot of records. They’re kind of our cutesy, cult band and they’re just theatrical and weird.” I don’t think they ever really expected us or attempted to create massive record sales. I mean, you would think they would because they’re giving us all this money to make records and we’re not recouping. When we left A&M, we never recouped, after five albums. So I don’t know.
One of the interesting things to happen to the Tubes around this time was a change in band makeup, including the departure of lone female member/vocalist Re Styles. Can you elaborate any on what happened to her?
The last tour Re did was in 1979 and at that point, she was in bad shape. She was drinking too much and she didn’t really want to tour anymore. So she kind of left the band at that point when we went to Capitol. We had two or three girl dancers but they weren’t really featured vocalists and it was more of a theatrical addition to the band than a musical addition. Re used to be a designer. She used to design windows for like Macy’s and big department stores. She designed display windows. She was really a talented girl. Really talented. We still are in contact with her.
Tubes shows of yore were these big productions, thanks in large part to Kenny Ortega. What can fans expect to see at a Tubes show today?
I still take on these characters in the show. It’s just a five-man band now; there’s no girls in the show. There’s no tits and ass pretty much other than my ass. There’s a little man ass in “Mondo Bondage” but I’m still doing all these characters and I’m still enhancing. I still do “Mr. Hate” and I still do the “Young Kid” from “Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman” and I still do the businessman’s Tube Talk. My new character from “What Do You Want From Life” is kind of a Hugh Hefner kind of guy with the smoking jacket and I still do Quay Lewd with the big shoes. I have to rebuild them pretty much every tour but I still have the big 18-inch platforms that I wear for Quay Lewd. There’s probably six or eight changes in the show as well as jackets and hats and stuff like that to just kind of enhance various characters.
I think I will always do that. That’s just the way I am and the way the Tubes are. It’s just pretty much impossible for me to just stand there. I think there’s one song I just stand there and sing it. It’s engaging, it’s exciting. I talk about how songs came about and I talk about how we found the “Completion Backward Principle.” There’s a lot of storytelling along with the theater and the music.
What’s on the horizon for the Tubes in 2020?
We’re probably going to do the Lost 80s tour again toward the end of the summer, like we did this year. We’re playing a number of shows with Loverboy. We’re starting off the year at the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville with Loverboy. There’s a lot of stuff happening. We might go to Europe in the summer and do some outdoor festival stuff there. The whole thing is blowing up right here. This next year is going to be huge.
It’s funny, Roger [Steen] and Prairie [Prince] and I got together. We were in Nashville on this last tour and we did a showcase in Nashville and talked about new material and they’ve actually gone in and done some basic tracks and I listened to a bunch of song ideas and we all sat together and we are working on a record. Of course, we’ve been working on a record for years and years. I don’t know if 2020 will see a new Tubes record but it will see a new Fee Waybill solo album. I just completed a solo album with Richard Marx, and I’m writing and producing. Richard produced it, and Richard and I wrote all the songs, except one. I haven’t done a solo record in a long, long time. We had been working on it for years. So finally we just sat down and went let’s just finish this, get it over right. He just finished a new record too. We got a lot done this year.
I’m working on a book. My wife and I are creating a book, which is amazing, of pictures and stories of my life. I probably got another poetry book coming. God, there’s just so many things, so many things (laughs). It’s great. We’ve been working really hard. We’re going to a Quay Lewd doll too. She wants to do a Quay Lewd statuette (laughs). I don’t know how that’s going to work out yet. My beautiful wife Elizabeth is an art student and has been involved in art her whole life so she’s obsessed with doing this Quay Lewd statuette, so we’re going to do that too. Anyway it’s going to be a good year. Everything is looking really good and very positive and happy. 2020 is going to be a big year.