In concerts, the Tubes still aim to keep an element of theatricality. (Photo: Jurgen "Spaches" Spachmann )
Rock shows in the 1970s and 1980s were not exactly known for their restraint. But even by the outrageous standards of that time, the concerts by the Tubes were among the wildest.
The Tubes created elaborate productions around their songs. For example, “What Do You Want from Life” was staged as a TV game show. Lead singer Fee Waybill would go through several costume changes during each concert.
“We used to go out with three trucks,” Waybill now says. “We had our own lights, our own sound system. We had dancers. We had this huge set that became this monster. We were like Barnum and Bailey, the greatest show on Earth.”
Waybill acknowledges that times have changed. The sets are no longer gargantuan, and the only performers on stage are the band members. But in concerts, the Tubes still aim to keep an element of theatricality.
The Tubes are currently in the midst of the “Tour Noir,” in which Waybill assumes such guises as a 1940s hardboiled detective and a convict in prison stripes. The “Tour Noir” will come to the Newton Theatre on Saturday, July 12.
Of the five musicians in the Tubes, four are original members: Waybill, drummer Prairie Prince, bassist Rick Anderson and guitarist Roger Steen. The “newcomer,” keyboardist David Medd, has been playing with the group since 1996.
Waybill traces the band’s taste for stagecraft to its earliest days in the mid-1970s. The members originated in the Phoenix area and then moved to San Francisco.
“We noticed there were two types of bands,” Waybill says. “You had the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, who would do these great jams but just stood there and played their instruments.”
“Then you had these way-out groups that would do theatrical things, but they couldn’t play,” he continues. “We wanted to be able to play great songs but still have a great show.”
The Tubes made an impact with their self-titled debut and the notorious song “White Punks on Dope.”
“We had this cadre of fans who came from rich families,” he says. “We had these trust-fund babies who would do too many drugs and wreck their BMWs. Then they’d go out and buy new BMWs. ‘White Punks on Dope’ was about them.”
Throughout the course of their first few albums, the Tubes created “characters” for their songs, such as “Quay Lewd,” a stoned rock star wearing giant platform shoes.
“Little by little, the shows kept getting bigger,” Waybill says. “Kenny Ortega came off a tour of ‘Hair’ to do our choreography.” (Ortega would later choreograph the movie “Dirty Dancing” and direct “High School Musical.”)
The rise of MTV was ideal for the Tubes, who always tried to include popular culture and social commentary in their songs, according to Waybill. The videos for such as “Talk to You Later” and “She’s a Beauty” raised the band’s profile.
By the late 1980s, however, financial reality had caught up with the band. Touring became too expensive, and even recording together had lost its appeal.
“It became a chore,” Waybill says. “Everybody had (his) own life.”
Beginning in the mid-1990s, Waybill and other members began to reunite.
“We wanted it to be just about the music,” he says. “We just wanted to play.”
But the revived Tubes ended up running into audiences’ expectations.
“They wanted the dog-and-pony show,” says Waybill with a laugh. “They wanted Quay Lewd. They wanted the 18-inch platform heels.”
So in recent years, the Tubes have compromised. The theatrics are scaled back, but Waybill still dons wild outfits. In addition, each tour is built around a different theme. One year, the band had a Fellini-esque motif. This year, the theme is film noir.
Waybill says he is proud of the legacy of the Tubes.
“For a long time, the only other theatrical band was Alice Cooper,” he says. “He was, and still is, great. But with Alice, all the show happens around him, while he still plays the part of Alice.”
“With the Tubes, I’m changing characters all the time,” he says. “People respond to us. We have the songs, and we have the show.”
Saturday, July 12
Theatre, 234 Spring St., Newton
$24 to $34
973-383-3700 or thenewtontheatre.com
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