by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
On paper, the idea of David Foster producing The Tubes seems like nothing short of a complete mismatch. Foster – though a much cooler producer than he usually gets credit for being, his reputation among rock buffs having been sullied a great deal by his considerably-less-hip work in the ‘90s, which includes having produced Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” and “The Power of Love,” and Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart” – does have pop/rock credentials. He’s produced the Daryl Hall & John Oates albums Along the Red Ledge and X-Static and Alice Cooper’s From the Inside and co-written such fabulous Boz Scaggs hits like “Breakdown Dead Ahead” and “Look What You’ve Done to Me.” His resume contains an equal amount of respectable R&B credits, Foster having co-written Chaka Khan’s magnificent ballad “Through the Fire,” Cheryl Lynn’s funk classic “Got to Be Real” and most of Earth Wind & Fire’s I Am album, including the Number Two hit ballad “After the Love Has Gone.” Still, Foster’s typically – and unfairly – regarded – as being little more than a soft-rock guy, namely because of the direction that former brass-rockers Chicago moved in under his watch during the early-and-mid-‘80s with such adult-contemporary fare – albeit very well-done adult-contemporary pop – as “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” “You’re the Inspiration,” and “Hard Habit to Break.”
The Tubes, on the other hand, were one of the most notorious rock bands of the late ‘70s, one more known for their outrageously over-the-top and mildly-pornographic stage shows than for scoring radio hits, of which they had hardly any by the time the decade was over. Not even Todd Rundgren, who had been recruited to produce 1979’s Remote Control, had been able to give the band that elusive Top 40 hit. [By 1980, the band only had one Hot 100 hit to their name in the U.S., 1976’s “Don’t Touch Me There,” a cheerfully-smutty parody of early-1960s pop sung as a duet between frontman Fee Waybill and the group’s lone female member Re Styles and adorned with faux “Wall of Sound”-style production.] The A&M-era “hits” package, T.R.A.S.H.(Tubes Rarities and Smash Hits), fun listen though it is, also shows exactly why the band was confined to cult status all those years: as undeniably amusing – especially on “Don’t Touch Me There” and the group’s hilariously-twisted rock-and-roll makeover of the Captain & Tennille’s“Love Will Keep Us Together” – and as catchy though they could be – especially on “I’m Just a Mess” – they were also a band that took a little too much delight in its earliest years in shocking people. The band may have been talented, but they were also their own worst enemy, and it’s easy to see why radio was so reluctant to play them – this is, after all, a band whose most beloved concert numbers at the time included songs called “Mondo Bondage” and “White Punks on Dope” – and why A&M ultimately gave up on the band (even rejecting the band’s album Suffer for Sound outright) and dropped them from the roster at the end of the decade, even as the group gained some crossover exposure via its cameo in the film Xanadu, joining Olivia Newton-John for the song “Dancin’.”
Exit Styles and enter David Foster, the highly unlikely producer of the band’s debut for Capitol Records, 1980’s The Completion Backward Principle, a conceptual affair that’s rendered all the funnier if you’re familiar with the band’s thoroughly uncommercial past since the packaging features the band members in corporate attire and short haircuts and includes business terms like “motivations,” “systems,” “policy,” and “analysis” in its list of instrumental credits. [The disc itself even opens with the sound of a motivational business speaker urging the listener to “Play both sides at one meeting”!] Surprisingly, Foster doesn’t actually discourage the band’s fondness for novelty-styled material or try to suppress their sense of humor – he merely gets them to dial back a bit on their past penchant for sexually provocative lyrics and encourages them to occasionally toss a slightly more serious song into the mix, dressing it all up in a polished, radio-ready sheen that makes even the most comical material here – like the oriental-tinged “Sushi Girl” or the story-song “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman” – seem slightly more approachable than the band’s prior novelty tunes.
For all the flak that Foster tends to elicit from critics, there aren’t a whole lot of pop/rock producers out there – Todd Rundgren, of course, being an exception – who actually have the sense of humor to allow a song as deliberately goofy as “Sushi Girl” see the light of day, but Foster just goes ahead and runs with it and treats it as lovingly as he would something much more obviously commercial, and the combination of his polished production style and the Tubes’ warped sense of humor makes for a fun and engaging listen, one that bears repeated listens more easily than your average novelty number. In other places, the humor is still present but more subdued, as on the haunting but amusing ballad “Amnesia,” a twisted love song with lines like “I can’t go on not knowing my own name / I only have this curse of love to blame.”
The less deliberately comical material is even stronger. The frantic synths of “Think About Me” give the song a real menace that goes well with its driving beat, and the cut gets the album’s second side off to an energizing start. The handclap-heavy funk-pop of “A Matter of Pride” has a surprisingly pretty chorus, while the hook to “Let’s Make Some Noise” just as unexpectedly is layered with lovely, Earth, Wind & Fire-like harmonies that recall that band’s dance-floor hit “September.”
But it’s the album’s two singles – both co-written with Foster – that make the biggest impression. Foster gives “Don’t Want to Wait Anymore” such a completely straight, adult-contemporary-oriented production that the song’s Toto-like-balladry exterior completely masks the song’s tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top lyrics, which are actually quite apocalyptic and anything but romantic (“We could be the last two on earth to start a new world,” “Lost in the freezing cold, barely alive / Have to make love to survive”) – remarkably, few people noticed the song’s subtle satirical bent and the single became the band’s first-ever Top 40 hit, reaching #35.
The wildly catchy driving rocker “Talk to Ya Later,” in contrast, is a brutal kiss-off letter to a date who’s overstayed their welcome by six months (the second verse even begins with Waybill saying point-blank, “Get out!”) hilariously tagged with a gorgeous pre-chorus laden with distinctly yacht-rock-tinged, Michael McDonald-like harmonies; the song missed the Hot 100 entirely, but it reached the Top Ten on Billboard’s Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and remains one of the band’s most appealingly hook-heavy singles.