Theatrical San Francisco band releases a rock opera about the dangers of television with relevance to the Internet age.
In 1979, Bay Area band The Tubes put aside its comedy shock-rock for a serious, straight-ahead concept album. Like Pink Floyd’s The Wall (released eight months after Remote Control) and The Who’s Quadrophenia, this is a rock opera that follows a hero’s descent into madness; here, a man’s obsession with watching television causes him to grow dangerously detached from the outside world. Unlike most rock operas, this was released without elaborate packaging, printed lyrics, or double-album length, its chilling narrative told in just eleven songs.
In Remote Control, a young man craving stimulation (“Turn Me On”) finds it within the realm of television (“T.V. Is King,” “Prime Time”). Compared to this seductive fantasy world, real life seems frustrating and bland in comparison (“I Want It All Now,” “No Mercy”), leaving him lonely. Miraculously he gets a date with a real-life woman (“Be Mine Tonight”), but it ends badly (“Love’s A Mystery (I Don’t Understand)”). Heartbroken, he tries to end it all by overdosing on TV (“Telecide”), but finds himself trapped inside the TV world instead. (The great-sounding 8-track tape juggles a few songs but preserves the essential narrative flow, especially in the heartbreak and desperation finale.)
On this fourth studio album, the Tubes engaged Todd Rundgren as producer. As usual, Todd brought considerable studio gloss and his own songwriting to the project; the modern, keyboard-rock sound resembles Adventures in Utopia, issued by Rundgren’s band Utopia later that year. Todd co-wrote the lush, sincere ballad “Love’s A Mystery (I Don’t Understand),” which resembles his 1978 hit “Can We Still Be Friends” but failed to break through. But the Tubes did manage a minor chart success; like “Don’t Touch Me There,” “Prime Time” was a sexy, taunting duet between singers Fee Waybill and Re Styles; it earned the band a UK Top 40 placement. (Article continues after song…)
The Tubes: ‘Prime Time’ (1979)
As well as being a solid pop album and fascinating rock opera, Remote Control is an intriguing work of media criticism. The album cover — a baby with a nursing-ready TV set — is a visual play on The Glass Teat, the title of Harlan Ellison’s 1970 collection of scathing, anti-TV essays. “They’ve taken the most incredibly potent medium of imparting information the world has ever known,” he writes, “and they’ve turned it against you. To burn out your brains. To lull you with pretty pictures.” (Note that Remote Control references TV’s domination of the viewer, not the other way around.) (Article continues after song…)
The Tubes: ‘Love’s A Mystery (I Don’t Understand)’ (1979)
The album’s lyrics also reference FCC criticism (TV as a “vast wasteland”) and the film Network (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”). Remote Control is said to have been inspired by Jerzy Kosinksi’s 1970 novel Being There (issued as a film late in 1979). Of course, this story of a White House dweller who gets all his information from television could never happen in today’s world — right?
Almost forty years after Remote Control, TV seems less of a menace than it once was, overshadowed by the heady pleasures of the Internet and social media. Yet maybe The Tubes saw it all coming. Their story of media addiction was recorded near the home of an even more addictive medium; Menlo Park’s Music Annex Studios were less than a mile from the present-day campus of Facebook.
(Footnote: I saw the band perform live at Santa Cruz Civic February 19, 1979; if memory serves the entire album was performed in its entirety as a first-act set piece. Highlights of the album as well as other Tubes classics were issued on Live at the Greek, a VHS tape shot on the same tour.)
Unique folk-soul artist’s third album is filled with funky grooves and sage wisdom for young and old.
“Don’t quit your day job.” For Bill Withers, advice to live by. After a nine-year stint in the army, the West Virginia native hit the road for Hollywood in 1965 in pursuit of a record deal. While working at McDonnell Douglas, he shopped his demo tape and played local gigs after hours. But even after signing with Sussex Records and having a #3 hit with “Ain’t No Sunshine,” he refused to quit his airplane job — he didn’t trust the false promises of fame and fortune.
In “Sunshine”’s followup hit, “Grandma’s Hands,” Bill celebrates the kindly, comforting advice offered to Bill and his community by the grandmother who raised him. Withers inherited her gift; his early catalog is rich with wisdom and insight, offered freely to all who will listen. Just as Grandma wished to spare Bill the pain of snakes and broken glass, Bill cautions us about the woes of heartache and misunderstanding. On “Lean On Me” and “Use Me,” the hits from his second album, Withers cares only for the comfort and joy he can afford to others.
The compassion continues on Withers’ underappreciated third studio album +’Justments. “Nothing heals a broken heart but time,” he sings as an uncle to heartbroken niece “Liza.” “I know what it means to need a shoulder, so lay your head on mine.” Elsewhere he advises us that “Heartbreak Road” is the “road we all must travel.” “We will help some people and hurt some people,” scrawls Bill in the album’s cover photo, “and be left to live with it either way. We must then make some adjustments.”
But his insight isn’t merely romantic here; he also manages some cutting social commentary. In “Green Grass” he claims neither rich nor poor are truly happy: “we all have our own confusion.” “You” is Withers’ take on “Positively 4th Street,” a brutal critique of a weak-willed, manipulative lover or friend. Like the Dylan hit, the song has no chorus, just a nonstop series of withering disses: “I got to take a ton of lies / Just to get an ounce of truth from you.” But even then Bill takes the long view: “Both of us was wrong.”
Prior to +’Justments, Withers recorded the sizzling live album Live At Carnegie Hall, in which he stretches his earlier hits into danceable, clap-able grooves. In the same spirit +’Justments features plenty of cool, slinky, Fender Rhodes-driven funk jams. The album’s centerpiece is the extended groover “Railroad Man,” featuring congas by José Feliciano. The only song on the album not about relationships, it describes a drifter who dies despondent and alone. Withers is suggesting that, as frustrating as they can be, other people are what keep us alive. (Article continues after song…)
Bill Withers: ‘Railroad Man’ (1974)
Over the next decade Withers cut five albums for Columbia and enjoyed a couple more hits, the ebullient “Lovely Day” and the Grover Washington, Jr. collaboration “Just The Two Of Us.” But he never revisited the deep musings of his Sussex albums, perhaps because he’d already dropped a lifetime’s worth of wisdom. Grandma would be proud.
Seemingly manufactured by Ampex, the 8-track of +’Justments looks and sounds wonderful. Ten-song albums are problematic on 8-track, usually requiring a broken song or two, but thanks to longer cuts like “Railroad Man,” the album breaks perfectly into four programs. (In the pics you can see the punched back label and razor-cut end label from my repairs. Though bought sealed, the tape had still gotten snarled over the decades, so I had to make some “adjustments.”)
Bill Withers: ‘The Same Love That Made Me Laugh’ (1974)
Spirit‘s “1984” was first released as a US single in 1969 and soon after in the UK and a few other territories in 1970. The song, written by Randy California, did not appear on an LP until The Best Of Spirit in 1973.
Here’s the psychedelic jazz rockers, featuring a nineteen year old California on guitar and vocals, performing on Germany’s Beat-Club in 1970. The blond haired, mustachioed fellow on backing vocals is Jay Ferguson of Jo Jo Gunne and “Thunder Island” fame.
Lou Reed, ‘Lou Reed’ (Solo Debut, ‘Cash Box’ magazine, May 06, 1972). Click to enlarge.
As most readers will know, Lou Reed first gained notice fronting the Velvet Underground in the 1960s. His debut solo album released in April of 1972.
Lou Reed, the album, was recorded in London with producer Richard Robinson and features a number of re-worked Velvets tunes such as “I Can’t Stand It” and “Lisa Says.” The LP’s anemic US chart placing of #189 does the record a disservice as it’s well worth repeated spins. Check out “I Can’t Stand It” and bounce along.