Photo by Jorgen Angel/Redferns
The performing artists, cultural critics and punk rockers that make up The Tubes came together in 1972. Like many artists then and now, they uprooted from their homes in Arizona and planted themselves in the Bay Area in 1969 to be at the center of the counter culture. Quickly developing a reputation for their sharp satire, the band left no aspect of pop culture unscathed in their political, unpredictable, sometimes pornographic and highly self-aware live performances.
Their contempt for the music industry often came out in the form of Quay Lewd, the drugged-up, platform-wearing alter-ego of lead singer Fee Waybill. They mocked their fans, who they describe as white, privileged teens in what became one of their most popular singles, “White Punks On Dope.” And their hatred for consumerism and politics came out everywhere in between.
The band’s onstage antics were part cabaret and part rock show with costumes, skits, choreographed dance numbers and unorthodox instrumentation regularly worked into the mix. Within a couple of years, without an album to their name, they were packing night clubs like Bimbo’s and opening for legends such as Iggy Pop, New York Dolls and Zed Zeppelin. While The Tubes became internationally known for their 1980s hits, it was their the progressive, melodic punk from the mid-1970s that shook the city to its core.
The band’s first sold-out performance at Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom fell on December 31, 1975. That New Years Eve, the group churned out an hour and 45 minutes of punk anthems, leaving a blistering impression through their lyrics and theatrics rather than the abrasive instrumentation that most early punk bands were known for.
Twenty minutes in, The Tubes broke into “Proud To Be An American,” off of their yet to be released sophomore record, Young and Rich. Captured on film for all of modern pop culture to see, this performance shines an eerie but profound light on the parallels between 1975 and 2015.
While the band’s more theatrical elements were obviously groundbreaking for their time, The Tubes’s true power is perfectly understated in this rendition of “Proud to Be an American.” With a shopping cart parked on stage, the band tears into the core of American culture with biting sarcasm, cutting down everything from education and cigarettes to oil companies and department stores. They even put rock and roll on the chopping block as Waybill mocks, “I’m secure in the feeling there’s a Sear’s Roebuck in every city, where Bill can bring his guitar like that in!” ushering in a solo by former guitarist Bill Spooner, which he then eggs on.
And between all the “Ba-ba-ba-das,” they spew lines that are as true and uncomfortable to hear today as they were back then (“Glad I ain’t a Mexican”) before delivering the final blow:
“I’m proud to be an American, and I wish every other kid could be one / But it’s impossible to give equality and justice to inferior foreigners to jealous to trust us.”
This concert, this performance and this song are too relevant to have happened four decades ago. What was the cultural landscape of the 1970’s America? What is it today? Social unrest, police brutality, a spiking youth culture trying not to adopt the cynicism of the real world in a shameful, post-war America. And what of San Francisco? The Winterland Ballroom closed exactly three years after this show, with a farewell concert by The Blues Brothers, New Riders of the Purple Sage and Grateful Dead on New Years Eve, 1978. Six years later, Winterland was demolished and turned into apartments. Another familiar story. Forty years later, this performance is not just a snapshot of a complacent society from the decades past. It’s proof that we cycle through the same mistakes.
And the tap dancing at the end exposes the absurdity of it all, mocking the fact that this country has evolved immensely in certain fields — science, technology and medicine — but so little in other, equally important aspects of society — empathy and social responsibility and mutual respect. The Tubes are still on tour today, showing us how far we still have to go.