Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Television: Turn Me On

The Tubes: Turn Me On

I will never forget the glee I felt when I started training at WPRB and was told that we had free rein to come to the studios and listen to records. Even better, we were encouraged to do so. I had a good collection, but it was nothing compared to the shelves of vinyl that I now had access to. The smell of a room filled with records still brings me back to those days. And while I felt like I had a pretty broad knowledge of rock music, there were hundreds of records—maybe thousands—in there that I had never heard of. To this day, I listen to many of the musicians who I discovered pawing through the stacks in the basement of Holder Hall.

I’m pretty confident that I was unaware of The Tubes before I picked up 1979’s Remote Control in the studio. I was immediately taken by its biting satire of television, a medium that I loved, the quality of the songs and performances, and by Todd Rundgren’s production. I know I played a number of songs from the album, and started to look back to the band’s earlier albums, which consistent with their name, touched on television, particularly, the hucksterism lampooned in “What Do You Want From Life?” However, the band skewered other targets, too, including sex and drugs, with varying success.

But Remote Control, from the opener, “Turn Me On” to the closing track, “Telecide,” is a concept album that is a focused, scathing attack on the influence that television has on individuals and society. The music jumps genres, but never disappoints, and its message is consistent—TV is dangerous. Here’s an excerpt from “Turn Me On”:

Let me know what I need to know 
Make me go where I want to go 
Let me stand and wonder 
Let me feel the thunder 
See the lightning and the picture show 

After Remote Control, The Tubes experienced a brief period of increasing popularity, ironically fueled by exposure on MTV (and the participation of members of, I hesitate even to write the name, Toto), and decreasing creativity (caused, in part, by the participation of members of Toto). But then the bottom dropped out, people started to leave and the band broke up.

As much as I like this song, and this album, I can’t completely agree with their thesis. Like anything that is powerful, television can be misused and abused. While I recognize that television provides tons of misinformation, hours of trashy entertainment and unreal “reality” programming, is probably overused as a babysitter and keeps people on the couch when they should be doing something else, it also provides enormous value. If it wasn’t for television, I would never have seen the Mets win the World Series, the Giants win the Super Bowl, the Knicks win the NBA Championship (I am that old) or get to watch the World Cup. I wouldn’t have seen Nixon resign or Obama get elected. I would never have experienced “Hill Street Blues,” “All in the Family,” “Seinfeld,” “The West Wing,” “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Sports Night,” “Deadwood” or David Letterman. Or any number of other great programs or events. And while I personally can attest to the fact that much of the time you can scroll through hundreds of channels and find nothing to watch, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when there are too many things to see (and thanks, therefore, to our DVR and to VOD). And it doesn’t mean that television is evil.

I guess, like pretty much everything, moderation is the key. But that doesn’t make for much of a concept album.

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