A Conversation With John Waite – Part 1
The following is the first of a three-part interview with rock legend John Waite. This year marks his 40th in the music industry and during that time he’s had quite the career. Whether it was being the lead singer of The Babys or Bad English or topping the charts with his #1 smash hit “Missing You,” John Waite’s voice has remained unmistakable and his music endures. I hope you enjoy the first part of this interview. You can read part two here and part three here. And don’t forget to pick up a copy of John Waite’s new album, “Best,” on his official website.
The Babys were formed in 1974, 40 years ago. What brought you guys together?
It can’t be that long ago, can it, really? I had no idea. I guess it was. I’d come back from America. I’d gone over there to join a band in Cleveland called The Boys after spending a year with a band in London called England. Everything ran out. I just went home from London to Lancaster. We’d run out of gigs, money – it was finished. And I came home with my tail between my legs. I had no place to go and it was a case of trying to get a job or emigrate. I had no idea what to do. And I went and spent five months in Cleveland, which was unbelievably fantastic because it was the home of rock and roll, radio-wise. I came home to London when that fell through and was basically introduced to a guy called Mike Corby, who was trying to put a band together, and they needed a bass player, a singer, a songwriter, anything they could come up with, really. And I met him and his manager, Adrian Miller, who was in Hampstead. Me and my girlfriend lived down the road, so they came to North London to say hello, and we sat, drank and had dinner and talked about dreams, really. We talked about what it would take to put a great band together, and what I thought about it. And I said that I wrote songs, which was cheating really. I wrote songs…but in a very provisional way. I was just getting my feet wet, really. I knew I could write, I just never had an opportunity to write for anything. And I knew I could sing, although I’d never been a lead singer, and I was a bass player. With me they had a band. Without me they had a guitar player. I went home to my girlfriend and said it was interesting, but I don’t expect anything to happen. And the next week, the manager, Adrian, called me again and over the next year we rehearsed bits of music that I’d written. We tried drummers out, and then Tony Brock finally showed up. I stopped playing bass and became the lead guitar player. Mike left for a while. We had a bass player in, a Scottish guy who was a friend of Tony’s. He left, I went back to playing bass. Wally showed up, Mike rejoined and we had a band.
Adrian went around London trying to sell us to any record company that would listen. It took a long time. We got turned down by absolutely everybody, and then Chrysalis said, “yeah, we like you.” We got signed to a record deal and the rest is history, really.
Speaking of The Babys, where did the band’s name come from?
Well, it’s a story really. I’m known for being outspoken, and Adrian was always trying to pull his tough-guy shit on me. Ya know? “Who do you think you are?” and all this kind of stuff. And I would just say “Fuck off!” and we’d get into these situations (laughs) where we’d look at each other and thought it might go to the next level. It wouldn’t have because we were just cocky. Then, one time, after a meltdown, he stormed out and came back in and said, “You’re nothing but a bunch of fucking babies!” And then he walked out and walked back in and said, “That’s it!” and we went “What?!” At first we thought it was really bad, but then we thought well, Jesus, it’s going to get us a lot of attention. Why don’t we go that far out? It was a very mod thing to do, and that’s where my roots were.
And when spelling it out – I have dyslexia – I couldn’t differentiate between putting a “y” on something or “ies.” I still have to think about it when writing words, and I used to put my “ds” and “bs” backwards. It’s tough for a guy that writes. It’s ironic that I have that. But that’s where the name came from. When I wrote the set list I used a “y” and kept doing it. And that made the name more unusual and ambiguous. What was Babys? I had no idea what it meant, I still don’t.
Then we had stickers made up, and I still have one. With blue cartoon writing and a yellow and red check pattern. I still have an original, somewhere in a suitcase. We looked at that and “Babys” became “The Babys” and before ya know it, it was up on a billboard on Sunset Strip. It was wild.
When Jonathan Cain and Ricky Phillips joined The Babys in 1979, how did they change the dynamic of the band?
Well, I stopped playing bass. And the style of the singing and the songwriting was always based around that. I was like Sting or Paul McCartney or Jack Bruce. You sing an F, and you sing a note that kind of finishes the cord and it had a great influence on the songwriting. Even now when I’m playing the guitar – I’m still playing the guitar – and once I stopped playing bass, it changed and I liked that because I wanted to be in a group and enjoy it and not have all the pressure. And I had written Head First twice because it got turned down by the record companies, so I rewrote it to come up with another half an album. And I was just sick of being in the middle of it. I needed to either leave, like Michael, who had gotten the sack at that point, and go back to England. Or, if we were going to continue, I had to let somebody else take some of the weight. I just couldn’t keep going at that rate. But I think it stopped us from having that original feel, and Wally picked up the slack a lot. Without me playing bass alongside Wally, we were never quite as good songwriters after that. It missed me playing bass, but it was a lot more fun on stage.
I became a much better singer; it was a trade-off. I found a natural ability with a big audience, and I was fuckin’ scared to death. I mean, I was shy to begin with but to go out in front of 20,000 people takes some balls. And I went from playing behind the bass to 2,000-seat theaters to opening for Alice Cooper. But I found out that I was tougher than I thought I was. I think I always underestimated what I was capable of and made it charming, and made it go where it was meant to go naturally. But giving up the bass was difficult because I loved the instrument so much. But I knew that if were going to continue we’d have to do something different. I didn’t want it to be like Babys 2 or getting a guy that looked like Mike Corby. I wanted us to do something radically different and still be The Babys.
Following the release of the album On The Edge in 1980, The Babys disbanded. What led to the breakup?
We were at the end of it. We had huge success at first – really, really big. You could not turn on AM radio and not hear “Every Time I Think of You.” And you couldn’t turn on FM radio and not hear “Head First.” And they were both on the same record. I’ve never seen a record that successful till maybe The Police, but it was absolutely gigantic. We were touring with big bands, we were all over the TV, all over the radio but then Chrysalis told us we weren’t selling records…and it just stopped everybody in their tracks. I think that’s when we almost broke up. Truly, at that point I think we thought, fuck it, it’s impossible, we’ll never get out of debt, we’ll never be able to continue. But we did Union Jacks and that had “Back On My Feet Again,” which was also a gigantic single and, again, Chrysalis turned around and said the album didn’t sell. So, we really felt like we were done – there was no future.
Well, you can blame people and say it was this person’s fault or it was that person’s fault. It doesn’t matter. You can’t keep playing, you can’t stay on the road because you can’t keep playing the same towns multiple times every year. You can’t keep doing it. You can’t keep going back to Detroit because you’re big in Detroit. You can go maybe once a year and sell it out because everybody loves you and looks forward to seeing you again. You can’t go back twice in the same year. You can’t go to Cleveland twice. And we were doing things like that. We were on the road all the time, and we ran out of places to play. Chrysalis just dropped the ball completely. But it was a relief when it was over and I went home.
Your first album as a solo artist was 1982’s Ignition. How did it feel to step out on your own?
Well, I moved to New York City and Chrysalis said they’d make it up to me, pay my rent and give me $200 a week. And they found me a crash pad on 72nd street. And I wrote and wrote, and I slept all day and went out at night. It was incredible to be in New York. It took me about two months to get used to it. It was really hard to be away from my girlfriend, my wife at the time; it was very, very difficult. But I fell in love with the city and I still love the city. I feel like a New Yorker no matter where I go in the world.
It was great to be on my own. Somebody said to me the other day – I was singing “Back On My Feet Again” from the new album, I re-sang it – and somebody said, “Man, what a great band The Babys were.” And I said, “You know what? I never looked back and missed it.” I just never looked back over my shoulder and said, “Man, I wish we were still together.” I never once did that. I never did that with Bad English either. When it was done, it was done. I’m usually the last guy to get up from the table. I really give everything I’ve got to something. I live like that. And there wasn’t one thing I think I could have done differently to make it last longer. I never looked back on The Babys and said, “Dammit, what could have been?” We were done when we were done. I’m good at that I guess. I know when to leave.
That’s good. A lot of people don’t have that ability.
When The Babys first came to LA, we’d see people that were playing with very big bands walking around in flip-flops with dirty t-shirts and driving beat-up old cars. They looked like they just didn’t care. I looked at that and I thought, if that ever happens to me I hope someone leans forward and hands me a loaded pistol. There’s just a time to leave and you start a new life. It’s like when a marriage goes bad. You might still love that person, but you can’t put it right. You have to be man enough to say, “I love ya. It’s over.” You’ve gotta be big and tough for yourself as much as for the other person. It’s done, it’s absolutely done.
One of the singles from that album, “Change” was one of the first music videos to get a heavy rotation on MTV. What did you think of this music revolution taking place at the start of your solo career?
The Babys had got signed on a video. We did a video with a guy named Mike Mansfield who had a show called Supersonic. He filmed it. He filmed us in a little studio singing along to our demos. I once, when I was in a band in London, England – that band – we played an arts center and they filmed us. It was the very early stages of video, but they filmed us. And I think I can take credit for saying, “Why don’t they film us?” instead of just recording it. So I thought, “Why don’t we make a video demo?” Because if image is that important to Adrian and we look that sharp, fuck it, film it, why not? It was risky, but there were videos out there. The Small Faces had done a video for “Lazy Sunday” and it wasn’t like splitting the atom; it was an obvious choice. A lot of people lay claim to it, but The Babys were the first to actually do it. And it wasn’t as if it was, like I said, splitting the atom. It was an obvious thing to do. If we hadn’t had done it, somebody else would have a month later.