With one of the most unmistakable voices in pop music, John Waite enters his fifth decade in the record business with an excellent new 11-song album ROUGH & TUMBLE (out now).
The former Babys and Bad English frontman, Waite is perhaps best known for his hit 1980s song “Missing You” and the 1984 NO BRAKES album from which it came from.
Yet, despite the fame that came with that track, Waite continued to follow his own muse – ignoring trends and fads, and creating a rich body of work including the superb solo records TEMPLE BAR and FIGURES IN THE LANDSCAPE.
In Part two of ASSIGNMENT X’s extensive and exclusive interview with Waite, he discusses the state of the record industry, the Babys and his early 1980s solo career.
ASSIGNMENT X: With the music industry so fragmented, how do you feel you fit in with the industry now?
JOHN WAITE: There’s been such attention given to this record. It’s been [in the top ten] of the Classic Rock charts. For me to come out and start doing that is interesting. There is a huge amount of respect for the Babys and for me. I’ve been sort of on the outs a little bit, I didn’t want to play the game, I don’t know how to, but this album is so important, it’s hard to look past it. Knock on wood.
But, quite honestly though, I don’t want to fit in. If I wanted to fit in, I wouldn’t have made the last albums I had made. I’m not chasing after a dollar. I’m not fitting in to get a Grammy so much. I would love to have a Grammy, but I’m not thinking about it. I don’t look at music like that. I don’t write for the public. I write for myself and then the craftsmen in me puts it into a record.
AX: Do you think the music industry has shot itself in the foot over the last ten years?
WAITE: I look at the mainstream and I can tell you in the first four bars where they stole the song from and who the A&R guy is and why they’re doing it. It’s just crap. I look at it now as the last days of Rome. First the record companies went, because they were redundant with the internet and what’s left is fighting tooth and nail to be as mainstream as possible and dumb it down to the point where it can move loads of units. Someone once said, A&R stands for “Always Wrong.” I thought that was the greatest thing anyone ever said.
AX: It really seems the long term relationships between artists and record labels has gone away, for the most part.
WAITE: These are the days of AMERICAN IDOL and DANCING WITH THE STARS. This is like 1984, I mean in the George Orwell sense. It’s commercialism and capitalism and the economy of it is a complete dead end. When the record labels first started out, there were these eccentric guys that made a lot of money really quickly who would get behind certain artists and stick with them, because it was like a hobby. As the companies got bigger, they had shareholders and all these big corporate people got involved and when the shareholders were meeting at the end of the year it became “where’s the money.” It’s not about “where’s the art” it’s about “where’s the money.” So all the artists slink off and make their own records and all the idiots can’t wait to make records for the company. It’s like the end of ANIMAL FARM. It’s George Orwell again. All the animals turn into the pigs and it’s kind of like one big banquet of greed. It is what it is. I have no expectations of it. There are still some great artists out there who really have an edge. P!nk has it – she’s a great singer. You have to look for these people. They’re out there. A lot of them exist.
AX: And with the record labels falling part, anyone can record an album now with the way technology is. So in some ways, the music has been taken back by individuals to some extent. You don’t need a label, you have yourself and the internet.
WAITE: In the old days, you get like maybe 13 or 14 points of profit. That means the record companies would take something like 60 to 70 points, after you paid them back for everything. None of this has been lost to me. Right now, there’s someone in the East Village trying to write a song, and in four years time, it will be number one, and those people will always be somewhere in a small room trying to write the next philosophical toe tapper and it’s going to change your life and the record companies can’t do anything with that. If you want to get behind it, it will happen. There are bands that are going to keep coming and people are so ready for something that’s true, it will always do well.
AX: Why has it taken so long for the Babys to get their due in the states – there hasn’t even be a remastering of the original albums yet.
WAITE: Everything to do with the Babys and the record label [Chrysalis] is dark. There’s no denying it. The people who could f*ck us up did and the trueness of it lived through the rest of what happened. It’s a classic case of a band coming out nowhere and going straight back there. The businessman and the managers and the whole thing f*cked it all up. I think after HEAD FIRST, it was a countdown to the end. We enjoyed playing live, we made a couple of records. After the first three records, it had been one hell of a ride and all we wanted to do at that point was want to play which we did for another three years and that’s how it was meant to go.
AX: Which is your favorite Babys album?
WAITE: It’s either BROKEN HEART or HEAD FIRST, and it’s probably HEAD FIRST, because we had two cracks at making it. We handed the album in and it was like a solo album. The band had stopped writing, really, and I was sequestered away in my apartment with an acoustic guitar and I wrote songs like “California,” but the band was tapped. They weren’t really songwriters in that sense. I was doing as much as I could, after putting all these things together for the first two records. We handed it in, there was a lot more acoustic guitar kind of thing in it on it – “California” was almost country. I was listening to a lot of period Bob Dylan. I loved there was so much to learn and I was trying to step forward and the record company was incensed. They didn’t know what to do with it.
There was a lot of trouble in the band and the band broke up. There was three of us left. We were given six thousand dollars and told to make the album right. If we wanted to stick with it, it was six grand. We went back in. We cut four songs, “Head First,” “Love Don’t Prove I’m Right,” “I Was One” and “Every Time I Think Of You” and we went back in, rethought it and wrote it all in about two or three weeks, then recorded it in another week. It cost nothing to do it. They were the best songs. We had two cracks to make the record. When we stripped it down, it was really good. It was either make it right or go home and we all felt we could give it one last try.
Coming out of that, I was exhausted with it. It was like having a day job and a night job and going to college. At the end of that, I was just through being so plugged into the band. I just wanted to sing. We did two more records, but there was a generic thing to those last two records. The band felt independent and stronger, with me just being a singer and not being so hands on. It felt only fair to try new ideas. The songs were not as good, but a helluva thing to play live.
AX: I discovered the Babys with ON THE EDGE, so I’m partial to that one.
WAITE: Three or four things on that were stupendous – “Turn and Walk Away,” “Darker Side of Town,” “Post Card,” and “Gonna Be Somebody.” They sound like HEAD FIRST to me. I think at that point, I was turning to writing with the band, picking up the bass, and saying “no this.” At the same time, Jonathan Cain left, and was helping Journey write songs and he would came back every couple of weeks and look at us like he didn’t care and then disappear again. It was a tough period, but we managed to turn out half a great record.
AX: When you started your first solo album, was it liberating after the breakup of the Babys?
WAITE: I moved to New York City and got a little one-room apartment with a mattress on the floor on 77nd street opposite where John Lennon got shot. I got there about five months later. was completely by myself. I arrived with a Telecaster and a bag of clothes and the record company gave me $200 a week to live and it paid the rent. I spent a year writing [IGNITION] and I got hooked up with Ivan Krall from Iggy Pop’s band and Patty Smyth [who sang backup]. We wrote a majority of the record and made it at the Power Station. It had much more of an urban feel. I was done with California really, I was just all about New York City – I still am really.
AX: But you live here Los Angeles now …
WAITE: Yeah, about ten years ago, I moved out here to do a record called WHEN YOU WERE MINE. My manager was out here. I came out to keep an eye on it – then I went on the road and I was living out of suitcase. Eventually I just bought a really nice place in Santa Monica to come home to. I don’t know how long I’m going to stay here. It’s great to be here, but I want to work and get back on the road. I miss the East Coast.
AX: Can you talk about “Change” – another great song.
WAITE: It came in the mail one day. I didn’t write that song. I rewrote some of the versus. I just heard it, and said “I’ll do that song. It’s pretty much a hit and it sounds like me.” I was writing with Ivan, and it fit in with the stuff I was writing with Ivan. Being a producer as well, a music person who could see that, I thought it spoke and it had a pretty good message.
AX: NO BRAKES was a huge album and it was your bestselling record to date.
WAITE: That was like 2 million. I had gone back to England after IGNITION, and quit and got married. I lived in a tiny cottage and I was going to disappear. I had enough of the music business to last me a lifetime. Two lawyers from New York got me out of my contract with Chrysalis, and they came back to EMI. And Jim Mazza was the head of EMI at the time, who is now my manager. Jim and Gary Gersh, the A&R guy, took real good care of it. They were extremely respectful and intelligent people, and what you got was a tremendous record. It was the first time I had been treated like an artist. The Chrysalis people just looked at you like you were an idiot.
AX: It’s a perfect album too – one great song after another and it flows so well.
WAITE: It’s a rock album. It was made very quickly as well. It’s like when you have a lot to say, somebody starts counting something off and before you know it, you’re singing something over the top of it. It’s this Rose Bowl of words, poetry, literature, headlines, scribbles – all floating around behind my eyeballs. As soon as I hear a melody or somebody shout “G” – it’s all there. I don’t know where it comes from. It kind of amuses me.
AX: Wasn’t “Missing You” a late addition to that album?
WAITE: We finished the record completely, they were just mixing it and I knew we hadn’t got a single. I knew there was something missing and I went and wrote this song with two guys I knew [Mark Leonard, Chas Sandford]. They had a tape of something they were working on – I said “put it on the speakers and I’ll sing along the top of it” and out came “Every time I think of you, I always catch me breath.” And I used “every time I think of you,” to get me started, because it was the name of a Babys song and presto, I got right through to the second verse, without changing a word – “I ain’t missing you at all.” That’s the magic of songwriting – the un-self-conscious thing. If you can stay un-self conscious, you’ll do great things. If you’re always looking at the media and seeing what they think of you, you’ll just make product and I have no interest in that stuff.
AX: The irony of songs like “Missing You” and The Police’s “Every Breath You Take are they sound like great love songs, but you listen closer to the lyrics and they’re actually kind of bitter.
WAITE: There’s angst all over it. I think U2’s “With or Without You” has the same thing. It’s a coin being flipped – one minute you see it as heads, and then you see it as tails. It’s negative and positive and that’s life – and that’s what great songs have – they have both angles at the same time.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 3 – NEXT WEEK ON ASSIGNMENT X