The early days of MTV were chock full of memorable videos and striking images. Case in point, John Waite walking down a crowded street while singing the lyrics to his 1984 mega hit, "Missing You," while onlookers wondered what the heck was going on. And while an earlier single, "Change," was not nearly as big a hit as "Missing You," it was a sizable hit on the then-fledging channel, and was one of the first music videos of the era to include a storyline.
Greg Prato (Songfacts)
Along with his impressive solo career, Waite fronted two successful rock bands over the years: the Babys during the late '70s/early '80s (who scored several hits, including "Isn't It Time"), and the supergroup Bad English during the late '80s/early '90s (best known for the #1 power ballad, "When I See You Smile").
Here, Waite talks about memories of these bands and shares the stories behind his hits. He also explains the impact MTV had on his life, and talks about his latest solo release, Live All Access.
: Tell us about the new live album.
: The new album is called Live All Access
and it's taken from two different shows. One in Philly, at Philly Sound, which is a half church, half recording studio. We just packed it full of people for two nights and recorded the show. I bought several kegs of beer. We just threw the doors open and let anybody come and watch, come to the radio station. And the second gig was in Manchester, New Hampshire about four months later.
But it's very pure. There are no overdubs. It's a three piece band with a singer. It isn't hit-laden. We're not trying to put that across - everybody does that. There are a couple of big songs on it, but mostly I just picked the songs that the band played the best that I enjoyed listening to.
And there's a lot going on. The band are playing really into each other and I'm pretty much jamming on top of it. It's a great record. We have "If You Ever Get Lonely" on there, which is a contender for a single. We've gone to radio with that. There's a band down in Nashville called Love and Theft who've also covered the song. They had the #1 single last year ["Angel Eyes
"], so we think they might have a #1 single with that song, too. It's interesting from a songwriting standpoint to have a country hit and a rock hit simultaneously - that would be an interesting time.
: Why do you think, especially nowadays, a lot of rock singers and also songwriters are crossing over into the country genre?
: Because that's where rock is. I mean, the mid-'80s arena rock has nothing to do with anything. That's just white music. But rock & roll from back when Little Richard was giving it a good singing to, and Elvis, Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, all the early white rock singers, that was part country. Elvis was part country in a big way. You put blues in there with country and you've got rock & roll. That's where rock & roll comes from.
I suppose it's an anomaly that you have this super white kind of American rock, but that's the odd man out, really. That's the odd thing, it's not the right thing. It's like a hybrid. But most great music comes from country and blues.
: You can even say that Johnny Cash is a connection and also the Rolling Stones.
: Johnny Cash didn't know whether he was rock & roll or country. He was both at the same time, and he was religious. So he was actually doing religious songs at the same time.
It's like Bill Evans, the jazz keyboard player. It's somebody who's hearing something that we're not. He's in communication with something that a lot of people can't hear. He's being led forward by his instincts. His muse. Actually, his muse is what's leading him.
: As far as songwriting goes, do you follow a set format?
: No. I close my eyes and hit a chord, and every single time I get a melody. And I'm quite good at placing words together. I take it very seriously and I avoid it like the plague. I think when I start to construct a record, it's like, "Oh, Christ." It means that I have to go and look in the mirror and write about things that actually are truthful and not just pop songs. I adore literature, you know. I read a lot of poetry. I'm steaming through William Blake at the moment, and Marcel Proust. I really love literature. So when I get to write lyrics, I don't take it lightly.
I'm very lucky in the fact that I can be inspired to the point where I can write an entire lyric in what is really minutes, and it's all free association. It's all saved up in the back of my mind. That's why I don't go to songwriting too often. I wait for it to be the last minute, because it just builds up. It's like turning on a faucet. I mean, "Missing You," the lyric took about 10 minutes. And half the Babys songs were written like that.
A lot of what I do now, the game is different. Being older, I don't want to be flying so high. I want to really address what's going on around me and write in a mature way. I look at songwriting now entirely different. I was just talking to somebody yesterday about my new recording. I start in about three months, but I've got this overpowering feeling about the record. I can't put my finger on it, but I know it's going to be one of the best things I do. I've just got this feeling. Once every six or seven years you get that feeling that something really different is going to come out. I've got this tremendous enthusiasm, I guess you'd call it, towards starting work on it.
: You just mentioned the song "Missing You" and also the writing of it. What else sticks out about writing that song? Because you collaborated on that song with two other songwriters [Mark Leonard and Chas Sandford], right?
: Yeah. Well, it was simply singing along to somebody else's tape. I was married at the time and my wife was a long way away. There were quite a few women in my life at the time, and it all came sort of floating to the top.
I was actually thinking about "Wichita Lineman
," the Glen Campbell song. And there's a song by Free called "Catch A Train." They have nothing to do with "Missing You" whatsoever, but the symbolism of waiting on a platform or a highway leading off into nowhere but telegraph poles into some unknown future.
It was written, really, about a phone call. But it came out of nowhere. I used a line from a Babys song, "Every time I think of you," which was a Babys song, just to get me started. And then I sang the whole first verse, bridge, and chorus without stopping. Then I had to stop, I was so overwhelmed. I stood back from the mic and I couldn't speak. Then I just rolled the tape again and got on with it.
Sometimes songs are really literally like poetry. You sit down, and even the way it looks on the paper is as important as the way it sounds. That's why I carry a notebook and I never use a typewriter or word processor. There's always something about the way the word looks. I used to be a painter, so I suppose that's got something to do with it, but it has to look right to me if I'm writing lyrics.
: I see. And with that song, did you know straightaway that it was going to be a hit?
: Yeah. I knew after I'd finished the first chorus. I had no idea I was going to sing, "Missing you, since you've been gone away, I ain't missing you no matter what my friends say." I had no idea I was going to sing that, and when it came out, it floored me. I stood back from the mic, and I thought, "Fuck it. Number 1." I just knew. I just knew in my heart that it was that good.
I took the tape down to the guys in the studio who were mixing, thinking the record was finished, and I knew it wasn't, since we didn't have "Missing You." I played it in the control room and everybody stopped talking. It had that effect on people from the word go. It was one of those songs that defined a decade, really. It was one of the biggest. I think it's been played about 9, 10 million times on American radio - it's a huge thing.
You know, the problem with having a song as big as "Missing You" is that it's so successful it overshadows everything else. [Laughing] But, that's kind of cool, too.
: What do you remember about the filming of the videos for "Missing You" and also "Change." Because I remember those two videos were very popular during the early days of MTV.
"Change" was John's first single as a solo artist. It was written by Holly Knight
, who first recorded it with her band Spider. The song is about staying true to yourself. "I had seen several musicians let the fame and success go to their head and I thought that all those things shouldn't really change a person because what's inside of you should remain the same," Knight explained.
John liked the song's message and its hit potential, and while it remains one of his most popular songs, poor promotion doomed its chart chances. Fed up with Chrysalis Records, he left after his first album and signed with EMI, who released his breakthrough, No Brakes
: Well, Kort Falkenberg III did "Change," and I liked him so much that when it came time to do "Missing You," I used him as well. Very nice guy. Very talented guy.
Both videos were both done in LA. I was living in New York City at the time, so it meant leaving New York to go somewhere to work, which is sometimes very good, because it puts you on the back foot - there's no comfort zone. You have to be in the environment you're put in.
"Change" was a brilliant video. Way ahead of its time. We were getting like 10 spins a day on MTV because nobody was making videos. And we'd gone in and made a work of art, really.
The biggest thing I remember about "Missing You" is that the night before I went down to Let It Rock, which was a clothes store on Melrose Avenue. I bought a Johnson suit, this black two-piece suit from London that was a beautiful suit. Tiny. I was very thin at the time. And then I went and had all my hair shaved off. I thought, "If I'm going to do this, I'm going to go in whole hog, you know. I'm just going to do it flat out European."
I showed up with a black suit and a crew cut, and it worked. I do everything on instinct, basically, and half of the time it's a bullseye.
: The scenes in the "Missing You" video, when you're walking down the street, do you remember exactly where that was filmed?
: Yeah. That was near Pershing Square. That was downtown LA, and you can tell how shy I was at the time. I'm trying to sing this song and sort of look at the camera and then not look at the camera. I'm embarrassed, you know. I mean, it's okay being on stage, because you're in some sort of persona. But being filmed was a new experience for me on that level. I suppose it was kind of charming. But there was a million places I would rather be than being filmed at that point in my life.
: I find those early years of the channel fascinating. I actually wrote a book a few years ago called MTV Ruled the World
, which studies those early years of music video and how music video really helped make bands and also artists.
: Yeah, it was a tremendous. I was living in New York City when it broke. I was living in this tiny one room apartment on 72nd Street, opposite where John Lennon was assassinated. All the VJs moved into town, and I remember watching the TV waiting for it to come on. But I knew them all. I knew JJ [Jackson], beautiful guy. I was very close with Nina [Blackwood]. I see them all. I'm still friends with them. They were just great people who were fun.
It caught on very slowly. The Babys actually filmed themselves playing in a studio to get a record deal. Although a lot of people lay claim to it, we really were the first band to ever get signed filming a video. We really were - it was 1975. So I was very familiar with film, always loved film, and always went after film. I watch film all the time.
But I was always thinking about visual images, being an ex-art student and thinking all of those artsy type of things. So for me it was a completely natural extension. But to a lot of other people, they really missed the point for about a year, and there was only maybe 10 or 12 videos in rotation for three months, four months maybe. They had nothing. They'd get old live things or they'd do interviews. And then they would play the same 10 videos.
In the end, all I had to do was turn the TV on and see myself 6 times before I would go out at night. It was just impossible. But they were great guys and it was a great time, really. It was fun.
When Mr. Waite fronted the Babys, most articles lumped the British band in with other power pop bands of the era (Cheap Trick, the Shoes, the Records, etc.). But as evidenced by such tracks as "Isn't It Time" (which featured female background singers and strings), the Babys were not easy to categorize. Although the group scored a pair of Top 20 singles in the US (the aforementioned "Isn't It Time," as well as "Every Time I Think of You") and played shows with some of rock's biggest names, the Babys failed to become a bonafide arena headliner, and by 1981, the band (which also featured future Journey/Bad English keyboardist Jonathan Cain) was kaput.
: And you just mentioned the Babys. Would you say the Babys were one of the first true power pop bands?
: No, we had nothing to do with power pop at all. I mean, some guy recently just said glam rock. We weren't glam rock, either. We did one video where they put too much makeup on us and then the colors weren't right and it looked like we were overdressed. But we were just regular.
I mean, I knew all about the blues, all about country. I was as serious as it gets. And the glam rock bands didn't really listen to anything else but Led Zeppelin. I'm a bit of a purist. My songwriting style comes from country and blues, it doesn't come from Led Zeppelin, and there's a gigantic chasm between those two things. One's popular rock and one's history. And it's valid history. Son House is like a god. And Jimi Hendrix somehow falls in the middle of it all. He was sort of like folk, jazz, blues, fusion, God knows what. There's genius out there.
But the arena rock thing, we had nothing to do with that. See, this is the Babys music. It wasn't anthemic. I sing as a blues singer. There's no way I could do the other thing, I don't think. But you're the guy. I mean, to me, it's purely subjective. You can see it from the outside. Maybe I'm wrong and you're right.
: Who were some bands that the Babys toured with back in the '70s?
: Journey a lot. Styx. We headlined a lot. We had Alice Cooper. We had this rule - Ronnie Wood with the Faces once said they'd open for any band in the world and blow them off, and I always thought, "That's exactly right." The Babys basically did that. We were more popular, I think, as a live act than a recording act, although you still hear us on the radio. But we were something else live. We were serious.
: And I just read, too, that the Babys got back together this year.
: How remarkable is that?
: Yeah. And I was going to ask, did they get in contact with you?
: Well, yeah. Tony [Brock, drummer] emailed me back and forth a couple of years ago. He really wanted to do it, and I really didn't. We decided to meet for a drink, which might have sent things in a positive direction. We said, "Okay, look, I'll meet you for a pint at the King's Head in Santa Monica." On that day he had to go down to San Diego - it was his kid's birthday. So he had to take a rain check and we never rescheduled.
But I wish them the best. Wally [Stocker, guitarist] and Tony are great together. They're like a force unto themselves. And I really do, with all my heart, wish them the best. It's just that I spent seven years in the Babys. I was the guy that was there for the full seven years when people came and went. And that was enough.
When you get a taste of going solo... I mean, I operate on a whole different level now. and anything but autonomy is unacceptable. I know exactly what I want to do.
In 1993, the Irish rock band the Cranberries issued an album titled Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?
This same phrase perfectly sums up the formation of the short-lived supergroup, Bad English. Featuring Waite as well as ex-Journey members Neal Schon (guitar) and Jonathan Cain (keyboards), the group grew out/poofed out their hair, wrote arena rockers and bombastic ballads that reflected the same formula that countless other acts rode all the way to the top of the charts in the late '80s, and immediately struck platinum with their 1989 self-titled debut. But the success was fleeting - after only one more album (1991's Backlash), Bad English went the way of the dodo.
: What do you remember about your days with Bad English, which scored that huge hit with "When I See You Smile" [written by Diane Warren].
: Well, it was fun. It was fun for a year. And then people reverted to type. I think the Journey guys wanted to be back in Journey and I wanted to be back solo. We had a very valiant attempt at making a second record, but we weren't given enough time to write it. We tried, and we almost made it.
I remember one day going in the studio to sing and then going to work with three separate songwriters before I came back in the studio. I was running on empty. Everybody in that band was trying their absolute hardest to come up with the goods, but you cannot write a record to follow up a #1 double platinum selling record in a month. You can't do it. The management thought we could and it broke the band up.
: Who would you say are some of your favorite singers and also songwriters?
: Hank Williams I think is a great American poet. I think he's equal to any American writer. He just takes my breath away. Singer-wise, Steve Marriott, Paul Rodgers, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Etta James, Tina Turner. A lot of black women really get down, and it's shocking how good they are. It makes everything else look unreal.
But I don't have heroes. When I was coming up, when I was a kid and I heard these great singers coming from America, these African-American singers, I knew I'd never be as good as that. But I knew that I was different. I was going to be a painter, and I studied to be a painter for four years. I knew that I'd never be great as a painter, but I'd be unusual as a singer, because I also wrote.
So when you hear something like After the Gold Rush
by Neil Young, or you hear Blood on the Tracks
by Dylan, you're hearing people singing in a human, conversational way. I don't like arena rock singers. I don't like the overstated, overheated sugar-type music that comes out sometimes. The people I love the most put it across with an acoustic guitar.
I like the humanness of it, you know? Without the humanity in it, singing is nothing.
: And are there any songwriters or artists that you'd like to collaborate with that you haven't already?
: [Laughing] Well, there are people I admire enormously, like Bob Dylan. But it's almost like wanting to align yourself with their talent. It's like people cover a Dylan song and think that they're Dylan, or that somehow it puts them on a level with Dylan. And it isn't like that. It's just not.
I'm critical. I'm critical of my own stuff. When I'm on a roll you can't really talk to me, because I'm just completely in my own world in the studio, and I get the job done real fast, because I know where I'm going. But there isn't anybody that would keep me awake at night thinking I've got to work with that person.
In a band it's different: you're always looking for that guitar player, because the guitar player and the singer, they're like brothers, they're like twins. And without the other twin, it's not going to work.
: You mentioned that you're excited about your next studio album. What can we expect from that, and do you have any song titles?
: Oh, no, I wouldn't be telling you song titles. I'm looking at one now I've written down on an easel. I've got an easel set up and there's the name of a famous poet written on it, and I'm going to explore that. But it's stories. It's stories that are super melodic that are not just folk songs. I think a lot of it's going to be electric powered, and the rest of it's going to be like falling off a log. It's going to come very fast.
But like I say, you wait for these cycles to come, and then the door just bursts open.
August 21, 2013
For more information about Mr. Waite, visit johnwaitethesinger.com