Interview: John Waite
From The Babys in the 70s via 80s solo smash ‘Missing You’ to his new live album, he’s not stopping
Some songwriters can be prolific and regularly churn out tunes and lyrics, yet frustratingly never see a substantial royalty cheque land on their doormat. On the other hand, some songwriters pen a few songs and manage to strike gold with one big hit that sets them up for life. Lancaster-born John Waite, however, is a songwriter who has experienced both worlds… and kept going.
While consistently achieving chart success across the past four decades, both as a solo artist and fronting several successful pop/rock bands, Waite has also experienced the life-transforming effect of a worldwide No 1 single with Missing You that sold millions and made millions for its writer.
Back in 1974, Waite was a rare breed of singing, songwriting bass players, and it was this dexterous mix of abilities that got him the job of fronting British rock group The Babys. The band had hits with Isn’t It Time and Everytime I Think Of You, before breaking up in 1980 when John Waite became a solo artist.
Missing You kickstarted his career, but by the late 80s, he’d got back together with members of The Babys and Journey to form the supergroup Bad English. Far from being a step backwards, the group had another huge hit with When I See You Smile which became Waite’s second No.1 record.
As we find during our conversation with the now 61-year-old Waite, it wasn’t an easy path. In fact, it was when he was at his lowest ebb that his fortunes abruptly changed for the better. So what kept him going and keeps him going now? How does he stay creative? And what drove him to start writing songs in the first place? These are all questions we had to ask…
What’s your earliest memory of writing music?
“The first conscious time I put a melody together was waiting for a bus on Common Garden Street in Lancaster when I was about eight years old. The bus was called the Scotforth 11, and I made a melody up that was a bit like Moon River. I used to sing it in my head, waiting for the bus.”
When did you first pick up an instrument, and was it the bass guitar?
“No, I got a little plastic ukulele when I was about five years old. It had a Tommy Steele sticker on the bottom, but about a year later it fell off and I realised that it was the same shape as Mickey Mouse’s head, so I’d really had a Mickey Mouse ukulele all that time. It was the first big disappointment I had in the music business!”
“My cousin Michael was a really brilliant banjo player and played in The Temperance Seven – he played me Hank Williams. I always had America in my head as a little boy. It was this huge thing that was vivid, colourful and full of imagery, slightly taboo and racy… and that was music to me.”
Was that the Elvis era?
“No, I didn’t get Elvis. When I first heard Return To Sender, I thought ‘sender’ was a place! So a lot of Elvis went over my head. I was too young to get any of it, but I sensed those pastel colours, seamed stockings, bouffant hairdos, and those black & white light porn magazines at the newsagents – I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was all about rock’n’roll. America seemed to herald the truth.”
Were you influenced by any other acts at that time?
“My Auntie Doris gave me a Radiogram and there was some 45s and 78s with it. It introduced me to Nina & Frederik and the only person I’ve ever heard refer to them is Paul McCartney. It was in a minor key and very sad – it had a big effect on me. I was very alert as a kid and anything musical came on, I would be fascinated. I used to watch the test card on the TV, because they were playing a piece of music in the background. There was this beautiful chord change from A major down to an F, and it was like a scene from The Magnificent Seven. The older people had Elvis, but our generation were looking for something else.”
What was that something else?
“I remember the first record I bought was The Shadows’ Shadows To The Fall. Around the same time there was Lonnie Donegan and skiffle, but then The Beatles came out of nowhere and it changed everything forever.”
When did you start getting into bands yourself?
“My brother had a band called The Wild Cats, and if the singer didn’t show up I’d sing on the mic – we’d do Walking The Dog, Maybelline, Lucille, early R&B stuff and anything I knew. It must’ve sounded fucking terrible, but I knew I could really sing rock’n’roll and it sounded different. There was also Graf Spee, which was a three-piece band named after a German battleship, and that was when I started writing. I wrote for them because they couldn’t write songs, but I’ve always been interested in words. I failed miserably at school at everything and the only thing I was good at was art, so I went to art school for four years. But I was fascinated by literature. I was starting to write words and writing down my thoughts.”
How did you get your big break?
“I got a letter from the singer who was in Ohio, saying to come over and play bass in this band that had a record deal. I somehow managed to get over there, stayed for about four months in Cleveland, but it all fell through so I came home, and ran into the people who were trying to start The Babys.”
So even though you were desperate to go to America, it didn’t work out in Cleveland?
“No, it was terrible. We’d tried to play gigs and live off spaghetti. I went halfway around the world looking for ‘it’, but it wasn’t what I was looking for so I came back. It could’ve been the end of everything…”
But it turned out to be the beginning?
“Well this is where it gets interesting. I met a manager called Adrian Millar and he said he was going to put the biggest band together in the world. He had a guitar player called Mike Corby. I had a couple of songs finished at this point – one called You’ll Get Yours in 7/4 time, which I was quite proud of. Adrian took me to one side after a rehearsal and said ‘we’re going into the studio next week, write us a couple’. Then I realised that no-one else in the band could write, so I took the job on with incredible gratitude.”
So that was your big opportunity?
“The door opened. They didn’t have a singer and I could sing. They hadn’t got a bass player and I could play bass. The manager wasn’t musical at all. When I turned around with that song in 7/4 he wasn’t impressed. I was always trying to do something that was slightly unusual. I knew there were people out there who were brilliant, who had already done things that I’d never be able to achieve. So I knew that, if I didn’t delve into the deepest part of myself, they’d have no worth. Some of my songs are quite revealing and there’s quite a bit of storytelling in them, because that’s how I approach songwriting.”
When you sit there with the pen and an empty page, where do you start? Do have anything in mind to begin with, or does it just flow?
“I make it all up simultaneously. If someone plays something that inspires me, I immediately start singing the melody, and that tends to have some sort of value lyrically that either becomes the title or the verse. With some of the most successful songs that I’ve written, a lot of it has been pure word association. I can’t believe that it rhymes! It’s like having someone else inside who’s writing it who has control of my subconscious! It has to look elegant as well as sounding elegant. I never type lyrics, they always have to be handwritten and it has to look right as well. That means a lot to me for some reason. I can tell if it’s right by the way it looks!”
Do you use a pen or a pencil?
“I never use a pencil. When I was in Bad English and we were trying to write songs, they all had a legal pad and a pencil with an eraser on the end – I thought that was the antithesis of how I operate! I get a notebook and write what I’m thinking in the best way I can, then I turn the page and re-write it long-hand again, editing as I go. Then on the third page I’ll write it out again and revise it some more. By the time I’ve reached the fourth or fifth page, I’ve kind of got it. It has to happen like that for me. It’s like singing the song – I have to feel the movement of the syllables.”
[cc_blockquote_right] I PREFER TO BE REALLY UNDER THE GUN AND HAVE A DEADLINE – THEN THE MOST AMAZING THINGS HAPPEN [/cc_blockquote_right] That’s interesting, it’s almost like how you’d ‘track’ vocals in the studio and each take you’re tweaking it a little.
“Yeah, it really is. I hadn’t thought of that. I have one of those yellow notebooks with the elastic band around it and it’s jammed full of lyrics, phrases and titles. No kidding, I’ve probably got about 50 blank notebooks in my apartment! There’s something about spoiling a page – once you’ve committed pen to the front page, you’ve either sullied it or you’ve begun something. I prefer to be really under the gun and have a deadline – then the most amazing things happen. With my last record Rough & Tumble we wrote seven songs in three days. We wrote the title track the day before we went in the studio, and it went to No 1 on the Classic Rock chart in America. I know it’s a talent, and I will not be coy about it. But I can’t explain it!
“Songwriting’s like a woman – your muse is a very female thing. If you take it for granted, it’ll start to gradually ignore you and then it disappears! So I write like I’ve only got an hour to live. I’ll think back to my childhood, and think about things that went wrong in my life, and things that went right, and how much I love somebody, or New York City. I never stop thinking!”
How did you go from The Babys to launching your solo career?
“I had a knee injury on the last tour with The Babys, so I was in hospital for a few days, then went home to England and that was the end of the band. Our keyboard player was joining Journey anyway – we were absolutely sunk. Then I got asked to make a solo album in New York City with Ivan Kral, who’d worked with Patti Smith and Iggy Pop. That was an amazing two years – no money and living day-to-day, but we wrote great songs. I discovered New York and it opened my eyes. It’s still the place that I think of as home, no matter where I am in the world. Then I got a deal with EMI and made the album that had Missing You on it, so I went from being broke to selling two million records. And then the fun really started!”
You’ve had a long and successful career as a musician and songwriter. What keeps you going?
“Music is almost like God – you can play a song to anybody from any religion, any warp of life and they could dance to it, smile or be driven to tears. There’s something inspiring, lifting, unifying and just plain great about music! I’m a complicated person and the only way I can find my way out of this complication is if I write down what I’m thinking. It’s cathartic. The reason I’ve never had to go to therapy is because I’m continually asking myself what’s going on around me.”
Looking at your discography, you’ve put out a record every two or three years since the 70s and your hit-rate’s not bad either!
“They’re not the best songs though, that’s the problem. When You Were Mine was the best album I ever did. Suicide Life and Bluebird Café were on there. I kind of went country in an English way, but it’s a beautiful record.”
Are they on the live album All Access?
“No, none of that made the live album. A lot of that stuff came from my last album, Rough & Tumble, there’s Head First by The Babys in the middle and Change at the start, which I didn’t write. It’s all performance-driven, so I just picked the best live songs. It’s just an honest record – no overdubs – we’ve gone for the best songs the band’s played, and put it out.”
Is it a compilation of various gigs or just one show recorded?
“There were two gigs. We started recording in South Philly at a church called Philly Sound. It’s an extremely blue collar area and Philly can be a handful! It’s raw. There’s a studio built into the side of the church. We announced it on the radio, bought a couple of kegs of beer for the night, let people in for free and we played two nights. Then six weeks later, the rhythm section had tightened up, the band was playing differently, and suddenly I’m singing differently, and we got the urge to record again, so we played three more gigs at a theatre in Manchester, New Hampshire.”
What’s next for you then John?
“Well, If You Ever Get Lonely was a song on Rough & Tumble, and there’s a country band called Love And Theft who have just done a cut of that, which is moving up the Country charts. If it gets into the Top 30 then I think everything will change overnight and we’ll be in for a very interesting rest of the year. If not, then I’ll release another live album in about six to 18 months. I know Mick Jagger has just turned 70, but I’m not a kid anymore and I don’t know how long I’ve got! If this was my last record, I’d still be happy with it.”
Was If You Ever Get Lonely a country song originally, or has it just been interpreted that way?
“That was me and Kyle Cook from Matchbox Twenty. I was just trying to write a lyrical thing about picking up the phone. It’s ‘the one that got away’ – that girl who’s rang you by accident. So many people go through that. It wasn’t intentional to write it like that, but me and Kyle were just sat there and I sang the first line.”
Have you collaborated a lot over the years?
“Oh yeah, I love to. Like Keith Richards once said, I need someone to be a sounding board. I can get two chords out of somebody, then I take the ball and run with it. Bluebird Café I wrote with a big Nashville guy called Donny Lowery – a mountain man who lives out in the woods. He had this one phrase: ‘Young hearts can fly, restless and wild’ and we couldn’t get anything to happen with it. We went to a local diner and this beautiful Iranian girl ran up to us, started flirting and said she was going to play at The Ace Of Clubs with her band that night. A lightbulb went on over my head and I went back into the studio and wrote the entire lyric based around Danny’s line. If that girl hadn’t run up to us, I’d never have written it!
“I honestly don’t know where it all comes from, but it’s really interesting when you’re in the middle of it. When it comes to writing melody over music, I don’t know anything else that’s as meaningful, yet indefinable.”
Interview: Alex Miles