FMQB Retro-Active: Ken Sharp Chats With The Legendary John Waite
July 23, 2013
WELL WORTH THE WAITE… The music scene is littered with loads of good rock and roll singers but those singularly distinctive, world class vocalists are few and far between. John Waite is one of those singers. With over three decades of music making carving up massive hits with The Babys, Bad English and as a solo artist, Waite's spectacular voice -- versatile and vulnerable, gritty and refined -- has served as his passport to global success. It's almost supernatural, as if the Lancaster, England native visited the famous crossroads in the deep South where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson made his fateful pact with the devil, and Waite brokered the same deal, because he sings as good -- if not better -- than ever. Still not convinced? Spin Waite's terrific new CD,Live All Access, from the balls out rockers "Saturday Night" and The Babys' classic "Head First" to the exquisite vocal dynamics that underpin "If You Ever Get Lonely" and "In Dreams." Retro-Active correspondent Ken Sharp sat down with the gifted singer/songwriter, who regaled us with stories of his adventures on the rock and roll highway.
You've done 10 solo albums. What made this the right time to release a live record?
John Waite: I did actually do a live album previously but it disappeared. I made one that got signed away to Sony and they deleted it. I’m trying to find that and get it back.But this one, Live All Access, is about the band suddenly becoming a great three piece band with a singer like some of those bands in the '70s.
Yeah, exactly, like Free and all those great bands back then when there were no synthesizers. Back then, if somebody was gonna play keyboards, it was a Hammond organ. That's what I was looking for. About eight months ago we got Keri Kelly on guitar. He just showed up, I don’t know quite how he came into the picture. We needed a guitar player and he’d been a fan for a while and was checking us out. And he fit and he was great. It took him about two months before he could find his way being in a three-piece band. He’d played in Slash’s Snake Pit with more than one guitar player and he also played with AliceCooper who had Damon Johnson with him as well, so in those bands he was always playing with another guitar player. But as the sole guitarist in a three-piece, Keri has to carry everything. You’ve got to have the chops. I saw the change in his playing over time, it just became progressively more confident, defined and spontaneous, all the things that I love so much about great guitar players. I thought I’ve got to get this band on tape. It doesn’t matter how we do it; we might just give it to the radio or put it on as bonus tracks for albums to come. But it turned out to be so great that I felt I’d like the world to have it. I did it through my own label, put it up on iTunes. It’s not a greatest hits; there's "Head First" on there and "Change," and then the rest of it is what I thought was the best stuff that we played.
Does playing live with a three-piece band who tackle the material in a more stripped down fashion make it more exciting for you?
Yeah. You’ve got to be on a different level. You can’t coast. Nobody can take their eyes off the ball for a second. You’re playing to each other; it’s a musical conversation or a musical argument on stage and that doesn’t exist with most classic rock bands because while a lot of them play live, quite a few play to tapes. But there’s that thing about the audience making each night different and we play slightly different each night. That’s the whole point. The freshness comes from being so stripped down. Everybody plays in a more concentrated way. You can’t miss anything. If you miss a beat or I sing a different lyric or hit a bum note, it shows so you have to go out there with complete concentration. It’s like Zen. You go out there and then you forget it and you just perform the songs and that’s the magic.
Playing live, you’re channeling into the energy of the crowd.
Yeah, channeling is a good word. We just recently played a headlining gig in Dayton, Ohio to 4,000 people and it was the best gig we’ve played. The last couple of years we were playing much smaller places trying to get radio to promote the Rough & Tumble CD. We wound up with a number one single at classic rock radio by playing smaller places, getting up at six o’clock in the morning, going to radio stations, playing live on the air and then doing TV. So naturally we got to every station in America and it was reflected in having the number one record but it put us in the clubs. Then we’d occasionally do a really big gig somewhere and that would feel right. Doing the clubs was great and it’s kind of a one-on-one experience. But like the Dayton show, something kicks in when you’re playing to thousands of people. It’s like somebody throws you the keys to a sports car that you haven’t driven and says, “Try this” and away you go and the band just takes off. I think maybe it’s the collective energy of all those people in one room. We’re looking at playing bigger gigs from this point on; we don’t want to go back to doing the clubs.
Some people stand staunchly behind The Who’s Live at Leeds, other cite The Rolling Stones Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out while others point to Humble Pie’s Rockin’ the Fillmore, but what’s the ultimate live album for you?
Well, the one I spent the most time with was Get Yer Ya’s Ya’s Out by The Stones and also Free Live. Then the Free live stuff from the box set: there’s a version of “Mr. Big” that’s just off the hook. Obviously, Rockin’ the Fillmore was seminal and it had an unbelievable influence on me. There’s a live Humble Pie record on iTunes, I think it’s called Live at Winterland, and that is unbelievably good. I also listen to a live album by Bill Evans, the jazz keyboard player, called Live at the Village Vanguard, which I really like. Ike & Tina Turner’s What You Hear is What You Get is a great live album. I like live albums. The whole thing is the interaction and once you take that away into the studio and rebuild it you take the music out of it. So being a musician at my age, I’m into the primitiveness of music ‘cause that’s what music is to me.
More than any other position in a band, putting yourself out there as lead singer requires some big time moxie. Where did that confidence come from?
I think it comes down to a belief in the music and the passion of it. If you didn’t write the songs you wouldn’t have anything to say. And once you get in front of all those people you’re trying to communicate; it’s like sharing something. You’re trying to tell people what you’re feeling and share that emotion and that’s what singing is. It’s like liquid art. It’s like something that’s invisible but everybody gets it. Painters paint, actors act, but the singer, if he’s written the song, that’s like Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric.” It’s something that’s indescribable.
Having seen you in concert many times and listening to the new CD, Live All Access, your voice is better than ever. What do you ascribe that to?
I quit smoking last year and I smoke the occasional cigar. I don’t live hard, which I used to in The Babys and Bad English. Right now, it’s ten o’clock in the morning, and if there was a show I could go on stage and sing for 90 minutes and I have no idea where it comes from.
Most rock and roll singers couldn’t do that. They’d certainly have to drop the keys of the songs.
I think that if I had to drop the keys for my songs I’d stop singing. The original songs were written to be sung in that key and that’s what I want to do. If you drop the key to a song the tonality goes immediately. I’m a better singer than I was and I don’t know why. I would like to think that philosophically it’s because you’re grown up and you’ve got all this wisdom. But it is like a physical thing too. But when I sing, I get out there in front of people and I mean it and it’s just there.
Right now the country band Love & Theft’s version of “If You Ever Get Lonely” is rocketing up the country charts. Going back to The Babys, there’s been a distinct country thread in some of your work. The Babys performed your country tinged song “Restless Heart” live but did not record it; you’d later record it for 1984’s No Brakes album. What is it about your writing and artistic sensibilities that lends itself to country music?
I don’t think I really belong in classic rock and I’m not really country either but country’s got more rock so it’s probably moving more towards where I am. As a kid, Marty Robbins was a huge influence because he was singing about cowboys. The album cover for Gunfighter Ballads & Trail Songs was a huge album for me. It spelled America for me. I’ve always played and listened to country music. It wasn’t like one of those things where I suddenly went country. I was playing it to The Babys. They didn’t want to record “Restless Heart” because they felt it wasn’t rock and roll so it’s not hip. That was the difference between me and The Babys. I was very hip to black music and country and they were more involved with contemporary rock and it was a meeting of those two worlds that made The Babys what it was. I probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere without them because I wouldn’t have been as rock and roll as I needed to be. Tony (Brock) and Wally (Stocker) were throwing down and driving it. I would be writing these lyrics and melodies that were unusual; it was blues driven. That’s what made The Babys what they were. I knew about all this American stuff and they didn’t but what they brought to the table was substantial. It was big.
With changes occurring in the music industry at hyper speed, artists like yourself have bypassed labels and are in control of their destiny. How has that freed you up artistically?
In haven’t been in the same room with an A&R guy for 20 years. I just won’t do it. Some brilliant person once said that A&R stands for “always wrong” and that’s basically how I see it. I make better records left to my own devices and I haven’t got the time to listen to somebody who can’t play an instrument tell me what I’m doing wrong. It just doesn’t work for me. I produce my own stuff and I’m good at it. Not having a label or A&R guy to answer to gives you a lot more freedom because you’re not looking to write pop singles or trying to please anybody or be number one. The fact that “If You Ever Get Lonely” is doing so well is an affirmation of that. Whatever time that I’ve got left to sing the way I’ve been singing I want to do work that stretches myself as much as I can and go somewhere that I haven’t been before.
“Missing You” is one of your signature solo songs. The new book, VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave, written by the first MTV VJs, was recently published. In the book, VJ Nina Blackwood states she was the inspiration behind that smash hit.
My marriage was falling apart so I wasn’t seeing my wife and I was living in New York. I was very good friends with Nina and I met another girl who I wound up getting engaged to. “Missing You” is an amalgam of three different people. In his book, Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust says that when he imagines a country girl he also imagines the country. You can’t separate the girl from the river and the trees and the grass because everything is the same experience. I was writing about these women, I was writing about New York, and I was also writing about distance. Each girl played a very large part in that song. As for Nina, we were very close. What she wrote about us in that book was very touching. In fact, she described the Eighties better than I ever could. The Eighties were great. In New York it was rock and roll, it wasn’t blue hair and spandex. New York was still guitar driven, Johnny Thunders and the EastVillage.
Some artists I’ve spoken to who’ve gone solo after fronting popular bands fess up that they ultimately didn’t like it. In a band you could share responsibilities and workload but as a solo artist all the weight is on you.
I never felt like that. I’ve always played with people that I respected so I was always open to their input as well. For instance, on my first solo album I played with people like Frankie La Rocka on drums, Ivan Kral on guitar and Donnie Nossov on bass and they were people that I really loved and I listened to them. If they were playing something the way it wasn’t meant to be played then it meant that the band shouldn’t be playing it.I’m pretty democratic and I always play with people that I think a lot of. Autonomy is something you can have and make it work if you’re generous and I think if you’re uptight and narrow minded you’ll make yourself unpleasant to people. I don’t like that kind of thing. I like everybody to have a real ball when they’re playing with me.
You’re had your songs covered by the likes of Rod Stewart to Tina Turner (“Missing You”). Is there one artist who’d you like to see cover one of your tunes?
I’d like to see Willie Nelson do “Bluebird Cafe.” I think that it was meant to be sung by an older guy to a young girl about what country music means. If Willie Nelson did that, I’d kiss his feet. (laughs) He’s one of the few people on the planet that could do that song justice. I think “Bluebird Café” is in the top three of the best songs I’ve ever written and that’s a country song. Lyrically, that hit the nail on the head.
The Babys have reunited 33 years after the band dissolved with founding members Tony Brock and Wally Stocker. Why didn’t you take part?
When The Babys split up 33 years ago, I remember saying to the band while we were making our last album (On the Edge), “If we split up it’s for good.” I think they should have gotten together 10 or 15 years ago; I don’t know what took them so long. But I was never gonna go backwards and rejoin The Babys, same reason I wouldn’t want to go back to Bad English. It’s not the point. I just think there’s a time for everything. I just watched a video of The Babys performing “Money” on The Chuck Barris Show and it’s just off the hook! You can tell by the way I was dressed and the way I kind of acted that it was my moment in that time and I don’t want to go backwards. It’s like getting divorced, after 30 years you don’t say, “Hey baby, I was wrong, let’s get back together.” I gave them my blessing and I meant it. I think Wally and Tony were made to play with each other. The real magic of that band instrumentally was Wally and Tony; there was never any doubt about it. The moment we got Wally into the band, Tony dug in on a whole different level. We became more blues based and it worked and it worked for me. The reason The Babys stayed together was Wally. He just understood the blues thing that I was going for, his big chord shifts, the voicing’s on the guitar and then staying away when I was singing and then stepping in when I stopped singing. It was an instinctual thing between me and Wally. So I’m very pleased that Tony’s working with Wally again; I truly think it’s great and I think they’ve got some very capable new guys in the band.
Their new lead singer John Bisaha is a huge fan of yours. I understand you heard their new single, "Not Ready." What were your impressions?
I thought it was good, they did a good job. I haven’t really sat down and listened to it with a critic’s eye; I was just checking out the singer. I’m sending the band my best wishes and I want them to do well.