The Babys’ Playground Politics

SO WHY should I believe one word coming from John Waite’s pertly posed lips? Here’s this image of deceptive age, leader of a group who’ve been promoted more than played. Sashaying into the hotel lobby, the five Babys stand peacock bright amid the muted beige reception area. They wear layers of bandanas, jewelry, earrings and carefully flung bits of tat, with only new keyboardist Jonathan Cain, a solid man from the wilds of Chicago, clad in respectable black leather jacket and looking mortal.

The rock ‘n’ roll anarchist in me, cleverly concealed in discount designer duds, rankled at the very existence of this lot. The Babys are not household words — they are the household! I’ve got a Broken Heart mirror on one wall and have the option to parade through the Apple in a hand-embroidered Head First tour jacket. Does the “take a Baby to bed with you” folding sofa arrive next?

The first clue that human beings exist apart from all this imposed frou-frou exhibits itself when John gets embarrassed and defends his gear. “There’s no apologies offered for who we are,” he states in a hardly altered north-of-England tongue. “I am exactly what I am. Some people say I dress weird, but I dress like this when I’m on the street. Michael [Corby] was very showbiz, he loved all that, and I think it might have been a bit overplayed. Too much image and not enough music being presented to the public. But that’s out of our hands, we just create the music and the powers-that-be go overboard.”

John describes his garb as “window cleaner Keith Richards.” There’s a framed photo of Keethy in his hotel room, another good sign — admiration of your inspiration. John doesn’t do a bad job replicating the consumptive rock ‘n’ roll star cough, but his teeth aren’t green and appear healthy. I am beginning to think that I shouldn’t hold Waite’s rumored liaison with Britt Ekland against him.

It isn’t until the Babys take the stage at a respectably sold but not crammed Bottom Line set two days later that John Waite’s comments retrospectively ring true. He wasn’t jiving about his costume. In fact, he’s wearing exactly the same loosely-flung dark red long jacket, wrap-around scarf and basic white straight-legs (not off the presser), that accompanied him to the dinner table. The medium and the message are one and the same, I’ll be damned. As cynicism bids a reluctant farewell, the show demands attention, and celebrity audience member Ray Davies didn’t show any qualms about gracefully seat-bopping to the Babys’ classic hard rock beat.

Two years ago, the Babys made their New York City debut at a now-defunct Upper East Side beerkeller. The improvement in both band and venue are astounding. Forced to compress their sound into club dimensions, the group plays fully without getting overbearing. Waite acknowledges the leftover glitter screamers at the front tables, but doesn’t cater to them. Instead, he loses himself in the pumping repetitions of ‘Give Me Your Love’, plays the reflective charmer on probably his strongest composition to date, ‘California’, and delivered a rousing closer of ‘Money’, introducing the tune as “A song about my hobby.” Any resemblance between Waite and another misunderstood teen love object, the 1967-vintage Steve Marriott, belongs purely to a particularly fond place in my imagination.

Given the strength this new lineup exhibits live, it was obviously Corby and the rest of the group working at cross-purposes which almost turned the Babys into toothless old men. We all smelled trouble when Michael was mistakenly ID’d as the unmasked Paul Stanley in a shot at Studio Impenetrable, and was reported pleased with the bollix. John reviewed the situation, painfully dredging up the details.

“Everybody in the band knew that it was really getting too tense to be OK, we weren’t being as creative as we could be. And it had been coming for a couple of years. It wasn’t one of those things that happens in two months. It built up and built up to the point where we couldn’t play together. It just had to go down, either that or break up.

“There were just the three of us left, completin’ Head First and writin’ stuff to finish it with and it was very scary. We knew it could be either way.” Thanks to a Los Angeles writing team, Conrad and Kennedy, the Babys found themselves in a peculiar situation — auditioning replacement band members just as ‘Every Time I Think Of You’ followed ‘Isn’t It Time’ into the charts.

Score another point for a grasp on street reality when both Waite and sunshine blond bassist Ricky Phillips recalled the band’s open call auditions after Corby got the boot. “We just threw the doors open and anybody who said they could play, we said we’d give ’em a shot. Because a lot of kids who aren’t famous, just startin’ out, are sometimes really great musicians who get passed over by elitist rock ‘n’ rollers. We wanted somebody fresh.

“We had a really tough time with the keyboard players, and then Jay suddenly turned up out of the blue. He got on the keyboards and it was really rock ‘n’ roll, he was goin’ for it. He got the gig immediately, and we said, ‘pack your case.’

“It wasn’t really how many people tried out, but what kind of people. You sometimes got real nuts! It was insane, but it was something we felt we had to give a shot. We had a couple of black guys, there were no limits, they didn’t have to be cute[!]. If you could play, that was it.”

Phillips appeared to be totally compatible with the Babys mode, admitting that he fancied the style even before auditioning. While Jonathan Cain, who led his own r&b flavored outfit in Chicago (one LP on Bearsville) is imposing, Ricky is, well, cute. He’s more than glad to have forfeited a day job in a music store for the mixed pleasures of life on the road, commencing with the band’s ongoing 12-week coast to coaster.

John Waite thrives on the road. A California tan would look abnormal on his stick-y frame, while the dulling pallor of 83 airplanes and no sleep is actually flattering to him. Of all the Brit rockers lured to El-Lay by soft ocean breezes and relaxed lifestyle, Waite seems eager to relocate someplace he can move, leap, soar, carouse, and ultimately, work. Los Angeles’ only mark on him is his burning desire for a pink XKE (he settled for a white Mustang), though Waite’s driving habits preclude his legally turning the car’s ignition. Better he should head East and burn up some high energy dodging the street shooters. After all, he’s really just a grown-older guttersnipe leading a band whose name was a calculated bid for attention. It’s no fun being out of phase in England.

“If I was still in England I’d probably be stealing cars, or selling matchboxes. I was very desperate when I was about 21, I couldn’t imagine getting older and not being a musician. I came home several times in England, from London to Lancaster, my home town, defeated, completely starving to death with no money. And once I came home from America like that before the Babys started.

“We were a street band in London, just like any other street band anywhere in the world. And we couldn’t get a record contract because the record companies were signing teen bands and nobody else. So for a week we decided to call ourselves the Babys and get all these guys down and play rock ‘n’ roll to ’em. And the word got out there was a good rock ‘n’ roll band actually calling themselves the Babys and within a couple of weeks London was sort of buzzing with it, so we just kept it. The image got out of control I guess when we came to America.”

My introduction to the Babys was on video, watching the color tape the band put together which led to their label deal with Chrysalis. Without realizing that packaging can hold back as tightly as it holds in, the Babys began their growth along proscribed teen-appeal lines. New York, for instance, gave the band a quick over and out when they played a radio concert for 3500 screaming little girls, eager to get their mitts on these Baby City Rollers.

Maturity hasn’t meant an effortless transition to honest rock ‘n’ rolling, but buoyed by the hit singles and the definitively music-minded new members, the Babys have stopped feeling like remote-controlled music biz dollies. Their fourth album, due to be recorded later in the year, will be the band’s vinyl finals, as we watch to see if Waite, Stacker and Brock continue to diversify away from their sometimes predictable Britbeat, while Cain’s new songs hopefully kick in that one-two punch emphasizing the soul of the Midwest. Waite has left the deadly Paul Rodgers derivation behind him onstage — he needs the vehicle of an equally fiery album to permanently bury the comparison.

“I really thought I’d shook that one.” John shook his head and grimaced. “I was just telling a guy that we were trying to take the band back to the 60’s, but with a real smack of 70’s and make a hybrid thing out of it. That we can come out with intelligent songs and good lyrics. And the blues influence that Paul Rodgers went through, I went through. When I was growing up, all you heard was soul music. So me and him were both listening to the same people, although I was listening to Paul Rodgers as well. I think he’s great, but it’s a drag to be compared to him.”

Currently in their mid and late 20’s, the Babys have grown to appreciate balance. They feel they’ve earned the hit singles, so maybe the label won’t have to push so hard in pressing the group’s stardom, now that they’ve legitimately reached the airwaves. The near split-up has forced additional maturation upon the band, and their skepticism about the usual music channels for replacement members is encouraging. Despite inflated claims made in their early days, the Babys were not put on earth to be a supergroup — fortunately, they don’t see themselves that way, either. Said Phillips, “Just knowing the band the way I do at this point, you don’t go onstage thinking of yourself as being THE BABYS. You go onstage thinking of yourself as part of a hard-core rock ‘n’ roll band who happen to have a couple of really nice singles out that also show the other side of our emotions.”

John Waite adds, “Our albums have sometimes been fairly lush, but on Head First it was just three guys belting away in the studio. And every album you make should be like a book, it should show all sides of who you are and what you do. You should try to explain about yourself and where you’re coming from. You should be honest and aggressive as the rock ‘n’ roll is on the album, and there’s a lot of romantic stuff too, but that’s life.”

The Babys take their limos with dispassionate gratitude yet accept they had to sell 450 seats for four shows in N.Y., not 18,000 in a stadium. They have an indefinable wall around them, the predictable result of hype’s backlash . Once one is allowed through the barricade, however, their remoteness gives way to warmth, their distance to hilarity. John spins tales of early-days managerial horrors, televisions tossed out hotel windows, and strange encounters with fascinating ladies. He weaves his episodes nonchalantly, yet stops to pause for effect. As he and Phillips depart the limo to do a late-night radio interview, Waite says goodbye, and abruptly bites my arm, as if to ensure I understand that these Babys are old enough to play serious games.

© Toby GoldsteinCreem, September 1979

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