Well Worth The Waite Ken Sharp
Copyright ©2013 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 24, 2013. Written by : Ken Sharp
Copyright ©2013 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 24, 2013.
Written by : Ken Sharp
The music scene is littered with loads of good rock and roll singers, but singularly distinctive, world class vocalists are few and far between. John Waite is one of those singers. With over three decades of music making, Waite has carved up massive hits with The Babys, Bad English and as a solo artist. Waite's spectacular voice Ė versatile and vulnerable, gritty and refined Ė has served as his passport to global success. It's almost supernatural, as if the Lancaster, England native met at the famous crossroads in the deep South where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson made his fateful pact with the devil and brokered the same deal Ė because this guy sings as well, 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," this guy's got "it." 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 ten solo albums, what made this the right time to release a live record?
I did actually do a live album previously, but it disappeared. I made one that got signed away to Sony and they deleted it. Iím 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 Ď70s.
Yeah, exactly, like Free and all those great bands back then, when there were no synthesizers. Back then, if somebody was going to play keyboards it was a Hammond organ. Thatís what I was looking for. About eight months ago we got Keri Kelli on guitar. He just showed up, I donít know quite how he came into the picture. We needed a guitar player and heíd been a fan for a while and was checking us out. He fit and he was great. It took him about two months before he could find his way being in a three-piece band. Heíd played in Slashís Snake Pit with more than one guitar player and he also played with Alice Cooper 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. Youíve 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 Iíve got to get this band on tape. It doesnít 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 Iíd like the world to have it. I did it through my own label, put it up on iTunes. Itís not a greatest hits; thereís "Head FirstĒ on there and thereís "ChangeĒ 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. Youíve got to be on a different level. You canít coast. Nobody can take their eyes off the ball for a second. Youíre playing to each other; itís a musical conversation or a musical argument on stage and that doesnít exist with most classic rock bands because while a lot of them play live, quite a few play to tapes. But thereís that thing about the audience making each night different and we play slightly different each night. Thatís the whole point. The freshness comes from being so stripped down. Everybody plays in a more concentrated way. You canít 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. Itís like Zen. You go out there and then you forget it and you just perform the songs and thatís the magic.
Playing live youíre channeling into the energy of the crowd.
Yeah, channeling is a good word. We just recently played a headlining gig in Dayton, Ohio to four thousand people and it was the best gig weíve 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 oíclock 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 weíd occasionally do a really big gig somewhere and that would feel right. Doing the clubs was great and itís kind of a one-on-one experience. But like the Dayton show, something kicks in when youíre playing to thousands of people. Itís like somebody throws you the keys to a sports car that you havenít driven and says, "Try thisĒ and away you go and the band just takes off. I think maybe itís the collective energy of all those people in one room. Weíre looking at playing bigger gigs from this point on; we donít want to go back to doing the clubs.
Some people stand staunchly behind The Whoís Live at Leeds, other cite The Rolling Stones Get Yer Ya Yaís Out while other point to Humble Pieís Rockiní the Fillmore, whatís the ultimate live album for you?
Well, the one I spent the most time with was Get Yer Yaís Yaís Out by The Stones and also Free Live. Then the Free live stuff from the box set: thereís a version of "Mr. BigĒ thatís just off the hook. Obviously, Rockiní the Fillmore was seminal and it had an unbelievable influence on me. Thereís a live Humble Pie record on iTunes, I think itís 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 Turnerís 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, Iím into the primitiveness of music Ďcause thatís 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 didnít write the songs you wouldnít have anything to say. And once you get in front of all those people youíre trying to communicate; itís like sharing something. Youíre trying to tell people what youíre feeling and share that emotion and thatís what singing is. Itís like liquid art. Itís like something thatís invisible but everybody gets it. Painters paint, actors act, but the singer, if heís written the song, thatís like Walt Whitmanís "I Sing the Body Electric.Ē Itís something thatís 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 donít live hard which I used to in The Babys and Bad English. Right now, itís ten oíclock in the morning, 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 couldnít do that. Theyíd certainly have to drop the keys of the songs.
I think that if I had to drop the keys for my songs Iíd stop singing. The original songs were written to be sung in that key and thatís what I want to do. If you drop the key to a song the tonality goes immediately. Iím a better singer than I was and I donít know why. I would like to think that philosophically itís because youíre grown up and youíve 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 itís just there.
Right now the country band Love & Theftís version of "If You Ever Get LonelyĒ is rocketing up the country charts.Going back to The Babys, thereís been a distinct country thread in some of your work. The Babys performed your country tinged song "Restless HeartĒ live but did not record it; youíd later record it for 1984ís No Brakes album. What is it about your writing and artistic sensibilities that lends itself to country music?
I donít think I really belong in classic rock and Iím not really country either but countryís got more rock so itís 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. Iíve always played and listened to country music. It wasnít like one of those things where I suddenly went country. I was playing it to The Babys. They didnít want to record "Restless HeartĒ because they felt it wasnít rock and roll so itís 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 wouldnít have gone anywhere without them because I wouldnít 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. Thatís what made The Babys what they were. I knew about all this American stuff and they didnít 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?
I havenít been in the same room with an A&R guy for 20 years. I just wonít do it. Some brilliant person once said that A&R stands for "always wrongĒ and thatís basically how I see it. I make better records left to my own devices and I havenít got the time to listen to somebody who canít play an instrument tell me what Iím doing wrong. It just doesnít work for me. I produce my own stuff and Iím good at it. Not having a label or A&R guy to answer to gives you a lot more freedom because youíre not looking to write pop singles or trying to please anybody or be number one. The fact that "If You Ever Get LonelyĒ is doing so well is an affirmation of that. Whatever time that Iíve got left to sing the way Iíve been singing I want to do work that stretches myself as much as I can and go somewhere that I havenít been before.
"Missing YouĒ is one of your signature solo songs. The new book, VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTVís 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 wasnít 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 YouĒ 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 canít 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 wasnít blue hair and spandex. New York was still guitar driven, Johnny Thunders and the East Village.
Some artists Iíve spoken to whoíve gone solo after fronting popular band fess up that they ultimately didnít 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. Iíve 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 wasnít meant to be played then it meant that the band shouldnít be playing it. Iím 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 youíre generous and I think if youíre uptight and narrow minded youíll make yourself unpleasant to people. I donít like that kind of thing. I like everybody to have a real ball when theyíre playing with me.
Youíre had your songs covered by the likes of Rod Stewart to Tina Turner ("Missing YouĒ). Is there one artist whoíd you like to see cover one of your tunes?
Iíd like to see Willie Nelson do "Bluebird Cafe.Ē 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, Iíd kiss his feet. (laughs) Heís one of the few people on the planet that could do that song justice. I think "Bluebird CaféĒ is in the top three of the best songs Iíve ever written and thatís 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 didnít 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 itís for good.Ē I think they should have gotten together ten or fifteen years ago; I donít know what took them so long. But I was never going to go backwards and rejoin The Babys, same reason I wouldnít want to go back to Bad English. Itís not the point. I just think thereís a time for everything. I just watched a video of The Babys performing "MoneyĒ on The Chuck Barris Show and itís 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 donít want to go backwards. Itís like getting divorced, after thirty years you donít say, "Hey baby, I was wrong, letís get back together.Ē 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 voicingís 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 Iím very pleased that Tonyís working with Wally again; I truly think itís great and I think theyíve 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 ReadyĒ, what were your impressions?
I thought it was good, they did a good job. I havenít really sat down and listened to it with a criticís eye; I was just checking out the singer. Iím sending the band my best wishes and I want them to do well.