By Eleni P. Austin

John Waite will be performing in the Desert this May, at the Agua Caliente Casino in Cathedral City. The British singer-songwriter has enjoyed a rewarding career, with hits like “Change” and “Missing You.” The latter managed to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, went to #9 in the U.K., and garnered a Grammy nomination. But before his solo success, he was the frontman for The Babys.

The Babys formed back in the mid ‘70s. Although the line-up changed a few times, John was there from the beginning to the not-so bitter end. The London band’s sound straddled the line between AOR (Album Oriented Rock) and New Wave. They purposely chose their moniker hoping it would piss off the critics and maybe create a bit of mystique. Signed to Chrysalis Records, their self-titled debut arrived in late 1976 to little fanfare. Recorded in L.A., their sophomore effort, Broken Heart, climbed to #13 in the U.S., buoyed by a couple hit singles. But it was their third record, Head First, that was a real game-changer. Founding member, Michael Corby quit the band once that album was finished, ushering in the most enduring Babys line-up. Joining John, guitarist Wally Stocker and drummer Tony Brock, Jonathan Cain was recruited to play keys, and Ricky Phillips anchored the low-end on bass.

The Babys continued their winning streak with Union Jacks and On The Edge, both released in 1980. Not long after John Lennon was murdered, John endured a terrifying moment when he was pulled off-stage by an over-zealous fan. He seriously injured his knee, the band soldiered on for one more show before they cancelled the remainder of the tour. They called it quits in 1981. Of course, John embarked on a solo career, Jonathan joined Journey, Wally and Tony played with everyone from Rod Stewart, Elton John and Air Supply. Recently, Rick has been the bassist for Styx.


Now the cool kids at Omnivore Recordings have provided an aural snapshot of The Babys’ most exhilarating era with the release of The Babys Live At The Bottom Line, 1979. The set opens with the hard-charging title track off Head First. Chunky guitar riffs are wed to rumbling bass lines, descending piano notes and a driving back beat. John’s prowling vocals intertwine with slinky keys on the chorus. Man-splain-y lyrics completely date-stamp this song to the late ‘70s, as John gallantly bides his time waiting for an ugly duckling to become his swan: “Well, the first time that I saw ya, you looked down and out, and I had my doubts about you…well, the second time that I saw ya, man you really improved, I was really moved, how I wanted you.” Luckily, the insistent melody, coupled with an inventive arrangement managed to distract from those shallow sentiments.

Naturally, the songs from Head First get the most bandwidth here. On the wide-open “California,” swoony guitars wrap around angular bass, shivery keys and a kick-drum beat. Lyrics paint a vivid portrait of a carefree kid on the come-up in sunny L.A.: “Here I am on the side of the stars, living in California, and sometimes I get out of reach in the bars, dreamin’ about my life and maybe one day I’ll take a wife.” Still, he yearns for the girl that slipped away: “I miss you girl, your dreams are more than I can take, you are the love of my life, but I could be my biggest mistake, ah Babe, my heart’s turnin’ like a wheel, I feel emotion for you but I just can’t tell if it’s real.” Spiky guitars and shifty keys simmer on the break, mirror the lyrical equivocation.

Of course, Head First’s inaugural single, “Every Time I Think Of You,” had just begun it’s ascent up the charts, so there are shouts of recognition when Jonathan Cain teases out the twinkly piano notes that open the song. John’s sandpaper-y vocals are matched by splashy hi-hat, airy synths and surprisingly muscular guitar. He’s able to infuse some soul into treacly lyrics like “Seasons come and seasons go, but our love will never die, let me hold you darlin,’ so you won’t cry,” his passion is buoyed by a clutch of female backing vocals. Squally power chords overtake the arrangement on the break, managing to dirty up the pretty.

The biggest surprise is “Run To Mexico” which opens with jaunty keys, sidewinder guitar, pliant bass and a thunky beat. Lyrics sketch out an agitated scenario of an outlaw on the run: “Come on baby cause I gotta know, the law’s after me, I killed a man in a bar last night, there’s no other way it could be…every time the phone rings it scares me to death, saw my face in the paper today, don’t wanna hear the stories about your mama and your papa, no, I don’t wanna hear you cry, for there’s no second chance right now, it’s the F. B. fuckin’ I!” A skittery guitar solo lines up next to wicked piano runs on the break, ratcheting up the tension. This song simply swaggers with authority.

The Broken Heart album is represented with two tracks, “Give Me Your Love” and “Isn’t It Time.” The former is low-slung and smoldering, as spidery organ notes connect with sly bass lines, slithery guitars and a stealthy beat. John’s soulful vocal delivery deftly distracts from threadbare lyrics that, um, want someone to give him their love. On the break, scorching guitars soar and singe atop the combustible arrangement.

The latter was The Babys’ breakthrough hit, reaching # 13 on the charts. This mid-tempo rocker opens as searching piano chords wash over prickly guitar and string-laden synths. John and the backing vocalists lock into a Gospel-flavored call-and-response as broody lyrics contemplate the complications of love: “I’ve seen visions of someone like you in my life, a love that’s strong, reaching out holding me through the darkest night, (Sitting here all alone) just trying to decide, (whether to go all alone) or stay by your side, (then I stop myself) because I don’t want to cry/I just can’t find the answers to the questions going through my mind.” Stinging guitar and descending bass lines unspool on the break.

The band threw a few wild cards into the mix. The rambunctious “Crystal Blue” would end up being reworked for their Union Jacks album and retitled “Anytime.” Meanwhile, the malevolent “Stick To Your Guns” was written for that same release, but never made it onto the record. Finally, they reach back to their debut album for “Lookin’ For Love.” It doubles as a band showcase, from Tony Brock’s extravagant drum salvo and extended solo, to Ricky Phillips’ wily bass lines, Jonathan Cain’s swirly keys and Wally Stocker’s gritty guitars.

The set closes with a playful version of the old Motown chestnut, “Money.” Band introductions are made, and another round of soloing confirms that The Babys were a pretty rollicking combo in their day. They effortlessly segue into “Loaded,” another song that was a concert favorite, but inexplicably never made it onto vinyl. A bit of a barn burner, the lyrics equate chemical excess with carnal attraction.

The Babys’ reign was brief, but they definitely made an impression. Songs like “Head First” and “Back On My Feet Again” sandwiched nicely between bangers like The Knack’s “My Sharona” and Foreigner’s “Dirty White Boy.” Their music remains a staple of Classic Rock radio. Live At The Bottom Line, 1979, finds them at the top of their game.