“After the first couple of years the darkness descended. There were some volatile individuals. We’re almost talking asylum levels”: how cult ’70s rockers The Babys blew their chance to be the next big thing

The Babys in 1979
(Image credit: Maureen Donaldson/Getty Images)

The Babys crafted some of the finest and most sophisticated melodic music of the 1970s and early 80s, but behind the scenes things were not always quite so cherubic. Every band experiences animosity, frustration and jealousy – such things are par for the course. But even a group as well-mannered as The Babys could find itself sucked into a web of ugliness, complete with threats of physical violence.

Lady Luck played her part in the birth of The Babys, firstly by throwing together guitarist/keyboard player Michael Corby and Adrian Millar, the now-deceased manager who took charge of the fledgling group’s affairs after a chance meeting in a Fulham Road café in 1974. A year later, John Waite would become the second, crucial, piece of the jigsaw, after being tipped off about the group’s frontman vacancy from a friend working in a central London guitar shop.

In a further display of fortuitous circumstance, Waite had just returned to the UK from a spell in Cleveland fronting a group called The Boys. Had the Lancastrian not sent a postcard from Cleveland to his guitar shop buddy, Malcolm, you might not even be reading this article. 

Though the experience in Cleveland had ended in frustrating cicrumstances, Waite’s tenure Across The Pond had informed him of the immense possibilities of success Stateside, whetting the singer/bassist’s appetite to do things properly.

Luckily, Adrian Millar was a man with a plan. Once he and Michael Corby had put the band’s line-up in place, Millar’s brainwave was to film them performing and tout the results around the record labels – a novel way of doing business in 1975, which ended up paying handsome dividends.

Thirty-six years on, Waite still has fond memories of meeting Corby and Millar for the first time, in a North London pub called The Sir Richard Steele. 

“Adrian was pretty convincing, but Mike couldn’t sing and didn’t write songs, so it didn’t seem like there was a whole lot going on,” he relates. “We jammed a couple of times and nothing really happened. We also auditioned some drummers that didn’t really work out. But I still had the feeling that Adrian, who was as serious as me about getting something going, might have the balls to pull it off.”

The Babys in the 1970s

(Image credit: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns/Getty Images)

The arrival of ex-Strider percussionist Tony Brock, who “looked like a million bucks” (according to Waite) and was professional enough to bring along his own roadie, awarded the band much-needed hope. He was also loyal.

“Just three weeks before the band left for Canada to record its first album I’d received an offer to join Rod Stewart,” reveals Brock. “That would have been great, but staying with The Babys allowed me to write songs and be myself.”

According to Waite, what followed was “two years of different people coming and going, and various meltdowns”. With the task of locating a suitable lead guitarist proving tougher than that of filling the drum stool, the trio even considered throwing in the towel. 

“We were in the trenches,” remembers Waite. “A couple of labels had turned us down, and in a way, we were thinking: ‘Well, that was fun, but what happens now?’”

It was at this point that the band found the killer lead guitarist they sought. “Wally Stoker was the very last guy we auditioned, and I remember it in slow motion, like it was yesterday,” Waite exclaims. “I went to open the door and there he was for the first time, wearing a big army overcoat, not very tall, and with this half-smile on his face. Within half an hour we were jamming away on Free songs, but something had told me he was the right guy as soon as the doorbell rang. It felt preordained.”

Given the run of coincidences that set The Babys on their way, one wonders if John Waite believes they were blessed in some way?

“Perhaps so,” he muses carefully, “but in others we were equally cursed.”

Waite’s voice remains easily distinguishable from the crowd but, as The Babys began taking their first tentative steps, the group spent a year toying with the idea of bringing in an extra member as frontman. 

“Right up until the last minute they were looking for a Mick Jagger or something,” Waite grins. “I got a call from Adrian on a Friday night. He said: ‘I’ve got some good news and bad news. The good news is that you’re going to be the singer in The Babys.’ I asked him what the bad news was and he replied: ‘You’re going to be the singer in The Babys.’”

The decision would later cause its share of jealousy. “A statement like that was typical Adrian,” reflects Waite. “There were times when Adrian and I would have killed one another. But The Babys wouldn’t have happened without his vision.”

And yet before dying, Adrian Millar expressed deep regret over the decision to hand the microphone to Waite. “Mike Corby had all the looks and should have been the lead singer,” he theorised. “The only problem was that Mike didn’t sing. Had Mike been the one with ‘the voice’, we wouldn’t have been forced into employing somebody like John Waite.”

The intentionally misspelled name of The Babys was agreed upon for two reasons: firstly as a joke, and secondly due to the reticence of record labels to take rock’n’roll bands seriously. 

“The Babys was Adrian’s name for us,” explains Waite. “We thought we’d keep it for just for two weeks, but word got around in London and it seemed so completely crazy that it was worth taking a shot with.”

Adrian Millar’s aforementioned ploy of filming a video demo, hiring Mike Mansfield of the TV show Supersonic as director, was to prove inspired. Before too long, The Babys were label-mates of Jethro Tull, UFO, Procol Harum and Robin Tower at Chrysalis Records.

The next year passed by so quickly that the band might have been locked into warp-speed. A self-titled debut album was recorded in Toronto with Alice Cooper/Pink Floyd/Lou Reed producer Bob Ezrin. It contained some fine material such as If You’ve Got The Time and Wild Man, the latter a tune with future echoes of Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead Or Alive. But despite Ezrin’s distinguished pedigree, the disc’s bland, lifeless production almost killed The Babys before they had begun.

“The first album didn’t work out at all like we hoped; it was an awful experience,” winces Waite. “Ezrin just did not get it. He told me that I couldn’t sing. At one point I had to confront him and say: ‘We don’t want to sound like this, it isn’t what we do.’ But nobody [in the band] would fucking back me up.”

A successful 12-day publicity trip to States, where they played some club shows and pressed as much important flesh as possible, bought the group a little more time. The jaunt caused The Babys to fall in love with America. In return, Chrysalis decided to relocate the group to California, where they recorded a second album.

“We landed in LA and the limo took us to the Hyatt House, the mythical rock’n’roll hotel,” Waite recollects. “As we cruised along Sunset Strip, there was a billboard with our name on it. It was a far cry from Lancaster, I can tell you.”

It’s no surprise that The Babys behaved like kids in the proverbial candy store. Waite enthuses: “Oh man, there were the prettiest women everywhere. We were in the Rainbow [Bar & Grill] every night. It was absolutely insane. I remember being in Barney’s Beanerie [the hostelry at which Janis Joplin spent her final night alive] at two in the morning, wearing a two-piece suit that my tailor had made me – it was grey with spaceships on it – and playing pool with Hell’s Angels for 10 dollars a game.”

With its soft-focus image of the group in pin-up-friendly reclining pose, not to mention a hit single in the shape of Isn’t It Time, 1977’s Broken Heart was a vastly superior record to its predecessor. Still, Waite bumped heads with its producer Ron Nevison, a man as legendary for his dearth of people skills as for the string of hits he helped to create for Led Zeppelin, The Who, Bad Company and many others.

“How did I enjoy working with Nevison?” Waite sighs, chewing the question over. “Not much. Can we leave it at that please? I’ve nothing more to add.”

“Ron wasn’t afraid of using tough love,” Brock elaborates with all the hindsight at his disposal. “But the bottom line is that knew what he was doing, and at that point we didn’t.”

As the band toured Broken Heart, friction between Waite and Corby began to mount. Brock recalls attempting to keep the feuding pair apart – “Michael was prone to bad behaviour, he was a funny guy, but sometimes his sense of humour got him into trouble,” says the drummer – but the situation ultimately became untenable.

“This is something I’ve never spoken about before,” recounts Waite quietly, “but for me the beginning of the end of The Babys began on the night that Michael came at me with a broken bottle. On the way home from a gig, we got into a fight on the bus. Tony Brock and Ron Stone, our [new] manager, wrestled Michael to the ground and calmed him down, but the record company got wind of what had happened and then the situation was out of my hands. That’s the truth… I’d swear it on a whole stack of Bibles.”

Attempts to contact Corby to get his side of the story were unsuccessful, but he posted his own take on the situation on his MySpace site: “It is no secret that unfortunate matters took place which ended the ‘original’ band and I would even go so far as to say that it was tragic. However, not the slightest good can come from people throwing mud around 30 years later.”

The Babys onstage in 1977

(Image credit: Mark Sullivan/Getty Images)

Isn’t It Time found its way into the US Top 20, peaking at No.45 in the UK and winning the group a slot on Top Of The Pops. However, the band’s organisation was about to undergo radical changes. After firing Millar as their manager, replacing him with Ron Stone, the axe then fell upon Michael Corby. At around the same time, Chrysalis Records rejected an initial version of the group’s third album.

“I think that jealousy played a significant role in his firing,” said Corby’s wife Evita (who had only just given birth to the pair’s son when the news was delivered) later. Though Michael had been responsible for forming The Babys and was thus being booted out by a group that he had recruited, he reluctantly accepted the decision made by the other three band members. Evita Corby still maintains that the sacking “ruined” her husband.

For the record, Brock says of Corby’s sacking: “If Michael hadn’t left, we wouldn’t have had a record deal anymore. Everyone felt bad about it, but we’d all put too much work into the band to stop.”

Picking themselves up after the label’s veto of their new music, the three remaining Babys created the album that would become Head First, using fragments of previously recorded contributions from Corby. Once again, producer Ron Nevison was at the helm. 

“We were able to reach an understanding,” reveals Waite, of his fractious relationship with Big Ron. Indeed, it speaks volumes of Nevison’s quality as a producer that many years later Waite would ignore his personal feelings for the man to reunite on Backlash, the second album from his post-Babys group Bad English.

Waite maintains that being forced to re-cut the Head First album ultimately worked in the band’s favour. The version that was released turned out to be a darned fine album, offering another Top 20 hit in the shape of Every Time I Think Of You. The difference this time round was that Waite had begun to write in a different style, influenced by the more narrative-based approach of Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt.

“That’s a great point,” agrees the singer. “I loved Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks album. The rest of the band had drawn a blank, so it was just me and the acoustic guitar.”

A mood of irritation simmered between the band and its paymasters. “Chrysalis’ distribution was never too good,” fumes Waite. “Head First should have been a multi-platinum record. We were on FM radio with Every Time I Think Of You and AM radio with [the song] Head First. You couldn’t switch the TV on without seeing us… and we came back from that [tour] rail-thin and with nothing to show for it.”

Matters weren’t helped by the fact that the band was still earning $200 a week, which was hardly superstar wages.

“That’s right,” Waite chuckles. “I had a tailor who was making me all these sharp suits… I must have lived off baked beans.”

Chrysalis began to suggest that John Waite should quit the band and become a solo artist. 

“After the incident with Mike I don’t think anyone really expected me to remain in the band,” admits John. “But at the same time, I felt a great sense of loyalty to Wally and Tony.”

The Babys recruited not one but two replacements for Corby, hiring a specialist bassist to allow Waite to focus on his role as singer, also filling the void left by Corby’s dismissal. One of these was future Journey keyboard player Jonathan Cain,

“Jon came to the auditions and could play keyboards and some guitar, so he was just the all-rounder we were looking for,” Waite explains. “The last thing we wanted to do was try to reconfigure the band so it looked like nothing had happened.

“I was getting sick of trying to reach for melodies and play bass at the same time,” he continues, “but it wasn’t ’til later on that I realised that making those changes would alter the dynamic massively. In some ways we became slightly generic.”

Another stroke of good fortune introduced the band to their new bass player. Ricky Phillips had already arrived in Los Angeles with 20 borrowed dollars in his pocket and was sleeping on couches of friends like Rudy Sarzo and Frankie Banalli. Phillips met the band while working in a guitar shop across the street from a hotel in which The Babys were staying.

“I was asked to try out, but having been burned by experiences with other bands I was almost afraid to face defeat again. They couldn’t believe that I requested 24 hours to think,” recalls Phillips with a laugh. “Little did I expect that at 10am, when I went to open the music store the following day, Jonathan Cain would be there on the step, waiting to find out if I knew something about The Babys that he didn’t. Why wasn’t I just jumping at the opportunity?”

With just a solo album entitled Windy City Breakdown to his name at that point, Chicago-born Jonathan Cain was an ambitious young man. The newcomer certainly made his influence felt on the band’s fourth album, Union Jacks, a Keith Olsen-produced album that is still embraced warmly by fans of slick, tuneful melodic hard rock.

“We did make a left turn there, but Jonathan was a good songwriter,” Brock agrees of its smoother tones. “There was nothing wrong with Union Jacks, it was just different.”

Following some arena dates with Alice Cooper, The Babys were teamed with Journey for a US tour. The headliners were promoting Departure and with Union Jacks starting to gain momentum, the pairing lived up to its mouth-watering potential. 

“We were playing massive auditoriums and the audience would be on their feet after three songs,” remembers Waite fondly. 

The Babys in 1979

(Image credit: Maureen Donaldson/Getty Images))

Meanwhile, Phillips was finding life on the road to be everything he had hoped for. “It was wine, women and song, or sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – wherever you want to call it. That having been said, we were very serious about music. The first thing John Waite ever said to me was: ‘If you have an idea for a song I don’t care what time of day or night it is, call me. I’ll put on the coffee pot.’”

Even now, Brock remains irked by Chrysalis Records’ decision to withdraw The Babys from the road during the Head First promo campaign to begin work on a new album. “They must take their share of the blame for the band’s ultimate demise. We needed to make a great record, and it was much, much too soon [for that]. But by then I think it was just Waite [as a solo artist] they wanted.”

The pressure-cooker scenario soon began to affect Ricky Phillips. “There was a meeting with a photographer and Wally and John ended up getting into it. All of a sudden there was this scuffle on the floor.”

Once again Keith Olsen was hired to produce the second album from The Babys in a frantic final 12-month period. “I enjoyed working with Keith much more [than with Nevison] because he didn’t have any opinion; he was just a great engineer,” explains Waite now.

Nevertheless, written and recorded in just six weeks, the group’s swansong merits its eventual title of On The Edge

“It has three or four tracks that worked, including Darker Side Of Town, Gonna Be Somebody and Postcard – they’re like the old Babys,” is Waite’s viewpoint. “The rest is uninspired.”

Jonathan Cain wasn’t around for a great deal of the sessions, having been courted to become Gregg Rolie’s replacement in Journey. Cain’s eagerness to join a bigger, more stable band nevertheless caused resentment, especially with Waite. “Jonathan did what he had to do,” Waite states simply, “but there were also other issues which I’m not going to get into.”

Adding injury to insult, Waite was reduced to performing his final live show with The Babys while relying upon crutches.

“Man, it was so dramatic,” he relates. “John Lennon had been shot 24 hours earlier and in Columbus, Ohio, I jumped off the [drum-]riser and tore the ligament. Jon [Cain] had already announced he was leaving, so the following night, in Akron, I decided that Chrissie Hynde’s home town was a pretty good place to stop.”

Following the group’s dissolution, John Waite interrupted a successful solo career to form Bad English with Cain, Ricky Phillips and Neal Schon. Tony Brock played with Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck, Elton John and Rod Stewart. He now has his own studio in Los Angeles. And after playing bass for the Coverdale-Page supergroup, Ricky Phillips has been a member of Styx since 2003. Jonathan Cain, who remains with Journey, unfortunately declined to be interviewed for this story.

“Being in The Babys – being young and successful – was everything I thought it would be, and then some. But after the first couple of years the darkness descended,” reflects John Waite. “There were some volatile individuals in the band; we’re almost talking asylum levels. By the end it no longer felt right. We’d been ‘the next big thing’ twice before, and you can’t keep doing that over and over again, can you?” 

Originally published in Classic Rock presents AOR Vol.2

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.