The Babys – Silver Dreams

Nobody was expecting The Babys back in 1976 – except maybe for a few fans in England who were looking for a newly perverse act while Sparks was floundering. The four fine lads of John Waite, Mike Corby, Tony Brock and Wally Stocker were weird enough to defiantly embrace a band name that everybody hated. They were also visionary enough to shop around a VHS tape as their demo. That got a lot of mockery within the industry.

There’s probably an epic tale to be told about The Babys and their struggle to break out big despite a decent share of hit singles. You won’t get it in the skimpy liner notes for the new Silver Dreams: Complete Albums 1975-1980, though. Instead, the six discs slipped inside a glossy clamshell box allow the music to tell the story of a campaign that didn’t really deserve to fail.

1977’s self-titled album sort of captured The Babys’ conflicted spirit, with an album cover introducing the band as a mix between The Bay City Rollers and Bryan Ferry. It wasn’t easy to get there, either. They had already struggled through an earlier lost debut (included here as The Official Unofficial Babys Album) that had them working a pop ethos stuck in the wasteland between the New York Dolls and Aerosmith. The proper debut — with songs credited to the band, except for one Bobby Vinton cover — still couldn’t keep The Babys from mostly making a good case for why The Raspberries should have stayed together.

Fortunately, the same year’s Broken Heart allowed the band to score a hit while creating their own brand of dreamy Goth bubblegum. “Isn’t It Time?” brought in outside songwriters Jack Conrad and Ray Kennedy, and showcased background vocals by The Babettes to create a widescreen pop epic worthy of the big rooms in Vegas. That kind of overshadowed the brooding tunes. The album’s entire second side plays like a baroque suicidal suite culminating in the overblown greatness of “A Piece of the Action” – with an outside contribution from guitarist Michael Japp, who was then busy creating his own doomed niche with Roderick Falconer.

To their credit, The Babys resisted raiding the thrift stores for some skinny ties in 1979. Instead, Head First’s sole nod to new wave was a perfect power-pop rally of a title track. Otherwise, the still-struggling band – reduced to a power trio with the departure of keyboardist Corby – turned to Conrad/Kennedy for another glossy anthem with “Every Time I Think of You.” They went pop-prog by covering Billy Nicholls’ orchestral meltdown of “White Lightning,” and Japp sat in for more co-writes of sweeping grandeur that couldn’t convince America that The Babys were a real rock band.

By the time of 1980’s Union Jacks, the guys weren’t kidding with lyrics about not being able to pay their rent. A pair of Americans changed the lineup, too, with Jonathan Cain on keyboards and Ricky Phillips on bass to free up Waite as a frontman. “Back on My Feet Again” finally let Waite pen a hit, and Cain’s contributions made the band a pure AOR act. Nobody really noticed that Union Jacks turned The Babys into contemporaries of Journey, though – mostly because Journey was recording crap like “Lovin’ Touchin’, Squeezin.”

That was in January, and Chrysalis Records rushed out On the Edge by the following October. It was a second sharp collection of AOR greatness with an added sense of giddiness. The public didn’t share the enthusiasm. On the Edge stalled even worse than Union Jacks, and that marked the end for The Babys and their future box set – which appends a few live tracks, B-sides, and single edits to each album, plus plenty of mono mixes.

Things got better. Journey keyboardist Gregg Rolie was paying attention when The Babys did a stint as their opening act, and he recommended Cain as his replacement. That allowed a Baby to finally top the charts in 1981 with songs including “Don’t Stop Believin,” “Who’s Cryin’ Now,” and “Open Arms.”

John Waite took a crappy synth tune by a band called Spider and turned it into “Change” for his own debut album. Then the sophomore solo turn made him into a star with 1984’s “Missing You” from No Brakes. Waite couldn’t repeat that trick with two more fine records, but Bad English still counted as a supergroup when Cain brought together Waite and Phillips with Journey members Neal Schon and Deen Castronovo.

That band sort of lost interest in itself by the time of their own follow-up. The pressure was on to keep writing with easy-listening hitmaker Diane Warren after the success of the power ballad “When I See You Smile.” Silver Dreams makes a good case for why Waite and his bandmates couldn’t play along. The creative forces behind The Babys could be a lot of things, including AOR and corporate rock. Schlock was out of the question.

The Babys
Silver Dreams: Complete Albums 1975-1980