John Waite Talks Building the Perfect Setlist With Billboard’s ‘Behind the Setlist’ Podcast

·4 min read

John Waite is probably going to play his 1984 No. 1 hit single “Missing You” every time he takes the stage. But the British-born Los Angeles resident can’t put the song just anywhere in a set list.

“I don’t want to play that card like saving it for the encore,” he tells Billboard’s Behind the Setlist podcast, “and I don’t want to open the show with it.”

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Even though “Missing You” is one of the high marks of Waite’s recording career, the song “is just one of my songs, so it can go in the middle,” he says matter-of-factly. “You know, we love to do it. I never get bored singing it. It is a beautiful, beautiful song. But in the middle it has some dignity. If you save it for, like, your secret weapon, it means you’ve only really got one song.”

Waite has far more than that one special song to pull out during a set. As an opener for Rick Springfield and Men at Work, Waite’s sets have been like a mini-greatest hits collection. He routinely plays “When I See You Smile,” a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit in 1989 for his rock supergroup Bad English (which featured Neil School, Jonathan Cain and Deen Castronovo from Journey and Ricky Phillips, a bandmate from The Babys and a member of Styx since 2003). Fans are also likely to hear “Change,” a minor hit from his 1982 solo album Ignition and the Vision Quest soundtrack, and two tracks from the Babys’ 1979 album Union Jacks that made the Hot 100 chart, “Back on My Feet Again” and “Midnight Rendezvous.”

But Waite sees a danger in being too obvious about what he gives his audiences. After more than four decades of recordings, Waite can choose from a trove of self-penned songs and favorite influences. Even in a shortened set, Waite will delve into his catalog for a song like “Bluebird Cafe” from his 1997 solo album When You Were Mine. In longer sets, Waite, a longtime lover of country music, frequently plays Vince Gill’s “Whenever You Come Around,” which he covered on his 2001 solo album Figure in a Landscape, and a self-penned country song, “Imaginary Girl,” also from When You Were Mine. He might pull out “Wild One” from 1987’s Rover’s Return rather than either of the album’s two singles. Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” and “Girl From the North Country” occasionally make the cut. Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” is a common show closer.

“I like to challenge the audience,” he explains. “I’ve seen bands come out and just play the hits, and it’s the most boring thing. I mean, the audience might like it, but it’s not very stimulating. You know, there’s no real exchange. It’s just business as usual.”

But Waite knows he must choose songs carefully. “There’s a song called ‘You’ that I really love that was off [The Babys’ 1978 album] Headfirst that everybody keeps asking for,” he says. “It’s a really well-written song for a young guy to write — I was only 23. But I look at that and think, ‘You know, one of these days, we’re going to come out and just nail that.’ And the audience should remember — it’s a big song. But I think when you’ve only got, like, 90 minutes, you really you have to look at it like what were the biggest songs that The Babys had? If we’re going to refer to that, to really pay respect to it, there’s only like four songs that we’re really going to knock it out of the park. And if you do those then there’s maybe two really really big Bad English songs that you can deliver that are gonna fit with what you’re doing now. And then the rest of it is the current output plus the songs you might want to cover. So you have to be somewhat sensible when it comes to making that kind of a setlist.”

Listen to the entire interview at John Waite’s Behind the Setlist episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, iHeart, Audible or Amazon Music.

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