John Spinks of the Outfield was on the defensive. It's been open season lately on this band, which is from London's East End.
But there has been praise, too. The Outfield did crack Billboard magazine's Top 10 with its debut album--"Play Deep" on Columbia Records--and with the single "Your Love." Fans, young females in particular, are partial to these young, good-looking musicians.
But the trio (guitarist/songwriter Spinks, drummer Alan Jackman and lead singer/bassist Tony Lewis) has been battered by critics who have been complaining about the flood of dull, conventional rock. The dinosaurs of the genre--the Firm, Journey, Bob Seger, the Rolling Stones, the Starship, Van Halen--have been hogging the charts in recent months. Apparently, that's what young music fans want to hear now, along with dance music, which is also high on most critics' hate list.
The critics have been right about pop-rock. In the past six months, hardly any of it has been adventurous. Most of it has been stodgy and predictable--and much more wimpy pop than rock. Critics and sophisticated fans have been waiting for some intelligent, ground-breaking rock.
So here comes the Outfield, with its thoroughly derivative music, charging up the charts. The band's "Play Deep" album came out last fall and finally clicked when the second single, "Your Love," became a hit. All that's open to debate is whose songs Spinks' resemble most. Men at Work seems to have been a strong influence on him. So were the Police and Journey.
But the Outfield's music does have its praiseworthy aspects. Melody reigns in Spinks' songs. "Your Love" has a lovely melodic line that's engagingly performed by vocalist Tony Lewis, who has obviously been listening to Journey's Steve Perry.
Accusing most songwriters of copying other artists would be inviting an attack--verbal or physical. The genial Spinks, leaning back in a cushy chair in a cluttered office at Columbia Records' Century City headquarters, didn't flare up at the suggestion that his songs weren't original.
"When you have a new band, how can you have original music?" he asked. "When you're starting out, you're borrowing from everybody. It's not really copying, it's just being influenced by what you like. Maybe when you've been doing this on a high level for many years, you can write very original stuff. Until then, you just take a bit from this artist and that artist. There's no shame in that. It's reality. New bands who think they're original are just kidding themselves."
Spinks then defended his musical taste: "I love melodic music. That's the music that gives me a rush, that gets me high. I grew up on the Beatles. I like Journey and Foreigner. It may not be a popular thing to admit, but I do like them. Me and Tony and Alan are on a mainstream wavelength.
"When you look at that music, you have to take it for what it is. I can write a pretty melody. That takes some talent. It may not be complicated and maybe it doesn't challenge anybody, but so what? Some people obviously like it."
In other words, the Outfield has no lofty goals. "We're not a political band," Spinks said. "We're not trying to put across any deep ideas about changing the world. You don't have to analyze my lyrics to understand them. You enjoy these songs or you don't. You can put these songs on while you're driving. They make you feel good. What more can you ask?"
Critics generally lump the Outfield in with another pop-rock band, Mr. Mister, that has been popular since late last year. Mr. Mister happens to be one of Spinks' favorites.
"The best song out in a while is Mr. Mister's 'Broken Wings,' " he said. "It's a real strong song. It has depth. It gives a feeling of freedom. It's a song I wish I had written."
Though some of the questions delved into a touchy area, Spinks, to his credit, was always forthright and cordial. The only problem was his East End accent. Other East Enders certainly have no trouble understanding him, but for the rest of the world, his high-speed chatter--clipping and chewing up words--can be somewhat mystifying.
Because of the group's name, some people initially thought the Outfield was American. "Nobody expects foreigners to know anything about baseball," Spinks said, as if he were about to announce that he's a baseball whiz.
It turns out that these three foreigners don't know anything about baseball. "We didn't know what an outfield was until we came to this country," he said. "We're just learning about baseball. It's an acquired taste and we're trying to acquire a taste for it. I've seen it on TV but I've never been to a game."
This isn't the group's first baseball-related name. At one time, it was called the Baseball Boys, a name used by a gang in "The Warriors," a movie that Spinks admires. "I just put this name on some demo (demonstration) tapes we were sending around three years ago. I just did it to be outrageous."
But then they hired a manager, who didn't like the name. "He thought it was too tacky and tongue-in-cheek," Spinks said. "We made up a list of 10 names and came up with another baseball name--the Outfield. That was weird."
Spinks, 30, Lewis, 28, and Jackman, 27--all East End boys--played in quite a few bands before they joined forces a few years ago. They signed with Columbia Records in early 1985, working with producer Bill Wittman and executive producer Rick Chertoff, who has produced Cyndi Lauper and the Hooters.
"We knew we'd get a deal one day," Spinks said. "We put a lot of time into building up our band. But I wasn't sure we'd ever be popular. This is icing on the cake. But I'd be in this business if I wasn't getting a penny, if we sold two records.
"Maybe that's why I don't mind what critics and people like that say about us. It may sound corny, but I love playing and writing music so much that all the criticism in the world wouldn't make that much difference to me. It's certainly not going to stop me from writing and playing music."