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Monday, March 21, 2005
Name Of The Game
You'd have to look long and hard for a rock 'n' roll story more tragic and heartbreaking than that of Badfinger. One of the most determined and hardworking bands of the early 1970's, they were foiled at nearly every turn. One of the first signings by the Beatles to their new Apple label, Badfinger also remained on the label the longest. At first they were overshadowed by their mentors. Then, abandoned by them. They were ripped off by record companies and ripped off by their own management. They scored 4 major hits, but went unpaid. They were largely disregarded by the music press at the time as lightweights, but posthumously are now considered one of the big-3 architects of the power-pop sound, along with Big Star and the Raspberries.
"Posthumously" is not a word chosen lightly here; Badfinger will also be remembered as the only rock band to suffer the suicides of two members.
Badfinger began life in Wales as the Iveys, and had been knocking around London for a while, occasionally opening for the likes of the Yardbirds and Moody Blues. In 1968, after several lineup shuffles, they were signed to the new Apple label; the members at that time were Welsh leader and singer/guitarist Pete Ham, early member and bassist Ron Griffiths, drummer Mike Gibbins, and new guitarist/singer Tom Evans, from Liverpool but based in Wales.
In the early days, the band lived communally under the watchful eye of manager Bill Collins, who encouraged them to write their own material, and discouraged distractions from women. Collins' influence could be a mixed blessing; while he helped instill a work ethic in the band that never left them, he wasn't the best judge of their music.
Their debut album for Apple was a peculiar pastiche of songs and styles. Some of it was string-laden pop ballads. Others were crunchy little pop rockers. Still others resembles 30's pub music. In short; they seemed wholly out of step with the times in 1968. The album wasn't even released in the U.S., although the title song, the syrupy "Maybe Tomorrow" did chart respectably at #67 in the States. The failure to release the album in America was due to internal turmoil at Apple, rather than commercial concerns. This would be the first of many disappointments for the band.
Paul McCartney then took an interest in the band, which had rechristened itself Badfinger, and gave them a song he'd written "Come And Get It", which would appear in the Peter Sellars film The Magic Christian and reached the top-10 in the U.S. and England. The first Badfinger album proper, Magic Christian Music would appear in 1970 and chart respectably. During the sessions, Ron Griffiths left the band, to be replaced by Liverpool lead guitarist/singer Joey Molland, Evans switching from guitar to bass. This lineup would be the band's enduring one, lasting until 1974. Ham, Evans, Molland, and Gibbins could all sing and write; Ham/Evans and Molland supplying most of the band's material.
The band's sound changed considerably from the Iveys' days. Magic Christian Music (still featuring the original lineup) dabbled in McCartney-esque pop, Simon and Garfunkel style folk-rock, and some credible rockers as well. Molland's addition benefited the band on sebsequent releases, giving them a firmer, heavier rock sound, without sacrificing the Beatlesque melody they were becoming adept at.
The next two albums, with Molland fully integrated into the band, are generally considered their best. No Dice (1970) featured the hit "No Matter What" and also included the Ham/Evans original "Without You" which became an international #1 for Harry Nilsson the following year (and for Mariah Carey in the 90's). Straight Up (1971) had yielded two hits; "Day After Day" (the band's biggest hit) and "Baby Blue", and the weighty George Harrison produced "Name Of The Game". While they weren't taken very seriously by the rock press, they did have their fans, and the albums charted at #28 and #31 respectively. Invited by George Harrison to back him for some Beatles numbers at the Concert For Bangla Desh, they seemed poised for a true breakthrough.
Alas, the story from this point forward is not pretty. Their final album for Apple, Ass was repeatedly delayed for release as the label crumbled (Badfinger was the last band besides the solo Beatles to remain at Apple). In the interim, they signed an unwise record deal with Warner Brothers, which called for an album every six months. While their Apple album remained stalled, Warners issued their debut for the label, prompting Apple to finally release Ass almost simultaneously. This left the band in the unenviable position of competing against itself; both albums suffered in sales, and critical backlash. Ass in particular is a good, but weary sounding album.
Wish You Were Here, recorded in 1974, was the band's fresh attempt at a re-start. All the band members contribute songs, some of which are among the band's finest: "Just A Chance" opens Rhino records' Poptopia power-pop collection, Molland comes up with some of the strongest songs in his life, the band's sound was becoming progressive but retained its tuneful essence, the lyrics were worldly and honest, and produce Chris Thomas came up with just the right sound for them; clean and clear, a contrast to the more heavy-handed wall-of-sound production they received from George Harrison on Straight Up.
The album earned them the best critical notice of their career, and the album was at #60 with a bullet in its first weeks of release when it was discovered that all of Badfinger's earnings had disappeared from an escrow account into which they had been placed, without the band's knowledge; a flurry of lawsuits in all directions followed, which resulted in Warners yanking the record from release just as it was breaking through.
This, for all intents and purposes, finished the band. Broke, unable to tour, their album in limbo, and realizing their financial managers had robbed them blind, the band fell apart. Molland left, and keyboardist/singer Bob Jackson came in. With little choice but to record another album under their contract, they recorded the bitter and confused Head First in late 1974. Warners wouldn't touch it, because of the lawsuits, and dropped the band from its label.
This was the final blow. With no money, no prospects of working again, a daughter on the way, a despondant Pete Ham, who had trusted their financial managers right up to nearly the last minute, hung himself in his garage.
Joey Molland released an album as part of a new band Natural Gas in 1976, but the album failed, and within two years he had resorted to installing carpets for a living. Tom Evans worked briefly with a band called the Dodgers, who eventually fired him. Mike Gibbins recorded drums for Bonnie Tyler and appeared on her hit "It's A Heartache" in 1978.
Molland and Evans attempted to revive the band in 1979 (Gibbins was invited but dismissed) working with guitarist Joe Tansin and session drummer Andy Newmark, they recorded the weak Airwaves for Elektra. Despite some good songs, the production was weak, and the band suffered from Ham's absence; instead of drawing from their strength as power poppers, much of the album has a limp MOR feel. Given a second chance in 1981, they recorded the final Badfinger album with a new lineup (which included Tony Kaye of Yes on keyboards), Say No More. While stronger than Airwaves, and including a harrowing new version of Evans' "Rock 'n' Roll Contract" (originally recorded but never released during the Head First sessions), a song so full of tortured anguish in the singing and playing it is almost bonechilling, the album failed to sell. It closes with Molland's ominously prophetic "No More", a tough, ominous new wave/power pop rush into oblivion.
Molland and Evans split after that, and both tried leading their own versions of Badfinger on haphazard tours, but it was all over. Their relationship was at a low point in 1983 when Evans followed Pete Ham's lead and hung himself. By this point, the band had been so thoroughly forgotten, his death went by barely noticed by the press.
Molland bravely soldiers on. He released a solo disc After The Pearl on the small Earthtone label in 1983 just prior to Evans' death, and has since released several more. They sell mainly to the diehard fans, but they all have a little of Molland's world-weary tunefulness, and bits of good guitar. Gibbins, also, has released several albums on tiny labels.
Badfinger has finally gotten some of their due (if not much of their money). Now recognized as a band that bucked the trends in the early 70's, sticking to melodic, basic rock in the early 70's when it was considered uncool to do so, they really did help establish the template later power-pop bands would draw from. Their Apple and Warners albums have been re-released with bonus cuts (Straight Up, in particular has good ones; early Geoff Emerick produced versions of songs upon which George Harrison would heap layers of production for the released versions). Head First finally gained its release, a quarter of a century late. They have been the subject of an excellent book, and some smart anthologies. Two albums worth of Pete Ham demos have also been released.
Sadly, if you listen to their music chronologically, you can literally hear the strength, their very lives sapped right out of them. Their tragic ending robs much of the music, especially their lighter early stuff, of a lot of its fun. They're definitely worth exploring however; Beatles fans would be the obvious people they may appeal to, but anyone with a fondness for power pop, tuneful melodic pop/rock, and singer/songwriter music would like them, too.