December 16, 2018

FTV: Badfinger

    The band that could be the next Beatles.  This was never a good way for the press to introduce a band to the world.  It has happened many times over, but it has never quite worked out that way.  The pop band The Cyrcle were introduced on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand as “the band that could be the American Beatles.”  Does anyone even remember anything about them except maybe their one hit, Red Rubber Ball?  The mystery Canadian band Klaatu got a lot of press because one American reporter for a Providence, Rhode Island newspaper reviewed their first album and hinted at some possible Beatles links.  That is all it took to propel this previously ignored group into respectable album sales. When if finally came out that they were not A) The Beatles, B) Some of the Beatles, or C) a group secretly guided by one or more Beatles, they disappeared into the obscurity from which they had come.  Then there was Badfinger. They met criteria C) above and recorded some great music on The Beatles imprint, Apple Records, making them perhaps the first band to have the millstone of “the next Beatles” hung around their neck and almost make it work.

    I had heard of Badfinger because of the hit song Come and Get It from their first LP (Magic Christian Music), the soundtrack album from the movie The Magic Christian.  Prior to recording music for the movie, they were a Welsh band known as The Iveys and Magic Christian Music ended up as a collection of music written specifically for the movie plus some old and newer originals by The Iveys.  The basic band of Pete Ham (guitar/keyboards/vocal), Tom Evans (bass/vocals), and Mike Gibbins (drums) was joined by guitarist/vocalist Joey Molland and this line up recorded an album together as Badfinger in 1970 (No Dice).  I got to know them a lot better when my brother got me the album for Christmas in 1970.  After one listen through, I played my Twig bandmates Mike and Gene I Can’t Take It and No Matter What and stated, “We have to learn these!”  By the time Mike figured out the chording, I had the lyrics to both written down and memorized.  The songs fell together just like that and were always tunes that brought dancers on the floor no matter what kind of gig we were playing.  When Mike and I later played together in Sledgehammer, we introduced I Can’t Take It into that band as well with the same results we had seen with The Twig.

    The first song released from No Dice as a single was No Matter What.  We loved playing this live because there was a false ending that saw the chorus abruptly end and, after a pregnant pause of several seconds, the refrain would start up again without so much as a grace note to cue the band.  Some crowds would egg us on to do the ending more than once and a slight nod from Mike was the only cue we needed to repeat the ending once, twice or even three more times. No Matter What became a top ten hit around the world and made an excellent lead in to the album that was released soon after.  No Dice not only sold better than Magic Christian Music, it also became their top selling album.  It was the biggest selling Apple Records release that wasn’t by The Beatles.  There wasn’t a second single released from the album, but Harry Nilsson (and much later, Mariah Carey) scored a world-wide number one hit with his cover of the Ham/Evans song Without You.  

    The ‘next Beatles’ tag was probably inevitable.  Paul McCartney had read an interview where the band said that they were having trouble getting Apple Records to release the music they were recording.  He offered The Iveys the track Come and Get It that he had written for the movie The Magic Christian.  The band wanted to do their own arrangement, but McCartney said, “No, record it just like my demo and it will be a hit!”  He reworked two of their original songs for the movie and in the end, they collected enough of The Iveys music to fill out the movie soundtrack album.  It was decided that The Iveys was too generic a name, making one think of The Ivy League, so various names were tossed about. John Lennon suggested “The Glass Onion”, McCartney wanted to call them “Home”, but it was Apple Corps’ Neil Aspinall who suggested “Badfinger”.  Aspinall remembered the working title of With a Little Help from My Friends was Bad Finger Boogie as Lennon had hurt his hand and could only plunk out the piano part with one finger.  Harrison thought perhaps it had come from a stripper The Beatles had known in Hamburg named Helga Fabdinger, but the Aspinall version strikes a little closer to the truth.    

    Two members of The Beatles inner circle, Geoff Emerick and Mal Evans, produced No Dice’s tracks (the majority by Emerick and two by Evans who was no relation to the band’s Tom).  The Iveys/Badfinger recorded for Apple Records at the fabled Abbey Roads studio frequented by the Fab Four.  The band’s members also did studio sessions with Harrison, Starr, and assorted other Apple Records artists. Badfinger can be forgiven for writing songs that sounded somewhat Beatlish because quite frankly, everyone was trying to write Beatlish sounding songs at that time.  Producer Tony Visconti commented their voices sounded so much like The Beatles that, “I would look up from the board expecting to see Paul and John in the studio.” They would go on to grace the charts again, but No Dice would prove to be their zenith.  When a later hit, Baby Blue, was used prominently in the finale of the Breaking Bad TV series, the band’s catalog found new legs.  Apple Records had earlier dropped their LPs from their catalog, but renewed interest in Apple and Badfinger found their music being remastered and released again, only now in the CD market.

    Music is a brutal business and Pete Ham began to crack as the pressure for more hit songs built.  The band didn’t have a great contract and it became apparent that everybody was making money off of Badfinger except the band.  Their American business management agreement with Stan Polley showed that between December of 1970 and October of 1971, the band members earned between $6,000 and $8,300 each in salary while Polley’s take in the same period was over $75,000.  Polley had other high profile clients like Al Kooper, Blood, Sweat, and Tears and Lou Christie so the band had every right to trust him. The problems multiplied when Apple Records began to founder. Alan Klein lowered their royalty rate and made them start paying for their own studio time.  Polley’s other clients began to suspect they were also being mismanaged but as Apple began to fold the tents, Polley negotiated a new contract for the band with Warner Bros. Records. Polley announced the $3 million deal to the band telling them, “You’re all millionaires!” but while on paper they were, Polley himself was the biggest beneficiary of the new deal.

    Warner Bros. were not happy that they could not get Polley to give them a transparent tracking of how the label’s money was being spent, so by August of 1974, the situation had deteriorated even father.  Not only did Warner Bros. drop Badfinger from the label, they refused to accept their last album Wish You Were Here.  The money problems lead to interband squabbles and Badfinger began to slowly fall apart.  According to Gibbins, Pete Ham had been showing growing signs of mental illness. On April 23, 1975, Ham was given a shove off the cliff of sanity when he received a phone call from the US management team telling him that all of his money had disappeared.  He and Tom Evans went to The White Hart Pub where he proceeded to down ten whiskies before Evans brought him home in the early morning hours of April 24. Ham wrote a suicide note blaming Polley and apologizing to his wife and two kids and at the age of 27,  he hung himself.

Evans was summoned by Ham’s wife and many suspect that the trauma of seeing his dead friend stayed with him for the rest of his life, perhaps precipitating his own suicide by hanging years later.       

      Losing the principle songwriter who was involved in seven out of the twelve songs on their best selling album was a big hole to fill.  The band broke up and the various members tried to make a go of it forming other bands and doing studio work for various artists like Bonnie Tyler (It’s a Heartache).  By 1977, both Evans and Molland were out of the music business and scratching to survive with jobs as carpet layers, pipe insulators and even driving a taxi.  As Molland recalled that time: “Thank God I had guitars and I was able to sell some of that stuff. We were flat broke, and that’s happened to me three times, where my wife and I have had to sell off everything and go and stay with her parents or do whatever.”  As the legal wranglings between Polley and Warner Bros. dragged on, they band tried a number of reunions. Still they squabbled about royalties even to the point of complaining about the amount Pete Ham’s estate was making from Without You (which, fortunately for Ham’s family, spiked to $500,000 after Mariah Carey’s 1994 release of the song).

    Eventually, the band dwindled to Evans and Molland fronting the band with ‘hired gun’ sidemen.  When they ended up at loggerheads about band business, there was a time when both fronted Badfinger bands made up of various former members.   This was the state of things until Evans also took his own life after a series of debilitating health issues. Joey Molland is the only one still hanging around and he does occasionally play as ‘Joey Molland’s Badfinger’, but having not been one of the primary vocalists, it is hard to imagine that they could still recreate the vocal harmony that was one of their most Beatlistic traits.

    In June of 2006, the band’s hometown of Swansea, Wales held a convention honoring their native sons with a performance by a later band member, Bob Jackson, and appearances by members of the Ham and Gibbins families.  In 2013, Swansea dedicated a plaque honoring Pete Ham and the members of The Iveys and Badfinger that he had played with. Again, Bob Jackson’s Badfinger performed at the dedication. The disposition of the royalties lawsuit was finally decided in 2013, but it is a shame that the legal wranglings lasted decades while the classic unit of the band had a much shorter run.

    Bob Jackson revived Badfinger again in 2015 and continues to play a limited number of dates in Europe.  Molland lives in the United States and also still performs as Joey Molland’s Badfinger. Molland appeared at the Calumet Theater a couple of years ago but I wasn’t able to see what is left of one of my favorite bands from fifty years ago.  Some might accuse Molland of trying to bleed more money out of a dead horse, but with all of the hard knocks the band endured, I won’t be one of them. It would have been interesting to see how Molland is holding up Badfinger’s legacy as ‘the Next Beatles’, but anytime I feel the need to hear Badfinger, they are still alive and well in my record collection.

Top Piece Video:  Badfinger live in 1972 – interestingly enough, one of the videos that pops up the most is their ‘performance’ on The Kenny Rogers Show and apparently they didn’t tell the set dressers that drummer Mike Gibbins was left handed . . . here he gets to actually play and the drums are set for his lefty style!