Badfinger: A Musical Tragedy

Badfinger: Pete Ham, Mike Gibbins, Tom Evans, Joey Molland

Badfinger: Pete Ham, Mike Gibbins, Tom Evans, Joey Molland, circa 1971. Image © Badfinger, courtesy Wikimedia, used under Fair Use provisions of US and international copyright law

Sometimes it’s easy to forget, given my activities in politics and social issues, that I’ve also been a musician since 1977.  I have to admit with some regret that I’ve let that part of my life slide as I pursue “bigger things,” but at heart I am and always be a creator of music; since before I could talk, music has moved my heart and been the place I go for joy, sorrow, comfort, challenge, peace. As a result of this, I’ve been – naturally – exposed to a LOT of music over the years, so much that I often forget some songs and bands that I deeply enjoy and respect.  I happened to hear a song on the radio yesterday that is one of those songs, and reminded me of one of the greatest, most tragic musical stories in rock history – and one that I happen to have had a small brush with personally.  The song has been stuck in my head – to the point that as I lay trying to get back to sleep at around 4am, I found myself literally crying into my pillow with the song floating in my inner ear, just amazed and grateful to live in a world that can produce something so beautiful. The story of Badfinger is every rock and roll cliché and tragedy you can imagine rolled into one, and somehow for all that it isn’t trite or contrived or hackneyed.  Embraced by the Beatles, they were the first non-Beatles act signed to Apple Records, and compared to that gold standard of pop-rock bands so often that it became more burden than blessing. I had the great fortune to exchange some e-mails with drummer Mike Gibbins a few years before his death in 2005.  I’ve made it my habit over the years of not being a “fanboy” when I meet or deal with someone who has a measure of fame.  This has resulted in my having some excellent and very candid conversations with a lot of people, and my personal choice is to keep most of those conversations to myself; I’ve had my own experiences with not being able to trust that things I say in confidence or think are “private” won’t be broadcast to the world by someone who sees me as a commodity instead of a person, and long ago I adopted a position that this was something I simply would not do.  A performer should, at the very least, be able to be themselves in the private company of other performers.  Consequently, much of that conversation will remain locked in my own head, unless Mike’s family digs up his decade-old e-mail archives and publishes them or something weird like that.

However, part of the conversation was in fact intended for public consumption.  This excerpt from the old LowGenius.Com MusicBase (thanks Archive.Org!) includes the part of that conversation.

This is the demo take of the song that McCartney gave to protégés Badfinger, the first band to be signed to Apple Records, and one of the classic “boy did we get screwed hard on THIS deal” stories in the ugly history of artist compensation in rock and roll. I don’t have all of the details on this story, but it seems that ‘Finger never got paid a dime for any of their royalties, possibly because they were part of the same deal with Northern Songs that overmatched “manager” Brian Epstein cut, the one that resulted not only in the Beatles never making shit from their first 5 years’ worth of albums, but also eventually lead to the sale of all of those songs to Michael Jackson, who promptly licensed “Revolution” for use in a f’n Nike commercial. Unfortunately, as a result of this two-edged gift, Badfinger (a truly great rock band – how I’ve managed not to have any of their tracks in this database yet is a mystery to me) were relegated to the “Beatle-wannabe” bin by most reviewers and critics (their mistake, IMO – Badfinger were a great band in their own right), and eventually their financial situations got so screwy that both the lead guitarist and lead singer ended up committing suicide. I’ve been informed that this take shows up on the Beatles’ Anthology 3 CD, so I guess now I’ll have to go buy that. UPDATE:14 Jan 01 Badfinger drummer Mike Gibbins was kind enough to respond to my inquiries to him regarding this track with the following, produced here exactly as written:

Paul wrote the song for the movie “The Magic Christian.” Not for Badfinger specifically. On the demo your listening to, Paul played all the instruments. Paul also played piano and maraccas on the finished Badfinger version. Paul was asked to do the entire soundtrack for the movie but didn’t have the time and that’s how Badfinger ended up with the opportunity to do the soundtrack for the movie. Badfinger did the entire soundtrack except for the one song which was given to us by Paul.

HUGE props to Mike Gibbins, considered by some to be one of rock’s greatest unsung heroes, for being so accessible to his fans. PLEASE NOTE: For the record, and in the interests of not deceiving anyone or giving the appearance of putting words in anyone’s mouth, the synopsis in my original review is not based on any information I have recieved from Mike Gibbins, but is solely my interpretation of historical events, for better or for worse. Thanks again, Mike!

The tragedy of this group of artists cannot be overstated.
The song stuck in my head is probably the best-known recording by the band outside of “Come and Get It,” and appeared on their 1971 album Straight Up.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve often mistaken this for a song by Eric Clapton or one of his late 60’s groups, both because of the guitar work and Pete Ham’s vocals which are very reminiscent of Clapton’s ballad style.  While I’m a big alt-grunge-hard rock guy, the truth is I have a huge spot in my heart for the passionate (some would say overwrought) arena-rock ballads of the 70’s, and this really is one of the best ever.  I give you:  “Day After Day

The song not only features George Harrison playing an impromptu slide guitar “duet” (actually an in-studio overdub; the two never played live simultaneously on the track) with Pete Ham that has become one of the most recognizable riffs of the “classic rock” era, but also some incredibly tasteful and precise drumming from Gibbins and the huge, flowing backing vocals that were a key component of the Beatles comparisons.  Maybe it’s not your style, and that’s fine, but for me…boy, I’d give about anything to have ever written just one song this good.  (Note:  Many BF tracks were re-recorded decades later with Joey Molland on vocals.  These are immediately recognizable as Ham’s rich, throaty, deep vocal is replaced with higher and more nasal voice.  Unfortunately, because of Apple Corps, Ltd’s ineptitude in managing their back catalog while simultaneously trying to profit from it, the re-recorded versions are currently the only available by legal digital download through services like Spotify.) And the thing is, it wasn’t just this song.  Unbeknownst to probably anyone whose exposure to the song from the Harry Nilsson hit of 1971, the Mariah Carey 1994 hit, or – like mine – the Air Supply version that was hugely popular around 1980 or 81, this is also the band who wrote and recorded what is almost certainly one of the most-covered songs least associated with its original artist ever, once described by Paul McCartney as “the killer song of all time”:  Without You.  Yes, that “Without You.”  The “Ken Lee” song that some girl in Asia slaughtered to much hilarity in a viral YouTube video a few years back.

In true rock cliché style, a series of challenges including interpersonal bickering and gross misappropriation of funds by the band’s “soulless bastard” manager Stan Polley led to internal squabbling that saw Gibbins leave the band briefly in 1974, and the following year singer and guitarist Pete Ham, three days before his 28th birthday (the unsung member of the “27 club” for you musical numerologists) and sporting a blood alcohol level of nearly .3%, killed himself by hanging.  He left behind a girlfriend who was eight months pregnant; his daughter was born a month after his death. Badfinger enjoyed a string of hits in 1970-71 that helped bring back melodicism and upbeat pop to rock music, cited as an influence on later bands including Alex Chilton’s Big Star.  In one of those hits often actually mistaken for a Beatles song, you can really hear why they were so often compared to that band.  This is No Matter What.

Ham’s suicide in 1975 was, unfortunately, not the end of the band’s tragedy.  The band broke up and reformed in various incarnations after Ham’s suicide – including one incarnation that had Tony Kaye from Yes and Peter Clarke from Stealers Wheel on keyboards and drums, and a period in which two different bands, one led by guitarist Tom Evans and the other by singer/drummer Joey Molland (who was not part of the original band) toured more or less simultaneously under the Badfinger moniker.  On November 18, 1983, Evans and Molland had a heated telephone argument that some sources say was chiefly concerned with the royalties from “Without You.”  Evans, who had been plagued with depression since Ham’s 1975 death and once told his wife “I want to be where Pete is,” hung himself late that night or early the next morning.

The tragedy of this group of artists cannot be overstated.  From their early days as The Iveys when they first attracted the attention of the Kinks’ Ray Davies (who produced a 4-track demo for them prior to their being noticed by Beatles’ road manager Mal Evans and signed to Apple) to their own robust and influential, if short-lived, body of work under the Badfinger banner, and various guest appearances by members including tracks, albums, and performances by George Harrison (the “All Things Must Pass” and The Concert for Bangladesh), John Lennon (the “Imagine” album; some sources say their tracks weren’t used), and Evans and Ham contributing background vocals to Ringo Starr’s hit single “It Don’t Come Easy,” as well as touching various parts of musical history spanning three decades (starting with Davies’ early involvement and extending even to such odd trivia as Gibbons’ session work on Bonnie Tyler’s breakout hit “It’s A Heartache,” or the sale of their two-room rehearsal space by their manager Bill Collins for use by another manager, Malcom McLaren for use by his new act, a little group of ne’er-do-wells called “The Sex Pistols”), Badfinger’s influence and impact both large and small across the music industry is huge, obscure, wide-ranging, and mostly forgotten in the traffic and noise of music history.

Certainly the attention brought to the acts who have covered “Without You,” by itself, is a greater contribution than many bands or artists have ever been able to make. However, in many decades when the rise and fall of twentieth-century rock is written with a detached pen, it will be this story along with other tales of perfidy for money by people like Saul Zantz (who screwed Creedence Clearwater Revival so hard that John Fogerty got sued for performing songs he had written and recorded) and others that tells the real truth behind what may eventually prove to have killed rock and roll:  not mp3’s and file-sharing, but the gluttonous, greedy, and mutinous mismanagement of talented human beings by greedy, avaricious managers who weren’t even smart enough to avoid cooking the goose that laid their golden eggs.

Pete Ham – writer of a song that has been recorded by nearly two hundred different artists and sold over twenty million copies – killed himself believing that he was destitute.  Further arguments over that same money ended up costing his bandmate Tom Evans his life as well, and the surviving band members lived and continue to live the rest of their lives under the weight of that loss.  Perhaps the breaking of the record company & manager business model in music by the rise of independent distribution enabled by the digital age will prove a blessing in disguise.

Addendum, 08-Aug-2014:  BF enjoyed a brief renaissance when their fourth major hit, “Baby Blue,” was used as the fade-out track for the last scene of the last show of the last season of the popular US television drama “Breaking Bad.”