There are many tragedies in the world of music. Mozart dying young and penniless, buried in a common grave. Billie Holliday ignominiously handcuffed to her deathbed, charged with drug possession. The shockingly overpopulated Forever 27 Club. But few stories in pop music are as full of woe as the tale of the Welsh group that came to define power pop, Badfinger. The first band signed to The Beatles' Apple Records, they seemed destined for pop greatness—if not outright picking up right where the Fab Four left off—but mismanagement, deceit, and plain old bad luck scuttled all their aspirations. Within an eight year period between 1975 and 1983, the songwriting duo of Ham/Evans, the central creative forces in the band, had both committed suicide. Their deaths were blamed on a convenient combination of despondency over their lack of mainstream success and their sense of betrayal by record companies and managers who had swindled them out of their earnings, but a careful analysis of their music up to but especially on their 1971 record, Straight Up, lays bare a pair of distressed souls. Revered by those who remember but mostly ignored by those who weren't around, Straight Up is an ethereal appraisal of heartbreak and desolation that impressively resists maudlin cliché while maintaining a heightened power pop sensibility.
Founded by Welshman Pete Ham in 1962, the band rattled around the orbit of The Beatles during the mid-'60s. In 1968, each Beatle signed off on welcoming the group as the first outsiders signed to Apple Records. Even though paired with a thoroughly professional producer like Tony Visconti, the band was unable to get any real momentum. In a gesture of genuine generosity, Paul McCartney essentially directed them to rerecord his just finished tune, "Come and Get It," a song intended for the Peter Sellers comedy vehicle, The Magic Christian (1969). Produced by McCartney, it was a hit in both the US and UK, becoming the theme song to the film. The band was primed to show the world what they could really do.
At this point, they adopted the moniker, Badfinger. Imbued with an emerging confidence following their first taste of success, they released their second album, No Dice in 1970, produced by Beatles sound engineer, Geoff Emerick. A fun rock-oriented record featuring two memorable hits, "No Matter What" and "Without You," whose musical and lyrical themes, respectively, belie the first hints of a terrible desperation that was to come.
"No Matter What" with its super-catchy hooks is a primary example of power pop, a genre Badfinger is widely credited for popularizing. Power pop focuses on hooks and choruses reflecting a happy yet yearning youthful attitude. The Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and The Who's "Pictures of Lily," whence the term originated after Pete Townshend used the phrase to describe his 1967 song (about masturbation), are two early examples of power pop. Although it's earnestly upbeat, the lyrics suggest something deeper than a simple teenage love song. They're also simultaneously specific and vague, a style Pete Ham in particular employs often, "If you would give me all, as I would give it to you / Nothing would be, nothing would be, nothing would be." Even here, there are signs of a darkness in the songwriting more foreboding than straightforward yearning, "Knock down the old brick wall, be a part of it all / Nothing to say, nothing to see, nothing to do." If I read this song right, then no matter what she does or where she goes, he'll follow her, and they'll have nothing to talk about, look at, or accomplish. Not exactly a glorious ode to the joys of romance.
Now that you've gotten a glimpse of the guys in the music video, decorum dictates you get better acquainted. Founder and lead creative voice in the band, Pete Ham, hailed from Swansea, the second largest city in Wales and the birthplace of Dylan Thomas. Ham's songwriting chops and the uncanny resemblance of his singing voice to somewhere between Paul McCartney and John Lennon, impressed Apple Records' A&R man, Peter Asher, enough for him to champion him and his group at the time, The Iveys, to each of the Beatles. This establishes a recurrent theme throughout both Ham's life and the life of his band. Undeniable talent, enormous potential, and seemingly fortuitous breaks that all ultimately come to naught. I mean, having Beatles roadie Mal Evans and Peter Asher singing your praises to John, Paul, George, and Ringo is what I imagine every British guitar playing kid's dream was in the early to mid '60s, when The Beatles were quite profoundly altering the arc of world culture. But despite all the green lights, the truly big break for Pete Ham and Badfinger never came. Even after they churned out a string of hits—all memorable—one of which has gone down as one of the most powerful and successful ballads all time. Ham was joined early on by fellow Swansean Mike Gibbins on drums, whom Phil Spector once called Mr. Tambourine Man for his dynamic tambourine playing.
Rounding out Badfinger are two Liverpudlians: guitarist Joey Molland, who made substantial, if not all that interesting, songwriting contributions to their repertoire, and bassist Tom Evans, the last to join but who quickly formed a songwriting rapport with Pete Ham. The power pop seductiveness of No Dice impelled George Harrison and Phil Spector to invite the group to play on the now mythical All Things Must Pass sessions. So, to recap, Badfinger is the first non-Beatle group signed to their proprietary Apple Records, where they receive a patron in Paul McCartney, and then George Harrison recognizes their talent enough to bring them on to his legendary project, and eventually agrees to produce their next record.
But we're getting way ahead ourselves here. We still need to get back to the second unforgettable hit from No Dice. "Without You" might very well be the most desperate song ever written. Immortalized forever by Harry Nilsson, who heard the song one night at a party and unsurprisingly mistook it for a Beatles song. Commingling two works-in-progress Ham and Evans wrote separately into one package, fittingly the offspring was, as McCartney put it, "the killer song of all time." It's true; I'd venture to guess more people have killed themselves to this song than just about any other. Not that that's something to boast about, but it speaks to the song's incredible emotional impact. The Badfinger version is not as polished as Nilsson's, the roughshod sound suggesting the depth of the despair. The soaring chorus is shouted, out of sync and nearly out of tune, repeated over and over. The kind of song that horripilates most of the hairs on your body.
Coming off the success of their first originally-penned hits, Badfinger quickly got back into the studio. But the album's worth of tracks produced by Beatles sound engineer Geoff Emerick didn't find keen ears at Apple. George Harrison, perhaps in a show of gratitude for their contributions to All Things Must Pass, swoops in and agrees to produce their next album. Harrison works with the group on four songs before departing to stage the Concert for Bangladesh, leaving Badfinger in the lurch. Again, in an apparent sign of equal parts respect and remorse, Harrison invited the band to join him at the famed benefit concert, even playing his timeless "Here Comes The Sun" as a duet with Ham.
Exit George Harrison. Enter Todd Rundgren, a fabled figure in his own right. Starting off with the soft psychedelic band Nazz in the mid '60s, Rundgren soon ventured out on his own as an eclectic solo artist and record producer. Rundgren brought a professionalism that allowed the record to be edited and mixed in due haste, but his methods created acrimony in the studio. The final product, it must be stated, is a heartbreak masterpiece.
From the opening track, "Take It All" the unnerving anguish of permanent loss pervades the album like a viper curled atop a piano. "In a way, the sun has shone on me / Makes it easy, to make it hard / Take an inch, take a yard / Take it all / I don't need it, at all." The lack of embellishment enhances the cryptic offering. The themes of desperation, torment, and resignation, first glimpsed in earlier songs are now frothing at the surface.
"Baby Blue" most recently reintroduced to pop culture by its inclusion as the closing song to the notorious TV series Breaking Bad, was a modest hit (#14) for the group in the US, but due to the chaos at the soon-to-be defunct Apple Records, it wasn't even released as a single in the UK. The opening lines are a self-incriminating lament, "I guess I got what I deserved / Left you waiting there, too long my love." The sense of loss is instant and sharp.
The first two songs, both penned by Ham, are followed by a Tom Evans composition, "Money," with its opening lines, "Money, stole my lady / Fools have a way of making me crazy." It's like these guys are having a contest for who can write the most heart-crushing song. Ham is ahead but Evans is coming on strong. Side one of Straight Up has an ethereal quality. Even the names of the songs suggest elevation and detachment: "Flying," "I'd Die Babe," "Name Of The Game." The last of those is a haunting ballad about something probably too heavy for pop music, "Oh, don't refuse me / If you choose me, you'll follow my shame / No, don't confuse me / For I know it's the name of the game." The song is exquisite and inspiring of awe but this shit is too depressing. And they wondered why it wasn't a bigger hit.
Side two isn't as strong, with a trio of largely forgettable Joey Molland tunes. But without a doubt, the song that defines the record, in fact, defines Badfinger's entire pitiable snakebit career, is the doleful "Day After Day," a fateful lamentation of a poisoned heart. The weeping guitar, played to aching perfection by George Harrison, matches the anguished lyrics. Ham's focus on the delayed after-effects of a breakup, the sour remnants of the lover's memory that hang like a pall of ghostly smoke, elevates "Day After Day" beyond the typical breakup song. Ham is expressing intense emotions that are concomitantly complex yet plain, "I remember holding you while you sleep / Every day I feel the tears that you weep / Looking out of my lonely gloom / Day after day." The song's urgency demands repetitive listens, which only increase the song's tragic allure. "I remember finding out about you / Every day my mind is all around you." I dare you not to get at least a small lump in your throat at that line. The Harrison guitar solo certainly gives the song a late-Beatles/All Things Must Pass feel but don't let that distract from the sumptuousness. The gentle accompaniment of the piano completes the tender lament and supplication. A lovesick song for the ages.
The record closes, fittingly, with a song each from Pete Ham and Tom Evans. "Perfection" features some clever socially conscious wordplay from Ham but the chorus refrain contains a tinge of spite, "Successful conversations will take you very far." Is he mocking himself? Is he mocking people who make songs like his? It's hard to tell, but what's not difficult to discern is why his hits didn't become massive. His lyrics are unadorned and catchy but also obtuse and bordering on bitter. Could it be that Ham's delayed success and powerless naiveté in the face of record companies and managers spoiled his artistic vision?
The record closes with a wistful valediction to the group's fans after their 1971 US tour. "It's Over" is an Evans slow rocker with transcendent backup vocals that captures the excitement of being adored by a public but knowing all good things must end. In a certain light, it could also be interpreted as a I'm-walking-out-on-you or an end-of-the-affair song, "Pack your bags, I'm going away / It's over, going home.../ Now I feel like I'm one / Now I feel like I'm due." Even their supposed positive songs sound sad.
Compounding the misfortune is listening to the outtakes that were rejected by Apple Records. Some nice solid rockers like "Baby Please" and "No Good At All" would have brought the record a playful swinging feel, rather than the ruminating mournfulness it ended up with. It's a shame the Apple record executives insisted on moulding Badfinger into the Abbey Road Beatles (way overambitious considering they lacked Paul's whimsical touch or John's subversive weirdness) instead of letting them take their natural course towards harder rock.
The next few years saw the band release three more slightly brilliant but mostly middling albums, the potential success of each sabotaged by bitter contract disputes, imbalanced record deals, and outright betrayal and theft. In Spring of '75 Pete Ham, despondent at his inability to curb the band's downward spiral, hanged himself. The man whose voice and songwriting chops practically assured him of pop stardom had ended himself. Remember that Forever 27 Club? Pete Ham's a member. Eight years later, after an angry dispute with Joey Molland over the royalties for "Without You," Tom Evans followed his songwriting mate by also hanging himself. The tragedy was complete. Res ipsa loquitur.
Badfinger is largely forgotten today. "Without You," a song for the ages, has been covered by over 180 artists worldwide and is mostly associated with Harry Nilsson and Mariah Carey. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find many people who have even heard of a band called Badfinger, let alone Pete Ham or Tom Evans. But almost everyone has certainly listened to and been moved by their beautifully crafted music.
The deaths of Ham and Evans are widely blamed on frustration at their lack of a big break, their manager's shady business practices, and the general negative direction of the band, all contributing to them going broke. Those factors played a major role, for sure, but listening to Badfinger's music I'm convinced a crippling despair resided deep within Pete Ham and Tom Evans that was bound to make them self-destruct one way or another. Their bad luck served to tip them over the edge. Nowhere is this torment more pronounced than on Straight Up, a marvelous album about the crushing of the human heart.
I remember finding out about you
Every day, my mind is all around you
Looking out from my lonely room, day after day
Bring it home, baby, make it soon
I give my love to you
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