There are few bands in the annals of rock music as star-crossed in their history as Badfinger. Pegged as one of the most promising British groups of the late '60s and the one world-class talent ever signed to the Beatles' Apple Records label that remained with the label, Badfinger enjoyed the kind of success in England and America that most other bands could only envy. Yet a string of memorable hit singles — "Come and Get It," "No Matter What," "Day After Day," and "Baby Blue" — saw almost no reward from that success.
Instead, four years of hit singles and international tours precipitated the suicides of its two creative members and legal proceedings that left lawyers as the only ones enriched by the group's work.
Pete Ham (April 27, 1947 — April 23, 1975) was born in one of the rougher areas of the port city of Swansea, Wales, the third of three children. A very active, adventurous, and moody youth, his biggest passion in life as a boy was music — his father was a fan of big band music and his older brother played the trumpet. Ham began playing the mouth organ at age four and then turned to the guitar, at which he became extremely proficient, in the '50s. He got his first guitar in 1959, and in the early '60s formed a trio, called the Panthers, with two friends, playing the music of the Shadows, Cliff Richard's backing band. The group later became a quintet and began using other names, including the Black Velvets and the Wild Ones. Members came and went around Ham, and one of the new additions in the early '60s was bassist Ron Griffiths (born October 2, 1946), whose earliest musical inspirations included the Shadows and the Ventures. The group, with Ham, Griffiths, and guitarist Dai Jenkins at its core, eventually settled on the Iveys, after a street in Swansea, and also as a tribute to the Hollies, not to mention their appreciation of the American song "Poison Ivy."
In 1965, Mike Gibbins (born March 12, 1949) became the Iveys' drummer. Gibbons, a very powerful player, helped push the band to a new level of proficiency and by the end of the year, the group was being booked as an opening act for local appearances by the likes of the Who, the Yardbirds, the Moody Blues, and the Spencer Davis Group.
By 1966, they had a new manager in Bill Collins and were based in London, where they continued to make a name for themselves, both as a regular backing band for vocalist David Garrick and in their own gigs. It was Collins who encouraged the members of the Iveys to write their own songs — Ham proved the most proficient of the quartet at this, with Griffiths a distant second. By 1967, various record companies and producers, including Decca, Pye, and CBS, expressed an interest in signing them.
That same year, Jenkins left the band and was replaced by Liverpool-born Tom Evans (June 5, 1947 — November 19, 1983). Evans had been playing with a band called Them Calderstones, an R&B-based band whose main influence was Motown. The group was now one of the top outfits to come out of Wales, equally good at loud rock & roll and lyrical pop numbers, harmonizing Hollies style or rocking out '50s style, and the members were writing an ever-growing body of originals. This was the group that auditioned for the newly formed Apple Records label in 1968. First Mal Evans, the Beatles' longtime roadie — and a friend of the Iveys' manager — took up their cause, followed by Peter Asher, the head of A&R for the label. Finally, they attracted the attention of Paul McCartney.
The group's history at Apple was seldom a smooth one, despite their talent and the very favorable contract that they were offered. Somehow, between the disorganization that seemed to characterize the company's operations from day one and the sheer breadth of the group's talents, a suitable debut single proved very difficult to arrive at. They were too good at too many different sounds, and almost too flexible in their musical attitudes for their own good.
A debut single was selected in late 1968 in the guise of a Tom Evans original, "Maybe Tomorrow." The record never became a hit in England or America (though it charted very high in Holland and Germany), but the label did follow it up with an LP. Unfortunately, the Maybe Tomorrow album was something of a blown opportunity. Once one got past the title-track and a couple of other decent rock songs, it was top heavy with novelty tunes that sounded like resurrected '30s pop numbers. This error was a result of many problems: Neophyte producer Mal Evans, who lacked the confidence to assert any judgment, a manager who liked those old-style numbers, and the group's inexperience. The album passed with barely a ripple, never getting out in America and scarcely making it out the door in England, though it did get released in Germany, Italy, and Japan. The record's near-suppression had nothing to do with artistic objections, but rather, with the internal turmoil that Apple was going through at the time.
The group's fortunes were rescued by Paul McCartney, who brought them a song he'd written called "Come and Get It," all as part of the proposed soundtrack for a movie called The Magic Christian. They ended up with a number four British hit single and a number seven hit in America, with comparable sales throughout most of Europe; they were now the most successful group ever signed by the Beatles, the problem being that they weren't an intact group at the time of the release. Ron Griffiths, whose girlfriend had given birth to their child in early 1969, quit the group midway through the recording of the music for The Magic Christian.
More than a lineup shift was in the offing. The band used the opportunity to change their name, which had proved to be source of confusion thanks to the presence of an older and better established group called the Ivy League. The new name, Badfinger, came from the working title of the Beatles song "With a Little Help From My Friends," "Bad Finger Boogie." It beat out such suggestions as the Glass Onion and the Prix (which came from John Lennon, who surely hoped it would be mispronounced frequently).
Tom Evans switched to bass in the course of recruiting a replacement member. After trying (and failing) to recruit Hamish Stuart out of the Marmalade, the group found Joey Molland (born June 21, 1947), a Liverpool guitarist who had been associated with a group called the Masterminds, the Fruit Eating Bears (the backing group for the Merseys), and had been playing with Gary Walker. He joined the newly christened Badfinger just in time to play gigs in support of the release of Magic Christian Music, an LP assembled from the songs from the movie, augmented by remixed versions of the best songs from the Iveys' Maybe Tomorrow album.
The new lineup was the strongest yet, after some sorting out and Evans getting accustomed to working with the bass. Ham and Evans were already seasoned songwriters who proved themselves able to write songs to order when they worked on The Magic Christian. That score gave a good look at what this band could do and, apart from McCartney's "Come and Get It," what they could compose. "Carry on to Tomorrow" was a Crosby, Stills & Nash-style harmony number with a high haunt count, while "Rock of All Ages" was greeted by some listeners as one of the best original British rock & roll numbers since the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There."
Gibbons had begun composing as well, and then along came Molland, who was a formidable songwriter in his own right. They developed a much harder rocking, more solid sound, and suddenly Apple Records found itself with more than just a hot rock act in their midst. During 1970-1971, Badfinger, on top of their own commitments, played on many Apple-associated sessions. Ham, Evans, and Molland had key roles in projects associated with George Harrison, including singles such as "It Don't Come Easy" and the album All Things Must Pass, and at the Concert for Bangladesh. They also worked on John Lennon's Imagine album. Amid all of this activity, the group also recorded what the group believed to be their best album, No Dice, which yielded one classic recording, "No Matter What," as well as an original song, "Without You," by Ham and Evans, that was turned into a monster worldwide hit by Harry Nilsson.
It was also in 1970 that the group first hooked up with agent Stan Polley, who ultimately became their manager. He seemed at the time to offer the kind of shrewd, ambitious management that they felt they needed, as all of these events and opportunities were breaking around them. The group liked Bill Collins well enough and owed their original intro to Apple to him; they kept him in charge of their English affairs, but Collins wasn't up to handling the kinds of six-figure deals and international commitments associated with a world-class music act, and Polley seemed to offer that expertise.
Polley reorganized the group's finances, supposedly to secure their futures, though ultimately they saw virtually none of the money they were earning. The band toured America and saw the No Dice album get rave reviews. They also found some less than pleasing elements to their success once they realized precisely how fixated American audiences were on their connection to the Beatles. They came to despise having to play "Come and Get It," and also resented being asked more about their relationship to the Beatles than about their own music.
At the end of 1971, the group released Straight Up, which today is generally regarded as their best album. Straight Up produced two huge singles, "Day After Day" and "Baby Blue," plus an FM hit in the form of "Name of the Game." To the outside observer, the group's future, like its present, looked ideal. They were all over the radio, touring the United States, and the release of the movie The Concert for Bangladesh, in which George Harrison introduced the band during the concert, was only icing on the cake that year.
In point of fact, Straight Up had been a very difficult album to record, going through two producers, George Harrison and Todd Rundgren, in the course of getting something usable. It sold well and might have even sold better had Apple promoted it more actively but, in a sign of the company's internal problems, the group was largely left to fend for itself when pushing the album on tour. Additionally, although the album was popular and Ham enjoyed working with and learning from Harrison, the other bandmembers, especially Molland, felt that Straight Up didn't sound very much like Badfinger. Certainly the two singles had textures and sounds that one easily associated with latter-day Beatles' records and Harrison's solo material.
Moreover, the connection with Harrison did nothing to relieve them of the Beatles connection. Furthermore, even at that point, there were problems developing collecting the money they were making — Apple was in a state of chaos, with Badfinger and the individual Beatles the only artists who were making any money for the company. Additionally, their new manager, Polley, was making all kinds of moves involving their finances, supposedly looking after their interests, but effectively keeping their money from them. And they were still playing a brutal schedule of tours and recording sessions.
The year 1972 was one of constant touring and very little recording. A new album was needed, which the group proposed to produce themselves. Their attempt late in 1972 at cutting a fifth Apple LP failed to yield anything usable. In early 1973, producer Chris Thomas was brought in to help them complete the album, a process that delayed its completion until the spring of 1973.
By that time, the band was in an awkward, almost impossible situation with their record company. Polley, knowing that their Apple contract was ending in the summer of 1973, negotiated a multi-million dollar contract with Warner Bros., a fact that upset the people in charge at Apple, most notably George Harrison. Continuing at Apple was impossible, however: The record label was in the midst of a state of rapid decline and Allen Klein, still in charge, was insisting on a less favorable contract for the group.
In the meantime, the group kept touring and writing. Their final Apple album, entitled Ass, was released late in 1973 just as the record label was nearing the end of its existence as a viable company. The subsequent Apple bankruptcy (which would also tie up the group members' publishing royalties) and the settling of accounts would take many years, and in the meantime cost the group hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Just weeks after finishing work on Ass, which they genuinely wanted to support with a tour, they commenced work on a hastily conceived album, Badfinger, for which they had little enthusiasm. Ass, which appeared in November of 1973, had been a departure for the group in terms of its sound, and Badfinger, coming so close on its heels, had given audiences too much to absorb, even though it was a better album.
The group returned to the studio early 1974, just as the first Warner Bros. album was dying in the marketplace and the reviews, to cut Wish You Were Here. Meticulously recorded and produced, the album should have been a triumphant comeback for the group. It was at this time, however, that the financial machinations involving the group's accounts broke to the surface. Millions of dollars were gone from an escrow account set up to protect both the group and the record label and Wish You Were Here, which had gotten the group's best reviews in two years, was withdrawn weeks after its release in the fall of 1974, apparently on advice from the company's lawyers.
Previously, Gibbins had left the band for a time in late 1972; now it was Ham's turn to exit the group, or at least try to. The mix of personalities and legal entanglements had grown impossible, with Polley controlling all of their income and huge amounts of money seemingly vanished.
The year 1974 was, for the band, the culmination of a series of events that would keep lawyers and accountants busy for years. The individual group members found themselves impoverished and in debt despite their years of work and with little prospect of seeing any of their money at any time soon. A third Warner album, entitled Head First, was hastily recorded by the group late in 1974, but was never released. By that time, the situation between the record label and the group had deteriorated, leading to the canceling of their contract in early 1975.
On April 23, 1975, a year into these financial and professional crises, Ham — critically short of money, with no prospect of seeing any that was owed to him, and with a daughter on the way — hung himself in his garage. The group's affairs, already a shambles, had turned into a nightmare. The surviving group members tried to put their personal and professional lives back together over the next few years while the overlapping suits and counter suits wound their way through the system on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 1978, Evans and Molland tried reviving the Badfinger name with the album Airwaves, with ex-Stealers Wheel drummer Peter Clarke and former Yes keyboard man Tony Kaye. This group later toured America and a second album, Say No More, followed in 1981, but there was little stability to any of these latter-day versions of the band. Evans, Molland, and Gibbins had an on-again/off-again relationship, and at different times were fronting rival groups exploiting the Badfinger legacy; the legal conflicts proved almost insoluble, as the members themselves disagreed with each other. Sometime early in the morning of November 19, 1983, after a loud argument with Molland over the telephone, Evans hanged himself.
The irony was that there was sufficient demand for Badfinger material, that their albums were widely pirated on CD in the late '90s. Among the non-Beatles Apple CD reissues, the Badfinger albums (apart from Ass) are the only group of recordings that have sold well enough to justify remaining in print into the 21st century. Molland managed to entice and then alienate fans in the '90s with the release of a live Badfinger album from tapes dating from the early '70s on which the drums and other instruments had very obviously been re-dubbed. Various radio performances and concert recordings have since surfaced, along with the documentary film Badfinger (1997), which recounts much of their story.