(By M Ross Perkins, Issue 21)
In July of 1968, an unknown Welsh band calling itself The Iveys became the first recording act signed to Apple Records. This group, later known as Badfinger, experienced what the rest of us only see in our musical dreams: They were hand-selected by their idols (in this case, the most respected group in the world), to exist side-by-side with them, to work with them, and to smoke dope with them.
Within merely 7 years, they would be known as one of rock’s most confusing and mysterious tragedies. The dangerous promises of fame, created in large part by The Beatles themselves, had been shot down by a decade of commercial failures, fraud, and managerial negligence, in front of the entire world. Rock music was entering a new stage in which flawless harmonies and methodical pop structures were being stabbed on stage by the anti-effort of the early punk movement. The flowery idealism of the psychedelic sixties had found its way into Nixon’s shredder and had been reassembled incoherently by the disenchanted. But still, among everything that can be said about the seventies, one thing can be said with certainty. The seventies were not kind to Badfinger. While most of the artists swallowed up and killed in the 1970s went out quickly from drugs and excess, the death of Badfinger was drawn out across several years of desperate effort and eerily terrible luck. Theirs was perhaps the worst luck. By the early eighties, the group’s two primary songwriting frontmen, best friends Pete Ham and Tom Evans, were both dead of suicides.
In the early days of the band’s success, every stroke of fortune came with a blow and the messes began immediately. The Iveys released their first Apple single, “Maybe Tomorrow,” on November 15th of 1968. But while the world watched in anxious anticipation for the arrival of the press-proclaimed “Beatle Heirs,” the single flopped, charting at a pathetic 67th in the United States and (bafflingly) not at all in the UK. This led to a frantic overhaul by the group and Apple, both of whom were scrambling to spread the collective approval shared by John, Paul, George, and Ringo. The Iveys were the first band to be given entry into The Beatles’ brand new progressive record label. The world was supposed to be excited. Strangely however, the endorsement of a lifetime did not translate into good numbers and the US response to “Maybe Tomorrow” was nearly nonexistent.
In 1912, Liverpool had arrogantly launched the ill-fated Titanic under a foreshadowing banner of guaranteed unsinkability. Fifty six years later, in 1968, Liverpool seemed poised to doom another massive launch through impossible hype, though I’m sure that no one considers it quite as catastrophic. The first Apple venture into non-Beatles territory was beginning to look like an embarrassment and The Iveys were quickly taking on water. However, Paul McCartney stepped in and declared that he would write a hit single.
McCartney showed up in the studio with a self-recorded tape reel containing a song called “Come and Get It.” The lyrics seemed intended to lure Pete Ham and the others into excitement: “Did I hear you say that there must be a catch? / Will you walk away from a fool and his money? / If you want it / Here it is / Come and get it / But you better hurry, ’cause it’s going fast.” The band was instructed to sing and play the song exactly as they had heard it on the demo and McCartney performed the drum part himself. After its release in December of 1969, “Come and Get It” sailed easily to number 7 in the United States and number 4 in the UK, becoming an instant radio favorite.
Along with taking McCartney’s shot in the arm, The Iveys saw it necessary to change their name. John Lennon had suggested they be called The Glass Onion, but the band settled instead on Badfinger. (The Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” was originally called “Bad Finger Boogie,” a reference to an injury sustained by John Lennon during the demo process.) The freshly named and newly re-energized group began work on its first album at Abbey Road. Paul McCartney made his contributions count, both in front of and behind the control room glass. The album also featured production work by Beatles road manager Mal Evans, as well as an arrangement by George Martin. These sessions became “Magic Christian Music,” a work that revitalized the ever-standard but ever-fading Beatle sensibilities that were being deconstructed in the emergence of the new 1970s. On this record, we hear a band that knew it had everything in the world to lose. But moreover, we hear a group of incredibly gifted musicians accessing the most revered studio and the most coveted mentoring in the world. On this album, one can hear the sound of Badfinger making use of good fortune, front and center in the mix.
“Magic Christian Music” is today considered the flagship of Badfinger’s career and the mold from which their future releases were cast. Most of the tracks feature an unmistakeable Beatles effect, such as “Fisherman” and “Come and Get It,” among others. But then we hear songs such as “Walk Out in the Rain,” “Dear Angie,” and “Crimson Ship,” which remind us that we are not hearing a mere reinterpretation of an old story. Instead, we’re witnesses to a certain metamorphosis in the history of pop music. These songs directly laid out the parameters for the 70s power pop movement and set the standard for countless groups to follow. The songs on “Magic Christian Music” call to mind no clear influences more dominant than the writers themselves. They make us question exactly whose influence we can hear on innumerable singles throughout the subsequent seventies. In many cases, we cannot be certain that we’re hearing echoes of The Beatles, because we have to consider Badfinger.
In the years that followed, the members of Badfinger endured a series of hardships that compounded one another dramatically. Apple’s financial meltdown had weighed heavily on the band and at one time, the members of Badfinger shared an apartment with no furniture. Pete Ham had trouble providing for his wife and their newly born child. His songs and the songs of his bandmates, meanwhile, lit up the radio. After the release of their second record, “No Dice,” the infamous Stan Polley was brought on as manager. Polley, later implicated as a mob extortionist, almost immediately began siphoning copious amounts of money into his own pockets. Two albums later, the band signed a new contract with Warner Brothers. Polley extorted $250,000 within the first year. In perhaps the saddest twist, though this shadowy embezzlement was happening unbeknownst to the band, it led to a lawsuit against not Stan Polley, but against Stan Polley and Badfinger. This legal battle with their own label instantly nullified their recording contract and Badfinger’s career was essentially destroyed. In April of 1975, a 27 year old Pete Ham was found hanged in his garage. He left a note that read, “Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.” It is known that Tom Evans was called to the house, where he is said to have stared at his friend’s body. Eight years later, broke and defeated, Evans also hung himself, in what was perhaps the final note of harmony performed by the two of them.
Many critics have commented on the greater lesson to be taken from Badfinger’s story. The moral often boils down to this: that good luck sometimes inexplicably irritates the universe. That’s not my take, though. I don’t think it’s mysterious. The music industry just kills people sometimes.