Badfinger’s WB Years Revisited, Part One

The story of Badfinger is a cautionary tale, one filled with betrayal, despair, missed opportunity, unfulfilled promise, neglect and two suicides. But all of those discomforting elements should not overshadow the music made by the half-British, half-Welsh group. The compilers of a new Badfinger reissue aim to help in that regard.

Still known as the Iveys, an early lineup of the band earned its first professional break when it signed with The Beatles’ Apple Records. Renamed after the working title of the Lennon/McCartney tune “With a Little Help from My Friends” (“Badfinger Boogie”), the group initially benefited from the attention of the Beatles.

Paul McCartney wrote the band’s first hit, “Come and Get It,” but the group – a democratic lot more or less led by guitarist and singer Pete Ham – quickly proved itself capable of writing its own top-flight material. Several hit singles would follow: “No Matter What,” Day After Day” and “Baby Blue” all charted both in the U.S. and U.K. The group’s second and third albums (1970’s No Dice and Straight Up from 1971) both performed well on American album charts. Badfinger would play on sessions for Ringo Starr (“It Don’t Come Easy”), John Lennon (several songs on Imagine LP) and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.

But at the same time, after the Beatles split and Apple unraveled, Badfinger suffered from lack of label attention; a series of minor (but seemingly unending) misfortunes meant that none of the band’s Apple-era albums would be produced start to finish by a single person. Producer Harrison left in the middle of sessions for Straight Up to focus on his Concerts for Bangladesh (Badfinger appeared as part of the “house band” for those concerts), leaving Todd Rundgren to finish producing the album. The band continued with Rundgren as work began on their next album, but Rundgren soon left that project. When the band found itself incapable of self-producing, Badfinger brought in producer Chris Thomas to oversee production on Ass, its final release for Apple.

The producer and band enjoyed a good working relationship. Highlights of the album include a thinly-veiled farewell to the label, “Apple of My Eye,” and the epic “Timeless.” The latter is characterized by an extended jamming coda complete with washes of Moog synthesizer-generated white noise; the track is clearly influenced by the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Chris Thomas laughs when reminded of the song’s familiar arrangement and production. “It’s pretty obviously a case of plagiarism,” he concedes. It wouldn’t be the last time Thomas and Badfinger would find themselves inspired by the Beatles’ final studio album.

By the time Ass made it onto record store shelves, Badfinger had left Apple, signing what looked to be a lucrative and promising contract with Warner Brothers Records. But as engineered by manager Stan Polley, the deal’s terms were onerous (two albums per year), and Polley engaged in no end of financial misdeeds, leaving the band effectively broke.

It was against that backdrop that Badfinger entered the studio to create two albums for Warners. Neither would be successful on the album charts, and singles issued from Badfinger, the first of the two 1974 albums, failed to chart at all.

Ironically, the group’s final album to be released during Badfinger’s time together would be its finest, most consistent work. But in response to Polley’s diversion of advance money, Warner Brothers pulled Wish You Were Here from stores just as it was beginning to sell. With the band’s momentum crushed, Pete Ham hanged himself in April 1975.

Bad luck and tragedy would continue to follow the Badfinger legacy; subsequent reunions were contentious affairs, and entanglement in the Apple mess meant that the former members – guitarist Joey Molland, bassist Tom Evans and drummer Mike Gibbins – would find themselves in financial difficulty for many years to come. And in a chilling replay of Ham’s death, Evans took his own life in November 1983. Drummer Gibbins died of a brain aneurysm in 2005, leaving only Molland – who neither wrote nor sang lead on any of the group’s prime-era charting singles – to trade on the Badfinger name.

Both Badfinger and Wish You Were Here would remain out of print for decades, and CD era reissues in the 1990s and beyond were often scantily promoted, poorly mastered and bereft of bonus tracks. As a result, the most creatively fertile period of Badfinger’s time together remains unknown and unheard by much of the listening public.

Working with Real Gone Music, archivist Dan Matovina – author of the definitive 1997 chronicle of the band, Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger – has overseen new and definitive reissues of Badfinger and Wish You Were Here. With the cooperation and collaboration of producer Chris Thomas, Matovina has curated release of the 21 songs from those albums. And gaining access to the original multi-track tapes, Matovina has also created new mixes that highlight heretofore unheard sonic elements within the original recordings.

Those bonus tracks – pointedly not designed to compete with Thomas’ original production – further reveal the brilliance of Badfinger, as well as the creatively fertile relationship the group enjoyed with its producer. Matovina’s research also unearthed two never-before-heard finished recordings, one from each album.

When Badfinger began work on its first album for Warners, the band was exhausted. “They had finished redoing most of Ass with Chris Thomas, and then they immediately went on tour,” Matovina says. “And then after six weeks on the road, they were tired and beaten down. But because of this new contract, they had to start a new album.” Luckily, they had a sympathetic and innovative ally in Chris Thomas. “They had a creative producer, and he gave them a lot of leeway,” Matovina says. “So they worked together, having fun and trying out lots of ideas.”

In his liner notes for the new Badfinger reissue, Matovina likens the recording sessions to the Beatles’ White Album. Each member focused on his songs, with the other three helping out – or not – as needed. “The best example of that is ‘I Miss You,’” he says. “Pete wrote the song in tribute to his girlfriend Beverly Ellis. I don’t think the band was necessarily that enthusiastic about it, so Pete basically did it himself.”

A Joey Molland tune, Badfinger’s “Love Is Easy” was written as a disco-type dance thumper a la Gary Glitter. For the bonus remix, Matovina says he “played up Mike Gibbins’ double slamming drums and Tommy’s cool, funky bass line. I did my best to freshen up and reinvigorate the tracks while respecting the original mixes.”

The band was in even worse shape when – as its contract demanded – they returned to the studio less than six months after finishing Badfinger. “When they arrived at Caribou Ranch, they were exhausted again, right off a tour, with no time to write any material,” Matovina says. “They were upset, and there were explosive things going on.” For his part, Thomas didn’t sense serious problems between the members. “I don’t think there was a particular problem within the band at all,” he says. “It was a problem with the band against the management.”

Chris Thomas sat the four musicians down and told them that the only way forward was to make a great album. Thomas had the mindset of “if something is here right now that I can work with, let’s see what we can pull together,” Matovina says.

Wish You Were Here was an intensely-produced album with a lot of ideas tried out,” says Matovina. “And luckily, a lot of those ideas were kept on the tracks. So, for this reissue, I requested the stems, the multitracks themselves. I went through them to unearth these ideas.”

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