Graded on a Curve: Badfinger, Timeless… The Musical Legacy

Remembering Pete Ham on the date of his birth.Ed.

Talk about your bad mojo. It would be hard to find a band with as tragic a backstory as Badfinger, not one of whom, but two, of its original members hanged themselves. And this despite a string of at least five timeless tunes, and plenty of other good songs to boot.

The problem is that corrupt management—in the form of the New York mob-connected Stan Polley—made off with the bulk of the band’s profits, leaving Badfinger’s members practically penniless. It proved to be too much for the band’s songwriting team, Pete Ham and Tom Evans, leaving Badfinger to be remembered as much for its morbid history as its status as a great power pop band, England’s answer to The Raspberries.

The quartet formed in Swansea, Wales in 1961 as The Iveys. After much struggling they found themselves part of Apple Records’ stable of artists and hit pay dirt with “Come and Get It,” a Paul McCartney written and produced record, at which juncture they changed their name to Badfinger, supposedly after an early iteration of “With a Little Help From My Friends” entitled “Bad Finger Boogie,” so named because an injured McCartney was reduced to using one finger. They then proceeded to produce a number of hits, but saw no money, and their subsequent career saw them become pop stars without a dime to call their own.

But what a legacy they left behind! It’s not all here on Timeless… The Musical Legacy (you owe it to yourself to also check out 1990’s The Best of Badfinger, Vol. 2, which includes such great tunes as “Just a Chance” and “Shine On”) but it’s a powerhouse record nonetheless, and convincing proof that Badfinger was more, and much more, than the band that brought us the delectable “Day After Day.”

Speaking of “Day After Day,” has there ever been a song so luscious, from its wonderful melody to its great guitar line to the dual slide guitars—played by Ham and George Harrison, whom the band joined at Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh? It’s so lovely it’s easy to forget how sad it is. Meanwhile, the band proffers a low-key version of its “Without You”—which Harry Nilsson turned into a megahit—but the vocals on the choruses are to die for, as is the lovely melody. And the organ is great.

“Rock of All Ages” is an anomaly; a full-scale rocker that reminds one—no matter how much Badfinger hated the inevitable Beatles comparisons—like nothing so much as a Paul McCartney screamer. The guitar solo is raunchy, some honky-tonk piano comes in and out—and the boys shout out the lyrics like the Fab Four in full rock mode. Pity the damn thing’s so short.

I’m not a fan of “Dear Angie”; it’s slow and sounds like an atavistic throwback to a prior time, and the guitars are too polite, the vocals too perfect. In short it’s too neat a package for my tastes, right down to the strings that end it. As for “Come and Get It,” it’s power pop perfection; the joint vocals are great, the drumming is wonderful, and the story is that the band wanted to do their own take on it but that Paul McCartney, the song’s producer, laid down the law, saying in effect it’s my way or the highway.

We’ll never know what Badfinger would have done with it, but I have no doubt that Mac was right on this one. I dislike “Maybe Tomorrow” for many of the same reasons I dislike “Dear Angie”—it’s far too treacly, and the strings are too distracting and conservative, and I’d love to hear this one stripped down, because the vocals show signs of life, and without the accoutrements they might have saved the song.

“No Matter What” may be my favorite Badfinger tune, from its raucous guitar to its great group vocals (“Knock down the old grey wall/Be a part of it all”) to the stagger step the band takes toward the end. “Baby Blue” is also a miracle of songwriting, especially in its transition from slow opening to mid-tempo middle. Then there’s the guitar-heavy interlude followed by a brief solo, and once again some fabulous group vocals, leading to the needle-sharp guitar note that ends the tune.

“Believe Me” reminds me of the Beatles—there, I said it—chiefly because the vocals remind me of John Lennon, but the band’s sudden shift from soft to loud is so, so cool. As are the dueling guitars, and the piano, and like they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I like this one regardless of whether it’s mildly derivative.

“Name of The Game” is a lovely ballad with great lead and backing vocals, a comely piano, and a chorus guaranteed to move you. What wonderful vocals! I may prefer The Raspberries because they provided more big guitar riffs, but I’ll go with Badfinger when it comes to vocals any day, the great Eric Carmen be damned. Meanwhile that piano rides atop the rest of the band to the end of the song, and it’s luvverly. “I’ll Be the One” offers up more great vocals, but this tune mixes them with a tune that is largely Beatles and a guitar that is country honk-era Stones. Somehow, the mix not only works, but is sublime.

“Apple of My Eye” is a ballad and I’m not wild about it, despite the wonderful harmonies and the big transcendent choruses, which add some crunch to the apple. Oh, hell, I guess I do like it, or as much as the odd “Suitcase” anyway. This one’s heavy on the slide guitar—it may indeed be the only Badfinger song where the guitar is more prominent than the vocals—as well as the organ, but the vocals are still cool, and this is probably the furthest they ever got from power pop.

LP closer “Timeless” is a bit too “Renaissance Festival” for my liking, what with the flute and the madrigal-like vocals. But then the piano comes in, followed by some big guitars that have George Harrison written all over them. I like the extended guitar solo, which is followed by some heavy-duty power chords, but then they return to the vocals, which just don’t do it for me.

Badfinger is almost certainly the most screwed-over band in rock history; for sure no other group got ripped off to the extent that two of its four members opted to end their lives. And beyond being a tragedy, it’s a pity, because there is nothing to suggest that Badfinger didn’t have more great music in them.

We were all betrayed by the band’s shady manager, who died in 2009 and is hopefully rotting in Hell. I can’t listen to “Come and Get It” and “No Matter What” without wondering what might have been. They could have been more than contenders. They could have been more than that band that sounded so much like the Beatles. They could have been the champeens of the world.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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