Sunday, April 10, 2016
Badfinger: Very Best Of (1969-74)
Like film noir, power pop is a genre created after the fact by necessity, describing things that only seemed in retrospect to belong together. Tied strongly to an affection for British rock bands of the '60s -- the Beatles, the Who and the Zombies perhaps most of all, with the acidic wit of the Kinks and the pure grit of the Stones falling somewhat by the wayside -- that seems all but entirely divorced from the music that gave birth to and was directly impacted by what those bands were doing, it often seems a curiously sterile and fatally limited branch of post-'60s guitar music. Its emphasis on pop songs almost overstuffed with carefully written and performed hooks does tie it pretty directly to the Beatles' work in the latter half of the '60s. Having worked hard to become a dynamic, versatile live band by 1962, the Beatles were essentially forced to abandon all semblance of spontaneity in their live act when they became famous, and the astoundingly inventive recordings they laid down in subsequent years were the result of endless hours of rehearsal, fine-tuning and four-track trickery. Such behavior was a luxury of the biggest band in the world; it was harder to translate to a working, touring unit.
The pursuit of the starry-eyed power pop bands that sprung up from the '70s to the '90s was often noble and touchingly earnest. There's already a certain enviable naivete and artistic dignity to the idea of picking up a guitar and showing 'em all, taking a tiny group of cronies out in a tinier van (if you were lucky) and playing your heart out to the faithful few who'd distinguished you from hundreds of others competing for their attention. To devote the same level of energy to the mere crafting and reproduction of pop songs? In a perverse way it's like reforming the old boring life of the traditional songwriter -- the guy in suit and tie reciting his latest lyrics to a room of restless coworkers in The Broadway Melody -- to be some fight-to-the-death starving artist pursuit. Like the term "power pop" itself, though, maybe this only seems obvious in retrospect and strictly because of the fate that befell at least two of the subgenre's most crucial groups.
The music itself, typically inordinately complex in production terms but never florid, was designed to stroke the pleasure centers; another sense in which power pop feels like an entirely insular cocoction, besides the breathless behavior of its cultists sweeping through bins of long-unremembered LPs, is the degree to which its methodology and stylistic tone is informed entirely by the archiecture of the radio hit. The records are supposed to sound clean, sharp, trebly, melodic, catchy, young (and, almost invariably, male), a hit parade rendered as microcosm. And more specifically than that, the hit parade of a certain time: not the whole of the '60s, certainly not the last couple of years or the depths of the Spector and teen idol explosion, but most conveniently the three or four years running from the mainstreaming of Mersey Beat (that's the British Invasion for you colonial types) to the Summer of Love. If you wanted, you could pare it all down to the three B's: Byrds, Beatles, Beach Boys. (It's maybe not a coincidence that the two retroactively elected leading lights of power pop share the B shelf.) It's also, ironically, important to exclude R&B from this equation. For one reason or another, power pop ties itself almost purely to Anglophilia, with a touch of Haight-Ashbury; the sense in which all genres of youthful popular music were intermingling and affecting one another in those years feels absent from much of the output of the power pop bands.
Along with the usual subject matter -- guys singing in sulky tones about women being mean to them, with little of the honesty, humor or toughness that made it interesting when blues or doo wop singers did the same thing -- this cordoned-off atmosphere makes it sometimes easy to classify power pop as an inevitably adolescent, even juvenile concoction. And very often it is. Power pop would eventually have its day in the mainstream sun, first with Eric Carmen's Raspberries then with Todd Rundgren's key '70s albums and later, abetted by the aggressive minimalism of the punk movement, the Cars, who were just weird enough to escape many artistic pratfalls of their antecedents and had a sufficient push from smart A&R people that they didn't suffer the same commercial fate either. Later, in the wake of renewed interest in all this, Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet and Jellyfish, among others, would gain dedicated followings just outside the mainstream. But the amply dominant dark side is epitomized by groups like the Knack, a thoroughly cynical creation harnessing the immediacy of power pop co-opted with boorish pandering, casual sexism and remarkable egotism. There were a zillion albums like the Knack's in the bins, similarly poor and disdainful, but they were the happy accidental recipients of good circumstances. In "My Sharona" or in the Romantics' dismal hit "What I Like About You", it was difficult to hear the passion and ambition you could sense in a masterpiece like Big Star's "September Gurls", the Records' "Starry Eyes" or Badfinger's "Baby Blue". All three bands had been working hard and devotedly courting success for their entire careers, and all three crashed and burned for nearly inexplicable reasons beyond their control, while in the years to follow executives learned just how to commodify their work.
What we're getting at is that the two leading lights of power pop, the bands that synthesized the genre as we think of it, offered the best examples of its virtues and potential on record and did the best job of making the art universal, personal and serious (the Records, a very good band, are sadly not exempt from the misogyny problem, and their work was sometimes listless), both would have gladly accepted the temporary superstardom of the Knack or, better yet, the longer-term reliability and omnipresence of the Cars. They wouldn't have had to sell their souls to achieve this; there was no shortage of talent that in another life would've made them unstoppable. That Big Star was and is a cult band remains nearly incomprehensible; looked at in a certain way, their story is depressing as hell, with three of four members now deceased and none of them ever having seen much reward for what they accomplished. But by most accounts, Alex Chilton and Andy Hummel lived out their years with relative peace (Chilton was a very happy man in his final decade). The Badfinger story is more troubling -- in fact, devastating.
Probably no rock band ever enjoyed such a boost in its infancy. They were not just a Beatles-influenced unit; they were discovered by the Beatles' beloved roadie Mal Evans and were the first outside group signed to their new label, Apple. They alone could claim status as direct proteges of the Beatles, which might already have doomed them to Klaatu-like laughter and obscurity without material to back themselves up as a mere surrogate band, an officially sanctioned ripoff, a road-company version of the world's biggest act that no longer toured. Their initial release under their original name, the Iveys, isn't exactly auspicious; sounding more like the Zombies in "Brief Candles" mode with a touch of John Sebastian than any Beatles single, "Maybe Tomorrow" is a garish, awkward pop nugget that sounds about three years older than it is (1968). It's both written and sung by guitarist and secondary leading light Tom Evans. He could do better, and he did.
A name change followed, inspired by the working title of "With a Little Help from My Friends", in turn inspired (like so many things) by a mildly painful injury that was annoying John Lennon as he struck the keys of his piano. Neither this bit of trivia nor the choice of first Badfinger single helped dispel the notion that Badfinger were, at long last, a fake Beatles actively sponsored by the Beatles. "Come and Get It" was a clever, endearingly wicked song about capitalism Paul McCartney had written and elaborately demoed for the extremely strange film The Magic Christian; when Badfinger became earmarked as primary composers for the feature, McCartney had them rerecord the song and they generated a virtually note for note copy of McCartney's recording. It's a good, striking recording, but the writing and production credit for McCartney all over the label likely prevented most anyone from taking Badfinger seriously as their own entity.
An important aspect of the constant comparisons to the Beatles that were endured by Badfinger was that the band's four members, like the Beatles and the Beach Boys and few others, all were capable of leading the band. All four wrote. All four sang. Tom Evans and Pete Ham, typically regarded as the strongest composer of the group, were authors of their most assured singles, and issuing what amounted to a Beatles cover as a debut only served to deemphasize the depth of these talents in the same sort of way the Beatles themselves didn't permit in 1962 when George Martin wanted to put "How Do You Do It" on the airwaves. Magic Christian Music, the semi-soundtrack record issued in the wake of the film and the hit, provides solidevidence of the band's considerable potential when they worked with their own stuff. "Rock of All Ages" is bubblegum hard rock, but its purity and organization make it infectious. Even better is "Carry On Till Tomorrow", a striking harmonized ballad that cops a riff from the Kinks but makes even more than usual like the Zombies at their gently probing best. Neither song sounds all that much like the Beatles, but the band's fate in that regard seems to have already been sealed. If the green apple adorning the labels on their 45s didn't do it, if the cross-pollination of Beatles on Badfinger records and Badfinger on (solo) Beatles records didn't, then "Come and Get It" single-handedly put in public consciousness the idea that this was a way for the irreverent mop-tops to live on.
I remember hearing Badfinger songs on the radio as a kid, aged eight or nine, when I was becoming an increasingly intense Beatles fan; my dad always told me about how they were seen at the time as a Beatles soundalike, and in his memory (the timing was slightly off, but not my much) they'd appeared just after the Beatles' official breakup in 1970. My dad was far from a pop music historian, so it's easy enough to sense that Badfinger's image as cardboard cutout Beatles reigned all across the globe. Speaking generally, Badfinger's recorded output is less complex, precise and idiosyncratic than the Beatles'; it consistently possesses a more obvious eagerness to please (which isn't necessarily meant as a criticism). At the time I heard what Dad meant. Now I'm not quite as sure about it.
The song we were probably hearing at that time was "No Matter What", the first proper Badfinger hit, the first of a trio of stunning Pete Ham compositions to become wildly popular, and a #8 smash in the closing months of 1970. Record label aside, the only Beatles connection was that the production was credited to Mal Evans. In a superficial way, it sounds like the Beatles circa 1965 -- tight harmonies and a fetching melody, structured around winning hooks -- fused with the more generalized sound of guitar bands on the radio in the period. Of course it lacks the "heaviness" so popular at the time, one reason Badfinger in general would blend more seamlessly with the AM pop later in the decade, but marketing an AM group in an FM market wasn't impossible yet. In the context of later power pop, the Beatles comparison seems superfluous; it sounds like the Beatles the way every power pop song sounds like the Beatles, the way every Monkees song sounded like the Beatles. It's much more a matter of heavy influence than simple aping, and with its crisp, detailed sound and powerful sense of urgency, it's an excellent, evocative single.
The album from which "No Matter What" was taken, No Dice, was greeted very warmly and is typically remembered as Badfinger's real debut, though the Iveys album and the soundtrack presaged it. With production duties handled mostly by legendary Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, the record remained a family affair and the press took note, critics regarding it as an alternate-universe version of the Beatles who hadn't discovered sitars and were in essence locked in stasis just before the rushed, transformative Rubber Soul sessions. Again, this seems silly now because the Beatles' influence has since permeated much more strongly, and wider audiences are more familiar with things like late '60s Kinks albums that recast the Beatles' "sound" as a more widespread formula than was then assumed; without the contemporary media response, Badfinger wouldn't come to mind as atypically Beatles-inflected, at least not before Oasis or Elliott Smith.
The ratio of good material to filler on No Dice didn't mark a major progression from Magic Christian Music; forgettable pleasantries like "Midnight Caller" rounded it out, and like so many songs from "Yesterday" to "Hallelujah" that are almost wholly defined by the number of covers they've inspired, the key Ham-Evans collaboration "Without You" is oddly unmoving in its original rendition. The song would be taken to ubiquitous pop culture heights by Harry Nilsson and Mariah Carey; Badfinger conceive it as a plodding power ballad inadequately served by their straining voices. That makes it no less disheartening that "Without You" would turn out to be a ticket out of standing in place that was then squandered utterly by other powers; there would always be maddening irony in the knowledge that a band who'd entered the charts with someone else's song would then have their longest life there with other people singing the melody. In the context of this release, though, it's striking how much more effortless Ham's "We're for the Dark" seems. With its massive, straightforward, immediate sound, you can imagine it being huge; the opportunity, inevitably, never came.
After the initial rush of interest in Apple Records, the label's roster dwindled; by mid-1973 no one besides the four solo Beatles, Yoko Ono and Badfinger would be actually releasing any further albums on Apple, and even prior to that the highest-profile titles were things like David Peel's The Pope Smokes Dope, the El Topo soundtrack and a nightmarishly packaged rerelease of A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. If this made Badfinger the Beatles' pet rock band, it manifested nicely with George Harrison's contribution of production work and lead guitar to their biggest-ever single, the haunting but stoic ballad "Day After Day". By the same token, Badfinger being the sole benefactors of a precarious situation must have seemed ominous, because it was.
The second real Badfinger album Straight Up -- with its unforgettably of-the-time cover image of the four band members in all hairy seriousness and snazzy coats gazing out vacantly at the crowd -- includes the lion's share of their best songs. The mournful but extremely addictive "Day After Day", with all the emotional splendor of "Without You" and far less of the syrup, would never be covered as famously as the torch song but would spend several lifetimes being ripped off, most notably by Joe Jackson. This along with "Baby Blue" was Pete Ham's magnum opus, a pair of songs that would live forever on radio as small slices of sterling pop mastery. The faster-tempoed but still emotive "Baby Blue", set alight by Todd Rundgren's production and Joey Molland's simple but lyrical guitar lines, is indeed Badfinger's best song of all, the peak of their yearning radio dream, and a masterpiece of well-contained, blustery romance in guitar-band context.
Impressively, though, a number of other cuts from Straight Up hold their own against the two established classics. Collected here is Molland's phenomenal "I'd Die Babe", which despite George Harrison's production and guitars doesn't suggest the Beatles so much as Wings (who didn't yet exist at time of recording) with its funneling of minimal ideas into maximalist radio-friendly production, its gritty but polished vocal and propulsive hook. Evans' closer "It's Over" might be the most Beatlesque tune to make a canonical Badfinger album, calling Abbey Road to mind in particular. Ham's "Name of the Game" is likely the most famous of Badfinger's non-hit songs aside from "Without You", a staple of classic rock radio that begins simply and builds to a huge crescendo at its chorus. This unapologetic melodrama makes the song innately appealing and, like "Baby Blue", is a perfect expression of Badfinger's basic strength: the tying of a recording studio's nooks and crannies to the emotional shortcomings and pratfalls of a person's heart and mind. It's the opposite of just slathering heartachey vocals over a meaty hook.
Almost immediately after Straight Up made it to the marketplace, Badfinger's situation took a dire turn. Touring was largely a bust for them; audiences for their particular bland of vulnerable sentimentality fused with tough, crunchy guitars didn't come to rock concerts as often as followers of the bigger FM bands did, and when Badfinger did play live they often reverted to generic endless-boogiedom, their hits being studio-bred and too ornately complicated to recreate coherently (especially true of the likes of "Day After Day" in arrangement terms, and the perfectly realized vocals on all their songs required fragmented patience that could scarcely be approached in real time).
Things were going sour at Apple by now too; the company had already veered dangerously close to bankruptcy before Badfinger even released their first record, and in the wake of Allen Klein's crooked streamlining and the Beatles' disintegration, the long-term monetary rewards for Badfinger's success to date would long be tied up in legal red tape. They signed another bad business deal with another opportunist, Stan Polley, who got them a slavishly slanted contract with Warner Bros. and were expected to commence recording new material immediately. In the meantime their last Apple album, Ass, appropriately adorned by a painting of a donkey standing underneath a large dangling carrot, was delayed repeatedly until finally seeing release almost simultaneously with the first of their Warner records.
Produced by George Martin's former assistant Chris Thomas, Ass is informed by the disillusionment of the band's relationship with their now far-flung former idols. (Does any mere record label have more songs with shade thrown at it than Apple? Death Row, maybe.) Thomas also handled the rapidly written and recorded Warner Bros. debut simply called Badfinger; misfortune hadn't managed to entirely wreck the band's spirits. "Lonely You" is a splendid example of both Ham's almost bottomless expertise with pop melody and the band's fine-tuned temperament, laying on schmaltz in a way that seems vital and personal. But Badfinger did poorly both critically and commercially; before suspicion over Polley's business dealings nixed their relationship with the band, Warners put out one more above-board Badfinger album, Wish You Were Here. It's somewhat remarkable that after so much, they could still come on with effortlessly grand guitar rock like "Meanwhile Back at the Ranch"; the eternal optimism they'd begun with seemed like something they couldn't shed, or maybe they were too afraid of what music they would generate if they did so. "Dennis" is a bit of a cop to AOR trends with slight pretension and a touch of "heavy," but it too sounds like a band that hasn't spent the last several years running into constant roadblocks.
The roadblocks would worsen yet. Polley got Badfinger dropped from Warner Bros. because of his shadiness, and soon the band members were living all but penniless despite massive amounts of money owed to them by both Apple -- all tied up in lawsuits -- and Polley, who'd run off with their advance and was no longer taking phone calls. Pete Ham, morbidly depressed with a baby on the way, was despondent over money and hanged himself in 1975 -- not even half a decade after No Dice and "No Matter What". Neither the Beatles nor their company could be bothered to issue any sort of a statement on his death. The cruelty didn't end; Tom Evans, never completely free of the demons that rose from Ham's suicide and never having recovered financially or in his career despite a couple of comeback albums on Elektra with Joey Molland, died in exactly the same manner eight years later. These two men had cowritten "Without You", a song that would still be getting taken to the charts by ever younger singers thirty years after they recorded it; they'd been the leader and second-in-command of the Beatles' handpicked successors. No justice had been forthcoming to them; alcohol and depression did their tricks, but they were unmistakably abetted by the maddening false promises and failed dealings of "the biz." It lured them and it ruined them.
Neither Apple nor Warner Bros. were ever able to capitalize on the momentum built by Badfinger's string of hits, Apple in particular bungling at the very moment when it might have shepherded a superstar band, and this compilation from 2000 -- put out by Apple, licensing a few songs from the Warner era -- demonstrates that the missed opportunity was obviously not due to a lack of excellent material. The disc is packed with gems and is surprisingly well-paced given that it places all of the best-known Badfinger singles at the very front. (It also, somewhat upsettingly, places the 1971 outtake "I'll Be the One" toward the end, so amidst the sound of Ham and Evans' maturing voices and the knowlege of their wearying mental states you have them joyously reenacting the Byrds or the Lovin' Spoonful when the world still seemed to be in their grasp.) You can carp about a few exclusions -- there's nothing from Ass, and distinctive moments like "Suitcase" are missing -- but an all-cylinders hits set like this is really the definitive fulfillment of Badfinger's potential and legacy, and a depressing reminder of how badly they were let down. You can point to a given album as a lost gem and win some converts, but by stacking almost twenty instantly recognizable and invigorating hits and should-have-been-hits together, you're both dazzled and led to wonder what kind of shitty unfair pop world can destroy guys like Ham and Evans.
A crash and burn like this band's stands an unfortunate chance of being romanticized; it's the old story of misery making beautiful, immaculate, uncorrupted music for your radio speakers; Doug Hopkins, troubled guitarist and writer for Gin Blossoms and author of a couple of indelible smashes for which he never received proper recognition, looked upon Pete Ham and the retroactive perception of his uncompromised commitment to eternal life in perfectly engineered pop song as the ultimate ideal, then drank himself out of a career and took his own life. It's all such garbage, such a waste. In The Beatles Anthology, Paul McCartney seems to get temporarily lost, a rare hole in that infallible exterior, when telling the story of Apple's beginnings and explaning how the Iveys became Badfinger. For a moment, it's as if the years have melted away and what he's giving us is the scoop on a great rock & roll fairy tale about to come to pass. Then he remembers, and seems stuck in momentarily disbelief as he recalls that Ham is dead; he can still almost see him standing right there.
McCartney and the other Beatles aren't wholly responsible for what happened to Badfinger; that story requires many moving parts to click in a perfect order to turn into such an infuriating clusterfuck, but the pipe dream that was Apple played more than its role in their demise. Had McCartney and John Lennon not set out to throw together this insane idea for a record label and business venture, Badfinger might easily not be known to us; they might never have reached the tantalizing heights they briefly knew, or almost knew. But it's also not impossible to consider that Pete Ham and Tom Evans might still be alive, maybe with a few dusty albums lurking in goodwill shops around the UK or some faithful pirate needledropping their scattered work discreetly on Zippyshare, the harmonies addled with pops and digital compression but accompanied by the magic of discovery. That's the story of so many other power pop units. Being consigned to the cutout bin might suck, but an eventual quiet rediscovery of a cult band is a happier eventuality than the story of the band who had untold fortune and fame swung around in their faces only to have it swept criminally away along with their souls, hearts and lives. Badfinger never got what they deserved, and now it's too late.
[FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME (albums that will be reviewed or capsuled here eventually): No Dice; Straight Up; Ass.]