An Appreciation of Badfinger

On Saturday night, over a few cheap domestic ales, I watched a little bit of a video of a presentation given at Pearl River High School by Joey Molland, former guitarist for Badfinger. The original presenter was supposed to be Pete Best, the original drummer for the Beatles, but he cancelled, allegedly due to post-traumatic stress brought on by reading Ringo Starr’s bank balance.

I’m sure that Pete has some great stories to tell. He was the Beatles drummer through the insane debauchery of Hamburg, after all.

But he’s also a footnote in rock and roll history, more prominent than Stuart Sutcliffe perhaps, but probably not as meaningful. At least Stuart could be said to have influenced John Lennon, and he did introduce the Beatles to Klaus Voorman and Astrid Kirchherr. So you could make the case that, without Stu, there are no photos of the Beatles in their early days, no moptop haircuts, and no psychedelic montage cover for Revolver. Without Pete Best, the Beatles would not have had a rehearsal place.

But I digress.

The real story here is Joey Molland. I haven’t watched the entire video yet, but I sat through about ten or fifteen minutes of it. In a word, “painful.” In two words, “painful” and “depressing.”

The kids in the audience clearly never heard of this really old dude who’s, like, old enough to be their great-great-great grandfather or, like, something. At one point Joey asks the audience who the biggest rock star in the world is and the answer comes back (to a chorus of boos, admittedly), “Hannah Montana.” Molland’s mentions of the Rolling Stones, Dylan, the Beatles, and David Bowie are greeted with the resounding sound of crickets and, if you listen closely, off in the distance, an owl hooting.

But watching this did send me scrambling back to my Badfinger albums. The term “star-crossed” may have been coined for Romeo and Juliet, but Shakespeare never cooked up a tragedy like the story of this band. Even the Elizabethan crowd would never have believed it. I won’t dwell on it here…the back room deals, the mismanagement, the poor choices, the suicides. If there were forks in the road of their career, they took the wrong way every single time. In a music that has seen more than its share of sad stories, the story of Badfinger may well be the most heartbreaking.

But why is that? Is it because they were cheated of royalties? Nah…that’s happened to a lot of bands. Is it because the story ends in death? Lots of rock stories end in death.

The real reason is that Badfinger went through Hell and Joey Molland emerged on the other side as the lone survivor only to find himself in obscurity, standing awkwardly before an audience that has never heard Straight Up, and likely never will.

The real reason that Badfinger’s obscurity is such a tragedy is because all of these things happened, one after the other, to a band that could well have been to the Seventies what the Beatles were to the Sixties. They were that good. But 28 years after the death of John Lennon and seven years after the death of George Harrison, the Beatles are still the most successful band in the world, legends for all time, and deservedly so. But 33 years after the lonesome death of guitarist and songwriter Pete Ham (suicide by hanging) and 25 years after the lonesome death of bassist and songwriter Tom Evans (suicide by hanging), and three years after the death by natural causes of drummer and songwriter Mike Gibbins, Badfinger is the great forgotten band.

It should not be this way. They were an uncommonly talented band. Much like the Beatles, the songwriting and singing duties were split by the band. This has the effect of breaking up their albums and giving them a depth of sound that most bands with only one singer can not match. They were not a cult band, scoring several Top 40 hits and a few No. 1 hits. They were popular, and they were good…not usually a recipe for obscurity.

And the hits themselves? Are there better pop/rock songs than “No Matter What,” “Day After Day,” or “Baby Blue?” These are songs that stand alongside all but the very best of the Beatles singles. Add “Without You” to the mix, a song that was not a hit for Badfinger, but made millions of dollars for other singers like Harry Nilsson and Mariah Carey, and suddenly Pete Ham and Tom Evans are up in the stratoshpere with the very best rock songwriters. Take away Nilsson’s histrionic vocal and schmaltzy arrangement, and Mariah Carey’s over-the-top vocal gymnastics and listen to the original version and you will find a song as near to perfection as any that has been written. And the albums are full of songs of that caliber! Joey Molland played George to Tom and Pete’s John and Paul, but the best of Molland’s songs are easily equal to or better than all but the very best of Harrison’s. “Sometimes,” “Constitution,” “Suitcase,” “Friends Are Hard To Find,” “Sweet Tuesday Morning,” “I’d Die Babe”, “Got To Get Out Of Here”…songs that most songwriters would kill to have written, penned by the number three songwriter in the band. In baseball terms, this is like having your number 9 hitter batting .350 with 40 homeruns. Even Mike Gibbins, the drummer, wrote quality songs. “It Had To Be” and “Loving You” are miles ahead of “Octopus’s Garden” and “Don’t Pass Me By.” (Sorry, Ringo, but you know I’m right.)

To my mind, No Dice and Straight Up are two of the all time classic rock albums. They are stunning in their cohesion and their seamless quality. They simply don’t make albums like this anymore. And while it is true that Badfinger’s other albums couldn’t quite match that peak, the fact remains that both Ass and Wish You Were Here come awfully close, and the best songs from Magic Christian Music are on the same level. Even their final album, Head First, recorded without Joey Molland and unreleased until 2000, is a rough gem.

I can only imagine how Joey Molland felt standing before that alien audience. But he should take some solace in this…not everyone has heard of Badfinger, but the right people have heard of Badfinger. They formed bands like Cheap Trick, The Smithereens, Wilco, Fountains of Wayne, R.E.M., The Replacements, and Nirvana. I am absolutely certain that Brendan Benson has a wing in his house dedicated to Badfinger…I can hear it in his solo albums and his contributions to The Raconteurs. The one-off band Swag, made up of members of Wilco, the Mavericks, Sixpence None the Richer, and Cheap Trick, released an album called Catch-All in 2001 that sounds like a love letter to Badfinger.

The audience at Pearl River High School may never have heard of Badfinger, but if there was one kid in that crowd who was intrigued enough by Molland’s stories to go buy The Very Best of Badfinger, then the word will spread a tiny bit further as he plays the album for his friends. One hearing of “Day After Day” or “No Matter What” will ensure converts.

Badfinger may never make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (though I might be able to make the case that they belong), but they will live forever in the hearts of those who love the music so much that they are willing to dig deeper, past the Top 40, and into the graveyard of forgotten music. I was one of those kids, and there are others like me, even now. Joey Molland’s presentation may not have had any impact on the hundreds of kids in the school who listen to Young Jeezy or Beyonce on their iPods, but it may well have lit a spark in the imagination of the two bored losers sitting in the back of the room wearing Nirvana shirts, smirking their way through the presentation while secretly thinking, “Hey, that was a pretty good song…sounds kinda like ‘About A Girl.'” And here’s a newsflash for the middle school kids buying the Jonas Brothers in record numbers: the brothers have a clear Badfinger influence, whether they know it as such or not. If you feel flush over the Jonas Brothers, you’ll probably faint when you hear Badfinger.

Musically, Badfinger was before my time, but my love for this type of music compelled me to seek the best purveyors of the sound. This meant digging around in musical attics, basements, and garages where, far from the incandescent and enduring light of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, bands like the Velvet Underground and Big Star rub shoulders with The Replacements and Badfinger. These are the shadowlands of rock and roll, where Del Amitri and Grant Lee Buffalo prop up the bar with The Saints and The Minutemen, where Uncle Tupelo and Richard Thompson compare notes with The Feelies and Meat Puppets, and where King Iggy sits on Johnny Thunders’ shoulders, smearing himself with peanut butter, making jokes at the expense of Bon Jovi.  In those nooks and crannies of the music world,  they are making music for the ages…whether anyone hears it or not.

Thanks to Cosmic Med  for the Joey Molland video, and a pox upon him for not getting me an autograph.

UPDATE: Having now watched, over a few more cheap domestic beers, the entire Joey Molland presentation, I’m prepared to say that Joey did a good job. He was clearly nervous, and his singing voice is shot, but he managed to win over at least some of those young whippersnappers in the audience. There were several requests for Beatles songs, and some of the audience even joined in on an impromptu version of “Hey Jude.” It sounded like a few of the kids even had some dim awareness of Badfinger’s “Come and Get It.” Maybe there’s hope after all.

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