The Twang Dynasty: Peter Ham

The Twang Dynasty: Peter Ham

Badfinger were one of most successful bands to come out of Wales. Initially they were the Iveys from Swansea, but gradually the band’s epicentre shifted toward Liverpool. It began with Liverpudlian Bill Collins, the father of actor Lewis Collins, who’d once managed the Mojos, one of Liverpool’s finest. He started managing the Iveys and when Dai Ivy, their rhythm guitarist, left the band, it seemed perfectly reasonable to look for his replacement in Liverpool, where Bill had extensive contacts. There they found Tommy Evans, a class act, who joined the band on guitar and vocals. They changed the name of the band to Badfinger. Among Bill’s Liverpool contacts were the Beatles, and Bill approached them with a view to signing Badfinger to their new Apple label. The Beatles agreed and Badfinger signed up.

Their first commission was to write some music for a soon-to-be-released film, The Magic Christian, starring Peter Sellers. McCartney was involved in the production and he’d written a song called ‘Come And Get It’ for Badfinger, which would be part of the soundtrack. So they went to Abbey Road to begin recording, starting with ‘Come And Get It’. McCartney was late arriving and Badfinger were already set up and rehearsing when he turned up. They gathered around the studio grand piano and McCartney, sitting at the keyboard, ran through the song a few times, bedding it in and clarifying grey areas. When everyone was satisfied, there was a little ice-breaking banter before they started recording. While they bantered, McCartney tinkled away at the piano.

‘I wrote a new song last night,’ he said, suddenly. ‘Can I try it out on you?’

What do you say? Sorry, Paul, but this is our session so could you put your own ego on the back-burner for a minute? You may be one of the most popular entertainers on the planet but, remember, this is about us not you. No, you don’t, especially if, like Badfinger, being in a studio with Paul McCartney was a lifelong dream come true. And, on top of that, here was one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th Century offering to première a new song he’d only written last night. It’d be like Mozart saying: ‘I wrote a requiem the other day. See what you think.’ Badfinger, not believing their luck, nodded assent, and McCartney began singing.

‘Hey Jude…’

‘I’ll never forget it,’ said Micky Gibbins, Badfinger’s drummer, now sadly dead. ‘I was one of the first people in the world to hear ‘Hey Jude’. There’s not many people can say that.’ Only about five, Michael, and four of them were in Badfinger.

Shortly after the session, Ron Griffiths, the bass-player, parted company with the band. Ron was, and probably still is, a great singer, the best in the band, so his departure was a surprise. I am not familiar with the machinations that preceded the split but, having endured a few, I’m fairly sure they weren’t amicable. Ron’s replacement was another Scouser, guitarist Joey Molland. Tommy switched to bass and they were off and running.

‘Come And Get It’ became a worldwide hit, and Badfinger embarked on a stellar, but tragic, career. The highlights were many, and not always onstage. They moved in elevated company and, as such, were witnesses to moments of great historical import. Their association with Apple meant that they were privy to the inner halls of Beatledom, They were there when the Beatles played their last gig on the roof of the Apple Headquarters when, with Billy Preston on keyboards, they showed us what we’d be missing when they broke up. You can see Badfinger in the famous film of the event, grinning like fools, which seems the minimum requirement on such an occasion.

They were ‘the other band’ on the live Lulu TV show, when Jimi Hendrix threw the studio into seven kinds of panic by switching, mid-song, from ‘Hey Joe’ to ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’. Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell looked as surprised as everyone else, so I assume it was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I have no idea whether he was trying to make a point or whether it was a spur-of-the-moment brainstorm, but it made headlines in the following day’s newspapers, and Badfinger had a ringside seat.

Their American success was so overwhelming that Pete seemed somewhat bemused. I saw him just after one of their mammoth American tours and asked him how it had gone.

‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Do you know who our support act was?’

‘No,’ I said.

‘The Doors,’ he said, laughing and shaking his head. ‘Jim fucking Morrison supporting me.’

‘Did you give them a soundcheck?’ I asked.

‘Now and then,’ he said.

They were so big they generated conspiracy theories. Some American fans were convinced that Badfinger were really the re-formed Beatles in disguise. They based this theory on the fact that Pete looked like John Lennon (which he didn’t) and fellow guitarist Joey Molland looked like Paul McCartney (which he did). Not even in face-to-face encounters could Pete convince a believer otherwise. They’d just wink conspiratorially as if to say, ‘It’s okay Mr Lennon, your secret’s safe with me.’ Pete even started to carry his passport around, in the hope that official documentation might sway the argument, but all he got were more conspiratorial winks that seemed to say, ‘Well, you can afford the very best in forgeries, can’t you, Mr Lennon?’

During this madness, Tommy and Joey still found time to do a little moonlighting, appearing on John Lennon’s Imagine album. Another box ticked.

They were recording an album in Olympic Studios in London. During a break they bumped into Harry Nilsson, who was recording in Studio 2. They’d never met before and were surprised at Nilsson’s delight at meeting them. They assumed it was the Beatles connection (Nilsson was John Lennon’s sidekick during his brief sabbatical from Yoko’s reign of terror).

‘I’ve just finished the final mix of my new single,’ he said, excitedly. ‘Come and have a listen.’

They trooped down to Studio 2 and waited politely while Nilsson cued up the tape. Then he hit the start button. Badfinger were astounded. It was one of their songs. ‘Without You’ – written by Pete and Tommy – had been just another track on one of their previous albums. Badfinger’s original version was warm and intimate but Nilsson, a great singer, had wrapped it up in a lush, dramatic production.

‘I think that might be a hit,’ said Pete, as they left.

‘Without You’ by Nilsson sold squillions of copies and the song entered public consciousness. You heard it in lifts, you heard it playing quietly in the background in a restaurant, and you heard a million cabaret artists belting out their version in lounges all over the world. Years later, Mariah Carey had a worldwide smash hit with it, selling quadzillions of copies, indoctrinating a whole new generation. Pete and Tommy had realised every songwriters’ dream – they’d written a standard.

Pete was a generous man. He once lent me a Wurlitzer electric piano for two years. It was only meant to be for a month but I couldn’t bring myself to give it back (it’s the best in the business), and he never asked for its return. In the end, consumed by guilt, I gave it back.

‘You didn’t have to,’ he said.

He also gave me an Ovation acoustic guitar. Its provenance was immaculate. Badfinger had been on the bill of George Harrison’s ‘Concert For Bangladesh’, the first major charity super-gig. All the big faces were present and, according to Pete, Badfinger played a game of ‘Spot The Genius’. A representative of Ovation Guitars arrived backstage. Nobody’d heard of Ovation Guitars. He explained that Ovation guitars were a revolutionary new acoustic guitar with a round fibreglass composite underside which gave the guitar a distinctive sound. And, he added, just in case anybody wanted to try one, he just happened to have brought fifteen guitars with him as an introductory gift. They were brought in and the jackals fell on the carcasses. There was an implicit pecking-order, so Pete, bottom-of-the-bill, hung around hoping for scraps. He hovered next to one, laying in its open case on a nearby table. He tried it and it was fine, so he put it back in its case, hoping that no-one else would claim it. But somebody threatened to do so. Bob Dylan strolled over and picked it up.

‘What’s it like?’ he said to Pete.

‘Terrible,’ said Pete.

Dylan strummed a few chords, then, with a disdainful look on his face, put it back in its case.

‘You’re right,’ he said, ‘it’s a piece of shit.’ Then he wandered off.

Pete grabbed the Ovation, claiming it for the Welsh. Not long afterwards, I called in to see the boys at their house in Golders Green. Pete showed me the revolutionary Ovation and, while I tried a few signature licks, he told me how he’d got it. I liked it. It had a bright sound and a nice action, although the round back meant that it was awkward to play in a reclining position because it kept sliding away from you. This is a fairly crucial flaw for an indolent guitarist.

‘Not bad,’ I said,

‘You can have it if you like,’ said Pete.

‘I wouldn’t mind borrowing it for a while,’ I said, giving him a chance to back down with dignity.

‘I can’t remember the last time I played it,’ he said dismissively. ‘Have it. It’s yours.’

He did own some beautiful guitars, so I could imagine the Ovation being some way down his list of preferences, but this was generosity way above and beyond the call of circumstance.

‘I’ll tell you what,’ I said, ‘we’ll do a trade. You give me the guitar and I’ll give you a Nepalese temple ball the next time I call around.’

‘It’s a deal,’ he said, and we shook hands on it.

The Ovation had a lovely recorded sound and I used it often. It sounded great through a Leslie. And, of course, its provenance was immaculate – Bob Dylan, Pete Ham, Deke Leonard and… Munch.

Munch was a two-string, electric guitarist from London, who fronted a band called, unsurprisingly, Munch. He was a genial soul but his music, rooted in the darker regions of psychedelia, was truly disturbing. I lent him the Ovation because he wanted to learn to play a six-string guitar.

‘You’ll have to learn a few chords, now,’ I said.

‘What’s a chord?’ he replied, with genuine interest.

Shortly afterwards I was forced, for family reasons, to return to Wales, and I never saw Munch, or the Ovation, again.

The last time I saw Pete was when I bumped into him at a Wings gig at Hammersmith Odeon. He was a self-contained man, polite and softly-spoken, but that night he seemed positively withdrawn. He spoke in a whisper and I had to strain to hear him. We had genial if subdued conversation and went our separate ways. But it did leave me wondering about his mood. I assumed he was depressed because he had much to be depressed about.

Badfinger were in the throes of a titanic legal battle with their American record company, Warner Brothers, who owed them millions of dollars in royalties. They’d had three Number Ones in the American charts but they were only getting a dribble of money. There was obviously a serious blockage in the system. The serious blockage turned out to be Stan Polley, an entertainment manager, who was siphoning off Badfinger’s royalties into a Gordian Knot of subsidiary accounts. Badfinger had no choice but to resort to the law and, before you could say ‘bloodsucker’, lawyer talked unto lawyer and the wheels of litigation began to slowly grind, seriously draining Badfinger’s financial reserves.

Bill Collins was no match for this amoral parasite so Pete spent a great deal of time on the phone to America trying to pin him down but it was a time-consuming pursuit. But persistence sometimes paid off and Polley, probably just to get Pete out of his hair, would come to the phone. The conversations were always acrimonious but usually ended up with Polley reluctantly releasing a small amount of money, but never enough to alleviate their deepening fiscal crisis.

During this time of penury, drummer Micky Gibbins was forced to sign on the dole. He arrived at Swansea’s dole office for a meeting to decide on his level of benefit, bearing a briefcase full of legal documents. He was required to produce a bank statement, which he did. His account contained nothing but a sizeable overdraft. They asked him if he had any other sources of income, so he produced a legal document showing that, on paper, he was a multi-millionaire. So where’s the money, they wanted to know?

‘Good question, mush,’ said Micky, ‘Good question.’

It all came to a head when Pete, after the usual telephonic chase, got through to Polley. For the nth time, Pete explained their current financial difficulties but Polley refused to release any more money. Pete, trying to convey the seriousness of his situation, said that he didn’t even have enough money to buy a new three-piece suite for his living room. But Polley was unmoved.

‘Look,’ said Pete, ‘just send me a grand so I can buy a fucking three-piece suite.’

Polley hung up. Shortly afterwards, Pete went into the garage, took 30 Mandrax and hung himself.

Never was a gesture – if gesture it was – more futile. If he was trying to shock Polley into a sense of shame, or regret, or culpability, then it was truly wasted, because people like Polley don’t give a fuck. Like leeches, they cling to passing prospects and suck them dry. So the Golden Goose is dead. Who cares? There’ll be another one along in a minute.

I was told the details of Pete’s suicide by David ‘Tag’ Hall, Badfinger’s long-time friend and tour manager who later became the Manband’s long-time friend and tour manager.

Some years later, Tommy Evans hung himself from a tree in his garden. The last time I saw him was when I bumped into him one night at the Speakeasy. He was already legless when I arrived and still drinking heavily, but, to be fair, so was everybody else in the Speakeasy. At the end of the night (about 3 o’clock in the morning) he appeared in front of me. His eyes were unfocussed and he was unsteady on his feet, lurching from side to side.

‘Deke,’ he slurred, ‘I’m going home. Do you want a lift?’

For one brief, shining moment, I was granted clairvoyance. I saw a deserted road. I heard the anguished scream of shredding tyres, the cacophonous howl of mangling metal, the punch of shattering glass, and the final, sickening, sledgehammer crunch. Then a profound silence, broken only by the slow tick of a crippled engine cooling down.

‘No thanks, Tom,’ I said. ‘I’ll get a cab.’

Micky Gibbins, Joey Molland and Bill Collins continued the legal battle and eventually a settlement was reached but most of the money was untraceable. Polley, after all, was a professional. Micky Gibbins opened a recording studio in Florida, where he recently died with his boots on.

The good news is that Stan Polley now sleeps with the fishes.

 

In the Land of My Fathers is available now from Northdown Publishing Ltd.