Graham Tomlinson takes a retrospective look at the music of Peter Ham and Badfinger, one of the most successful bands to ever come out of Wales.
Up until very recently, if you had asked a reasonably well-informed music fan what they knew about Badfinger, they probably would have been able to tell you two things. Firstly, that they had some sort of connection with The Beatles; and secondly, that the band’s history was a sorry one which culminated in the suicides of two of their members.
The decision last autumn by the producers of the TV series Breaking Bad to end the final episode with Badfinger’s ‘Baby Blue’ added a third ‘fact’ to the store of common knowledge about the band. The song, written by Swansea singer and guitarist Peter Ham and tucked away on Badfinger’s 1971 album Straight Up, had been a hit in the USA, where the band enjoyed greater success than in Britain, but had hardly been a staple of radio play in the intervening years. While the song is yet to become a modern classic in the same way that Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ did following its use at the end of The Sopranos, the revival of ‘Baby Blue’ provoked fresh interest in the band and an inevitable surge of downloads and YouTube viewings.
The song also prompted renewed coverage of the band in the media. As part of a phenomenon inevitably referred to as ‘Breaking Badfinger’, articles appeared online and in print media and in December 2013, a BBC Wales documentary about the band was shown in the TV series They Sold a Million. The story recounted in the film was the tragic one alluded to in the opening paragraph. Even by the usual standards of rock’n’roll industry rip-offs, Badfinger suffered appallingly.
As The Iveys, named after Ivey Place in Swansea, they were one of the first acts signed to The Beatles’ Apple Records. Renamed Badfinger, they had a 1970 UK and USA Top 10 hit with Paul McCartney’s ‘Come and Get It’, a song he had written for the Peter Sellers-Ringo Starr film The Magic Christian. The band was managed by Bill Collins, father of actor Lewis, and at an early stage in their success, band and manager agreed to entrust their funds to American entertainment manager Stan Polley. The decision proved disastrous. The band was harried to record and release albums at a dizzying speed, and toured doggedly, but were to see little of the money that was due to them. Contractual matters began to overwhelm the band’s creativity as albums were released but not promoted properly or pulled from the shelves entirely, all of which took its toll on the band’s members. All four musicians in the band’s classic line-up – Peter Ham and drummer Mike Gibbins, also from Swansea, and bassist Tom Evans and guitarist Joey Molland, both from Liverpool – wrote songs, but Ham and Evans were its driving force. As the co-writers of ‘Without You’, a song which became a contemporary standard after Nilsson had a hit with it in 1972, Peter Ham and Tom Evans should have been comfortably well-off, but were locked in dispute with both Polley and record companies. Frustrated by the lack of money and the opportunity simply to live and work and provide for his family as a musician, Peter Ham committed suicide in April 1975 at the age of 27. Tom Evans tried to continue the band in various line-ups in the years that followed, including at times with both Molland and Gibbins, but with limited success. In 1983, he too took his own life.
Most articles which recount the details of Badfinger’s terrible history – and the financial and legal issues which complicate their legacy to this day – conclude with the sentiment that of course, what they should be remembered for is their music. Sadly, the fact that the tale remains such good copy means that this rarely happens; retelling the tragedy fills the column inches and that reasonably well-informed music fan who wants to know more about the music might simply click away or turn the page with little or no appreciation of what the band’s music is actually like. This article, then, is an attempt to redress the balance, and to listen again to the music of Badfinger and in particular, the work of the brilliant Peter Ham.
That The Iveys’ solitary LP, Maybe Tomorrow, was pulled from the release schedule just days before it was due to appear in shops in the UK and America in the summer of 1969, set an unwitting precedent for the band’s recorded output. Badfinger have a consistently untidy discography. Apple rejected early versions of two complete albums, Straight Up and Ass, before agreeing to their release. Ass was their final record for Apple and received little promotion; their second album for Warner Brothers (and their second to come out in 1974) was withdrawn from the shops after a couple of months because of a dispute between the label and the band’s management. All the albums are now available on one format or another, but in this age of super-deluxe editions detailing every last take and outtake of a band’s career, there is no single, definitive collection of the works of Peter Ham and colleagues.
In addition to the fact that Badfinger had signed to their record label, The Beatles inevitably cast a long shadow across their career. Speaking at the time of the ‘Baby Blue’ revival last year, the song’s producer Todd Rundgren said that the band ‘were kind of like almost an ersatz Beatles’, whose records when released originally were ‘filling a void that was opened up when The Beatles stopped recording together’. Rundgren doubtless doesn’t mean to be unkind here, but this is to damn Badfinger with faint praise. Some of the connections between the two bands are actually no more than superficial: one of the songs on 1970’s No Dice is cheekily titled ‘Love Me Do’, and in his definitive biography of the band, Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger, Dan Matovina notes that there was discussion within the group about Joey Molland’s distracting physical resemblance to Paul McCartney. But more importantly, what of Badfinger’s sound – how is The Beatles’ presence felt? The influence of the more famous band is indeed often striking. Anyone who has heard the intro of the hit single ‘Day after Day’ and doesn’t recognise its performers would surely wonder if they had stumbled on a lesser-known solo McCartney effort, such is the quality of Peter Ham’s voice on the song. And on listening to the posthumous releases of Ham’s demos – for example, the gorgeous ‘Hand in Hand’ – it is clear that the writer had understood the lessons in songcraft Lennon and McCartney had gifted to a generation.
Paul McCartney had shown a particular interest in the band’s early career, but it was George Harrison who had the closest relationship with the band, working as one of the early producers on the Straight Up album and inviting the band to play on his All Things Must Pass LP. In the summer of 1971 he also called on the group at short notice to appear at his Concert for Bangladesh in New York. All four band members featured as part of his backing band: in the film of the gig, Peter Ham, Evans and Molland are seen strumming acoustic guitars in the shadows at Harrison’s left, and on the other side of the stage, Mike Gibbins is positioned between the backing singers and Ringo Starr, shaking a tambourine and swinging Starr’s mike stand in place for the Beatle to sing ‘It Don’t Come Easy’. But it’s Peter Ham who has his moment in the spotlight, playing second guitar with Harrison on a pared-back version of ‘Here Comes the Sun’. Ham is workmanlike in the best sense of the word: head down, ignoring the vocal mike set up in front of him to concentrate on his guitar, and at the end of the song, quietly walking back to his original position stage left without basking in the roar of approval the song receives from the audience. Peter Ham is regularly described by those who knew and loved him as ‘quiet’ and ‘modest’, and these few moments in the film clip give a strong indication of this side of his personality.
Badfinger’s music has been described retrospectively as power pop, that frustrating genre sometimes used to categorise songs which are insufficiently powerful or are ultimately lacking in the heart-grabbing brilliance of the best pop music. Big Star are usually cited as the best and certainly most influential of these bands, and were a support act for Badfinger on one occasion on a US tour in 1974. And yet the bands are quite different. Unlike Big Star, there is nothing in the way of lingering hippy wistfulness about Badfinger. Todd Rundgren did an excellent job of bringing out the band’s pop sensibilities, but as a live act, the band was, as Dan Matovina puts it in his biography, ‘reluctant to be perceived as the smoothly-produced pop purveyors of Straight Up’; instead, ‘they wanted to boogie, rock out and blues-it-up a little.’ As live performers, they were much closer to a heavy blues rock band like Free than to their mop-topped forebears. This was partly for practical reasons. They simply could not replicate on stage the sound they achieved in the studio without additional musicians or instruments, both of which would have entailed an extra cost. To listen to the commercially available recordings of them playing live at the BBC in 1972 and 1973 is to be conscious of the smell of much unwashed denim and to endure a lot of extended guitar solos, and the lasting impression is of a straightforward, hard-working rock band – some distance, in fact, from the nuances that characterise their best work.
To today’s listener, the combination of melodic, Beatles-influenced songwriting and heavy rock guitar points forward in one very clear direction: to Britpop, and specifically, to Oasis. Badfinger’s 1974 album Wish You Were Here, regularly singled out by fans as their favourite, deploys powerful layers of guitar at the service of strong, well-produced songs. It’s impossible to think that Noel Gallagher has not heard and been influenced by this album, and in the case of Joey Molland’s lazy drawl on ‘Got to Get Out of Here’, it is easy to imagine brother Liam taking the lead vocal.
Anyone expecting the Beatles influence to extend to a strong psychedelic element will be disappointed, however. The band certainly toyed with more experimental strands in their music, at least in their song titles, but they are never quite convincingly lysergic and the guitars and Hollies-esque vocal harmonies always take over. ‘Crimson Ship’ (the first line of the chorus of which is, ‘He took me flying on his crimson ship/He never left me his number’) is simply a rousing pop song, as is Ham’s solo composition ‘How Much is the Sky?’, which is not the trippy freakout its title suggests. But as another strand of psychedelia, songs about everyday suburban life feature more prominently, particularly in the work of Peter Ham. His lyrics often refer to neighbours or neighbourhoods and to generational change.
Paul McCartney had been impressed early on with Ham’s song for The Iveys, ‘Knocking Down Our Home’, a genteel, Palm Court Trio-type number about the sadness of a community whose neighbourhood is about to be replaced by a motorway and high-rise flats – something Ham had taken directly from his experiences in Swansea. Ham continues to be inspired by his immediate surroundings in the solo recording of the self-explanatory ‘Girl Next Door in a Miniskirt’, while in his sophisticated demo for ‘Mrs Jones’ – one of several from the period which sounds as if it could have been recorded by The Move – the singer addresses the mother of the local girl he’s going out with:
Your baby’s growing up, Mrs Jones
And what is more, Mrs Jones
She’s not the little tomboy she used to be. . .
Given these lyrical concerns, it’s not surprising that The Iveys also had interest from Ray Davies, who produced three demos for the band in 1966. This was prior to the relationship with The Beatles and Apple, and Davies’s interest would eventually wane.
In the songs noted above, Peter Ham’s lyrical themes are universal, but there is also at least one song in his back catalogue which draws on a specifically Welsh tradition. ‘Blodwyn’ is a track on No Dice, and is about the carving of a love spoon for the girl in the song’s title by a man whose ‘life may not be long’ as he’s been ‘working down below’. Anyone familiar with the custom of carving and presenting a love spoon to a sweetheart might be surprised to learn that the song proved controversial in America, where, in spite of Ham’s clear explanations to the contrary, the dominant image in the song was taken as an oblique reference to cocaine. Less seriously, Peter Ham also recorded a jokey demo sung in a broad Welsh accent called ‘Get Up’, which consists of the efforts of a nagging wife to make her husband Alfie get out of bed and go to work in the morning. The song opens with snoring, features a wobble board and rhythm guitar played on the offbeat, and closes with Alfie sleeping through a detonating bomb; a much more down-to-earth take on the laziness that inspired The Beatles’ ‘I’m Only Sleeping’.
Peter Ham’s work always stands out on record because of its consistency and attention to songwriting craft. But as is clear from his demos, he was capable of much greater diversity than is sometimes present on the Badfinger albums. He had a wealth of influences to draw upon: his father and brother had introduced him to big band and jazz music; as a guitarist he had learned licks from early rock’n’roll and blues records; and as a very young man he had an opportunity to watch very successful bands of the day, including The Who, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues and The Yardbirds among many others, all of whom The Iveys supported. In 1997, the first album of Peter Ham’s demos was released, named after the house in Golders Green which he and the other members of Badfinger shared with Bill Collins after they first moved to London in the summer of 1966. Collins had built a small, soundproofed studio in the house and encouraged all the band members to write and try out ideas in the studio. Peter Ham was the most enthusiastic of the four to spend time in the cramped space to develop his passion for songwriting, an interest which he once described as one of the greatest pleasures of his life. Ham’s demos, captured on 7 Park Avenue and two subsequent albums, Golders Green and Keyhole Street: Demos 1966-67, are a revelation: they capture the sound of an already capable guitarist and confident singer learning to write and arrange songs. These three albums include blues numbers, instrumentals, perfect pop songs with multi-part harmonies (all recorded by Peter Ham) and sensitive acoustic ballads, as well as material which pushes Peter Ham’s primitive recording equipment to its limits, like the 16-minute suite of songs and tape effects recorded as a soundtrack to an imagined horror film called The Raven.
The demo albums also include early versions of songs later recorded and made famous by Badfinger, including the hits ‘No Matter What’ and ‘Without You’, both of which are on the No Dice LP. The album version of the latter song is far more muted than Nilsson’s emotional reading, but the song itself is, in fact, the result of two separate compositions pieced together. As his demo reveals, Peter Ham had the words and melody for the verses, but his original, less arresting chorus was simply the line, ‘If it’s love you really need’. The song was not completed until Tom Evans brought to it the strongest part of another of his songs, the lines which gave the song its finished title. But of the two best-known songs on No Dice, it’s ‘No Matter What’ which is the real gem. Unlike ‘Without You’, the song emerged fully-formed from an acoustic demo session, the key difference in the Badfinger version being that it’s a full-on electric take. Where ‘Without You’ may have suffered through over-familiarity from its numerous cover versions, to hear ‘No Matter What’ on its parent album is a joy, bursting out of its surroundings like a ray of sunshine, with its opening crunch of stop-start guitars and the forgiving optimism of its lyrics.
There is a temptation, with the tragic early death of an artist, to place an undue emphasis on the circumstances of their life immediately before their demise. It’s partly a ghoulish fascination with the individual’s state of mind before death – looking for clues, if you like. If you really need to, you can listen to songs like ‘Ringside’ and ‘No More’ from Peter Ham’s late demos, and pore over his anguished lyrics as he sings of sinister individuals ‘bidding for your blood’ in the former song, and in the latter his despair that he ‘can’t face the mirror anymore’. As if his suicide was not a painful enough story in itself, the fact that he died at 27 means that he is often bracketed with other musicians who passed away at the same age: Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse and the rest. How sad it would be, if all we fixated on with these individuals is the terrible end of their lives – the sorry footage of a confused Amy Winehouse on stage in Belgrade, the endless speculation over the events surrounding Brian Jones’ death – and not instead the brilliant work which gave them their fame in the first place. In the case of Badfinger, the real tragedy would be if they were only ever referenced in the context of the deaths of two of their members. Far better, surely, to recall them for their music and their place in the scene of the late sixties and early seventies; as Richard DiLello says of them in his insider’s account of the wild days of Apple Records, they were ‘the best thing to walk through the fallout of the Longest Cocktail Party, looking like the Mediterranean on a beautiful summer’s day.’ The blue plaque erected in his name in Swansea last year calls Peter Ham a ‘Master of Melody’. This is the way we should remember him: as a supremely gifted musician and songwriter who left us with an exceptional body of work. That body of work simply needs a little curiosity to be rediscovered.
With thanks to Dan Matovina for his assistance with this article.