Saturday, December 21, 2013

Bad Timing & Bad Business: Big Star and Badfinger

Big Star
Last night, I was watching the riveting and touching documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (which Phil Dyess-Nugent reviewed in Critics at Large last summer) about the Memphis band from the Seventies that eluded commercial success for any number of reasons that you can easily classify as bad timing. While they vanished after three superb albums, they ultimately reached an adoring audience a decade later as various independent bands took up their torch. The film is a fascinating study of love and dedication that doesn't elude the self-destructive drives that come out of artistic obsession. Director Drew DiNicola paints a fascinating portrait of the group with very few colours in his palette to work with. As Stephanie Zacharek wrote in the Village Voice, Big Star: Nobody Can Hurt Me "honors that sense of mystery, telling the band's story as if whispering it through the cracks in a wall. There's very little footage of the band themselves – their elusive magic found its truest expression in the studio rather than before a live audience." Co-founders Chris Bell and Alex Chilton are now gone, but the remaining witnesses fill in a story of artistic achievement that found a pulse in the shadows. Those shadows became a subterranean force for groups like R.E.M., The Flaming Lips and (especially) The Replacements (who wrote a song called "Alex Chilton"). As Robyn Hitchcock says in the picture, "They were like a letter that got lost in the mail." But Hitchcock also reminds us that the letter finally found its destination in the Eighties. (For me, it took my friend, Adam Nayman, to deliver the mail a few years ago. He wasn't around when the band first released #1 Record in 1972. What was my excuse?)

While I happily mulled over the movie, I was reminded of another Seventies band who had a case of bad timing, but with nowhere near the impact of Big Star – and this band had the benefit of being tutored by The Beatles. When The Beatles departed the stage in 1970, there was no shortage of others who tried to fill the gap they were leaving behind. One tragic case, however, turned out to be a band signed to their Apple label. Badfinger were poised through the early Seventies as the new heir to The Beatles, but their legacy ended in bad business, despair and death. Originally a Swansea, Wales group called The Iveys, they first came to the attention of Beatle roadie Mal Evans who was friends with their manager Bill Collins. Since The Beatles were just signing acts to Apple, Mal convinced the Fab Four that The Iveys were worth the bother. Lead guitarist Pete Ham and rhythm guitarist Tom Evans sang with ringing harmonies that strongly evoked Lennon and McCartney, and when Evans played them an Iveys’ demo tape, the whole studio took notice.“It was their uncanny resemblance to the young Beatles that had made everyone sit up and listen,” recalled Apple employee Richard DiLello. “But it was no conscious aping of their benefactors that had produced that similarity of sound.” The Iveys had inherited the yearning spirit of The Beatles rather than being a facsimile of the band. Their first single was the Beatlesque “Maybe Tomorrow,” which made the Top Ten in Europe and Japan in 1968. Due to its success, The Beatles were interested in grooming the band, but weren’t impressed by their name. Apple associate Neil Aspinall thought of Bad Penny, after Humphrey Lyttleton’s “Bad Penny Blues” which had inspired “Lady Madonna.” Ultimately, Badfinger was taken from “Bad Finger Boogie,” the original title of “With a Little Help From My Friends” (because John Lennon had composed the melody using his middle finger when he had hurt his forefinger).

But Apple was just starting to collapse as Badfinger entered the arena. With The Beatles barely on speaking terms, apparently nobody was talking to Badfinger either. Just then, Ringo was set to star in The Magic Christian (1970), with Peter Sellers, so McCartney was asked to contribute some songs. He had already written and recorded a demo to include in the film called “Come and Get It,” but at the same time, Badfinger was expressing their frustrations in the press about not getting a chance with Apple. McCartney apparently read their complaints. He came to them with “Come and Get It,” telling them that they could record the song providing they record it without changing any of the arrangement. He also offered them the opportunity to write some of their own stuff for the film since he was too busy to compose any new material himself. Paul still produced the song – and even added piano – and it was a Top Ten hit on both sides of the ocean. With new sessions pending in early 1970, Mal Evans began producing their new album, No Dice, with Geoff Emerick eventually taking over the controls. Their first single off the album was the punchy “No Matter What,” which went to #8 on the Billboard chart. However it was the aching “Without You” that would later become the bigger hit – only not by Badfinger. American pop singer Harry Nilsson decided to record a version of the song for his 1972 Nilsson Schmilsson album. Where the Badfinger version is tentative, almost uncertain of the latent romantic despair in the composition, Nilsson found the core of the song’s strengths and his soaring light tenor turned it into a classic lovesick ballad. Nevertheless, No Dice was a hit that caused critic Mike Saunders at Rolling Stone to exclaim that it was “as if John, Paul, George and Ringo had been reincarnated.” Badfinger might have found their niche in the solo Beatles’ inner circle, but it wasn’t always preferable. “We weren’t preoccupied with sounding like The Beatles, so it got to be a bit of a pain because people were asking all the time questions like, ‘What’s John really like?’ and ‘Is Paul a nice guy?’” said guitarist Joey Molland. “We got really fed up with it. I mean, we loved The Beatles but we didn’t want to talk about them all day.” But they continued to hang out with them. Badfinger performed on Lennon’s Imagine album, did George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, and would perform as part of Harrison’s benefit concert for the victims of Bangla Desh in the summer of 1971.

While in the U.S. a year earlier, Badfinger signed a business management contract with Stan Polley. Bill Collins would stay on as manager, but Polley (who had managed both Lou Christie and Al Kooper) became their financial overseer. He had them touring relentlessly with little time to devote to recording their new album, Straight Up, which George Harrison began producing. One song, “Day After Day,” in which Harrison played a pining slide guitar alongside Pete Ham, gave the group their third hit single. Harrison might have even finished the album, but he had work to do on both the concert for Bangla Desh and the subsequent film and soundtrack album. The producer reigns were then handed to Todd Rundgren who finished the record and helped spawn the album’s second hit single, “Baby Blue.” In 1972, Badfinger was under contract to release one more album for Apple, which was now closing down its operations. Simultaneous to that, however, allegations about Polley’s mismanagement of finances for Lou Christie were coming to the fore. Unfortunately, Badfinger never questioned Polley’s business affairs so during the recording of their last Apple record, Ass, Polley negotiated a $3 million dollar deal with Warner Brothers that included an album from the group every six months for the next six years. Although it appeared as if golden days were ahead, their Warners albums, Badfinger and Wish You Were Here, were commercially unsuccessful. But the band continued to tour and attract sell-out crowds. It soon became clear though that Polley was coming under suspicion from Warner Brothers when he refused to co-operate in communicating the status of an escrow account of advance funds. According to the contract, Polley was to keep $100,000 in safekeeping in a mutually accessible account for both Warners and the band to access. But Polley never told the label about the account’s whereabouts and he ignored legal warnings to cough up the information. On December 10, 1974, when the group was about to submit their next album, Head First, to Warners, the label instead issued a lawsuit against both Polley and Badfinger. Legal action prevented any other advance funds to the band and they also withdrew distribution of Wish You Were Here.

In winter 1975, the group was in turmoil with no money coming in from anywhere. All their profits earned from touring, recording and publishing, were tied up in Polley’s holding companies. Panic began to set in. Pete Ham and his girlfriend were expecting a child and running out of cash. Nobody would book Badfinger because of the restrictive contracts they had with Polley who was now up to his eyebrows in litigation. Although Ham tried endlessly to reach Polley, he’d never return the call. In total despair over his unravelling life, Ham hanged himself in his garage on April 25, 1975. In his suicide note, he wrote that he loved his girlfriend and that “Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.” With Ham’s death, Badfinger dissolved. The surviving members did session work until the early Eighties when Tom Evans and guitarist Joey Molland decided to create separate touring bands that both used the group name. It caused huge rows between them until November 19, 1983 when Evans and Molland had a massive fight on the phone over past income owed from royalties. After the call, Evans followed Pete Ham’s example and also hung himself in his back garden. The surviving group members attempted to keep the name Badfinger alive, especially by playing golden oldies package tours, but by 1990, they were officially dead. What made Badfinger a shadow version of The Beatles was not just the mellifluous pop sound they created, but also the spiritual bond that existed between Pete Ham and Tom Evans – the Lennon/McCartney of the group. "When Pete died, his other half was gone,” said Evan’s widow Marianne. “He felt lost and lonely. Many times he said, ‘I want to be there, where he is’.” The bond they created together had carried the seeds of The Beatles’ utopian dream into the dark tragic conclusion that ended the Apple era. Once the financial problems of the label were ultimately settled in 1985, Badfinger’s royalties resumed. Just not soon enough to save Pete Ham and Tom Evans.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa,Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism 

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