Something Else! Interview: Joey Molland, of Badfinger

For Joey Molland, the last surviving member of the classic lineup of Badfinger, every day is a gift. “I have me health, and my voice is holding up,” Molland, 64, told us in a recent interview. “I keep practicing on my guitar, so I can get better one day. (Laughs.) When you get to my age, you gotta work a little bit harder. I don’t mind it, though. I am happy and proud that I am allowed to keep working.”

Badfinger had its share of hits after signing to Apple Records, the Beatles’ boutique label, in the late 1960s — and also more than its share of tragedy, as co-founders Pete Ham and Tom Evans committed suicide. (Ham in 1975, then Evans in 1983; both by hanging.) Original drummer Mike Gibbins also passed away in his sleep in 2005.

That’s left the ever-busy Molland to tend to the band’s legacy, through constant touring and a new interactive Web site. “There will be no more Badfinger records; I don’t feel that would be the right thing to do,” Molland said. “But I’ve got a sack of new songs. I write all the time.” He’s at work on a new solo record with producer Mark Hudson, who’s done signature sides with Aerosmith and Ringo Starr. Concert dates are planned with the Beach Boys, with an acoustic theater tour perhaps to follow.

In the latest SER Sitdown, Molland discussed a few of Badfinger’s most memorable moments, good and bad, as well as sitting in with the Beatles — and taking it, yes, day after day …

Nick DeRiso: Badfinger’s 1970 hit “No Matter What,” which shot to No. 8 on the Billboard charts, is considered the first power-pop record. Who came up with the song’s memorable final moments, as the band goes through a false start before repeating the last line?
Joey Molland: We just kind of arranged it in studio. Pete had the song, and it was a good one. We just worked it out in a studio. Mal Evans was the producer and Geoff Emerick engineered. I think we took about an hour or two hours to do the record. We worked out those little guitar lines, and then the harmonies. I listened to the tune meself recently. I like the way the band sings; it’s such a loose harmony — not perfect fifths or thirds. It’s a melody harmony. I really enjoyed that. We all had an instant sense about that, and that was something different from many bands of the day. I originally had a different guitar solo, one that kind of slurred the strings. But we were at Abbey Road mixing the song, and there was a lap steel. I got that out and started playing along with the backing track. Everybody said: ‘Why don’t we put that on there?’ That’s how it became a slide guitar solo.

DeRiso: Is it true that when you joined Badfinger, you didn’t even have a guitar — having sold off your Les Paul to make ends meet between gigs?
Molland: It was a nice old ‘59 Les Paul. I had to sell it to survive. I went up the Liverpool to play with Badfinger using Billy Kinsley from the Mersey Beats’ Firebird. I eventually bought it from him, and I still have it. That’s the guitar I played on ‘No Matter What.’ It’s the life of a musician. You do what you gotta do to get by. When you’re not gigging, you’re out of work. There isn’t any welfare for musicians. (Laughs.)

DeRiso: “Day After Day,” which would become Badfinger’s biggest hit at Billboard No. 4 in 1971, ended up as an all-star session — with producer George Harrison on slide, Leon Russell on piano and Todd Rundgren helping with the final mix. Was it difficult to recreate that studio magic in concert?
Molland: It was. It made us a little paranoid, actually. We couldn’t do ‘Day After Day’ anything like the record. We ended up not doing it on stage, or only once in a while. On ‘Day After Day,’ for instance, there were four acoustic guitars playing, and six backing vocals. There were two slide guitars, even. And there was a piano — and we didn’t have a pianist. It got to be impossible to play, so we’d do other ones. The crowds never said anything to us. I’m sure some people would miss it, but that we just couldn’t do it. We didn’t want to do a sh–y version. They hear the record and that’s what they expect.

DeRiso: Badfinger got back together in 1979 to rerecord “Come and Get It,” the band’s initial Paul McCartney-penned hit, and that led to Airwaves, a reunion record with Tom Evans. What was it like playing again, but without Pete Ham?
Molland: It is always difficult when we talk about Peter; it’s difficult to play without him. I always felt it was a damn shame. The guy was great, a good guy. Even to this day, I don’t understand what happened. I suppose it just wasn’t meant to be. We didn’t actually plan on putting the band back together, anyway. Tom was in London, and I was in Los Angeles. I met a couple of guys, and we started playing together. We were looking for a bass player and I thought about Tommy — but not to be put Badfinger back together. Just to play. He flew out and we started writing and playing songs. We thought we ought to try to get a record deal, but we didn’t really have a name. Then somebody suggested we call the band Badfinger. When we sang together, it sounded like Badfinger. Tommy’s voice was so distinctive; you couldn’t get that anywhere else. We were sort of talked into it.

DeRiso: You also worked on a series of Beatle-related solo projects, from George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass to John Lennon’s Imagine. Take us into the sessions for “Jealous Guy.”
Molland: It’s beautiful, isn’t it? They just called up and invited us down there. John wanted to try out some things with acoustic guitars, and George had just come off All Things Must Pass. Phil Spector was also producing John’s record, so they asked us to play a bit. We went down and it was a great evening — one of the highlights of my life. We just played the guitar like we normally did, really simply. We didn’t try to put in too many accents, or all the rubbish that you can do. It worked out. I think that’s why they used us: They knew we’d learn the songs quickly, and we’d understand the song and be empathetic. It turned out to be a good experience for everybody.

DeRiso: Yet for all of the fame that being associated with the Beatles brought, it seemed like the dissolution of their Apple Records label, and a subsequent move to Warners and new management, sent Badfinger into a spiral that it never recovered from. At the same time, comparisons to the recently split Fab Four were endless, making it difficult to establish your own identity. Was it just a matter of bad timing?
Molland: I was so happy playing and being accepted as a player and as a songwriter. I was just throwing my song ideas out and they were accepted right away. It was such a great time for me. Of course, it was heartbreaking a couple of years later, when we found out what had been going on with the business managers. It was terrible; not at all what we were expecting. It is what it is, though. There is a time and place is everything. When I joined Badfinger in 1969, the Beatles were already broken up behind the scenes. For Badfinger, we just got caught up in that. At the same time, though, we got all of the benefits. The Beatles really wanted someone to be successful on their label. So they did work hard for us. George got involved; he pretty much joined the band. I believe he used to call the band his band. It was a matter of time and place — but what a great time and what a great place. We got to make our records, and the Beatles gave us the best record deal in the world. I had such a great time. I can’t think of it going any other way.

DeRiso: That late-1970s edition of Badfinger had a Billboard Top 100 hit with the blast of old-school power pop called “Love Is Gonna Come.” It seemed like the band, which was such a clear influence on contemporary hitmakers like the Knack, was finally in the midst of a long-awaited comeback. What happened?
Molland: I’ve thought about this. The music was changing at that point; the sound of music was changing. There were bands like Toto and the Cars where the production values were so different than what we had been used to. I think with that record, it just fell right through the cracks. It was because of the changes in musical styles. Badfinger, all of a sudden, sounded a little bit old fashioned. We tried our best, but music changed — as it always does. It’s one of those things. Timing again, I guess. We did our best, and we got good reviews. We sold some records. It wasn’t a complete flop, but it was nowhere near as successful as the Apple records.

DeRiso: Tom Evans and Mike Gibbins have both since passed, as well. That leaves it to you to carry on the band’s legacy. This year, you launched a new Web site devoted to the classic lineup of Badfinger. What else is in store?
Molland: We wanted to open up something that was warm and fuzzy. There were a lot of other sites out there, saying various things. They tell stories about us, and it’s whatever they want to say, really. I wanted this one to be more straightforward. I’m going to keep maintaining it as long as I can. I answer questions people put up there, add films that I come across — and tunes, old tapes, whatever. I think it will be a good thing for our fans.

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.