Gimme Five: Joey Molland and Tony Kaye remember Pete Ham, Tom Evans and Badfinger

Badfinger had endured its share of bad luck before April 24, 1975, to be sure. But everything changed on that awful day, when Pete Ham — singer and composer of so many of their hits — committed suicide.

“It is always difficult when we talk about Peter; it’s difficult to play without him,” says Joey Molland, the lone surviving member now of Badfinger’s classic lineup. “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.”

The group — though best known now for a string of turn-of-the-1970s power-pop gems from the Beatles’ Apple Records imprint like “No Matter What,” “Day After Day” and “Baby Blue” — struggled forward. Badfinger would issue a pair of underrated, largely forgotten albums in the years following Ham’s death, including 1979′s Airwaves and 1981′s Say No More.

But their story of missed opportunities, poor management and wrong turns had taken on a tragic element, and that continued through to the 1983 death — also by hanging — of Tom Evans. He reportedly never recovered from Ham’s death, and was quoted in Dan Matovina’s book Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger as saying: “I wanna be where he is.”

The Badfinger legacy was ultimately left to Joey Molland who, with a group of collaborators over the years that’s included Yes co-founder Tony Kaye, soldiered on through what has seemed like a never-ending parade of mishaps and struggle. Original drummer Mike Gibbins, who’d later turned to sessions work (memorably appearing on Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s a Heartache”), was lost in 2005 — the victim of a brain aneurysm at just 56.

What remains, thankfully, are the songs, each one of them a bracing blast of power-pop goodness. Molland and Kaye joined us, in exclusive SER Sitdowns, to talk about a handful of favorites …

“NO MATTER WHAT,” (NO DICE, 1970): Eventually a No. 8 smash, “No Matter What” endured the kind of difficult journey that now seems sadly familiar in the Badfinger narrative: No one at the UK offices of the Beatles’ Apple Records imprint wanted to release this song — which went through several incarnations before becoming one of the very first power-pop hits.

“I listened to the tune meself recently,” Molland tells us. “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.” Still, it took a few iterations of the track, which ultimately would include a fizzy false ending, and a huge push from an label representative from the states, before “No Matter What” found its way to your local record shop.

Molland talks about the song’s mememorable conclusion — and how a slide solo found its way onto the final master: “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,” he says, adding: “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.”

“HOLD ON,” (SAY NO MORE, 1981): Kaye toured with Badfinger in 1979 and 1983, and also appeared on this, the band’s last album with Evans. “I hadn’t realized the history of Badfinger,” Kaye admits. “I was close with Tommy from the past, but he lived in England. It was only because they had come over and settled in Los Angeles for a while that it came together at all.”

“Hold On,” which charted at No. 56 in the U.S., unfortunately couldn’t rekindle the chart successes that Badfinger once had with the late Ham, who helped the band to four consecutive hits in 1970-71 as part of the Apple stable of artists. By the time Evans, distraught over money woes, committed suicide in 1983 Kaye had already returned for Yes’ tour behind 90125.

“In fact, until I read Dan Matovina’s book, I hadn’t realized exactly what had gone down with that band,” Kaye tells us. “It was sad. We were out on the road, playing really shitty clubs with small audiences. It didn’t really work, from a record company point of view. There was no support at all — and Tommy was on his own. He was a pretty heavy drinker, and a slightly depressed artist. I thought actually the cover image on Say No More (a dark and mysterious figure painted by Peter Max) that was Tommy. It wasn’t supposed to be, but that was Tommy.”

“COME AND GET IT” (MAGIC CHRISTIAN MUSIC, 1969): For all of the terrible happenstance that surrounded Badfinger, their beginnings couldn’t have been more auspicious: Signed by Apple, their name had the Fab Four’s stamp of approval, having been derived from the working title for John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “With a Little Help From My Friends” — dubbed “Bad Finger Boogie,” because Lennon played the demo with an injured hand. This, their first single, would be penned by Paul McCartney and included on the soundtrack for a major motion picture starring McCartney’s Beatles bandmate Ringo Starr.

Evans sang the original No. 7 hit version of “Come and Get It,” as well as a 1978 K-Tel Records remake — this time, with Molland on board. The guitarist had initially joined just after “Come and Get It” was released, following the departure of co-founder Ron Griffiths. Their late-1970s update sparked talk of a reunion, and eventually led to Airwaves, but Molland says they weren’t actually trying to rekindle those halcyon days of youth.

“We didn’t actually plan on putting the band back together,” Molland tells us. “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.”

“DAY AFTER DAY” (STRAIGHT UP, 1971): Badfinger’s biggest-ever hit, “Day After Day” would rise to No. 4 on the Billboard charts in 1971 — powered along by what became an all-star session. the Beatles’ George Harrison, who co-founded Apple, served as producer and played slide. Leon Russell was at the piano. Todd Rundgren helped with the final mix.

But the Phil Spector-ish production style that Harrison favored at that time meant that ultimately “there were four acoustic guitars playing, and six backing vocals,” Molland says. “There were two slide guitars, even. And there was a piano — and we didn’t have a pianist.” Unfortunately, all of that studio magic made reproducing this little symphony of sound nearly impossible in concert.

“It made us a little paranoid, actually,” Molland says. “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. 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 shitty version. They hear the record and that’s what they expect.”

“LOVE IS GONNA COME AT LAST,” (AIRWAVES, 1979:) A Molland-penned comeback attempt featuring a rebuilt lineup with Evans, “Love Is Gonna Come” sneaked into the Billboard Top 100. It seemed as if Badfinger, which was such a clear influence on contemporary hitmakers like the Knack, might finally be in midst of a long-awaited comeback.

Airwaves, after all, also featured big names like Andy Newmark on drums, and Nicky Hopkins on piano — though Kaye sat in on the subsequent concert dates. Molland and Evans were in fine form, too. But the project again fell victim to this band’s propensity for awful luck. Airwaves somehow only limped to No. 125.

“I’ve thought about this,” Molland says. “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.”

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.

One Comment

  1. John Hancotte says:

    they were victims of the times. if only they had learned to play piano, a la john and paul, then day after day would have led to other keyboard tunes, much the way john and paul had veered. a great legacy to be sure.

Here's where you talk back ...