Badfinger: A Musical Tragedy

Badfinger: Pete Ham, Mike Gibbins, Tom Evans, Joey Molland

Badfinger: Pete Ham, Mike Gibbins, Tom Evans, Joey Molland, circa 1971. Image © Badfinger, courtesy Wikimedia, used under Fair Use provisions of US and international copyright law

Sometimes it’s easy to forget, given my activities in politics and social issues, that I’ve also been a musician since 1977.  I have to admit with some regret that I’ve let that part of my life slide as I pursue “bigger things,” but at heart I am and always be a creator of music; since before I could talk, music has moved my heart and been the place I go for joy, sorrow, comfort, challenge, peace.

As a result of this, I’ve been – naturally – exposed to a LOT of music over the years, so much that I often forget some songs and bands that I deeply enjoy and respect.  I happened to hear a song on the radio yesterday that is one of those songs, and reminded me of one of the greatest, most tragic musical stories in rock history – and one that I happen to have had a small brush with personally.  The song has been stuck in my head – to the point that as I lay trying to get back to sleep at around 4am, I found myself literally crying into my pillow with the song floating in my inner ear, just amazed and grateful to live in a world that can produce something so beautiful.

The story of Badfinger is every rock and roll cliché and tragedy you can imagine rolled into one, and somehow for all that it isn’t trite or contrived or hackneyed.  Embraced by the Beatles, they were the first non-Beatles act signed to Apple Records, and compared to that gold standard of pop-rock bands so often that it became more burden than blessing.

I had the great fortune to exchange some e-mails with drummer Mike Gibbins a few years before his death in 2005.  I’ve made it my habit over the years of not being a “fanboy” when I meet or deal with someone who has a measure of fame.  This has resulted in my having some excellent and very candid conversations with a lot of people, and my personal choice is to keep most of those conversations to myself; I’ve had my own experiences with not being able to trust that things I say in confidence or think are “private” won’t be broadcast to the world by someone who sees me as a commodity instead of a person, and long ago I adopted a position that this was something I simply would not do.  A performer should, at the very least, be able to be themselves in the private company of other performers.

Consequently, much of that conversation will remain locked in my own head, unless Mike’s family digs up his decade-old e-mail archives and publishes them or something weird like that.

However, part of the conversation was in fact intended for public consumption.  This excerpt from the old LowGenius.Com MusicBase (thanks Archive.Org!) includes the part of that conversation.

This is the demo take of the song that McCartney gave to protégés Badfinger, the first band to be signed to Apple Records, and one of the classic “boy did we get screwed hard on THIS deal” stories in the ugly history of artist compensation in rock and roll. I don’t have all of the details on this story, but it seems that ‘Finger never got paid a dime for any of their royalties, possibly because they were part of the same deal with Northern Songs that overmatched “manager” Brian Epstein cut, the one that resulted not only in the Beatles never making shit from their first 5 years’ worth of albums, but also eventually lead to the sale of all of those songs to Michael Jackson, who promptly licensed “Revolution” for use in a f’n Nike commercial. Unfortunately, as a result of this two-edged gift, Badfinger (a truly great rock band – how I’ve managed not to have any of their tracks in this database yet is a mystery to me) were relegated to the “Beatle-wannabe” bin by most reviewers and critics (their mistake, IMO – Badfinger were a great band in their own right), and eventually their financial situations got so screwy that both the lead guitarist and lead singer ended up committing suicide. I’ve been informed that this take shows up on the Beatles’ Anthology 3 CD, so I guess now I’ll have to go buy that. UPDATE:14 Jan 01 Badfinger drummer Mike Gibbins was kind enough to respond to my inquiries to him regarding this track with the following, produced here exactly as written:

Paul wrote the song for the movie “The Magic Christian.” Not for Badfinger specifically. On the demo your listening to, Paul played all the instruments. Paul also played piano and maraccas on the finished Badfinger version. Paul was asked to do the entire soundtrack for the movie but didn’t have the time and that’s how Badfinger ended up with the opportunity to do the soundtrack for the movie. Badfinger did the entire soundtrack except for the one song which was given to us by Paul.

HUGE props to Mike Gibbins, considered by some to be one of rock’s greatest unsung heroes, for being so accessible to his fans. PLEASE NOTE: For the record, and in the interests of not deceiving anyone or giving the appearance of putting words in anyone’s mouth, the synopsis in my original review is not based on any information I have recieved from Mike Gibbins, but is solely my interpretation of historical events, for better or for worse. Thanks again, Mike!

The tragedy of this group of artists cannot be overstated. The song stuck in my head is probably the best-known recording by the band outside of “Come and Get It,” and appeared on their 1971 album Straight Up.  I can’t speak for anyone else, The but I’ve often mistaken this for a song by Eric Clapton or one Systems of his late 60’s groups, both because of the guitar work and Pete Ham’s vocals which are very reminiscent of Clapton’s ballad style.  The music starts on page 2!