The Sad Story of Pete Ham and Badfinger
Badfinger could have been huge. What’s more, the band’s connections with The Beatles once earned them the tag of ‘the new Fab Four’. But instead, despite writing and recording some wonderfully memorable music, Badfinger went down in the annals of rock history for all the wrong reasons. Most people who remember the band today will probably point to the fact that two key members committed suicide.
The story of Badfinger is probably one of the most tragic in rock’n’roll. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong – twice – while their occasional triumphs over adversity never seemed to bring them their rightful reward. When Harry Nilsson first heard Without You (his future worldwide No.1 hit single), written by Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Tom Evans, he assumed it was a Beatles song. It was an understandable mistake, given that Paul McCartney had taken the band under his wing, signed them to The Beatles’ Apple label, and even written a hit for them in Come And Get It. Badfinger also backed George Harrison on his Bangladesh concerts. But their connection with The Beatles would become a double-edged sword.
‘The new Fab Four’ label earned Badfinger respect in the States, where they found their greatest success. But with the whole Beatles business empire fragmenting around them they found themselves left in limbo. Having inaccessible management in another country didn’t help. And, ultimately, even the authorship of Without You was disputed. In 1975, Pete Ham took his own life. Tom Evans killed himself in 1983. Meanwhile a whole new generation of music fans have discovered the band, via their track Baby Blues used in the final episode of cult drama Breaking Bad.
Badfinger started life as The Iveys, performing locally in clubs in Wales. Ironically it was the two ‘non-permanent’ members, Ronnie Griffiths and David ‘Dai’ Jenkins, who attracted the most female attention. Some thought the two were brothers. Drummer Micky Gibbins and guitarist Pete Ham were also both Swansea lads.
“They played all the local haunts,” fellow musician Will Youatt recalls. “They were a good-looking sort of band, but no great shouts musically. Then they got rid of Dai and Ronnie and replaced ’em with the Liverpool boys – then they became songwriters.”
Gary Pickford-Hopkins, who later fronted Wild Turkey and then Rick Wakeman’s band in the 70s, was in rival outfit The Smokestacks at the time. He remembers The Iveys as “a kind of R&B band. I know Pete was quite heavily into The Yardbirds, probably because of the Eric [Clapton] connection, and Ron Griffiths, their bass player then, was like a soul singer doing James Brown songs. The other singer, David, would do some R&B songs. Basically it was when Tommy Evans came into the band that they sweetened up and became more Apple-oriented, creating their own, really beautiful songs.”
In 1966 the world changed for The Iveys, for better or worse (they took their name as a homage to the then-popular Hollies). They acquired a manager in Bill Collins, whose musician son Lewis played in Merseybeat band The Mojos (and later as an actor would play the co-lead character William Bodie in the television series The Professionals). Bill Collins, who is said to have played in a jazz band with Paul McCartney’s father, knew The Beatles’ aide/road manager Mal Evans from his Liverpool days and introduced him to The Iveys (The Kinks’ Ray Davies had produced some demos but had not followed up his interest).
Finally, they left South Wales behind and established a base in Golders Green, North London. Evans would hang out at 7 Park Avenue, dropping acid with the band, but he was some way down the pecking order from Peter Asher, Apple’s head of A&R and production, whose sister Jane was the pre-Linda partner of Paul McCartney.
“Peter came to The Marquee to see us with Mal and didn’t like us,” Micky Gibbins recalled. “He thought we sucked – but so did Peter And Gordon [pop duo of which Asher was a half], in my book!”
Nevertheless, John Lennon, George Harrison and Apple press officer Derek Taylor agreed that The Iveys showed enough promise to be signed. It was sweet relief for a band living on a £5 a week retainer (supplied by Bill Collins). The Iveys’ debut album, Maybe Tomorrow, produced by future Bowie/Bolan man Tony Visconti, would be released only after their rise to fame, although the title track (the first single on The Beatles’ Apple label to have no direct Beatles involvement) reached No.67 in the US in early 69. Meanwhile, Apple turned their attention to Asher protégé James Taylor, leaving The Iveys on the back burner.
Jenkins had gone by now, and Griffiths was to follow, the pressures of marriage and parenthood proving incompatible with the rock band lifestyle. Their replacements were Tom Evans, who took over from Griffiths on bass, and fellow Liverpudlian Joey Molland, a veteran of The Profiles, The Masterminds, The Merseys and Gary Walker & Rain. Coincidentally or not, looks-wise he also happened to resemble Paul McCartney. Like The Beatles, whose decision to come off the road had resulted in the unparalleled creativity of Sgt. Pepper and beyond, Badfinger found their world revolving round the studio, whereas most of their contemporaries relied on gigs to pay the rent. By now renamed after Badfinger Boogie (the original title for With A Little Help From My Friends), they contributed tracks to the soundtrack of the Peter Sellers/Ringo Starr movie The Magic Christian. Their album Magic Christian Music (not the soundtrack) cashed in on the movie connection, and the McCartney-written Come And Get It taken from it, sung by Evans, was released as a single and reached No.4 in the UK in early 1970.
Although it was Badfinger’s first official album, it contained both Iveys material and tracks that included ex-band member Ron Griffiths, who at the time of its release “had the pleasure of watching Come And Get It go up the charts while I was riding into work on a pushbike”. It wasn’t an auspicious debut, but the No.7 success of Come And Get It in the US saw Badfinger embark on an eight-week tour there.
But by now The Iveys, a brash if not very original Swansea band, had seemingly metamorphosed into a band whose strengths lay in other directions. Indeed, their confidence on stage appeared to have dwindled dramatically, as Will Youatt noted when his band Quicksand opened the show for them around the time of Badfinger’s first hit.
“We played with them in the Glen Ballroom, Llanelli. When they came on it was quite late at night,” he recalls. “They burst on to the stage with Come And Get It and a huge fight started down the front; this was the kind of place where there’d be at least two fights in the intermission, there were people flying about! They finished the number, and there was silence, cos everyone was watching the fight, and they didn’t know what to do. They weren’t really a live group anymore, they’d turned into a pop group, albeit a really successful one.”
Youatt’s assessment is backed up by the fact that Badfinger often looked backwards to incorporate other material, notably rock’n’roll standards from the likes of Little Richard and Chuck Berry, into their set to guarantee an audience reaction. Mal Evans had been slated to produce the band’s next album, and he recorded a few tracks with them. But Bill Collins – who, Molland later insisted, believed his friend wanted to manage the group in his stead – was against the idea. At a June 1970 meeting at Apple he proposed Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick take over production. It was a move that resulted in the band losing a champion at the label as Mal Evans exited the picture.
The band entered the studio with Emerick to record No Dice, their third album in total and the first for Joey Molland to appear on. But Apple didn’t hear a hit on the record. Ironically, No Matter What, one of the two Mal Evans-produced tracks added to the album ‘for balance’, turned out to be the single, which made US No.8/UK No.5 in early 1971.
No Dice reached the US Top 30, Rolling Stone rating it ‘one of the best albums of the year’. Pete Ham was the vocalist on the single, and the harmonies and extravagant electric guitars (benefiting from the added edge of Molland) elevated it from the basic beat-group treatment of Come And Get It. Power-pop authority Will Birch, whose early-80s band The Records followed the Badfinger blueprint to find US success, vividly recalls hearing No Matter What “on a car radio in Seething Lane, London EC3. I was convinced it was The Beatles, and fantasised that they had secretly re-formed and were issuing covert singles. No other group came as close as Badfinger to capturing the Lennon/McCartney songwriting magic and vocals. If you were a Beatles fan, their break-up left a void that Badfinger, at their best, came close to filling.”
No Matter What succeeded against the odds. For while Badfinger were away on tour, Derek Taylor left Apple and, with The Beatles suing each other from behind different managers, the organisation hit the rocks. As Pete Ham revealed to New Musical Express in a 1971 interview: “There wasn’t much promotion done… there suddenly wasn’t anyone at Apple to work on it.”
Whatever the reasons, the failure of No Dice to make waves in Britain underlined Badfinger’s ‘pop singles band’ tag in an era when albums were the new, credible rock currency. Away from the music, Badfinger had handed over control of their destiny lock, stock and barrel to veteran American manager Stan Polley, with Bill Collins retaining some measure of UK control. Gary Pickford-Hopkins feels that Collins had the band’s best interests at heart but was comparatively inexperienced:
“I know in the early days he was pushing the band as much as he could, and getting them all kinds of work and contracts, but what happened after that… Whether Bill couldn’t handle that I don’t really know. Obviously he was getting out of his depth a bit.”
The concept of US management made sense, given that it was Badfinger’s major market in record-sales terms, but the band soon became annoyed to find that the left hand often didn’t know what the right was doing. Hence when a 12-week American tour was suddenly sprung on them, they had to rush the Geoff Emerick-produced sessions for their next LP, mixing the album in just one day before flying off. Little wonder, then, that the result was rather rougher-edged than the polished pop that had been expected. However, despite rushing the final stages of the record, Badfinger were happy with the audience they’d found in the US.
“We did 35 college dates and had our minds blown in various directions,” Ham said. “It took us about a week to get used to the place, but when we did it was great. It was unusual to play to people who were sitting down, watching and listening for a change. The people there seemed to have come specifically to see you, instead of just another group to dance to.”
George and Patti Harrison had been conspicuously present at the first of a three-night residency at New York’s Ungano’s nightclub. After stepping on stage to mutter a welcome, Harrison then opened a briefcase and took out a tape recorder with which he was going to record Badfinger’s performance – something that probably did nothing to settle the band’s nerves. On the plus side, they soon found they had a new champion who could help guide them through the rubble and mess of the collapsing Apple organisation. In the band’s haste to fulfil the US commitment, they had left behind an album without a title – and would return to find that it also lacked a release date.
“Apple thought the music was a bit crude,” Molland would later comment, suggesting “they wanted us to go for an Abbey Road-type sound.”
In retrospect, delivery of the tape in March 1971 couldn’t have been more badly timed, coinciding as it did with the High Court’s decision to grant Paul McCartney’s request to appoint a receiver to take charge of Apple’s affairs. Badfinger’s disappointment at their album’s outright rejection was eased when George Harrison expressed an interest in overseeing the next sessions, which were to be at Abbey Road’s hallowed Studio 2 – surely a good omen.
But only four tracks had been completed before the ‘spiritual Beatle’ became distracted by his efforts to aid the people of Bangladesh. Those efforts culminated in two August 1971 benefit gigs at Madison Square Garden, the biggest such events pre-Live Aid, at which Badfinger members would appear alongside Harrison and others, albeit as sidemen. Even then, bad luck struck when George was forced to withdraw his invitation for them to play some of their own material at the high-profile, sell-out shows when Bob Dylan belatedly agreed to perform. Some consolation came when Pete Ham was given the privilege of strumming the now-familiar acoustic guitar opening on Harrison’s solo studio chart-topper My Sweet Lord. But such things didn’t pay the rent or get albums made.
Brash American studio wonderkid Todd Rundgren was called in to rescue the Georgeless Straight Up sessions, even though the band had never heard of him. (They later complained he hadn’t shown enough respect for their musical ability.) “George turned the tapes over to me and said: ‘I’m not doing this project any more, you finish it’,” Rundgren later told Melody Maker: “So I took the tapes and recorded on them and remixed them myself.”
Meanwhile, Day After Day, one of the Harrison-produced tracks featuring George on slide guitar alongside writer Ham, was released as a taster. It hit No.4 in the US in February 72, with parent album Straight Up stalling one place short of the Top 30; the single made the Top 10 in the UK but, again, the album stiffed.
But everything Bardfinger had achieved thus far would be overshadowed when, on February 19, 1972, Harry Nilsson’s version of Ham and Evans’s Without You hit the top of the US chart where it would remain for four weeks; it stayed in the UK chart for one week longer, beginning in March. Badfinger’s original recording of the song had been stuck, like a throwaway, at the end of side one of No Dice. Nilsson’s ears had pricked up when, while auditioning material for his Nilsson Schmilsson album over a few vats of wine at a friend’s house, he heard Badfinger’s version of Without You for the very first time. Sobering up the following day, he searched his friend’s vinyl collection in vain for “that Lennon tune we were listening to last night. We went through a bunch of Beatles albums and couldn’t find it. Finally I said: ‘No! It wasn’t The Beatles. It was another group… Grapefruit or something’. We finally realised it was Badfinger – Pete Ham and Tom Evans. I took this to [producer] Richard Perry and said: ‘I think this should be a No.1 hit’. I wish I had written it.”
The song was a total one-off in that Ham and Evans, who usually wrote separately, had put together the verse from a Ham song, If It’s Love, and the chorus from Evans’s also unrecorded I Can’t Live. Perhaps because of this unusual birth, Ham never really rated their achievement, as Gary Pickford-Hopkins found when he later ran into him at the Top Rank in Swansea: “I spoke to Pete at the bar and congratulated him on the success of Without You. He said it wasn’t so much the song, it was the treatment [Nilsson] gave it. I couldn’t believe that. But it was typical of the man. Pete was a very honest, modest bloke and wasn’t someone to brag.”
To the general public, Badfinger’s connection with Nilsson’s hit was far from obvious. With Britain still unconvinced, Apple went all out for US success, to the extent that the Day After Day follow-up, Baby Blue (a No.14 single and “a song of Beatle-scale magic,” according to musician/critic Will Birch), remained inexplicably unissued at home. The band reciprocated by spending more and more time in the States, where the press were keener than anywhere to discover the ‘new Beatles’ in the absence of the real thing.
“Everyone who interviews us [there] wants to talk about The Beatles,” Ham told Melody Maker, on their return. “Sure we were influenced by them, like ten million other groups. There are a million groups copying Led Zeppelin at the moment, but nobody bothers to criticise them for it; we like melodies and songs, and we get called the second Beatles.”
Joey Molland was more positive: “To have been associated with The Beatles has done us a lot of good, because they are great people. We’re not complaining.” The highlight of their early 1972 trip, which kicked off in Boston at the start of February, was a gig at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York, an event that the record company considered so important they arranged for top journalist Chris Charlesworth to fly out to interview the band for Melody Maker, then Britain’s leading music paper. It was his second meeting with Badfinger, the first having taken place at their Golders Green base in January 1971. Charlesworth recalled: “I met Bill Collins, who I thought was a bit of a wally – far too protective and a bit naïve at the same time – and also Stan Polley on the US trip. There was always a bit of a strange atmosphere about the band, a sort of repressed emotion, as if they wanted to say or do things, but were too afraid to do so. Something was holding them back. I now realise it was a chronic bad management situation, and a dread on their part that they would end up penniless if they spoke out. In the event they did end up penniless anyway, which drove two of them to suicide.
“As for the Carnegie Hall gig, I remember on that occasion they were terrified that I was going to leave them and go off and write about something else, so they made sure I stuck with them. I actually wanted to get away because of the strange atmosphere but I couldn’t, not without creating a scene. It was like: ‘We’ve paid for you to come and see Badfinger, and you’re not seeing anyone else!’.”
Another peculiar event was when Apple US supremo Al Steckler was due on stage to present Badfinger with a gold disc for Day After Day, only to find that the presentation record hadn’t been made yet (a similar record from his office wall sufficed). Having had an album ‘lost’ by Apple, Badfinger then suffered the incredible bad luck of being rejected a second time. That their self-produced fourth LP wasn’t completed until April 1973 was in itself disappointing, with more than a year having elapsed since Straight Up. The delay was partly attributable to the re-engaged Todd Rundgren exiting after only two tracks, due to an ongoing row over his lack of production credit on Day After Day. But when Chris Thomas, a George Martin protégé, was called in to remix the results extensively, Badfinger’s management appears to have lost patience with Apple and began to seek another deal for the band.
It’s true that Apple was in disarray, but Badfinger – by far the label’s most successful artists after The Beatles – had further cause for complaint. Their original contract, drawn up in the days when Apple was living up to its fairminded (i.e. hippy) ideals, offered a generous artist royalty of 5 per cent, with Apple also paying for all recording and promotion expenses. Now, with legendary US tough guy Allen Klein running the company, the band were being asked to not only take a reduced royalty rate, but also to pay recording costs.
George Harrison, for one, was devastated at the loss from the label of a group he held dear, and allegedly (and uncharacteristically) confronted Bill Collins and said: “You guys fucked us after we did all that work for you.” Collins retorted that they had been unable to speak to their former champion directly (an accusation that rings true with all the superstar retinue surrounding the former Beatle), let alone with the formidable Klein. In retrospect, Badfinger’s departure marked the beginning of the end of Apple as anything other than a ‘vanity’ label for John, Paul, George and Ringo.
But the inevitable payback was Apple issuing Ass (as the 1973 album ended up being rather unflatteringly called) as a spoiler three months ahead of the band’s debut for their new label. As it transpired, Ass would be the final non-Beatles album to appear on Apple (it reached No. 122 in the US). One track, Pete Ham’s Apple Of My Eye, was a genuinely fond farewell to their former paymasters, and he contributed only one other; much of the music was written by Joey Molland, which gave it a different feel.
Al Steckler, the man who had given Badfinger ‘their’ gold disc in New York City, was later incredibly revealing to Stefan Granados, author of the invaluable Apple history Those Were The Days (Cherry Red Books), when he outlined the contract Badfinger signed with Warner Brothers. A band at the peak of their powers, with a track record of US success and the Beatles’ imprimatur, might have thought their next record deal would set them up for life. Not so. The advance, which looked good on paper, was $2 million for, Steckler told Granados: “something like six albums. After they signed, Bill Collins and Pete Ham told me what the advance was and I figured it out for them. When you deducted the cost of the albums they had to pay for, deducted Polley’s cut and split the money between Collins and the four guys in the group, it came out to nothing… $60,000 apiece per album. They’d really thought they were millionaires. They looked at each other and realised that I was right and that it was too late to do anything about it. Peter had this horrible look on his face… it was the last time I saw him.”
The band’s Warners debut Badfinger (its original title, For Love Or Money, in reference to the Apple dilemma, now has a hollow ring) was, like Ass, produced by Chris Thomas. I