Ken Leighton 2 p.m., March 12
Badfinger VS Bob Dylan
New car commercial song plunders three more graves
Heh heh, as cool as it is to hear the Badfinger/Paul McCartney song "Come & Get It" in that new Buick Pontiac commercial every eight minutes, I can't help but laugh at how they leave out the more apropos lyric "Would you walk away from a fool and his money!" Not a ringing endorsement for Buick, at least not to anyone familiar with the song they're (over)using!
I’m a huge Badfinger fan. I was buying their ‘45s long before three of the four pivotal members died over the years (two by suicide). Back in the Stones’ age, in Wales during 1968, they were called the Iveys. Signed to the Beatles’ new record label, Apple, their first single "Maybe Tomorrow" peaked at US #67 in March 1969. The follow-up single "Dear Angie" was only released in Europe. They weren’t exactly taking the world by storm.
In a newspaper interview, original bassist Ron Griffiths once mentioned that being on The Beatles label hadn’t helped the band achieve any real success. Paul McCartney read this and went to 7 Park Avenue, where Badfinger lived and worked together. Giving them a demo of a new song, he said "Record this and you’ll have a hit record." The song was "Come And Get It," which he’d written for Magic Christian, an upcoming Ringo Starr/Peter Sellers film. The group recorded it with Paul playing tambourine and producing, little realizing the song would be used to sell cars 37 years later.
Soon, Griffiths was out and Liverpool guitarist Joey Molland was in. Guitarist Tom Evans (also from Liverpool) switched to bass, and the lineup was rounded out by Mike Gibbins on drums and guitarist Pete Ham. Changing their name to Badfinger (to avoid confusion with a group called the Ivey League), the "Come And Get It" single (from the Magic Christian Music LP) was a huge top ten hit in both England and America. Beatles comparisons were inevitable and some accused them of shamelessly copping the Beatles’ sound.
This constant matching against the Fab Four would prove their greatest boost - and their greatest hindrance.
The single "No Matter What" (from No Dice) hit US #8, and suddenly Badfinger was hot. Their business manager Bill Collins (who’d represented Al Kooper and others) told the band that, with his help, they’d all become millionaires. Ironically, only Collins himself would ever approach that.
The group recorded in the big studio at Abbey Road, where The Beatles worked. "They had a cupboard in the corner and the Beatles’ stuff was in there," Joey Molland told me when I interviewed in Mission Valley at a local BeatleFair. "When there was nobody in the studio, we’d open up the cupboard with their stuff. Rub their anvil for luck."
Besides their obvious musicianship, Badfinger’s vocal harmonies were sublime. They recorded themselves singing together instead of piecing together tracks. "We’d all be around the mike singing,” says Molland. “We learned each other’s phrasing. Pete’s phrasing was a bit stiffer than, say, mine was. And Tommy had this kind of nice lilt. We knew where to step back and where to move forward. George Harrison taught us a lot about that when he produced the Straight Up record. He actually forced us to do that stuff, to stay in the studio for hours on end doing oooohs and ahhhs. He’s a remarkable man I was such a complete Beatles fan. He talked to you very natural, you know...he was really regular and I was, like, well it was like talking to Jesus! I’m losing me mind and he’s being all cool."
Among Straight Up’s highlights is Molland’s tender slice of perfection , the love ballad "Sweet Tuesday Morning." "In those days, for a guy to sing that kind of song, I don’t know. I never saw Humphrey Bogart do that, you know what I mean? Or John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, none of them ever sang a love song. So it was kind of embarrassing."
Pete Ham was also crafting indelible pop gems, like "Baby Blue." "Pete was funny guy, very attracted to women. He never wore underwear on stage! Brilliant writer, so many great tunes. He was a worker as well. He’d be in that studio day in and day out. That’s really what he focused on, writing songs. He’d pull practical jokes. He’d eat blood capsules and run down the stairs making noise and then lay down at the bottom and he’d have blood on him."
At the time, Harrison was planning the Concert For Bangladesh benefit and had to drop out of the Badfinger project. Todd Rundgren came in to finish the album. "Oh, the heebie jeebies,” recalls Molland. “It was really weird, this fellow with red and yellow hair. He did make a big hit record, though, I’ll give him that." Their association with Harrison continued, as Badfinger played rhythm guitars for George’s All Things Must Pass album, as well as being invited to play at the Bangladesh show in August 1971.
"When you stand up in front of 20,000 people doing ‘Here Comes The Sun’ with George Harrison,” says Molland, “I don’t know what Pete was thinking, but I bet he wished he had underpants on that day!"
"One day," remembers Molland, "we get a call at the house on Park Avenue. It was Joe, John Lennon’s driver. He said ‘John’s recording tonight and he was wondering if you’d do him a favor and come down and play some guitar on a couple of songs.’ Of course we said yes...we went in [Lennon’s house] and there was the ladder in the vestibule, the one you climb up with the magnifying glass. So we go into the foyer and there’s a big staircase going up and the carpet was all black, the walls were all white. On the walls going up the stairway were these empty picture frames. Big beautiful gilt portrait frames. I remember a hammer hanging in this frame. I’m going, yeah, this is definitely Johnny’s house, isn’t it! So we go down the hallway and into this billiard room...the door closes behind us and there’s no door there! It was all library books, like one of those secret doors, so we were in there walking around for a half an hour. Finally one of the panels with the books swings open and we go into another room and that’s full of Dr. Pepper. Crates and crates of it."
They finally got to Lennon’s home studio. "We sit down and tune up and in comes Mr. Lennon and Yoko. He sits down on his stool, says hello to everyone and says ‘The first song we’re going to do is Jealous Guy.’ He told everyone to keep it together, nice and simple. I put the headphones on and there’s John Lennon sitting five feet away from me playing Jealous Guy, and it was unbelievable. We did the session, he said ‘These Badfinger guys aren’t bad now, are they?’ He said we could f-off for awhile if we wanted to but we said no that’s okay, we’ll stay! So he did ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier,’ and we banged around on that for awhile."
"Day After Day" was a million selling single (US #4). At the same time, Harry Nilssons’s version of Badfinger’s "Without You" went to US #1. But in 1973, their record deal with Apple ran out and they signed with Warner Brothers. Apple, as a business, was falling apart anyway and would soon collapse. When the label went into receivership and the Beatles started suing each other, publishing rights and royalties to Badfinger’s songs were held up in the same court proceedings.
In 1974, WB released the group’s new LP, Badfinger, just as Apple released Ass, a compilation of material left off Straight up and tracks rejected by Apple. With two records out at same time, sales on both were poor. Then in March 1974, WB removed all Badfinger LPs from stores, filing a lawsuit against Badfinger Enterprises. Their business manager was accused of mishandling their affairs and the band would sue him (he’d sue them back). The last album with all four pivotal members, Wish You Were Here, never even cracked the US top 100 (more’s the pity, since it’s merely fabulous).
Personal problems also plagued the group, and they’d seen almost no income from their hard work. At one point, Ham quit the band (and then rejoined). Molland also quit, and Gibbins announced that he wanted to spend more time at home with his son Owen.
On April 24 1975, Pete Ham hung himself in the garage of his London home. He was 27.
"He believed in the people around him,” says Molland. “He trusted people implicitly but unfortunately he put his trust in the wrong people. When he died, he was broke, his phone was going to be cut off, his wife was pregnant and she was going into the hospital. It was a really bad scene and there was nobody there to help him. He would not accept the fact that these people were doing this to him. You know, the manager was shopping him a solo deal. Like he was planning on the band breaking up. It’s frustrating. You can’t turn back the hands of time. The lawyers couldn’t help, it was contractual interference. The management company couldn’t help, the record company couldn’t help because the last two records hadn’t sold very well. And there was the Warner Brothers lawsuit going on. The manager was hopeless - he freely admits it now, he admits riding around in a limousine in New York and not reading our contracts. It’s just stunning. These people to this day still kind of fob it off to some kind of gray area over there but the reality of it is that they were directly responsible for it."
After Ham’s suicide, the band fell apart. Mike Gibbins moved back to Wales while Molland formed Blue Goose, then Natural Gas (I saw Natural Gas backing up Frampton on the Comes Alive tour - one of the only times I ever saw an opening band so thoroughly blow away the headliner!). Tommy Evans and Bob Jackson (who’d played keys with Badfinger on tour) formed the Dodgers and released several singles.
In 1978, Molland was working in LA, laying carpet. Evans was doing pipe insulation in England and the two of them decided to reform Badfinger. The resulting LP Airwaves is a minor masterpiece and they were back in 1981 for Say No More, recorded with Tony Kaye on keys (ex of Yes). But after a 1983 US tour, the group splintered once more.
Gibbins was married and living in South Wales. Evans was having severe financial problems and going to court, attempting to finally get royalty money from songs like "Without You." He told his wife Marianne that he was convinced the entire world was aligned against him. On Nov. 19th, Tommy Evans was found dead in his Surrey England home. He’d hanged himself.
For the 1984 British Invasion tour with Herman’s Hermits, The Troggs and others, Badfinger consisted of Molland and Gibbins, plus Bob Jackson, Al Wodke (bass) and Randy Anderson (guitar). Molland moved to Minneapolis and put out a hard rocking solo album in 1985, After The Pearl. When I caught Badfinger live in ‘86, their amazing set list included a wonderful segue from "Without You" into John Lennon’s "Mind Games." The poignant moment brought me near to tears, thinking about the great losses we’ve all suffered - Pete Ham, Tommy Evans, Lennon and so many others.
On October 4th, 2005, Mike Gibbins died in his sleep, at his home in Oviedo, Florida. Three of his sons play together in the Orlando-based band the Seven Sisters. Today, there’s more Badfinger available than ever, and the group is finally getting the attention and acclaim it’s long deserved. Rhino’s Best Of Badfinger Vol. II was a hit, as was Rykodisc’s Day After Day, a 1974 concert recording. Joey Molland formed his own label (Independent Records), releasing Timeless in 1989 (Gibbins appears on drums).
Molland still tours with a band he calls Badfinger. His 1992 solo record the Pilgrim may not a top seller, but I highly recommend it to anyone who loves Oasis, Jellyfish, Tears For Fears, Klaatu, or of course Badfinger (and I’ve never steered you wrong yet, have I?).
YOU KIN CALL ME BOBBY – a phone call from Bob Dylan????
This happened to me 2/12/01:
“Is this the number where ahh kin reach Mr. Jay Allen Sanford?” asked the man on the phone with the twangy voice.
Assuming the caller on my company's 800 line was ordering Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics back issues, I had pen in hand and an order form ready to fill out. "I'm Jay. Can I help you?"
“Well hahh," said the caller, "Ahh’m Bob Dylan, an’ I was hopin’ I’d be able to talk to ya.” I smiled, admiring the passable impression and writing “Bob Dylan, ha ha” atop the order form.
“Hey yourself, Mr. Dylan. To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“You kin call me Bobby,” he replied. Yeah, right, like Dylan would say that. And how hard can it be to drawl out words and end sentences in an upward register that emulates Dylan’s laconic singing?
But I wondered, of all pranks to play, why this one? And why on me? “Ahh just finished reading the comic books you did about me. Ahh hardly ever read stuff like that all the way through, ahh jes' skim over ‘em, but ahh gotta tell ya, ya got a lot of yer facts right on, lot more than I woulda thought. Y’know ahh’ve always liked comic books an’ all so what a great idea. Art wasn’t so great though. Didn’t look much like me.”
Still positive I was being clowned, and waiting for the punchline, I mentioned that he and I have – or rather had - a mutual friend. Rick Danko, former bassist and violin player for Dylan protégés the Band, had been married to the sister of my editor at Soundwaves magazine, an east coast entertainment rag I write for. Having met through Soundwaves, Danko and I occasionally got together and corresponded, plus he’d sometimes request feedback regarding audio tapes he’d send me with songs from projects of his which rarely seemed to go anywhere.
“Oh yeah, shame the way Ricky wore hisself out like that. His old lady [mentioning Danko’s wife by name] must feel purty shot down, having to deal with all that.” I think that’s what he said. Or maybe he said “partly shat on” or “party shut down” or something else that apparently concerned Danko’s 1999 death, from ailments related to years of heavy drinking and drug use.
My attention was focused on the other part of his sentence, the part where he’d mentioned Danko’s wife by name. Pretty obscure trivia for even a dedicated Dylanolgist to cough up, especially without advance knowledge of my own connection to Danko.
“Ya’d think he woulda learned, after what happened to Ritchie,” he added, apparently referring to the 1986 suicide the Band’s keyboardist and singer Richard Manuel. “But [long pause] that’s how it goes when the party never ends.” Or maybe he said something about a “ghost” and “parting ever friends” or “partner at the end”...my caller was kinda hard to understand.
Kinda like Dylan on his satellite radio show.
We talked briefly about Danko. “Last time I saw him was in Berlin," said the caller, "few years back, when he an’ I were both doin’ some shows...he was kinda messed up and really heavy, y’know, bigger than I’d ever seen."
I was just fixing up the tape recorder I use for phone interviews when he asked “Are you tapin’ this call or anythin'?”
“I’d like to start one up, if I have your permission,” I said. I was actually entertaining the actual notion that I was actually talking to the actual Bob - er, that is, Bobby - Dylan.
“Nah, yer a reporter. Kinda, anyways. Yer the media so, nah, don’t do that. I don’t care if ya use something I say but, really, I’m not sayin’ much.” Which was true, and I could tell he was ready to wrap up our conversation.
I mentioned that one of my favorite Dylan albums was the live Budhokan set, rather than a typical fan pick like “Blood On The Tracks” or “Nashville Skyline.” It almost sounded like he chuckled (does Dylan “chuckle”?!”) before he replied “Yeah, not many folks ever say that, man, but I always liked that one too. Hey, one last thing - you guys make a lot of bread doing these comics?”
“None of us are rich,” I said, “but it pays the rent, and sometimes we can afford a pizza at the end of the month.”
“How’d mine sell compared to the ones ya did on the Beatles?”
“Yours did about the same numbers as the Beatles,” I lied, caught by surprise. I was reluctant to lay a bummer on a guy who had just about convinced me, with his Beatles allusion and his naming of Danko’s wife, that he was indeed who he said he was.
“That’s pretty cool, then. Good luck, man,” and the line was dead. I never got the chance to ask for a contact number or email address in order to send information and updates about the comic line…and, of course, to assist in confirming my caller’s identity.
I quickly dialed the service provider for our 800 phone number and asked for the most recent origin number. As sometimes happens, the source information was blocked at the caller’s request, with the exception of an area code - 518. Upstate New York.
The caller mentioned being at home...and doesn’t Dylan still have a house up there in Woodstock?