Monday, January 26, 2009

Album project: Straight Up

Badfinger, Straight Up (1971): Badfinger's story is one of the saddest in the annals of rock. On the brink of a promising career in the early 70's, internal turmoil, poor management decisions, and outright theft all but destroyed the group, and ultimately drove two of its members to commit suicide.

They began as The Iveys, a mid-60's Welsh beat group led by guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Pete Ham. Drummer Mike Gibbins joined up in 1965, as The Iveys began to expand their following outside of their native territory, gaining a reputation in the clubs of Liverpool and London. By 1967, they had relocated to London, and added guitarist Tom Evans, their first non-Welsh member, to the lineup. In time, The Iveys were noticed by Mal Evans, The Beatles' roadie and jack-of-all-trades, who convinced the Fab Four to make the group the first band signed to their new Apple label, creating an association that would be key to their future success.

The Ivey's career began to move forward with the near-hit "Maybe Tomorrow", but things really got rolling when Paul McCartney offered the group the chance to record for the soundtrack of the movie The Magic Christian, including McCartney's composition "Come And Get It". By this time the group felt they needed a more contemporary name; "Badfinger" was suggested by Beatles associate Neil Aspinall. Also, original bassist Ron Griffiths left the group. He was replaced by guitarist Joey Molland, causing Evans to move to bass and forming Badfinger's most successful lineup. With everything in place, "Come And Get It" was released as a single at the end of 1969 and reached the Top 10 in the UK and US. Further success came in 1970, with another Top 10 hit, "No Matter What", and the release of the album No Dice, containing "Without You", which reached #1 when covered by Harry Nilsson in 1972. As Badfinger' stature rose, many fans and critics noted the band's similarities in style and sound to the recently disbanded Beatles. Badfinger members worked on several Beatle solo projects that year, including George Harrison's All Things Must Pass LP and Ringo Starr's "It Don't Come Easy". As 1971 approached, Badfinger looked forward to recording the album that they thought would put them over the top.

The band began recording what would become Straight Up at the beginning of 1971, but their manager had scheduled an American tour for March, causing the new tracks to be mixed hastily. Apple rejected those recordings, but a silver lining emerged when George Harrison offered to produce the band. Harrison worked with the group through June and July, completing four tracks, but had to drop out when organizing the Concert For Bangladesh began to take up nearly all his time. All four members of Badfinger were in the backing band for that historic event on August 1, 1971. Upon returning to the studio, Harrison was unable to continue working with the group, and Apple brought in studio whiz Todd Rundgren to complete the project. At the time, Rundgren's star was on the rise in the US, but he was barely known in the UK. Joey Molland said the band went out and bought some of Rundgren's albums so they could figure out who he was. Although Rundgren and the band never warmed up to each other personally, he provided a steady hand behind the board and gave the remaining tracks a pop sheen that further invited comparisons with The Beatles. Straight Up was finally completed and released in the US in December 1971, and in the UK in February 1972. The final result was a masterpiece of early 70's power pop.

Ham's "Take It All" kicks off the disc, followed by "Baby Blue", as fine an example of guitar-led power pop as you'll hear anywhere. A powerful hook underscores the tune, which Ham wrote for Dixie Butz, a woman he had dated during the band's last US tour. The medley of "Money" and "Flying" that follows is a psychedelic swirl that points up the group's debts to George Harrison and John Lennon.

Of the four tracks Harrison produced, the best and most successful was the gorgeous ballad "Day After Day". Ham's wistful melody is supported by fine slide guitar work from Ham and Harrison. Molland recalls, "Peter and I were down in the studio working out the slide guitar parts when George came in and said, 'Would you mind if I played slide on this?' I mean, this man's a hero, he's a Beatle, so I said, "No, man, that's OK, sure, go right ahead.' " Ham's and Harrison's slide parts were separately recorded, then doubled up for the final version of the song, which also featured Leon Russell on piano. Other standout tracks include "The Name Of The Game", a piano-based ballad among the original tracks Apple rejected, and the elegant "Perfection", Ham's plea for peace and understanding sung over mostly acoustic guitar backing. "Successful conversation", Ham tells us, "will take you very far".

"Day After Day" became Badfinger's most successful single, reaching #4 in the US, and "Baby Blue" would climb to #14 a few months later. The album itself, though, fared less well, partly due to distribution problems caused by turmoil at the disintegrating Apple label, which also led to the failure to release "Baby Blue" as a single in the UK. Some critics also felt the sound of Straight Up was too close to that of The Beatles for comfort. A scathing Rolling Stone review noted, "With Straight Up, Badfinger seem to have already reached the Beatles' Revolver stage: a stultifying self-conscious artiness, a loss of previous essential virtues, and far too much general farting around." Only with rock's continuing devolution through the 80's and 90's would such values come to be truly appreciated. Following the demise of Apple, Straight Up went out of print, becoming a prized collector's item - for example, in the St. Louis area, copies of the LP in the 80's sold for $30-$50 depending on condition. Straight Up was finally re-released on CD in 1995.

Through 1972, Badfinger felt they were on their way to major success. Trouble started when Todd Rundgren, slated to produce the band's next LP, walked out in a dispute over payment and production credits. The followup album, the unfortunately-titled Ass, bombed miserably. Apple fell apart, and manager Stan Polley pushed the group into signing a one-sided deal with Warner Brothers. Pete Ham quit the group due to friction between him, Joey Molland, and Molland's wife, who had become suspicious of Badfinger's business arrangements, then was pressured into rejoining by Warner Brothers. Meanwhile, the band had found that its assets had been tied up in a series of holding companies owned by Stan Polley. The turmoil and tangled financial arrangements drove Pete Ham to commit suicide on April 24, 1975.

Various Badfinger lineups have carried on from time to time ever since. The financial disputes continued, though, with vicious arguments between Molland, Evans, and Gibbins, at times touring with rival Badfinger lineups. On November 19, 1983, following a heated telephone argument between Evans and Molland over back royalty payments, Tom Evans hanged himself in his garden. Mike Gibbins died in his sleep in 2005, leaving Joey Molland the only surviving member of Badfinger's once-promising classic lineup.

This performance of "Baby Blue" is a bit of a cheat, as the vocals are sung live over a prerecorded backing track. Also, Mike Gibbins had left the group briefly, and a session drummer is behind the kit. Still, it's hard to deny this tune's excellence. Extra credit if you can identify the dude who gives the introduction.