The Good with the Badfinger
Badfinger could be the most star-crossed band in the history of rock and roll. During their time on the planet as the sometimes plastic, more often authentic, scions of the Beatles, misfortune smiled upon the British foursome all too often. For a group with connections that couldn't have been more charmed (they were a Fab Four pet project), a lot went horribly wrong. There were excellent releases that failed commercially, major record company reamings, financial collapse, a bitter dissolution, menial post-fame careers and two eerily similar suicides -- all of which combine for a sob story of near-mythic proportions.
Pondering the tragedy that beset the band is, in part, what molded Houston producer Darrell Clingman into the Badfinger fanatic he is today: How can a group be so cursed, so stricken by bad luck, and yet make music that's the embodiment of neither of those things? The contrast between public impressions and private reality makes for an intoxicating mythos, to say the least.
Some might call Clingman's Badfinger hang-up a morbid obsession, but it's more than that. Ultimately, he insists, the group's fine melodies -- best experienced in the early-'70s classics "Come and Get It," "Baby Blue," "Day After Day" and "No Matter What" -- linger long after the shock value of the band's biography wears thin. To prove his point, Clingman, co-owner of Third Stone Studios, spent nine months and a majority of his savings assembling Come and Get It -- A Tribute to Badfinger, which he's just released on his new label, Copper Records. Although Clingman's creative partner at Third Stone has always been producer Anders Johansson, Copper Records is strictly a solo venture.
"To tell you the truth, I'm flat broke right now," says Clingman from his office in Third Stone's latest location on Westpark Drive just off 59. The studio's exterior shell, a weathered concrete slab in the early stages of beautification, is a bit of an eyesore right now, for which Clingman briefly apologizes before returning the discussion to Come and Get It, a compilation that features both better-known and obscure Badfinger tunes performed by a mixed bag of better-known and obscure acts from around the country. The reason for the CD, Clingman says, was simple: "I can't stand going into record stores and not finding anything [released locally] that I like. It sounds cliched, but this is a labor of love."
Come and Get It was also labor, period. Working the phones like a champ, Clingman was able to recruit 22 artists for Copper's first project, and he managed to convince everyone involved -- including Midwest/ INDI, one of the nation's largest independent distributors -- that he was both well-intentioned and legitimate.
"I've got to tell you straight up, it was a bitch," he says. "My big secret was that I tried to go right to the artists, not the labels or management, because by the time my request got through to the bands, I knew it probably would have been too late."
The few bigger acts that Clingman was able to land were paid up-front for their efforts -- usually out of his own pocket. The little guys volunteered out of reverence for Badfinger, for the exposure and for possible royalties somewhere down the line. All the tracks were presented in finished form to Clingman, who sent the music to Austin for digital mastering and handled the disc's song order, liner notes and packaging.
The CD's most prized catch is Adrian Belew, who leads off the collection with a straightforward guitar treatment of the Paul McCartney-penned "Come and Get It," Badfinger's first single and one of its three Top Ten hits. "I paid Adrian a lot of money to get the other bands to join in," Clingman says, though he won't reveal how much. "He's what I like to call my 'loss leader' on the album."
Belew's version of "Come and Get It" -- on which he acts as producer and plays all the instruments -- is a charming, if unrevelatory, six-string interpretation of a song originally intended for piano. Its most amusing quirk is the inclusion of a signature lick from the Beatles's "And Your Bird Can Sing," which pops up unexpectedly toward the end.
"I was trying to sort of electric-guitarify the original," says Belew. "For a long time I've had the demo tape of McCartney's version, and I read that he had just gone into the studio and did it in one day as a demo for Badfinger. Their version is almost identical. So I listened to both versions, and I went in and also did my version in one day."
The little Beatles reference, says Belew, was his way of putting his stamp on a tune that would be poorly served by too much fiddling. "Badfinger's songs are what they are," he says. "Rather than change the content, what I could do was add a tag on that wasn't on the original song. It's something that might have been."
Actually, "something that might have been" is a telling phrase for Badfinger in general. Originally formed in 1968 as the Iveys, Badfinger was nudged along by its primary influence, the Beatles, who signed the band to their budding Apple label in 1970. Out of that privileged association came a handful of hit singles and four full-length efforts. The group also backed various ex-Beatles on solo recordings and tours; you can hear them, for instance, on John Lennon's Imagine and George Harrison's All Things Must Pass.
But by 1973, Badfinger's gravy train had jumped the track. When their final Apple release, Ass, sold miserably, Warner Bros. wooed the group into its clutches with a reported $3 million advance. Two releases later, the label was accusing -- wrongly, it was later revealed -- Badfinger of pocketing $600,000 missing from the band's escrow account. As punishment, Warner Bros. pulled the group's 1974 release, Wish You Were Here, from stores; at the time, it was moving an encouraging 25,000 copies a week.
That harsh maneuver was the beginning of the end for Badfinger. Broke and exasperated, guitarist Joey Molland quit. The following year, a profoundly depressed Pete Ham, the band's guiding force, hanged himself in his London apartment. Bassist Tom Evans and drummer Mike Gibbins had no choice but to go their own ways. In 1978, Molland and Evans reformed Badfinger, releasing two albums, but money issues and business fuck-ups continued to dog the group. It wasn't until 1985 that Badfinger finally received royalties from its Apple days. By then, Evans, too, was dead. Following in the footsteps of Ham, he hanged himself in 1983.
Clingman's introduction to Badfinger came well before the band's tragic decline. A Beatles fan at an early age, the 33-year-old Houston native was 11 when he heard "Baby Blue" on his grandmother's car radio and was hopelessly sucked in by its soaring bridge.
"It was magical," he recalls. "It's still my favorite song of all time."
Back then, Badfinger's only true contemporaries were Cleveland's Raspberries and Memphis-based Big Star. The former would have significant success initially but fade quickly after a few hit singles; the latter languished in anonymity from the get-go. Like Badfinger, both acts experienced bouts of internal and external friction, and broke apart prematurely.
Unrealized potential aside, there's no arguing the considerable melody-driven legacy left by the Badfinger/Raspberries/Big Star triumvirate. All three crafted winsome and succinct British Invasion-inspired singles at a time when rock was over-inflated by the hot air of progressive AOR. To a varying extent, each band defined the parameters of power pop for the next two decades, from early-'80s new wave to early indie rock to the most current Brit-pop phenomenon.
"I wanted to do a tribute to what I consider to be the '70s pop troika: Big Star, Raspberries, Badfinger," says Clingman. "My first thought was Big Star, but, to me, Badfinger has more of a mystique. Without a doubt, they were the most unfortunate band of all time."
For Clingman, the choice to honor the ill-fated quartet with a tribute CD was a natural one -- almost as natural as it was for a road-weary Belew to decide, after months of touring with King Crimson, to whip off "Come and Get It" in a single day and gleefully hand it over to some tiny, unproven label in Texas. When you're a fanatic, after all, such decisions hardly feel like work.
"I've always liked the music, and in the end I felt it wasn't important how many names were on the record," says Belew. "It just sounded good."
A reluctance to mess with that good sound carries through on much of Come and Get It. And, by and large, it works well. The revamped versions mostly complement, rather than overwhelm, the spirit of the originals. Among the CD's other marquee names, Aimee Mann contributes a punchy rendition of "Baby Blue," perhaps Ham's most enduring love song. Originally a B-side of a European single, Mann's is the only track that wasn't recorded specifically at Clingman's request. Posies leader Ken Stringfellow's side project, Solteens, turns in an intriguing but dreary version of another Ham classic, "Know One Knows." Badfinger compadre Al Kooper's take on the the early Iveys tune "Maybe Tomorrow" is a pleasant enough diversion, as is the Plimsouls's edgy unearthing of "Suitcase," written by Molland, and Ham's timeless pick-me-up anthem, "No Matter What," done giddy justice by none other than the Knack.
But it's the efforts by the younger, less-proven bands that keep Come and Get It humming along, particularly the Loud Family's wistful reading of "We're for the Dark" and the woozy rendition of "Flying" -- modernized with a trippy mechanized rhythm track -- from Austin's Cotton Mather, the disc's only Texas contributor. Also noteworthy is the CD-ending "Apple of My Eye," which reunites brothers Lon and Derrek Van Eaton, a pair of Harrison proteges who backed the guitarist from time to time and, like Badfinger, once recorded for Apple.
At least one surviving member of Badfinger, drummer Gibbins, is thrilled with Come and Get It. Now living with his wife and kids just outside of Orlando, Florida -- he moved to the States 13 years ago and has since kept a low profile, recording his own material and living off Badfinger royalites -- Gibbins says that his favorite tune on the CD is "the Belew cut."
"There is more good than bad," he adds in reference to Badfinger's legacy. "People forget the good stuff. We left a lot of good music for a lot of people, and that's what it's all about, isn't it?"
Indeed. And given the undeniable catchiness of tunes, it's a little surprising that a major label hasn't already hatched its own Badfinger tribute. Lord knows, less worthy '70s bands have been eulogized with such.
But then again, as Clingman says, cracking a devilish grin, "It's not like people haven't offered to buy this thing from me."
And who would those people be? Clingman's not talking. But he is probably hoping that the Badfinger curse doesn't prove as durable as their songs.
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