Monday 16 March 2009

Badfinger "Straight Up" (1971) (News, Views and Music 25)

“Protest would not take me far, it’s different me not being a star, lock my feelings in a jar until another day…but you can see quite clearly now the things that we have done”

Badfinger “Straight up” (1972)

When the Beatles created Apple records the remit was that they would do all they could to discover and nurture new talent, giving all the talented people out there the breaks that the Beatles had never had. That plan might have worked, too, had the Beatles either started their label at the beginning of their recording career when they were at their most unanimous or chosen a highly respected executive and given him enough clout not to be over-ridden by Beatle whims and spur-of-the-moment decisions. Because the good folk at Apple – and forget what you might have read about all of the staff ripping off the Beatles at every opportunity because most of them really were good – had a talent for spotting talent not seen since Ron Richards contacted his boss George Martin in the Abbey Road canteen and told him this new group called the Beatles might be worth a quick look. Mary Hopkin, James Taylor, Jackie Lomax – all three should have been huge stars instead of toys that the various Beatles discarded once they’d become a bit bored. But for my money Badfinger were the most important discovery the Beatles’ label ever made and the group should have been, ahem, the apple of their eye for most of the 1970s. The only trouble was that Badfinger were so in awe of their mentors that they refused to jump ship when other Apple label-mates got so fed up with the changes made by new executive Allen Klein and so got sucked into all the business squabbles that marked life on the Apple label in the mid-70s. Unable to build on their first flushings of success Badfinger fell apart and even a quick listen to the unreleased last record submitted for release on Apple reveals why: tirades against managers, record contracts, the up and down world of the music business, it’s like sitting through The Kinks’ bitter ‘Lola Versus Powerman And The Money-Go-Round’ without the two hit singles to brighten up our day. Even freed from Apple and signed to Warner Brothers the band’s troubles were not over – legal disputes with their management meant the band hardly saw a penny they’d earned from all their hard work. Distraught, the band’s greatest star Pete Ham committed suicide in 1975 and fellow member Tom Evans followed in the 1990s after another decade-and-a-half’s struggle.

But somewhere in an alternate universe the Beatles really did handle their record label well (they called it ‘Mango’ rather than ‘Apple’ in my alternate world) and Badfinger would have been the greatest asset to the company after the fab four. Even now, 30 albums later when the band have become Mango’s (slogan ‘Go! Man! Go!’ TM AAA) greatest asset, the world can’t get enough of Pete Ham’s commercial but oh so insightful ballads and pop songs, Tom Evans’ inventive ballads or guitarist Joey Molland’s bitter rock classics. In fact, Pete Ham would have been so acclaimed that he’d started his own record label, one with a better track run even than ‘Mango’ (‘The label with songs so good you’ll want to hug them and squeeze them dry’). Oh, and they’d have been given a better name than ‘Badfinger’ (Lennon insisted on it, having recently named the song he and Paul were working on ‘Badfinger Boogie’ in honour of a papercut before renaming the song ‘With A little Help From My Friends’). Badfinger never quite made it to this website’s list proper because they never had a chance to make the killer album necessary to rub shoulders with the decade’s best musicians, but ‘Straight Up’ – the band’s most consistent, original and powerful work -comes closest of all.

Even this third album was not without its struggles, despite starting off with a better mood in the Badfinger camp than ever before. After two top 10 records in Britain and a promising chart placing in America the band wrote this album as superstars-in-the-making, delivering their idea of the final recording shortly before a lengthy tour of the United States, designed to cement the band’s name in the rock and roll hall of fame patio for ever. It sounded good, too, if the bonus tracks on my copy of this album are anything to go by. However, all four Beatles still had enough clout in Apple to reject albums as they saw fit and George Harrison was so impressed with the material (if not the recordings) that he resolved to give the band a better chance with a more polished sound a la Abbey Road and All Things Must Pass. Like most things music-related, George’s instincts were right and Badfinger sound downright amazing on the four tracks they recorded with the Beatle. Alas, the band’s bad luck was never far behind and it was while producing this album that George got the call from Ravi Shankar that prompted him to organize the ‘Concert For Bangladesh Concert’ at which Badfinger also performed if you look for them closely (how come they never got a chance to sing one of their own songs, though, when the likes of Leon Russell got to do two?!?) Understandably fighting poverty on the other side of the world, babysitting nervous musicians who back then weren’t used to performing (both Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton broke their live ‘sabbaticals’ for this project), editing concert footage and arguing with the tax man about why he shouldn’t take half of the proceedings took up most of George’s time and energy. He never did go back to help Badfinger finish this album and instead they got Todd Rundgren as a last minute substitute. Actually, this turned out to be one of the band’s luckier moves – this was in the days before Rundgren became the celebrated producer he is now and most of his suggestions are spot-on- but all this pushed the release of the album further and further back until all but the biggest fan had forgotten about Badfinger (not that the band had much to build up many of those in the first place).

Despite it’s troubled history, ‘Straight Up’ is an upbeat album, more so than any Badfinger release barring their first album ‘Magic Christian Music’ released under the name of ‘The Iveys’. The band, who have only just recruited Joey Molland, are working together as well as they ever did and the production shine on all of these songs make them sound just uniform enough to build up an atmosphere and just different enough to let the band’s four rather different personalities shine through. Comapre the album to what the other Beatles were doing around the 1972 period (Sometime In New York City, Wildlife, Living In the Material World and Beaucoups Of Blues) it’s not bad at all – in fact, this album probably improves on all four records. Which is not to say this album is without its down-sides: the band’s harmonies don’t fit together quite as well as I’d like (although I’ve probably just been spoilt by playing this record back-to-back with a CSN record, a problem which happens to me a lot) and some of the lyrics are either very confusing or very profound (or both, possibly). It’s the melodies and the atmosphere you’ll remember most about this record, from the Phil Spector-ish wall of sound on several classic ballads (no surprise there given that George had just been working with Spector on ‘All Things’) to the perfectly mixed, perfectly placed powerpop of ‘Baby Blue’.

Talking of ‘Baby Blue’, this is my choice as first highlight from the album. Pete ham’s very McCartneyesque vocals (he’s a dead ringer for Macca’s deeper voice as heard on ‘Oh! Darling’ and ‘Helter Skelter’) are the perfect mix of singalong top 40 pop and genuine regret at the way he took an old relationship for granted, little realising the object of his affections would run away. The three Badfinger guitarists are on cracking form on this track, especially the solo (which I think is by Molland but as I’m relatively new to this band I’m not certain about) which is a pure cry from the heart. The song also contains the tightest harmonies on the record, which might be what inspired Hollies singer and AAA favourite Allan Clarke to record his own sparkling version for 1981 solo LP ‘The Only One’ (aka ‘Legendary Heroes’). Catchy but deep (first time I’ve been able to use that phrase for a while!), this is deservedly the best known Badfinger track of all in America where it remains a radio favourite, though why Mango, sorry Apple, never chose it to be  a single is best known to themselves.

Even better is ‘Name Of the Game’, a slow piano-based Pete Ham ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on ‘All Things Must Pass’. The long, deliberately-drawn out verses ruminating on lost opportunities and life’s ups and downs are lovely enough, but oh the glorious melancholy when that lovely chorus sails into view. ‘No don’t confuse me, if you choose me you’re part of my shame, no don’t refuse me for I know it’s the name of the game’. This is classic song construction – the piano tinkles away as if trying to shrug off life’s ills, but the long-held chords on a churchy-sounding organ suppress the atmosphere, holding it down with an oppressive weight. Pete Ham sings the song in a proud but detached way, melancholic without getting emotional until the fire of the chorus knocks us our feet out from under us. Confusion meets logic head-on this track and you know instinctively from the sound that the narrator knows only too well whether he should be chasing after his escaped fiancé or let her leave in peace. A strong candidate for the greatest ever Badfinger song and recording, this is a forgotten classic, pure and simple, and has quality stamped all over it.

Many fans pick on ‘Suitcase’ as one of the weakest tracks here, but Molland’s more earthy, less emotive vocals and the fuzz-guitar drenched riff-heavy song construction is just what the album needs to kick-start it into a second side. The lyrics are an early indication of the sarcasm and bitterness that’s about to arrive in Badfinger’s compositions for good, but here the song is still played with enough wit and enthusiasm to get past that little problem. Mike Gibbons’ drumming is at its best on this track too – he’s always less secure on the ballads but a gem on the rock and roll stuff Badfinger do from time to time. Molland’s acoustic ‘Sweet Tuesday Morning’ is another delight, a song that’s been unfairly forgotten by even the small amount of Badfinger cognoscenti that are around, and it makes for a fair pair with the Moodies’ ‘Tuesday Afternoon’, having the same whimsical feel if being far more downbeat. Reflecting on the narrator’s first broken heart in years, this song’s fragility is well balanced with an accordion accompaniment and Molland’s world-weary vocal style.

Ham’s ‘Day After Day’ is more pop genius, turning heartfelt gloom and misery into another amazing pop construction. The song’s riff sounds so obvious I can’t believe it isn’t nicked from a Beatles song and a McCartney one at that (but it’s completely original as far as I can make out) and the Beatlesy element is emphasised by the duet on slide guitar between ham and George Harrison, one of many highlights in this superb song. All of Ham’s songs on this album are on the same theme; making your mind up whether to reluctantly say goodbye for the benefit of the one you love or to give in to your misery and refuse to leave – whoever the mysterious ‘Dixie’ is in Baby Blue she must have been one hell of a partner to inspire songs as great as these. Like ‘Name Of The Game’ the song cleverly contrasts downbeat verses about being stuck inside of a gloomy room with nothing more than memories to keep you company before erupting for another perfect pop chorus pledging the narrator’s love again and again. Another masterful arranging trick sees Ham juxtapose his lonely fragile voice in the verse with yet more glorious harmonies in the chorus. Like all the world’s greatest bands, the listener can read between the lines of this song and knows that, despite the very real misery of the song’s opening, the narrator will be fine and back on his feet in no time.

One more classic track and I promise I’ll move on. ‘Perfection’ is another Pete Ham song, one less known than the other ham classics here, one with a stop-start melody line that ruminates on how no relationship will ever be 100% perfect, no matter how we wish it. Again this is a downbeat song disguised as singalong, with Ham trapped between realising he might have made the biggest mistake in letting the love of his life go and realising that the perfection he seeks in her is never to be found. The song’s riff is a tricky one, but one that works well in this crystal-clear production powerhouse where it’s embellished and complemented by several instruments and more heavenly voices. Another classy Molland guitar solo does all it can to – irony of ironies – make this song reflecting on the impossibility of perfection as perfect as can be.

There are three songs that can’t quite come up to standard, none of them terrible but all of them lacking any of the distinctive traits outlined above. Opener ‘Take It All’ is the one Pete Ham song on the album that isn’t top notch, with the vocalist unusually straining under the weight of the lead vocal part he’s written for himself. The song is yet another with long slow verses and a powerpop chorus, but the formula isn’t as successful here, as there isn’t enough of a contrast between the two passages and the opening passage simply goes on too long. The song is, surprise surprise, another on the theme of parting and about how love should be stronger than petty arguments. For all of Badfinger’s critics accusing them of ripping off the Beatles, this song also contains the only obvious Beatles link – the descending chord change heard at the start of the solo in ‘Something’. George can’t have been too fussed though, what with his input into the album and all, not to mention his own hatred of plagiarism court cases later on in the decade over ‘My Sweet Lord (He’s So Fine)’.

‘Sometimes’ is Molland getting things slightly wrong with a decidedly average rocker that has little new to say and can’t even rock out that successfully. It’s the sort of thing that fills up large portions of Badfinger’s second album ‘No Dice’ and sounds deeply out of place here despite another cracking guitar solo. Tom Evans’ ‘It’s Over’ is also an anti-climatical way to close the album, with all of the dramatics and screams the band have done well to subdue during their more emotional songs, although the lowly-mixed choir and ruminations of another pointless tour being over at last lyrics are interesting touches. Unlike most of ‘Straight Up’, however, there’s no real ear-catching element to this track, a factor that Badfinger have kept up for virtually all this record, against all the odds. ‘Straight Up’ might have died a death at the time, but the few of us who have heard this record love it to bits. Talent will out, as they say, and Badfinger were an unquestionably talented lot with a style all of their own and songs to match. Those talent spotters at Apple knew a thing or two didn’t they? Overall rating: ♫♫♫♫♫♫♫♫ (8/10).

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