The Bad End of Badfinger (Collateral Damage from the Break-Up of the Beatles)

In the days before the internet, when I was kid poring away at my Beatle-ology studies, I had an unfortunate and incorrect tendency to regard Badfinger as a one-hit-wonder, a footnote in the career of the Beatles. Well, practically EVERYTHING is a footnote in the career of the Beatles, and some might look at Badfinger that way as well, but the fact is that Badfinger’s wonders were not limited to one single hit. It was only that prior to the internet, I had no convenient way of looking up the group’s other songs, allowing me to realize that I actually knew them really well. I just had no idea that the band was connected with the songs (as I had been between the ages of five and seven when they charted).

Because they were one of Apple Records’ most prominent acts, and their careers were so intertwined with those of their benefactors, people may assume that Badfinger had nothing going on without the input of the Beatles. But that’s not true at all. Originally known as The Iveys, the Welsh quartet had been formed in 1961, before the Fab Four even had their first hit single. They opened for groups like The Who, The Yardbirds, and The Moody Blues. I don’t know if they ever opened for The Hollies, but I sure hope so, strictly for the pleasure of seeing a poster that read “Tonight Only! The Hollies and The Iveys!”. In 1966 Ray Davies of The Kinks produced a demo for them.

Thus they were kind of ready to pop, somehow, somewhere when they became one of the first acts signed by Apple in the early days of 1968. That was when they changed their name to Badfinger, after Paul McCartney’s original title for “With a Little Help from My Friends”, which was “Badfinger Boogie”. This, and the fact that their first hit single in 1969 was McCartney’s “Come and Get It”, which they were required to play note-for-note identically to what was on the demo, is what can lead one to think Badfinger was some sort of band of marionettes. The song went to #7 in the US and was on the soundtrack to the film The Magic Christian starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, the film which bumped The Beatles Get Back rehearsals from the Twickenham soundstages in early ’69.

But that’s far from their only major hit! Their second one, in late 1970, composed and sung by Pete Ham, was “No Matter What”, produced by Beatles’ road manager Mal Evans, who had been the band’s biggest booster at Apple. This one went to #8 in the U.S. and, like all of their hit singles, was a total earworm. There are clips of them performing it on Youtube. Just a catchy, fun pop tune, sort of reminiscent of the Beatles’ own early hits. Then in early 1971, Ham and fellow Badfinger member Tom Evans (no relation to Mal) sang backup on Ringo’s hit “It Don’t Come Easy” (Mal played tambourine on that record as well). Badfinger’s third major hit “Day After Day”, again penned by Ham, was released toward the of 1971, and was dominated by George Harrison, who produced it and played his unmistakable slide guitar. This one went to #4, arguably the most widely heard of their own hits. At around the same time, Harry Nilsson covered the Badfinger song “Without You”, which he’d heard on the radio and initially thought was the Beatles, admiring its Lennonesque qualities. It was written by Ham and Evans; ironically John Lennon was the Beatle least involved with Badfinger. Nilsson’s version of “Without You” went to #1 in the US in early 1972, and is easily the best known song Badfinger is associated with, though only in their capacity as songwriters. It was basically THE song of 1972. Badfinger had one last hit of their own in 1972 as well, “Baby Blue”, which went to #14 in the US. It was produced by Todd Rundgren. And who was hotter than Todd Rundgren in 1972? Well, Nilsson maybe, haha. So you see how Badfinger rated at their peak? But that was their last hit, released just about 50 years ago. I don’t recall “Baby Blue” from back in the day, but it was used in the series finale of Breaking Bad in 2013; I imagine that is what most contemporary people will associate with it.

That’s a lot of major chart action in a short time, so Badfinger was riding about as high as you can possibly go. Wonderfully, they even survived the break-up the Beatles. But what they could not survive apparently was the break-up, in 1973, of Apple. And then they suddenly found themselves very screwed. Moneys they were owed were tied up in legal wrangling. They signed with another label (Warner Brothers), which did not support them, and then dropped them. They went from being at the top of the world, all of their dreams realized, to literally flat broke overnight.

In 1975, Ham hanged himself in his garage just shy of his 28th birthday, making him — that’s right — an official, if lesser-known, member of the 27 Club. Less than a year later, Mal Evans, Badfinger’s principal cheerleader, was killed by police during a domestic dispute. As if all that weren’t unbelievably sad enough, Tom Evans also hanged himself in 1983.

Am I right then in pinpointing Badfinger and Evans as the most tragic casualties of the breakup of the Beatles?