Badfinger – A Rock n’ Roll Tragedy

If you’re a musician and you’re planning on signing a contract, please consider this a cautionary tale. This is a 40-year-old story but from what I can see, the music business hasn’t changed all that much. You are still very much swimming with sharks so know who you’re getting into bed with. (To mix metaphors). The outcome is not ordinarily this extreme. Or maybe it is and we don’t always know the whole story.

This is actually  a very well-known tale. A guy named Dan Matovina wrote a book called Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger. He said, “It’s [the music industry] a very hard business, full of shysters, huge egos and people more than willing to use others for their personal gain.” And from what I’ve seen and heard over the years, having more than its share of outright thugs with no conscience.  

The song “Come and Get It” was written by Paul McCartney for a movie called The Magic Christian (with Ringo Starr). He did a demo of the song but decided to give it to a band called The Iveys who were signed to The Beatles‘ Apple label. He instructed them to play it exactly as he did in the demo and it would be a hit. They did. And, charting in the Top Ten in US and UK, it was.

One day I’ll blog about the whole sordid saga of Apple records. But suffice it to say that The Beatles wanted a label where they could break out and groom new talent. And so, enter Badfinger. Or should I say, The Iveys. They were a band who had formed in Swansea, Wales and played the usual combination of blues, Motown and Top 40.

What distinguished them, I think, is their Beatle-esque use of harmonies. (A band they were associated with and yet got tired of being compared to.) I remember hearing (and really liking) this minor hit by them, “Maybe Tomorrow” from 1968. (Produced by Tony Visconti who did so much work with David Bowie and whom I saw perform recently with Bowie tribute band, Holy Holy.)

Ray Davies produced some early demos of the band. And after they played at the Marquee club in London, they came to the attention of The Beatles who, as mentioned, were looking for new acts.  (For the record, other than The Beatles, the only performer of any consequence who came out of Apple was James Taylor).

Before they recorded “Come and Get It,” it was decided that perhaps the name The Iveys wasn’t hip enough or it clashed with another band or something. Conflicting stories arise as to the derivation of the name Badfinger. An early Beatles song? A corruption of the name of a stripper the Beatles met in Hamburg?

Regardless, Badfinger it was, now consisting of Pete Ham, Mike Gibbins, Tom Evans and Joey Molland. Now, you might think that signing to a label like Apple would be all that a band could wish for. But Beatles manager Brian Epstein had inconveniently died just the prior year. And by their own admission, the Fab Four collectively at that point had the business sense of a thimble. (This seems, alas, to be true of far too many musicians).

Enter Stan Polley. Polley was an American manager of whom Wikipedia said, in part, “Polley was named during Senate-investigation hearings in 1971 as an intermediary between unnamed crime figures and a New York Supreme Court judge.” Hmm. But this had yet to happen and Badfinger, like all bands eager for a manager, signed on with him in 1970.

Result? Well, they did get work. But in the first year of their arrangement, of the money earned by the band, some 80% went to Polley. Band members? Oh, maybe $5000 USD apiece.

In the meantime, the band kept having good pop-rock hits, later called “power pop.” Here’s a perennial classic rock favorite from 1970. For the record, the guys in the band were writing their own songs. (Ham and Evans wrote “Without You” with which both Harry Nilsson and Mariah Carey had huge hits.)

While the band continued to build their reputation, Apple was starting to flounder under another manager of dubious intent, Allen Klein. (Although frankly, as I recall, The Beatles aforementioned lack of business savvy didn’t help).

Badfinger soldiered on, maintaining their Beatle connection by having George Harrison guest on their LP (and vice-versa) as well as playing at George’s Bangla Desh concert. (This is “Here Comes The Sun,” with Ham sharing guitar duties).

When the contract with Apple expired – and given the label’s turmoil – Polley signed the band to Warner Bros. telling them that they would be millionaires. Which they might well have been. If anybody could actually find the money. It had all supposedly been put into escrow, the band receiving not millions but at best, their usual paltry salaries.

Guitarist Joey Molland’s wife complained that despite having hit records, she and her husband didn’t have a fridge or a TV. (Unfortunately, the other guys in the band treated her like the other Beatles treated Yoko and thought she was meddling in their business.)

Unbeknownst to the band, litigation was now flying back and forth between Polley, the band and Warners. Polley convinced them to record another album, no doubt promising that “this would be the one.” However, with litigation pending over the missing money, Warners refused to pay for the sessions, thereby ending worldwide distribution, thereby stalling Badfinger’s career. Litigation went on for four years during which time the band was in a sort of limbo.

And by 1975, singer/guitarist Pete Ham needed money. He had just bought a house and had a baby on the way. He could not record due to binding contracts with Polley and the litigation. In April of that year, expecting a large sum of cash but told that “all the money had disappeared,” Pete Ham told his old friend Tom Evans he knew a way out.

And then he went out to his garage and hanged himself. He was 27 years old. His suicide note read, in part, “Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.”

The remaining band members splintered. Some left the music business. Tom Evans tried to make a go of it for several years. But he never really got over the death of his friend, Ham. (Consider that these are the guys who wrote, “I can’t live,  if living is without you.”)

And so in November 1983, after yet another argument, now with band members over royalties, Tom Evans hanged himself in his garden. He was 36.

Coda: A Badfinger song, “Baby Blue,” was used prominently in the final episode of Breaking Bad. Original member Joey Molland still tours as some version of Badfinger. A lot of money has rolled in to some of the guys’ estates thanks especially to Mariah Carey’s cover. (Small consolation I’m sure).

Original member Mike Gibbins died in 2005. Polley? He was convicted of swindling another client. He died in 2009 without paying it all back. And I will here – with great restraint – keep from speaking ill of the dead.

In 2013, on what would have been his 66th birthday, Ham was honored in Swansea with a blue plaque near the Ivey Place entrance of the train station, which isn’t too far from where the Iveys used to practice.

God rest his and Evans’ souls.

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6 thoughts on “Badfinger – A Rock n’ Roll Tragedy

  1. Fantastic post. Such a tragic story, and still such a criminally overlooked band. Reminds me a lot of the Big Star story, though arguably that’s not as diabolically tragic as Badfinger’s tale.
    Straight Up is an absolute classic, which I think I’ll play now that this’s reminded me 😉

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    1. Yeah it is sad, it really is. Such callous thieves surrounding the music we love. As to Straight Up, I’ve actually never heard it. For me, Badfinger was always a singles band.

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  2. Wow. I’d never heard this story- I’d heard some Badfinger songs but to read this is truly eye-opening and shocking. 27, with a baby on the way…
    Always disheartering when you read just how many unsrupulous sods there are out there willing to rinse the life out of their charges for the sake of their own pockets – I’ve said for many a year now (especially since reading Peter Guralnick’s two-volume bio) that it wasn’t drugs that killed Elvis it was Colonel Parker.
    What a waste

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  3. Yeah, the music industry has always been a mix of the idealistic “I wanna be an artist/star” types and the “I will pretend to give a damn about your career till I can drain you” types. Don’t get me wrong. Not all of the music industry types are predatory sharks. But an awful lot of them are. When my son told me he wanted to go into the music business, we sat down and had a discussion about music’s pitfalls – bad guys offering bad contracts, life on the road, drugs, loose women. (Okay, that last one isn’t so bad). 😀

    So, monumentally depressing as this story is, I think it needs to be told.

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