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The Second Beatles: The tragic story of Badfinger

@SamWKemp

On April 23rd, 1975, Anne Harriot found her husband hanging from a noose in their garage. On the table just below his limp, levitating feet, there was a note folded into a tight parcel. She opened it with shaking hands. “I will not be allowed to love and trust everybody,” it read. “This is better. Pete.” And then, just below where he’d signed his name, the note added: “PS Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.” 

Anne Harriot put the note in her pocket and stared up at the man who, just seven years ago, had been part of one of the most successful bands in Britain. So how did Pete Ham, founding member of the band pegged as ‘The Second Beatles’, a band that were signed to Apple and had numerous hit singles around the world, wind up penniless, forgotten, and unable to envision a future for himself?

The story of Badfinger begins in Wales. Pete Ham was born in an area of Swansea where life was tough from the get-go. Music offered him an escape; giving life colour where once it had been painted in dull monochrome. His father had always been a huge fan of big-band jazz, and his brother played the trumpet with a natural flair, but, for Ham, it had always been rock ‘n’ roll. He began playing the mouth organ at age four, bought his first guitar aged 12, and by the time he was a teenager had already put together his first band, The Panthers, with friends Ronald ‘Ron’ Griffiths, (bass guitar) David ‘Dai’ Jenkins, (rhythm guitar) and Roy Anderson (drums). They played covers of Cliff Richard mostly, changing their name every so often to keep things fresh. After shifting between The Black Velvets and the Wild Ones, in 1964, they settled on The Iveys. With the arrival of drummer Mike Gibbins, The Iveys unleashed their sound on an unsuspecting Swansea. Within a year, they were opening for the likes of The Who, The Moody Blues, and The Yardbirds.

In the summer of 1966, Bill Collins caught one of The Iveys’ concerts and agreed to manage them, inviting them to move into his London home in Golders Green, an offer they readily accepted. London represented not only an escape from a life on the factory floor but also the possibility of real success. The first day they stepped inside that sun-lit flat, everything seemed to have fallen into place. Over the next year or so, the group honed their sound, performing an eclectic mix of Motown, blues, and soul covers on the buzzing London circuit. They caught the attention of Ray Davies of The Kinks, who went on to produce three of their songs at a four-track demo studio. Dizzy with the thought of recognition, Ham and the band signed a five-year contract, giving Bill Collins a 20% share of profits after managerial expenses had been deducted. “Look, I can’t promise you lads anything, except blood, sweat and tears,” Collins told them at the time. If only they’d taken those words at face value. That same year, 1966, everything changed.

Everyone in the band knew they were on the cusp of something. They’d managed to boot David Jenkins – who seemed far more interested in sleeping with women than playing music – and replace him with Liverpudlian guitarist Mark Evans, whose technical ability gave The Iveys the edge they’d been missing. A few months later, the group found themselves auditioning for The Beatles’ Apple records after Mal Evan’s – one of The Beatles roadies – saw them at The Marquee club. Paul McCartney was impressed by their ability to balance lyrical pop and out-and-out rock songwriting and agreed to sign them to Apple, making The Iveys the first non-Beatles artist to sign to the label. Little did they know that they were joining Apple at a time when it was already rotten to the core.

The disorganisation that characterised Apple at this time, combined with the group’s inability to judge their own catalogue, made picking their first single a gargantuan task in itself. Eventually, their first single was released in 1968. Unfortunately, ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ made little impact on the charts. It sold surprisingly well in Germany and Holland but, in the UK and the US, the group’s early releases were regarded as bad takes on old classics from the 1930s. This was due to a range of contributing factors, the group’s inexperience and their manager’s taste for old novelty tunes being just two. The Iveys began to wonder if perhaps all their hard work had been for nothing. But with the help of Paul McCartney, the tides began to turn. He asked the newly christened Badfinger to record ‘Come And Get It’, a song he’d written for an upcoming film called The Magic Christian. It landed Badfinger with their first hit single, ranking at number four in the UK charts and making them the most successful band ever signed by The Beatles.

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At the same time, Badfinger were beginning to write some of their best original songs yet, including ‘Carry On To Tomorrow’ and and ‘Rock Of All Ages’, the latter of which was so well received it was called one of the best British rock ‘n’ roll tunes songs since The Beatles’ ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. Suddenly, Apple had one of the hottest new bands on their hands, and what’s more, their creative energy seemed absolutely endless. As well as recording their album No Dice, Badfinger were also involved with the production of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and John Lennon’s 1971 album Imagine. No Dice yielded the song ‘Without You’ which was later turned into a massive hit when it was covered by Harry Nilsson. 

Then Badfinger made one of the worst decisions of their career. In 1970, the group hooked up with the music agent Stan Polley, who quickly became their manager. They were attracted to his shrewd business style, his ability to secure six-figure deals for his clients, and his previous experience with world-class music acts. After being hungry for success for so long, Badfinger forgot that their stomachs could only hold so much. To put it bluntly, Polley took advantage of Badfinger. He organised their finances in such a way that they would see virtually none of the money they were earning from record sales and live concerts. In addition, Badfinger’s association with The Beatles – which had once been so flattering – had become suffocating.

Over the next year or so, things started unravelling. Even as their notoriety increased, Badfinger’s passion for their music was beginning to wane. It seemed that nobody came to see their live shows for the songs – rather, it was their relationship with ‘The Fab Four’ that drew the crowds. At the same time, Apple was having problems of its own. By 1973, the only people making any money from Apple were Badfinger and The Beatles members themselves. This led Polley to reorganise Badfinger’s finances once again in a bid to keep as much money for himself. The manager kept their attention fixed on touring and recording, forcing the band to undergo a brutal schedule that left them exhausted and creatively spent. Unsurprisingly, their next album, Ass, failed to win the hearts of the fans. Desperate to make up for the album’s commercial failure, they hastily began work on their self-titled follow-up, throwing huge amounts of material at their fanbase in the hope that some of it would stick. It didn’t stick.

Less than a year later, Badfinger found themselves bankrupt, impoverished, and in huge amounts of debt. Despite all their hard work and success, their prospects were dire at best. Then, in 1975, Pete Ham – the boy from Swansea – with no money to speak of and a daughter on the way, walked into his garage, wrapped a clumsily tied noose around his neck, kicked the chair from beneath his feet, and hanged himself. 

In the wake of Ham’s death, the remaining members of Badfinger attempted to reform and tour a new album, but it wasn’t to be. After exploiting Badfinger’s legacy with a number of solo projects, the individual members grew resentful of each other, feeling the burden of Ham’s death weighing heavily on their shoulders. For Mark Evans, it proved too much, and in 1983, he hanged himself too. 

This tragedy is made all the worse considering that, in the 1990s, just a few years after Evan’s death, rock fans rediscovered Badfinger. The demand for their records was so great, in fact, that they were widely pirated on CD throughout the decade. Badfinger disappeared once again in the ’00s, but in 2013, their song ‘Baby Blue’ appeared in the series finale of HBO’s Breaking Bad, introducing a whole new generation of listeners to Badfinger’s discography. If you haven’t already, go and listen to the band that rock forgot. You won’t regret it.

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