Badfinger — A Rock and Roll Tragedy.
From being the first band to sign with The Beatles’ label to being embroiled in legal troubles and a fraudulent management causing the suicides of two of the band members, what went wrong with the 1970s power pop outfit that critics called the next Beatles?
Like most people of my generation, I too discovered Badfinger when their iconic track “Baby Blue” played at the end of Breaking Bad’s series finale. I was intrigued by a sound that distinctively reminded me of The Beatles. I immediately Shazam’d the track and looked up the band online, hoping to find more of their work to jam to. What I found was heartbreaking.
Formed as “The Iveys” in Swansea, it consisted of lead guitarists Pete Ham, bass guitarist Ronald Griffiths, rhythm guitarist David Jenkins and drummer Roy Anderson. The band went through a few more changes over the years before they changed their name to Badfinger and had replaced Jenkins, Anderson and Griffiths with guitarist Tom Evans, drummer Mike Gibbins and guitarist Joey Molland, who along with Pete Ham now consisted of the original line-up of Badfinger. They were the first band to sign with the Beatles’ record label Apple Records in 1968 (when Griffiths was still a part of the band). It all looked so bright for the band.
The band saw a string of hits chart in various countries after they signed with Apple, and were soon offered the song “Come and Get It” by Paul McCartney himself, who asked them to record it note by note how he intended it to be. Come and Get it was a big hit when it released, selling a million copies around the world and charting in the Top 10 of both the UK and US charts. This newfound success led them to release their first full-length studio album as Badfinger titled “Magic Christian Music” in January 1970, that peaked at #55 on the Billboard 200 in the US. They followed this up with their second studio album (third overall, one album as The Iveys) “No Dice” later that year, which saw them break into top 30 on the album charts as they peaked at #28 on The Billboard 200, which till date stands as their highest charting album. “No Dice” consisted of the single “Without You” written by Ham and Evans, which went on to be covered by over 180 artists since it’s release including Harry Nilsson and Mariah Carey, whose covers reached #1 and #3 on the US Charts respectively.
Stan Polley — The Beginning of the End.
“We signed a $3 million record deal with Warner Bros. and they gave us $600,000, and we still didn’t have any cash. It went all to our manager. I couldn’t even buy a tape recorder.” — Joey Molland, speaking to San Diego Union Tribune.
Badfinger’s collapse began ever since they signed with American manager Stan Polley. Polley had a good reputation, and was also managing Al Kooper and Lou Christie at that time, but despite this he was a cunning man, contributing in large to the tensions within the band with his dubious practices. He signed the band members to shady contracts, which allowed him to keep the majority of the earnings and leave next to nothing for the band.
Despite signing with Stan Polley, Badfinger continued to have a good run as they assisted Beatle George Harrison during his studio sessions as well as joining him for his 1971 ‘The Concert for Bangladesh’ in which Ham performed live with Harrison. They released their next album “Straight Up” at the peak of their popularity, which included the single “Baby Blue” and “Day After Day”.
A financial report at the end of 1971 showed that from December 1970 to October 1971 Stan Polley had earned nearly $76,000 alone, compared to the earnings of all four band members which combined was just around a meagre $25,000.
Things started going south for the band in the year 1972, when Apple Records started to falter. Badfinger still recorded one last album for Apple, “Ass” before Stan Polley secured them a recording deal with Warner Bros. records. Even though they recorded two new albums with WB titled “Badfinger” and “Wish You Were Here”, Badfinger’s career started staggering at this point as Warner Bros. demanded that Stan Polley reveal the whereabouts of an escrow account where Polley was supposed to deposit $250,000 for safekeeping, and the account would be mutually accessible by both parties. However, Polley showed no interest in revealing the location of that account, even after repeated demands from WB. As a result, Badfinger’s contract was terminated in April 1974 and a lawsuit was filed later.
A patch of legal disputes caused due to the fraudulent practices of Stan Polley left Badfinger financially crippled. Even though Stan Polley managed to conjure up new contracts for the band, he didn’t stop his dirty tricks and forced the band to give up their US Tour and record another album. Once the album was done recording and the tapes were sent to Warner Bros. executives, the WB executives refused to accept those tapes due to the legal entanglement they were in and felt that this album was just an elaborate attempt to get more money from the label. As a result of all this, Warner Bros. ceased distribution of their recently released second album “Wish You Were Here” and stopped all promotional packages for it, which put a stop to Badfinger’s career completely. They were doomed since the moment they signed the contract with Stan Polley.
As Badfinger further spiralled into turmoil, a polar opposite to their rise to stardom just a few years ago, tensions started growing within the band. They didn’t receive their salary cheques for March and April 1975, and Stan Polley disappeared.
The band tried to find new managers to resume their career but no one would sign them because they still had a contract with Polley, who would not receive any of their calls.
Unable to take any more of the financial issues, Pete Ham, aged just 27, hanged himself on the morning of 24th April 1975 in his garage, with a suicide note addressed to his girlfriend who was pregnant with his child. He wrote in his suicide note : “I will not be allowed to love and trust everybody. This is better.” He also mentioned Stan Polley, calling him “a soulless bastard”. A month later, Warner Bros. terminated their contract with Badfinger again, and the band officially broke up.
Stan Polley was finally forced to pay an undisclosed amount of money to Warner Bros. in 1978, but he still walked away with nearly $100,000 from all this.
Even though Badfinger briefly reunited post Ham’s death, they never really reached the levels they did at the start of the decade. In the early 1980s, both Molland and Evans were leading two separate bands both named Badfinger, which caused a strain in their relationship. The legacy of Badfinger that remains today was tarnished with yet another suicide in 1983.
Joey Molland and Tom Evans got into an heated argument on the evening of 18 November 1983, the subject of which was regarding royalties from their track “Without You” which Evans was now receiving. The morning after the argument, Evans, aged 36, hanged himself in his garden.
As of 2020, Joey Molland is the only surviving band member from the “Badfinger” line up. Mike Gibbins passed away in his sleep at the age of 56 due to a brain aneurysm. Stan Polley lived a long life, dying aged 87 in 2009.
Today, Badfinger’s contribution to music is largely forgotten. People who finish watching Breaking Bad and have a keen ear for music might be tempted to google Breaking Bad ending song, which would lead them to Badfinger’s catalogue of music. After the finale of Breaking Bad aired, surviving member and fan of the show Joey Molland tweeted his excitement at his song being used in the episode :
Baby Blue was also used briefly during a scene in the 2006 movie “The Departed” directed by Martin Scorsese. As a result of it being used in Breaking Bad and the buzz it generated, the song charted in the UK for the first time, nearly 41 years after it’s release. It peaked at #73.
It is one of the saddest stories in not just Rock n Roll, but all of music. Living up to a tag as huge as the next Beatles, the band had all the tools to make it big. Individually, Pete Ham and Tom Evans were gifted lyricists. Joey Molland told San Diego Union Tribune :
“Peter Ham should have been a millionaire by (1975), he’d written four or five great songs that were international hits. The royalties were in the $200,000 range, every couple of months. The checks would go to the manager, and that’s the last we’d see of them.”
Pete Ham died a broken man. Tom Evans never got over his death and died the same way. It is criminal to think what would have become of Badfinger if they had a better management. They had the Beatles on their side, their songs were charting worldwide and what they wrote went on to be covered into greatness. The industry greed killed two talented artists, and a collective that never truly got a chance to shine.