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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Badfinger: Wish You Were Here

Wish You Were Here
Collector's Choice

When one hears the name “Badfinger” brought up, the first word that usually comes to mind is “tragedy”. Indeed, Badfinger is a band cursed with one of the saddest and most devastating stories in all of rock music: A group of talented young British lads were hand-picked by the Beatles to take their throne, only to have numerous opportunities squandered away from them. Paul McCartney even wrote the band’s first big hit, “Come and Get It”, but it was singer/guitarist Peter Ham who took Badfinger to the Top 10 three more times with his uncompromising pop-rock sound. Despite releasing some of the decade’s best albums (1970’s Straight Up and 1971’s even-better No Dice), Badfinger never got their proper commercial due, largely due to the fact that their label — Apple Records — was disintegrating at an alarming pace following the Beatles’ tumultuous break-up.

After releasing a contract-finishing blues-rock record, the group switched over to Warner Bros., resulting in two more solid pop-rock efforts and a whole new set of legal woes. The WB records tanked, the lawyers of both record companies (on both sides of the Atlantic) tangled up the band in mountains of paperwork, and, in 1975, when Peter Ham discovered that he had a baby on the way and next-to-no chance of ever getting paid the royalties he rightfully deserved, he took his own life (just four days before his birthday). Grief-struck, fellow bandmates Tom Evans and Joey Molland tried to carry on the group’s legacy, but things turned sour, and the remaining members of the band argued over who had proper license of the Badfinger name. Lawyers were again involved, and following an angry 1983 phone call with Molland, Tom Evans also committed suicide.

As tragic as the band’s story is, the real tragedy lies in the fact that Badfinger’s life story has defined the band more than their music has. Straight Up and No Dice redefined the term “power-pop”, a fact that shouldn’t be lost on a group that consisted of immensely talented songwriters (it just so happens that Ham wrote all of the big-hits, “Come and Get It” excepted). Yet due to Badfinger’s legal woes, it wasn’t until 2007 that we finally got to see Badfinger and Wish You Were Here — the group’s pair of 1974 albums for Warner Bros. — finally get their long-overdue CD reissue. Both were recorded with producer Chris Thomas (Roxy Music, Pink Floyd, Wings) and despite a mere 10 months separating them (Badfinger came out in February with Wish following in November), the discs sound like the work of two completely different bands.

Badfinger was a bit rushed into the studio: the band began recording immediately after they wrapped up Ass, but before their Warner Bros. Contract actually kicked in (one of the many small legalities that would haunt them later). No doubt looking for a chance to re-invent themselves on a new label, the band tries everything here. “Matted Spam” is one of the most glaring standouts, largely because it sounds nothing like the beefed-up Beatles sound that Badfinger had perfected in the past. Instead, it’s an unapologetic James Brown-styled funk workout, complete with horn section. It’s one of Peter Ham’s most bizarre experiments, but it adds an interesting flavor to an album that otherwise sounds remarkably plain. Perhaps the band was tired after coming right off of Ass, but tracks like the mid-tempo “Island” sound flat-out uninspired (which, for reference, is inexplicably left off of the track-sequencing of the CD reissue). The McCartney-esque opener “I Miss You”, the relationship-lament “Why Don’t We Talk?”, and the painfully dated “Where Do We Go From Here?” (despite the great chorus of “telling yourself you’re a lo-oo-ser”) all fall far below Badfinger’s usual standards.

Even with that in mind, there are still some extraordinary highlights to be found on Badfinger’s eponymous set. “Shine On” is an effortless, gorgeous acoustic pop number co-written by Ham and Evans, the folk-y “My Heart Goes Out” (penned by drummer Mike Gibbins) stuns with its light-hearted beauty, and the MOR “Love Is Easy” walks with distinctive swagger. Badfinger ends on a remarkable high note with the one-two punch. “Give It Up” is a top-notch power ballad where the rock guitars obliterate the docile opening with absolutely no warning whatsoever, and the rollicking fret-burner “Andy Norris” is a song that owes a debt to early Beatles singles and good ol’ fashioned rockabilly in equal measures. It’s a shame that the majority of Badfinger‘s energy comes from its oft-neglected latter half.

When taken side-by-side, however, nearly all of Badfinger‘s flaws are forgiven in light of Wish You Were Here (whose album title pre-dates Pink Floyd’s by nearly a year). Wish storms out the gate with “Just a Chance”, a barn-burning rock number that contains one of Badfinger’s most propulsive melodies. It’s a stunning opener that sets the tone for the rest of this brisk, fast-paced album. Given how Wish You Were Here was largely considered to be a “rush-released” album just like it’s predecessor, it’s amazing how energized they sound. Wish You Were Here also sounds totally effortless, a vibe that’s lost on the overwrought Badfinger.

“Know One Knows” — despite a gag-inducing pun of a title — is a joyous pop number that just so happens to contain a woman’s voice giving a bizarre otherworldly monologue right in the middle. Yet the hands-down highlight is the infectious “In the Meantime/Some Other Time”, which — despite its horror-orchestra opening — transforms into a jaw-dropping piano-rock number that is replete with orchestral backings and wild, noodling guitar solos. Add with the Sgt. Pepper’s-styled closer, “Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch/Should I Smoke”, you have one solid pop-rock album. Even Wish‘s filler (“King of the Road”, “Got to Get Out of Here”) still rings fresher than the anonymous-pop numbers that dragged down Badfinger.

With that said, however, neither album comes close to matching Straight Up or No Dice: a classic pair of albums that define the term “essential listening”. The long-awaited re-release of Badfinger’s Warner Bros. albums won’t win the band any new fans, but they help in furthering the great musical legacy that Badfinger has left behind. It’s often hard to separate Badfinger from their tumultuous backstory, but as these two albums prove, their music speaks louder than words ever will.

RATING 8 / 10