In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
As the cops close in and Walter White lies dying, one of television’s most influential series ends with the crisp power-pop of Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” in the background. (“Guess I got what I deserved…”) It was likely the first listen to Badfinger for many Breaking Bad fans, and the exposure provided by the show resulted in a huge spike in song downloads and more than a few blog posts on the “tragic” band from Wales. Badfinger would be remembered mainly for three reasons: being seminal contributors to the power-pop genre, penning one huge and iconic song, and the suicide of its two best known members.
There’s an all-too-brief window into the genius of Badfinger’s primary songwriter and lead singer Pete Ham. One day George Harrison is playing on your record and brings you along for the Concert for Bangladesh; the next day, you’re broke. You’re pretty much present at the birth of power-pop, yet your record deal dissolves as you look on helplessly. You co-write an epic song, a standard that is covered dozens of times and becomes a worldwide hit, but you can’t even reach your manager on the phone. You’re a few weeks from becoming a father, yet the sadness, frustration, and self-doubts outweigh the coming joy. On this day in 1975, three days shy of his 28th birthday, Pete Ham became (at the time) the only musician to voluntarily enter the 27 Club. After a night of drinking with band mate Tom Evans, Ham hanged himself in his garage studio. (Evans would try to carry on, but would also hang himself eight years later.)
Badfinger was one of a handful of acts signed to Apple Records, and their first single release would be the Lennon/McCartney penned “Come And Get It.” But they were anxious to release their original songs – and Ham had written plenty.
Marc Cohn – No Matter What (Badfinger cover)
“No Matter What” from 1970’s No Dice would become Badfinger’s next single and the first Ham credit to chart. Marc Cohn (with help from Aimee Mann) removes all of the power and much of the pop on this version from his cover compilation Listening Booth: 1970. About the only connection to the original is the pedal steel provided by Rich Hinman.
Badfinger – Without You
The songwriting legacy of the band is unquestionably the tune that the two members who eventually committed suicide wrote together. Both Ham and Evans were struggling with love songs they were working on individually . Ham had a verse he liked and Evans had a strong chorus, but both were stuck with unfinished songs. The combined song, “Without You,” was not instantly recognized as the classic it would become; it was buried at the end of side one of No Dice and not released as a single. Fortunately, Harry Nilsson would hear it at a party and decide to cover the song for Nilsson Schmilsson. Nilsson’s gut-wrenching version topped the U.S. charts for four weeks and the British charts for five. Rather than present Nilsson’s version or even Mariah Carey’s hugely successful cover, let’s break with Cover Me tradition and present Badfinger’s original, since it’s the one of those you’re less likely to be familiar with.
The Last Names – Day After Day (Badfinger cover)
George Harrison had mad respect for Pete Ham and was the middle producer of Badfinger’s album Straight Up album. (Geoff Emerick started the project, Apple brought Harrison in after several months, and Todd Rundgren would finish producing when Harrison’s schedule became too busy.) “Day After Day” featured Harrison helping on guitar and George’s pal Leon Russell on piano. It would be Badfinger’s biggest U.S. hit. Kingston, New York’s The Last Names give the song a lo-fi treatment warm enough to evoke memories of a first love that blossomed at summer camp.
Phil Keaggy – Baby Blue (Badfinger cover)
Straight Up would also yield the above-referenced “Baby Blue,” written by Ham for an American woman he dated on the band’s U.S. tour. It climbed to #14 on the Billboard chart, but the British single release was cancelled by a struggling Apple UK. Phil Keaggy’s cover is fairly true until towards the end, when he unsurprisingly makes room for an extra guitar solo.
Harry Styles – Ever Since New York
We’ll close with a “Baby Blue” bonus from a couple weekends ago on Saturday Night Live. Harry Styles was the musical guest, and his second song “Ever Since New York” features repeated slices of “Baby Blue.” Coincidence? Not sure, but when Harry’s album hits on May 12th, more than a few people will be checking to see if Pete Ham gets a songwriting co-credit.
The Very Best of Badfinger can be found on Amazon.