BADFINGER STRAIGHT UP, 1971, Apple Records

The cover of Badfinger’s third album, Straight Up, shows a quartet of scruffy young dudes, all in earth tones, slung arm in arm across a washed out brown background, giving the feel of a turn-of-the-century sepia-tone daguerreotype hanging on a saloon wall. The image is all the more striking for the absence of any names, titles, any words at all. It could be a lost Beatles record sometime after Let it Be. Or maybe they were a Fab Four cover band?... When you pull the record itself out of the sleeve to find the green Apple logo in the center, the comparison is even more strange. But Badfinger wasn’t a Beatles cover band. Nor were they an innocuous copycat troupe. If anything they were a doppelganger, an attempt by the Famous Fragmented Foursome (or certain powers therein) to re-invent themselves (and their earnings power) during a time of separation and darkness.

You could say Badfinger was the luckiest band in the world: handpicked by the Beatles to debut on Apple Records. Imagine John, Paul, George and Ringo sitting around an office table debating your new band name. ("Badfinger" came from a line in Sgt Pepper's..., but John wanted to call them "The Prix.") From the very beginning, the quartet from Wales was writing tunes for The Magic Christian soundtrack, playing backup on George’s All Things Must Pass sessions (they were the “Apple Scruffs” who gave name to, and played on, that particular song on Side C), and charting a smash hit, “With a Little Luck,” presented to them gratis by none other than Paul McCartney. It was a stroke of good fortune they never stopped paying back. The favored child ended up a neglected orphan.

Their story would be the regular stuff of "Behind the Music" specials if it wasn’t so poignantly tragic. Through a series of three or four albums, from 1970 to 1974, Badfinger was the one legitimate hit maker in the Apple stable. Songs like “Day After Day” and “Baby Blue” might ring a bell from soft rock 70s radio. But through a combination of improper management, myriad lawsuits involving Apple and the individual Beatles, and a freeze on all Apple assets and royalties by Allen Klein, the members of Badfinger saw less than a small fraction of the vast amounts of money they were making. Most of their money kept Apple's doors open. In addition, the chaos at Apple led to their records being distributed and marketed poorly, which prevented the band from maximizing its reach, though they toured near-constantly. Finally, after signing with Warner Bros, only to learn their agent had embezzled most of the cash in their record deal, leading to Warners’ pulling their album Wish You Were Here after two weeks, lead singer and songwriter Pete Ham hung himself in his garage at age 28. Seven years later, their other founding songwriter, Tom Evans, hung himself after a phone argument with bandmate Joey Molland...

The greatest tragedy of Badfinger for me is not that they got screwed over, not that their members’ lives ended sadly. It’s that they were really, really good. On Straight Up, all three songwriters (Ham and Evans and Molland) contribute excellent material. The album opens with a bang, the chorus of “Take It All” screeching to a crescendo like a jet plane rising into its flight path. The Evans-penned combo of “Money” fading without a cut into “Flying” does, indeed, recall Abbey Road, and the radio hit, “Name of the Game,” produced by George, could’ve easily been at home on Living in the Material World. But Side B settles into an original groove all its own, with ballads like “Sweet Tuesday Morning” leading into thoughtful, philosophic rockers like “Perfection” and the awesome, anthem-like closer, “It’s Over.”

Today is New Year's Eve, and I’m putting these thoughts together in the town I grew up in, ringing in this New Year quietly in Tennessee. Today I took Sara on a ride up the Incline Railway to the top of Lookout Mountain. We walked the few blocks to Point Park, site of the Civil War's “Battle Above the Clouds," which still offers one of the most breathtaking views of Chattanooga.

I’ve dragged myself across a few famous battlefields in my time: Culloden in the Scottish highlands, Waterloo outside Brussels, Masada in Israel, and the feeling is always different. Sometimes legitimately eerie; sometimes intellectual as you contemplates the ripple-effect from that thrown historical pebble; sometimes nothing at all, as you wait for an appropriate feeling—gratitude, pity, respect—that never comes. The Battle Above the Clouds got its name from of the heavy winter fog that encircled the mountain summit, through which the soldiers shot each other to pieces. It was one of the single bloodiest battles of the Civil War; 34,000 people died on Lookout Mountain on November 24, 1863. Perhaps because of that legacy, the battlefield has a peaceful, gracious air to it, as if trying to atone for its spectacular misbehavior. One senses that Point Park, next door to one of the oldest old-money neighborhoods in the city, like a convict suddenly scared straight, had cause to understand the error of its ways and undertook a promise to be good in the future. Today, December 31st, 2008, there were children running and playing on the circular New York monument, their voices carrying innocently, infectiously through the naked winter trees. It felt as though that land had by now repaid the bulk of its debt, and its reward is a charitable, cosmic repose.

I looked out pensively over the wide rolling Lookout Valley lying placid beneath the West Brow of the mountain. My eyes followed the twisting Tennessee River and the highway beside it rolling away to Nashville and Birmingham between the mountainous canyons of the Cumberland Plateau. A plaque nearby explained how the Cherokee Indians--once the stewards of this region--explained the origin of these mountains. I nodded my head, acknowledging the tale, having borrowed it word for word for an epic, as-yet-unproduced screenplay on their history, a labor of love to which I vainly gave my own blood and tears--a different kind of lost campaign, a different kind of defeat. A stray uncounted bullet rusting under the dirt. I turned away, caught up with Sara, and walked on, mellow in the cold sunshine.

Sometimes when I listen to Straight Up, I think the album as a whole might’ve been better than some Beatles records. Sacrilege, I know, but I’m only giving them their due. So here’s my wish for 2009, in the spirit of Badfinger: May all those creative souls who’ve struggled and practiced and labored and perfected and accomplished their art in obscurity--without luck, without fame, without reward--finally reap the pleasures of their efforts, even if it's just the knowledge that on a good day, they may be better than, or at least as good as, the masters who created them... And if you're ever drinking in San Francisco, make sure to order a Bevil's Badfinger. Word has it some of the bars there make a good one.

 

HAPPY NEW YEAR!