When The Beatles invited you into their magic circle, you were doing something right. At least that was the experience for Badfinger. Formed in 1969, the band first hit the airwaves in 1969, with the Paul McCartney penned single, “Come and Get It.” Badfinger released two albums on the Beatles’ label, Apple Records, and the band’s members went on to perform collectively and as solo artists on, among other collaborations, John Lennon’s Imagine and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and The Concert for Bangladesh.
Badfinger were formed from The Iveys, an early ‘60s Welsh group that focused on soul and R&B. After the Iveys folded, the classic lineup of the Badfinger – vocalist-guitarist Pete Ham, vocalist-lead guitarist Joey Molland, vocalist-bassist Tom Evans, and drummer Mike Gibbins – took the Fab Four’s songwriting model and crystallized it into something new altogether.
Chief songwriter Ham penned hits like 1970’s “No Matter What” and 1971’s “Day After Day” and “Baby Blue”; songs that could be celebratory or pensive, at times in the same eight bars of lyric and melody. The 1970 Ham-Evans song “Without You” became a 1971 hit for Harry Nilsson (and in 1994, Mariah Carey) and has been recorded by more than 180 artists. Sir Paul McCartney has called it, “the killer song of all time.”
But while those better-known tunes crackled along the FM radio waves, the band were the ultimate deep cut band, with gems like “Name of the Game,” “I Don’t Mind” and the rollicking B-side, “I’ll Be the One” (to name a few) rivaling their better-known material.
Sadly, in the world of rock history, the Badfinger legacy is overshadowed by tragedy. While their records sold in the millions and royalties were rolling in (at one point Ham alone was raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars every few months) shady management courtesy of American businessman Stan Polley led to the band being deprived of those earnings and—at the height of their success--put on a salary that amounted to roughly a $1,000 a month. With the folding of Apple Records, the band was dealt another direct blow.
Distraught by Badfinger’s seemingly hopeless situation, in 1975 Ham took his own life. In 1983, reportedly still in aguish over his friend’s death, Evans then committed suicide.
Surviving members Molland and Gibbins continued onward with various lineups of Badfinger; eventually becoming involved with various side projects, and releasing solo albums.
In ’05, Gibbins died of an aneurysm, leaving Molland to carry on the group’s legacy of hard rock combined with strong lyricism and bulletproof harmonies. This week, as part of the Hippiefest tour, the now 71-year-old Liverpool native is performing the music of Badfinger at the Thrasher-Horne Center for the Arts.
Folio Weekly had the great pleasure of speaking with Molland, where we talked about Badfinger’s past, present, and future.
Folio Weekly: You’re living in Minneapolis now, right?
Joey Molland: I’ve been in Minneapolis for a while. I’m actually in Brooklyn right now at Mission Sound, recording a new album with Mark Hudson producing. It’s really a nice place, an older studio. Right now we’re doing some drum overdubs with Steve Holley.
Cool. Let’s talk about that. Is there a working title?
Well, Mark wants me to call it, The Last Badfinger. (Laughs). But it’s a collection of my songs and we’ve also got some tunes we’re doing from outside writers. Well, here ya go: have a listen (puts phone up to studio monitors—uptempo rock tune plays in the background). Can ya hear that?
Nice! I’d been listening to (2013 solo album) Return to Memphis and it’s been what; five years since that one came out?”
Yeah. I was disappointed with the Memphis record. I wanted a bit more from it. I thought going down there might give it a bit of a twist but it really didn’t work out for me. I kind of put that record away and it was a bit of a depression for me because I liked the songs on there. I had a great time doing it; great players…[Memphis legends] Lester Snell and Steve Potts and those guys…it was a lovely experience but I didn’t get what I wanted.
I think your voice has aged really well, in the sense that the kind of soulful grit of that album’s “Is It Any Wonder” is a natural development from your performance on Badfinger tunes like “Do You Mind” and “Got to Get Out of Here.” Your voice seems like it became increasingly tuned to an R&B sound.
Yeah, and I’ve always had a little bit of that and I was hoping that I could perform much better myself but one thing led to another. But I never really got what I wanted [out of singing]. Something happened. Anyway, I appreciate what you’re saying and when I came to doing the vocals on it [Memphis] I couldn’t really get behind doing it. I guess I’m just old (laughs). But this new record is surely a new thing, with the enthusiasm from Mark and all of the players. The energy is there. And you’ve gotta bring it to life. It’s not enough to record the songs; you’ve gotta make them live.
You’re coming through town as part of the Hippiefest tour, which features other notable acts from the classic rock era; if nothing else, I imagine the backstage environment is less debaucherous than it might have been 45 years ago.
(Laughs). Yeah, it’s a lot calmer and a lot easier. I’ve done the tour before with Rick Derringer and Mitch Ryder. They’re great old friends and are both rock and roll icons; we’ve known each other for years and we have a lot of fun. It’s nice. You get to ride around with your pals and the sets are short. I do like 20 minutes of all the hits, with Rick and his band backing me up. This is a variety show, really. It’s kinda cool.
It’s all the hits—but have you had a three-minute window to drop in an album cut like, “Sometimes”?
I dunno. They’re kind of strict. (Laughs). I’ve done eight or 10 of these tours and I’ve never seen anybody jam; unless it was Leslie West, of course.
Badfinger released well-known hits but I think you guys were primarily a strong “album band” who also had some big hits. Do you think that some might have overlooked the majority of your music and saw you as pop stars?
Yeah, I know what you mean. We were grateful that the songs came about and that we were so successful as it gave us the ability to maintain life as musicians. We did a few albums and such and we looked at it as how lucky we were, really. We got the chance to grow and jam on the road; the shows would run two, two and a half hours long. I still do a Joey Molland Badfinger show and I do a Straight Up album show, where we play the entire record, and other singles and album tunes, like “Sometimes.” People really love it; that show has been selling out.
Music wise, Badfinger could really shift gears in an effortless and unpretentious way. Take for example, “Sometimes,” which is this total rock stomper, “I Don’t Mind” has this languid, stoned vibe and then “I’ll Be the One” kind of veers into country rock. Was that a natural occurrence of the songwriting and arrangement or was the band deliberately exploring these different streams of music?
We brought all of our songs to the sessions and we’d play and work through them. If they worked, great; and if not, that’s okay, too. I don’t think any of us were trying to write a certain way. Maybe Tommy would try and write hit songs. The rest of us were just writing from whatever inspiration and I was lucky to get a lot of songs on the records.
The melodic and technical skills of Badfinger are evident in the music, but in an era where flashier playing began to ascend, I think that one of the band’s key strengths was in restraint. You had an economy in delivering the songs.
Well, at the time we were playing the way we knew and we never wanted to overplay. We never thought of ourselves as “flash” players or anything. Pete was an incredible guitar player and incredible slide player. Tommy and Pete could sing pretty much anything you put to them; so we had all of that stuff going on. That’s really how we learned to play. That’s something that The Beatles probably taught us: restraint, play something that works rather than something that’s a bit overblown…we tried to really just play what was needed.
More than any other late ‘60s band, Badfinger were arguably most directly linked with the Beatles, both as collaborators and for being on the Apple Records’ label. Did working with those guys ever add even greater anxiety for you being young musicians?
It wasn’t really a pressure but you were acutely aware of being around George Harrison or being in the studio with John Lennon; they were heroes, really. They were guys whose music you’d been listening to for five years and they’d made some of the greatest records you’d ever heard. So it was fantastic and I’d get enthralled with the whole idea (laughs). We were really lucky. We grew up right on that cusp of the “old world” and the “new Beatle world.” We’d learned all of those same things that he Beatles had learned to play and when they did their solo records that’s when they had us play with them; because we knew where they were coming from. I mean, I grew up a couple of miles from John and George. We went to the same schools, played at the same clubs, I bought me guitar at the same shop, went to the same bars, the same cafés, and listened to the same radio station. It was exactly the same life. It was a great opportunity [working with the Beatles] and they really liked us. I think they liked us because we reminded them of themselves.
Well, it was the ultimate compliment: you were playing with them. (Laughs). They could have picked anyone on Earth.
Exactly! (Laughs). They’d call up and ask them, “Would you do us a favor? Would you come around and play a bit of guitar for us?” Do us a “favor”? What kind of thing is that? It was stunning.
Badfinger had commercial success, but also just as crucially influenced someone like Alex Chilton and Big Star; and they in turn influenced countless underground rock bands. What are your thoughts on that parallel lineage that developed off the radar?
We’d heard of them [Big Star] when we were out in America and we were just knocked out by the players. The ability of these guys to sing and play, Chilton’s stuff with the Box Tops as well…it was really something to hear them play and know that they listened to Badfinger as well and thought they we had something to offer. You know we never really thought of ourselves as rock stars. We never got the cover of Rolling Stone or anything although they did say nice things about us. But we always took that kind of thing with a pinch of salt, if you like. We always appreciated those comments when people said we were the best this, that, or the other. But we were really just trying to be the best we could. We were just enthralled that we could tour the world, play all of the fabulous places, and meet all of these great people. They’d come up to us and tell us we were great and we’d think, “Well, they must be stoned or something.” (Laughs).
I don’t have a Badfinger back tattoo or anything, but I feel a little awkward telling you that I have maybe 50 or 60 bootleg Badfinger outtakes and demos that are pretty stellar in their own right. Are you ever amused by some of this kind of outright obsessive geekiness surrounding the band’s music?
Holy cow. (Laughs). I don’t know what to say about that - I’m stunned. Everything that we did we really tried to make it totally original. I’m not trying to sound overly modest; it’s just a fact. But all of those bootlegs (laughs) I’m just stunned by it. When you think of all of the other things that were out there and happening, like The Band or Joe Cocker and The Grease Band, Grand Funk Railroad even. I’ve met those people over the years and they’re sweethearts. I’ve only met one or two assholes on the road and I don’t even remember who they are! But most players I’ve met also felt like they were lucky. They got the break and they were great performers. Man, you look at old footage of Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and they were just stunning. And you’re always trying to achieve stunning.
“Baby Blue” was featured in The Departed and perhaps most famously in the closing of the Breaking Bad series. Has that led to you seeing more younger faces in your audiences?
Absolutely. It ramped up the awareness of the band. For the weeks after that episode we had continuous sellouts. And every night lots of young people are coming to the shows and enjoying it, I might add. Badfinger always thought of ourselves as a “live” band and we still bring some of that when we play. It was really good for us. I’ll tell you what, though. The way Scorsese or the music guy used it in The Departed reminded me of how great a rock-and-roll record it is. “Baby Blue” is a pure Badfinger record. We played it live and overdubbed a guitar solo and acoustic to fatten it up but it’s pretty much live. The drum part in it is just fantastic.
I guess you never imagined it would one day become a kind of love song about blue crystal meth?
No, I didn’t (laughs). I was a little alarmed about that but what are you gonna do, you know?
Badfinger suffered incredible personal loss through tragic deaths and financial swindling over the course of its history, which can almost precede the discussion of the band’s music. It seems like this kind of glorified tragedy can become a dark romanticism. Do you think all of that darkness that once surrounded the band has diminished over the years?
Maybe it has diminished. For a while that’s all the people talked about. A guy even wrote a book about the tragic story of Badfinger [1997’s Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger by Dan Mantovina].
What do you think of that book?
I’ve never really read it all the way through. At the time, I was talking to the guy who did the early Jerry Lee Lewis book.
Yeah. And I was talking him before the other one came out. But that guy [Mantovina] did his first; he did call and asked me to get in touch with him and I asked him, “Are you a writer or something?” He did an interview with us, he recorded the interview, and he still got it all wrong! So how in the hell is this guy going to write a book about our band? But what I read seemed like more of a record of the band rather than our story. But of course he wrote it anyway and I say good luck to him. I don’t want to sound angry about it.
You were ripped off financially but the money situation worked out in the end.
Yeah. Apple were cool enough to save the money; we asked them to not pay any more royalties out so they didn’t. They kept the money for us and went to court and sorted it out and there it was waiting for us.
The Beatles were a class act.
Yeah they were.
You’re the sole remaining member of the band and are carrying on the Badfinger legacy; we can’t really control the future but how would you like for that legacy to be remembered for future generations?
For myself, I’d like to end my career as a success. And for the band to be remembered I’d like for them to be known as a band that tried to do their very best and were successful to an extent. We never set out to be rock stars. We get a lot of respect from other musicians and writers like yourself and I think we achieved what we set out to do.