Take An Inch, Take A Yard: 50 Years of Badfinger’s Straight Up
How Apple Records’ other big band made an album that still resonates five decades later
It was 50 years ago today that one of rock’s most star-crossed bands, having gone through three producers, released the album that would be their commercial apex and arguably their creative peak.
Badfinger seemed primed for it. They were coming off the success of No Dice and its hit single, “No Matter What,” which was the first post-Beatles dictionary illustration definition of power pop.
They went back into the studio in London with Geoff Emerick, who’d produced No Dice with Mal Evans.
They had to rush recording because their manager and soon-to-be-revealed villain of their story — Stan Polley — had booked them on a tour.
They delivered the album to Apple Records, only to have it rejected (stories vary as to who ultimately made the call). It was then suggested that George Harrison, a champion of the band, take on the production duties.
Pete Ham, one of the band’s two main writers, was pleased, as he felt they hadn’t had enough time to properly put together the record and that he and Harrison’s vision for it meshed.
Things were going well, but then Ravi Shankar, who Harrison was also working as a producer with, suggested that he do a benefit concert to raise funds and awareness for relief efforts in Bangladesh.
The two benefit concerts — which included members of Badfinger — were a success, as were the subsequent album and film (although the money raised from the latter two were tied up for years because of all the artists from different labels).
The worthy project was taking up Harrison’s time, so he was unable to finish Straight Up. Apple sent in Todd Rundgren to finish producing.
After having a good rapport with Emerick and Harrison, the same would not quite be the case with Rundgren, who proved to be very exacting about what he wanted and not caring if it was what the band wanted. It was a warmup to the more infamous constant butting of heads between Rundgren and Andy Partridge during the sessions for XTC’s classic Skylarking.
The sessions took just two weeks, as the band reworked some material from the Emerick sessions and Ham added a couple of new songs, one of which would be one of Straight Up’s centerpiece hits — “Baby Blue.”
VIDEO: Badfinger perform “Baby Blue”
It’s a bittersweet love song, written about Ham’s relationship with a woman he’d met during an American tour, one that didn’t last because she wasn’t particularly interested in what he did for a living and because he was always doing it.
As Ham sings in the opening lyrics after that classic riff (with a guitar that Rundgren fed through a Leslie speaker for its distinctive sound), “Guess I got what I deserve/Kept you waiting there too long my love.”
Throw in the harmonies throughout and the hooks of the chorus and the bridge and the result is a hit single (albeit one that deserved to reach higher than No. 14 on the US charts in the spring of 1972 and was inexplicably not released as a single at all in the UK).
Decades later, Vince Gilligan, picking up on its rueful tone, used it to soundtrack the final scene of the series Breaking Bad, twisting it so that viewers see a mortally wounded Walter White returning to his one true love — not a person, but his meth lab.
The album’s other hit — the gorgeous “Day After Day” is sadness leavened by hope. It’s another Ham composition, this time with an assist from Harrison in the performance, when he added his slide guitar to Ham’s in the solo section (and brought in Leon Russell to play piano).
It would be their biggest — peaking at No. 4 on the U.S. chart in February of 1972, one spot ahead of Harry Nilsson’s cover of Ham’s “Without You” from No Dice, which was two weeks away from hitting No. 1.
Being on the Beatles label and having their first hit — “Come and Get It” written by one (McCartney), the dueling tags of “Next Beatles”/”Blatant Beatles imitators” followed the band to their irritation.
The reality is that the members of Badfinger, while younger than the Beatles, weren’t so much younger that they weren’t working from similar influences, albeit one that couldn’t be helped but filtered through a then post-Beatles lens. Still, what were their albums supposed to sound like — Master of Reality or Fragile?
“Come And Get It” was an outlier in creation, if not style, as Badfinger wasn’t relying on outside writers. By the time of Straight Up, not only were Ham and Tom Evans key writers, guitarist Joey Molland had stepped up his efforts in that area.
While the post-“Come And Get It” hits were all Ham’s, the absence of Evans and Molland songs from the charts owed as much the horrible luck and bad timing that plagued Badfinger as it did Ham being the band’s best writer.
Take the back-to-back appearances of Evans’ sadly prescient “Money” and the Evans/Molland composition “Flying” back-to-back on Side One of the original LP.
The two tracks play like they were from the Side 2 medley of Abbey Road, only with the effort to turn them both into actual full songs.
Molland’s “Suitcase” is a catchy little toe-tapper in its own right. The slightly folk-tinged “I’d Die Babe” is even better.
Album closer “It’s Over” is one of Evans’ best, the Rundgren sessions addition that was a perfect way to wrap things up.
Still, such is Ham’s strengths as a songwriter at that point that the best shoulda-been hit on the album is “Name of the Game,” another one of his compositions.
Going back to the Emerick sessions, Apple thought “Name of the Game” was going to be a bit, wanting it to the first single. They rejected the Emerick-produced original as well as remix attempts by Harrison with Phil Spector, then by Al Kooper.
It’s a beautifully melodic piano-led ballad, with lovely background harmonies. It’s also a reminder that the band had more influences than the Fabs, as it would have fit in on one of the classic singer-songwriter albums of the period. One wishes Elton John had chosen to cover it rather than “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”
It wound up being released as a single in the Philippines, but not in the States or the Uk.
“Take It All,” another product of the Rundgren sessions, was written by Ham after taking part in the Concerts for Bangladesh, could be interpreted as a song about love or a song about something more sociopolitical. In any case, Ham delivers one of his most soulful vocals. While a rocker would have been a more obvious album opener, this was the better choice in retrospect.
Rundgren, as the stories go, may not have been Mr. Warmth in the studio, but the results were there. His pop instincts proved correct and, if it wasnt always where Badfinger themselves wanted to go, they hadn’t had their work polished to death.
Indeed, what stands out now, regardless of whether a song is more Harrison’s or Rundgren’s, is still Badfinger — with three writers getting stronger, with four musicians getting better (special mention to Mike Gibbins’ serve-the-song drumming) and their harmonies.
True, even with Straight Up, this is Badfinger, so the words “What if?” come with it. As a later expanded reissue shows, they wound up dropping songs that were good enough to make the cut — the almost country-inflected I’ll Be the One and Evans’ “Sing for the Song” that could have been cited as an ELO influence if it had been released (albeit with more polish). Conversely, “No Good at All” sounds like Evans might have been influenced a little by The Move.
VIDEO: Badfinger “Suitcase”
While Rundgren’s production polish helped the album more than it hurt it overall, the original version of “Suitcase” has more of a rock edge that one wishes had been kept in.
Even with two hits, the album peaked at No. 31. Badfinger didn’t have too much time or opportunity to build off it commercially.
The follow-up, the inconsistent Ass, was a disappointment and their last for Apple (and the last non-Beatles release on the label).
Polley, in the process of moving from band manager to band destroyer, got them a deal with Warner Brothers, which forced the band back into the studio earlier than they would have liked, with their self-titled 1974 release being the result.
The creative regrouping happened later that year as the group delivered Wish You Were Here, a stellar return to form that now stands as the co-peak Straight Up.
The album went nowhere, thanks to Polley. The money from signing with Warner Brothers was nowhere to be found. Neither was the advance money (around $600,000) for the album that was supposed to be in a separate escrow fund. The label sued Badfinger and Polley. It pulled the album out of circulation weeks after it came out in November 1974, before any singles had been released, depriving it of any chance it had.
Not yet knowing about Warners’ suits, but needing money, the band, without Molland (who’d had enough of Polley), they rushed back into the studio to record Head First. The label, because of the suits, refused to release it.
Members were left unable to enjoy the financial rewards of the success they’d achieved to that point, as their contract had left them as salaried employees with a boss who ripped them off (also skimming from their songwriting royalties) and basically left them broke.
Financially in terrible shape (the salary payments had been stopped) and unable to release new Badfinger music, Ham took his own life in April 1975, leaving a note that concluded “P.S. Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.”
Polley’s notorious ripping off of Badfinger effectively ended his career as a major music manager, but not as a con. He pled no contest in 1991 to swindling more than $250,000 from aeronautics engineer Peter Brock after the two had set up a corporation to make airplane engines. Polley was ordered to make full restitution, but living down to Ham’s suicide note characterization of him, he never gave a dime of what he’d stolen back to Brock, either.
Molland and Evans tried to make a go of it as Badfinger again in the late ’70s, but the two albums went nowhere and they acrimoniously split into two separate bands. Evans wound up tangled in new managment and legal issues. Not having fully gotten over Ham’s death, he would take his life in 1983.
Molland, now the lone surviving member of the band (Gibbins died of an aneurysm in 2005) has tried to keep the band’s name alive, periodically touring with Badfinger material and occasionally putting out solo albums (2020’s Be True To Yourself being a particularly pleasant affair worth checking out).
If multiverses were real, there would be one where Badfinger never met Polley and they went on to have a long, successful career and where Polley would have never been allowed near artist management (or any other career that involved other people’s money).
But instead, we live in this universe, where even though it wasn’t the launching point it should have been, Straight Up is still a reminder of how good Badfinger could be.
VIDEO: Badfinger “Day After Day”
- Sharp Dressed Men: ZZ Top’s Eliminator at 40 - March 23, 2023
- Condemnation: Depeche Mode’s Songs of Faith and Devotion at 30 - March 22, 2023
- Any Colour You Like: The Dark Side of the Moon Turns 50 - March 1, 2023