There was always something deeply, ineffably sad about the music of Badfinger. Now considered to be “power pop” classics, “Baby Blue” and “Day After Day” were explicit in their ache, and even the relatively upbeat “No Matter What” had obvious underpinnings of melancholy; all that business about knocking down “the old gray walls” seemed to indicate a band trying its hardest to smile through a haze of profound despair. Consider that Badfinger's Pete Ham and Tom Evans also co-wrote “Without You,” the depressive ballad that became a 1971 smash for Harry Nilsson (and again in 1994 for Mariah Carey) – and that, eight years apart, Ham and Evans both hung themselves – and Joy Division begins to sound a little like the Osmonds in comparison.
But as Dan Matovina's Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger reveals, things weren't always so bleak. In the beginning, Ham, Evans and Mike Gibbins were just three talented, optimistic and slightly unhip young veterans of the British beat wars who got lucky when their band, the Iveys, was discovered by Beatles aide-de-camp Mal Evans and signed to Apple. After one minor hit, 1968's melodramatic “Maybe Tomorrow,” the band received a more modern moniker from Apple honcho Neil Aspinall, and the chart-topping “Come and Get It” from Paul McCartney.
Unfortunately, the Beatle connections were hardly the boon they initially seemed. In the wake of the Fab Four's acrimonious breakup, Apple became too disorganized to effectively promote new Badfinger releases, while music writers either hailed the band as “the new Beatles” or slammed them for being Beatles plagiarists. In an attempt to shake the Beatle comparisons, the band (which now included guitarist Joey Molland) too often abandoned its melodic strong suit in favor of the mundane boogie-rock then in vogue. But when Badfinger signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Warner Bros. in 1972, it seemed as if the band's best years were still ahead of them. Why, then, did a despondent Pete Ham kill himself just three years later?
The truth, as detailed in Without You, is that Ham and his cohorts were screwed by music-industry machinations so brutal and complex that the book reads more like a horror story than a rock biography. Matovina, who spent well over a decade reconstructing the sad saga through hundreds of interviews with Badfinger members and associates, lays most of the blame for the mess at the feet of inexperienced manager Bill Collins, and Stan Polley, the avaricious American manager who kept the band on starvation wages even while they were topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. But Ham's naivete also contributed greatly to his own predicament; as Matovina notes, the very qualities that made Ham a stellar human being – by all accounts, he was kind, sensitive, trusting and remarkably uncynical – also made him easy prey for music-biz sharks.
Without You would be sad enough if it merely ended with Ham's suicide, but Matovina follows the remaining members of the band through eight more years of breakups, reunions, lineup changes and management rip-offs. Tom Evans seemed to have a knack for attracting shady characters, perhaps because of his propensity for signing almost any piece of paper put in front of him. (One particularly heart-rending passage of the book finds an Evans-led incarnation of Badfinger squatting in an abandoned house in Wisconsin, living off saltines and jam while waiting for agent John Cass to come through with promised bookings.) Broke and distraught, Evans took his own life in 1983, but the indignities continue to this day: Due to an ASCAP error, the songwriting credits (and royalties) for “Without You” and many other Evans and Ham compositions are now also split among Gibbins, Molland and Collins, while a large chunk of the income from the band's later efforts is currently being pocketed by Cass.
Though often profoundly depressing, Without You is a must-read for Badfinger fans as well as anyone who still harbors illusions about the music business as a world where creativity (or honor) comes before the bottom line. Last year saw the release of at least one Badfinger tribute CD, but the best way for aspiring musicians to honor the memory of Pete Ham and Tom Evans would be to study this book. If even one band learns from Badfinger's mistakes, and thus escapes the major-league shafting they experienced, their lives – and Matovina's work – will not have been in vain.