Just A Chance – The Story of Wish You Were Here

by Rik Mercaldi on July 27, 2015

Badfinger WYWH CoverReleased in the spring of 1974, Badfinger’s sixth studio album Wish You Were Here is arguably their finest piece of work as a band, and as a complete record. The songwriting was inspired, with a world-weary, melancholic edge that can only come from real-life experiences, both good and bad. Some songs were collaborative efforts that pushed the material to greater heights and allowed the
individual band members, whose performances were truly exceptional, to shine. This was the last Badfinger album to feature all four members in their classic lineup.

Strangely enough, it’s a record that most people have never heard, or even heard of. It didn’t contain any of their famous singles, and by the time the album was finally released the band members were embroiled in conflicts with their manager, their record label, and with each other.

The story of a group of talented Beatles-loving musicians who realize their fantasies of recording on The Beatles’ Apple label and working with The Beatles themselves, sounds like a fairy tale come true. They played on George Harrison’s solo debut, All Things Must Pass, Lennon’s Imagine album, and appeared as part of the house band at Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh. Unfortunately, the tale is a cautionary one filled with deceit, betrayal, and suicides in a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

Badfinger evolved from an earlier group called The Iveys which was formed in Swansea, Wales in 1961 by guitarist/vocalist Pete Ham, bassist Ron Griffiths, guitarist Dai Jenkins and drummer Mike Gibbins. In 1966, while playing on the Swansea club circuit opening for bands like The Who and The Moody Blues, The Iveys caught the attention of Bill Collins who offered to manage them. The band decided to relocate to London and moved into Collin’s house at 7 Park Avenue in Golders Green. In 1967 Jenkins was replaced by Liverpudlian guitarist Tom Evans. Although Collins wasn’t the most business savvy of managers, he provided encouragement and was instrumental in getting them to start writing their own songs, which he saw as their route to success.

While in London, Collins met Mal Evans, The Beatles road manager, who immediately took a liking to The Iveys and brought the band to the attention of his employers. In 1969 they were signed to The Beatles label, Apple Records and released their first single, “Maybe Tomorrow”, a lushly orchestrated pop ballad written by Tom Evans and produced by Tony Visconti. While moderately successful in other European markets, the song failed to chart in the UK. The band continued working on material with Visconti and submitting songs to Apple, though they struggled to come up with anything that Apple deemed worthy of releasing.  An interview with bassist Ron Griffiths in Disc & Music Echo caught the attention of McCartney. When asked how the band was getting on at Apple, Griffiths responded, “We do feel a bit neglected. We keep writing songs for a new single and submitting them to Apple but The Beatles keep sending them back, saying they’re not good enough.”

Help came when Paul McCartney was contacted to supply three songs for an upcoming film called The Magic Christian, starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr.  McCartney, feeling that this would be a good opportunity to get The Iveys some much needed exposure, asked them to bring in two of their own songs to record for the film, and offered them a new composition he’d just written called “Come and Get It”. The Iveys submitted  “Carry on Till Tomorrow” penned by Ham/Evans and “Rock of All Ages” by Evans/Ham/Gibbons which along with “Come and Get It” were recorded and produced by McCartney at Abbey Road Studios in August of 1969.

The band felt that it would be a good time to change their name.  The Iveys sounded too dated and they felt that they needed a name that sounded more contemporary. John Lennon’s cheeky suggestion was The Prix (pronounced pree, but obviously meant to be mispronounced).  Mal Evans remembered a working title that Lennon and McCartney had used for the song “With a Little Help From My Friends.” It was called “Badfinger Boogie” as Lennon had injured his finger on the piano while they were composing the song. It wasn’t exactly a eureka moment, but tiring of the process and the fact that no one was coming up with anything better, they all agreed: The Iveys were now Badfinger.

Conflicts within the band forced the resignation of Ron Griffiths and the band set out to find a new bass player. When a suitable replacement couldn’t be found, Tom Evans agreed to switch to bass and they brought in another Liverpudlian, guitarist Joey Molland. The classic Badfinger lineup was now in place.

BF2The newly christened Badfinger released “Come And Get It” as a single in December of 1969. It was a worldwide top 10 hit, reaching #7 on the Billboard charts in the U.S and #4 on the Melody Maker chart in the U.K. To take advantage of this success, an album was hastily put together using the three McCartney produced tracks combined with songs produced by Visconti and Mal Evans. The album was named Magic Christian Music after the film and was in the shops a month later. Since the artwork for the record was being prepared before Molland was in the band (and, actually, all of the tracks were recorded when they were still The Iveys) only Ham, Evans, and Gibbons are shown on the record.

Subsequent albums No Dice and Straight Up yielded more successful singles including “Day After Day,” “No Matter What,” “Baby Blue,” and “Without You,” which was later covered by Harry Nilsson and became a global hit. “Without You,” written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans, has since gone on to become one of the most covered and beloved pop songs ever written.

In 1970, the band signed a management deal with an American businessman named Stan Polley. When their Apple contract ran out, Polley advised them to sign a deal with Warner Brothers for $3 million. As Polley handed the band the papers to sign, he told them “you’re all millionaires!”

Badfinger still had one more record to complete for Apple, and it was Tom Evans who came up with the idea for the cover art. A painting of a jackass wearing headphones staring up at a dangling carrot in the distance, it unapologetically revealed the underlying sense of skepticism and uncertainty that was in the air. The album, titled Ass, also contained a moving tribute by Pete Ham to their former label. The song, “Apple of My Eye,” would be the band’s final single for Apple.

While still completing tracks for their final album with Apple, the band was immediately thrust back into the studio to prepare songs for what would be their first album for Warner Brothers. Their proposed album title For Love Or Money, (thought to be a thinly veiled remark on their leaving Apple for Warner Brothers) was rejected by the label, and changed simply to Badfinger. Unfortunately, both Badfinger and Ass were released within a couple of months of each other, causing great confusion with the public. The pressure Polley put on the band to get their new Warner Brothers album together so quickly after just finishing up their last one resulted in a record that was simply not up to the band’s standards. Peaking at 161 on the Billboard charts, Badfinger, was their lowest charting album to date. Upon reappraisal, both records do contain some great music and have their admirers with Ass, generally considered the stronger of the two. Things were not getting off to a good startwith their new manager or with their new label.

While the band was being kept on a seemingly endless cycle of recording and touring, Polley was taking all of the band’s earnings and setting them up in various accounts only accessible to him. He kept the band on a wage that was barely livable, and created the illusion that they were all sacrificing larger salaries from profits generated through album sales and concerts to create a nest egg for their futures. When Pete Ham repeatedly tried contacting Polley in desperate need of cash for his family and house payments, Polley was elusive and almost always impossible to reach. There had been speculation for some time now amongst various band members that things weren’t quite right, but now even Ham, who had always been the most trusting of them all, was beginning to realize that something was very wrong.

An so in 1974, as the band began sessions for what would become Wish You Were Here, at Caribou Ranch Recording Studios in Colorado, to say that tension was in the air would be an understatement.

When it comes to creating art, extreme emotions and dark circumstances can often lead to inspiring work. The air of discontent, frustration and confusion that hung around the band like an ominous cloud would not only drive each of them more deeply into his own introspections, but seemed to bond them musically. This was clearly not just another album they were making, but a work of honest, artistic expression of the highest order.

The album leaps out of the gate with the explosive intro of  “Just A Chance,” a mourning, yet optimistic, plea written by Pete Ham. Absolutely brimming with energy, their shimmering vocal harmonies and signature chiming/chugging guitars, combine to make it not only one of the strongest tracks on the album, but a highlight in the band’s entire oeuvre, and an absolute Power Pop classic.

The next track “You’re So Fine,” is interesting in that is was written by the band’s drummer Mike Gibbins. He had contributed toand even had a couple of his songs recorded onprevious albums, but it’s evident here that he was becoming more accomplished as a songwriter. For this, the first of Gibbins’ two outstanding contributions to the record, the lead vocals were handed over to Joey Molland who puts in an inspired performance, reinforced again with the powerful harmonies of Ham & Evans.

When you listen to the next song, Molland’s darkly introspective “Got To Get Out Of Here,” its ambiguous lyrics leave you wondering what exactly he needs to run away from. Their manager?, a woman?, the band itself? The beautifully ethereal, church like organ that runs throughout lifts the song into an almost spiritual, elegiac declaration of longing.

Ham’s “Know One Knows” follows with a deliciously infectious refrain. Later in the song, over a brilliantly executed dual guitar harmony solo, singer Mika Kato (the wife of Chris Thomas, the album’s producer) recites Pete Ham’s lyrics in Japanese adding a unique dimension and international flair to an already stellar track.

A beautiful song of reassurance and hope, the dark minor chords which feature in the first section of the next song “Dennis” are opened up to an uplifting chorus of  “we love you,” only to reveal in the final section, a man filled with self doubt trying to convince others that everything will be all right. “There’s a way through, there’s a way to, take away blue… Hearing the song, even if one is oblivious to it’s actual subject matter, is quite a moving experience. Knowing now what Ham was going through at the time this was written makes it even more poignant.

Side two starts with “In The Meantime”/”Some Other Time” the first of two interesting song mash-ups found on the record. The first is another Gibbins track, followed by Molland’s. The two songs blend into each other as though they were conceived together. More interestingly is that as the band was coming into their own, moving away from the earlier Beatles comparisons, the compositional technique of two songwriters fusing separately realized ideas so seamlessly couldn’t help but remind one of how well Lennon and McCartney often did the same, to such great effect.

“Love Time” which follows is a richly layered acoustic-guitar-based ballad written and sung beautifully by Molland. Also worth noting is that it contains, for me, one of the album’s best guitar moments in the tastefully soulful solo section, complete with classic Badfinger guitar harmonies.

“King Of The Load (T),” Tom Evans sole songwriting contribution is a warm, inviting, electric piano led ballad about a wandering minstrel displaying characteristics not far removed from those of its author. Not the strongest song on the album, and considering some of his past work, maybe not even one of Evans’ best, but it actually works extremely well here in the context of the album. Changing the mood just enough to keep the flow of the record interesting, while also serving to accentuate the intensity of what comes next.

The album closes strong with one of Badfinger’s most powerful statements, both musically and lyrically. Once again, two separate songs blend seamlessly into one another. The song starts with Ham’s “Meanwhile Back At The Ranch” A unapologetic selfpurging of frustration that I have no doubt is directed towards manager Stan Polley. This morphs into Molland’s “Should I Smoke” which segues effortlessly, reinforcing the desperate angst of a group of men in turmoil, though still sounding defiant.

It’s also important to note that this record is a high water mark for Joey Molland as a songwriter. Although he regularly contributed many quality songs to each of their albums, and was responsible for the majority of the tunes on Ass, he unfairly fell under the shadow of Ham and Evans, especially after the huge success of “Without You.” Not unlike George Harrison’s role in The Beatles, interestingly enough. His songwriting contributions to this album are nothing less than stellar.

The album was released in November of 1974 and received some favorable reviews, most notably from Rolling Stone magazine. But there was a huge problem. Warner Brothers found a large sum of money missing from the band’s escrow account, and when no satisfactory explanation was given by their manager, a lawsuit was filed, and the album was pulled from the shelves, seven weeks after it’s release. A fabulous record and great press mean nothing if no one can find your album in the shops, which is precisely what happened. Wish You Were Here remained out of print.

Joey Molland left fracturing the band, but they did their best to soldier on. Pete Ham left, then rejoined to record another album that was again rejected due to ongoing litigation with Warner Brothers. Everything continued to spiral downhill.

In 1975, with the band stuck in limbo, a new family with a baby on the way, and mounting debt, Pete Ham was informed that he was broke.

Pete Ham & Tome EvansFinally, with their management unreachable for any explanation or help and unable to cope with all of these pressures, he hung himself in his garage, leaving a note expressing his love for his family and saying “I will not be allowed to love and trust everybody. This is better” and adding “P.S Stan Polley is a soulless bastard, I will take him with me.” He was just 27 years old.  Tom Evans, who remained one of Pete’s closest friends, was absolutely devastated. He soldiered on putting together various Badfinger lineups, recording the Airwaves album with Joey Molland, and a final record, Say No More, neither of which was well received.

At the start of the 1980s, Evans found himself plagued by more misfortune. Several failed attempts to put together a touring band had resulted in Molland leaving and starting his own version of Badfinger. Evans’ version of the band, which now included Gibbins, all signed separate contracts with an agent to arrange another tour. They then found themselves stranded in the US with no gigs and no money. When Evans returned to the UK, he found that he was being sued for $5 million in damages resulting from an unfulfilled touring contract. This was followed by his former band members and original band manager Bill Collins threatening litigation over unpaid ASCAP royalties from the result of airplay of “Without You.” The band had agreed to split ASCAP royalties for all of the songs they recorded together. Evans had been collecting a small portion in order to survive but some publishing money was still tied up in litigation between Bill Collins and Apple Corp. Ltd.

All of this, combined with the fact that those close to him have said that he never got over the death of Pete Ham, led Evans to take his own life. He was found hanging from a willow tree in his back garden on the morning of November 19th, 1983. His wife Marianne recalled hearing him say, “I want to be where Pete is. It’s a better place than down here”.

In 2005, Mike Gibbins passed away from a brain aneurysm at the age of 56, leaving Joey Molland as the last surviving member. He continues to perform as Joey Molland’s Badfinger, keeping alive the memory of this great band whose epic struggles are now legendary, and stating in his own words “if I don’t do it, who will?”

Most fans would probably agree that Wish You Were Here was the band’s crowning achievement. A fragile beauty born from the ugliest of circumstances and a testament to towering artistic achievement in the face of adversity. They would never reap any rewards or enjoy the admiration they so longed for, and richly deserved, for creating a piece of art for the ages. That is the final tragedy of their story.

  • Anastasia Hunt

    Such a well-written article. It’s definitely a pity that the immense talent of this band is overshadowed by the tragedy of the events that befell them. These guys should’ve been as big as the Beatles, they were just that good. I hope that every time someone like me discovers their music, they feel our immense love and appreciation.

    • Thanks so much for the comment! You are right, it is a huge pity. I hope more people discover this overlooked gem of an album.

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