Mission Immersion 15.2 – Wish You Were Here by Badfinger

Warner Bros 1974

Joey Molland is to Badfinger what Mike Love is to the Beach Boys – he’s the band member who, in retrospect, stifled creativity in his misguided attempts to take the reigns as leader. I should probably note that if I come off as anti-Molland sometimes, it probably has to do with my one experience meeting the man. When Joey Molland’s Badfinger (yes, it’s a thing) came to play City Park in my hometown of Manhattan, KS, I brought my vinyl copy of Wish You Were Here along for him to sign. Even though I had just read Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger and was aware of all his misdeeds within the band, he was one of only two surviving members at the time (he’s the only one now), so I had to take advantage. However, when I gave him my record and told him to make it out to Cameron, I was livid when I later realized he had made it out to “Kenny”. Though it irked me for a while, over time I have come to appreciate it as living proof of Molland’s legendary arrogance. It was the perfect Joey Molland experience, one I am reminded of every time I bust out my copy of this record.

As mentioned in my review of Ass, the band’s final album for the Apple label, Molland’s presence in Badfinger was not the most pleasant one. During the recording of their hit album Straight Up, Molland tried to push the band in a blues direction (rather than encouraging the Beatle-esque, power pop talents of fellow songwriters Pete Ham, Tom Evans and Mike Gibbins). Molland’s efforts became quite noticeable on Ass, and several other circumstances surrounding its recording turned out to be the beginning of a very dark period for Badfinger. One clear positive did come from the experience, though – the addition of Chris Thomas as the band’s producer. Brought in as a first-timer after Todd Rundgren left the Ass sessions, Thomas’ willingness to develop ideas with the band rather than for them was exactly what Badfinger needed. Thomas saw the classic lineup through to their untimely end, and in that time produced their finest and most bittersweet record, Wish You Were Here.

From the first crack of the strings in album opener “Just a Chance”, Badfinger sounds like a band back with a vengeance and a purpose. After being plagued by bad luck and bad decisions for the previous few years, Wish You Were Here was clearly the band’s attempt to be taken seriously again. Thomas himself stated that when he and the band began the sessions, one of the first things they decided was to make the best record they possibly could. They took up shop on a secluded ranch for several weeks, and began to work their asses off. One of the best aspects of having Thomas as producer was his ear for great tunes. Since he came in a bit late on the Ass project, Thomas didn’t have much say about song selection. But the following two albums contain more Pete Ham and Tom Evans tunes (though Wish You Were Here includes only one by Evans), which is in stark contrast to Ass and its Molland-heavy track selection. The band had been somewhat resistant to Molland’s wishes to make Badfinger a blues band, but no one came into direct contention with him about it until Thomas stepped in. If it had not been for Thomas, the world may have received two or three more versions of Ass instead of this classic fare.

Granted, Thomas pushed Molland into greatness, as well. Molland’s songs on Wish You Were Here are the best he ever penned. The anti-rock anthem “Got to Get Out of Here” is easily his best song in the Badfinger canon – not only does it paint a vivid picture of his disillusion with the rock lifestyle at the time, but its sentiments of alienation and crushed ideals are universally felt by anyone who eventually has to face the real world. Furthermore, the album’s two medleys (“In the Meantime/Some Other Time” and “Meanwhile Back at the Ranch/Should I Smoke”) both contain incredible song fragments written by Molland (the first half of the former by Gibbins, the first half of the latter by Ham). The medleys were born out of necessity, as Thomas and the band realized they did not have quite enough material to fill a full-length album. At Thomas’ suggestion, four incomplete song fragments were bunched into two medleys, and the result is pure brilliance. Sure, this practice was probably another Beatles-influenced move, but Thomas and Badfinger somehow took this idea and made it all their own. “Meanwhile” especially has a riveting mix of raunchy guitar and melodic wonder, giving Wish You Were Here its much-needed iconic final track.

Indeed, the album’s greatest treasures lie in the songs and performances of Pete Ham. After almost being relegated to side-man status by the overbearing Molland, the sweet-natured Ham began to fill the role of chief songwriter (and rightly so) after Thomas took over as producer. It’s hard to be sure whether it was Thomas who encouraged Ham, or if Ham just got fed up of being forced to play white blues jams. For whatever reason, a burgeoning confidence in Ham’s approach became apparent in the recordings following Ass, and reached its exhilarating peak with his contributions to Wish You Were Here. Specifically, “Dennis” is one of the greatest songs ever laid to tape. Written for his wife’s son Blair (the name Dennis being a reference to Dennis the Menace), it’s a journey through the realizations of childhood as seen through the eyes of an adult who has already experienced them. The tone of the music shifts with every lyrical change in mood, as if it’s all part of some multi-faceted amusement park ride that ends with a deflation of the spirit known as aging. Still, the final words of “Dennis” (“There’s a way through / There’s a way to take away blue”) offer a much needed jolt of hope into the pre-adolescent experience.

Ham never failed to leave his heart out for the taking with every song he sang, and his work on Wish You Were Here not only proves that claim, but takes it to a whole new level. Tragically, this would be the last Badfinger album to be released during his lifetime, and it only spent seven weeks on record store shelves. Right after the album’s release, Warner Bros. filed a lawsuit against Badfinger’s management, claiming $100,000 was missing from an escrow account. Band manager Stan Polley always seemed shady, and in the past, the band had speculated he was being dishonest about how Badfinger’s funds were being used. With this incident, the band was finally certain of Polley’s indiscretions, but it was already too late. Even though Wish You Were Here had already charted at the time and seemed to potentially be the next break the band had prayed for, the lawsuit prompted Warner Bros. to freeze all of Badfinger’s funds and pull their records from stores. Even after all this, thanks to the 3-year/6-album contract the band signed with Warner Bros., Badfinger had to head directly back into the studio, completely dejected, to record a follow-up album (Head First, which was not released until 2000). This was Badfinger’s worst stroke of bad luck yet, and for Ham, it was Earth-shattering. Less than a year after the release of Wish You Were Here, he would take his own life, leaving behind a suicide note containing these drunkenly scrawled words: “Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.”

Had Wish You Were Here not been surrounded with the fog of Badfinger’s horrible luck, it could have easily been a hit record. All four of the group’s songwriters are represented here at their indisputable best, and if it truly was the band’s goal to make the best album they could, it seems the exceeded even their own expectations. Though disturbing, the circumstances surrounding the album make it an enduring example of just how badly things can go awry in the music business. The members of Badfinger were young and didn’t know any better, but bands these days cannot be that way and survive. For those still trying to rock, the story of Badfinger is a scary one, passed around like parents telling their children of the Bogeyman. But despite all the negative history, Wish You Were Here remains a glorious record from front to back, as well as an inspiring example of how far we humans can go once we set ourselves on a particular course. *****

Note: Badfinger’s story is too complex to cover in an album review, but it is also required reading for anyone interested in pursuing any sort of entertainment career. Dan Matovina’s biography Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger comes highly recommended from RGH. Please reference this to expand on anything mentioned in the above review.

Listening Again? Regularly

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