Swansea’s best known for its expansive coastline, stellar fish and chips, and stunning Welsh landscape. But did you know that it’s long been heralded as one of the most culturally vibrant and eclectic cities in Wales? The second-biggest city in Wales next to Cardiff has a lot going for it!
Today, Swansea is known for its legendary nightlife and plethora of museums. But back in the 1960s, it was also known for being the birthplace of one of the most legendary, exciting, and talented bands in Wales. That’s right! Swansea is the hometown of Badfinger.
Who Are the Badfinger?
Badfinger is arguably Swansea’s most famous export and one of Wales’ most popular rock bands. The band was active in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, and their most famous line-up consisted of Pete Ham, Mike Gibbons, Tom Evans, and Joey Molland.
The band is well-known for making a huge impact on power pop in the 1970s and sold an estimated 14 million albums throughout their careers. The band didn’t start as Badfinger, though. They evolved from an earlier band formed in 1961 called The Iveys.
Signed by the Beatles
The Iveys were the first band signed to The Beatles’ Apple label in 1968. The Iveys changed their name to Badfinger after the working title of the Beatles’ 1967 song “With a Little Help From My Friends” was altered. “With a Little Help From My Friends” was initially recorded with the title “Bad Finger Boogie.”
The first few years of Badfinger’s career went pretty well. The band was signed to one of the most successful labels in the world, working alongside one of the most popular bands in the world. They were on a songwriting roll, honing their skills and ready to write some of the industry’s most unforgettable hits.
But It Wasn’t Going to Last
However, the story of Badfinger is a tragic one. A mixture of terrible luck, bad timing, appalling management, and straight-up tragedy left Badfinger penniless and forgotten. So how did the band that was heralded as The New Beatles lose everything?
Badfinger’s story is considered one of the most tragic in rock and roll. The band could have had it all, but everything that could possibly go wrong did. Twice. And although they did triumph over adversity, they never quite seemed to get what they deserved for their efforts.
The Members of Badfinger
Each member of Badfinger has their own story and narrative. There was a rotating line-up and no end of controversy when it came to swapping members. But each member and character brought a fresh perspective to the band and added to the diversity through their sound.
Pete Ham, the lead singer of Badfinger, had a difficult life from the get-go. Music gave him an escape, a way to see life in technicolor instead of boring black and white. Ham’s father introduced him to big-band jazz. But as a teen, Ham got a taste for rock ’n’ roll, and from then on out, he was a goner.
Ham had a musical talent from a young age. When he was four, he picked up the mouth organ. He bought his first guitar when he was 12 years old. By the time he hit his teens, Ham formed his first band, The Panthers, with a few friends.
The Panthers consisted of Ronald ‘Ron’ Griffiths on bass guitar, David ‘Dai’ Jenkins on rhythm guitar, and Roy Anderson on drums. They all shared a love for Cliff Richard and spent their jam sessions covering his songs. They changed the name of their band regularly until they settled on The Iveys in 1964.
A Fast Track to Fame
The band swapped Anderson for Mike Gibbons and started rocking out in the pubs and clubs of Swansea. Their sound was fresh and exciting, and it wasn’t long before they caught the attention of some of the biggest names in music.
By 1965, the band was opening for the likes of The Who, The Moody Blues, and The Yardbirds. It was a dream come true for these boys from Swansea. There’s no doubt they were musically gifted, but to ride the wave of rock and roll with such legends meant they were constantly pinching themselves.
The Summer of 1966
It seemed like the only way was up for this young, good-looking band. In the summer of 1966, Bill Collins attended one of The Iveys’ concerts and decided he would be the man to manage them. So they had a meeting and instantly clicked.
That summer, the band moved to London and into Collin’s home in Golders Green. The band thought London was magic. They’d spent their lives confined to the uneventful, grey landscape of Swansea, and now, all of a sudden, the whole world lay at their feet.
An Escape From Reality
There weren’t many prospects for young men in Swansea back in the 60s. If The Iveys hadn’t been playing music, they would probably have been working in a factory or mining for coal. London was a way to escape that fate and create a future on their terms.
As soon as the band got off the train in London, it felt like everything had fallen into place. They had a chance at real success. The group spent the next year honing their skills, meeting some of the most famous names in music, and being exposed to some of the most radical sounds on the planet.
A Unique and Mesmerizing Sound
It was a magical time to be in London. The punk scene was on the rise, as was Motown, blues, and rock and roll. The London circuit was alive and buzzing with talent and energy, and The Iveys were riding that wave.
Ray Davies from The Kinks agreed. He saw The Iveys play one night in London and knew they were on to something special. He approached the band and asked if he could produce their first studio demo. The band hardly believed it.
A Five-Year Contract
The band wanted it so much and was so excited about their future in music that they signed a five-year contract with Davies. They agreed to give their manager, Bill Collins, 20% of all the profits, after his managerial fees had been deducted.
Collins said, “Look, I can’t promise you lads anything, except blood, sweat, and tears.” Looking back, the band couldn’t have known there was more truth to those words than they could possibly have imagined. The next year was 1966. That was the year everything changed.
On the Cusp of Greatness
Anyone who saw The Iveys play live could tell this band was on the edge of something amazing. But David ‘Dai’ Jenkins, on rhythm guitar, was far more interested in sleeping with women than getting anything done, so they swapped him out for Liverpudlian guitarist Tom Evans.
Evan’s technical abilities were far better than Jenkin’s, and it soon became apparent that Evan’s skills were taking The Iveys to the next level. A few months later, high off the buzz of the city and the energy of their music, they found themselves auditioning to sign with The Beatles’ Apple label.
An Impressive Performance
Mal Evans, one of the Beatles’ roadies, saw the band playing at The Marquee Club. He told them to audition at the label’s headquarters. Paul McCartney was so impressed by their performance that he agreed to sign them to Apple.
McCartney loved the way they balanced lyrical pop with far-out rock and roll vibes, and that talent is how The Iveys became the first non-Beatles artist to sign to their label. The band changed their name to Badfinger, but unfortunately for them, the label was already rotting at its core.
A Disorganized Mess
Apple Records was founded by The Beatles in 1968 as a division of Apple Corps Ltd. It was supposed to be a creative outlet for The Beatles and individual artists. However, they also signed some big names alongside Badfinger, including Mary Hopkin, James Taylor, and Billy Preston.
The label was formed in the wake of the death of the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein. However, the label was disorganized from the get-go. The band had a hard time figuring out which of their songs should be their first single, and there was endless back-and-forth on it.
A Dragged-Out Decision
The decision dragged out, but eventually, they were able to decide on their first release. “Maybe Tomorrow” didn’t make a big splash in the charts, and it didn’t do the energy of the band any justice. Their first single was a flop, but you live and learn, right?
“Maybe Tomorrow” didn’t do well in the U.S. or the UK, but it did well in Germany and Holland. The rest of the world, though, said this early release was like a bad version of a 1930s rock track. It turned out there was a good reason why the song sounded like it did.
It turns out their manager had a thing for cheesy old novelty tunes, and it clouded his judgment. The band became deflated after having the first single flop after all of the hype and expectations.
They questioned whether everything had been for nothing or if they’d made the wrong decisions and taken the wrong path. But not long after the release of their first single, McCartney stepped in and saved the day.
The Tides Began to Turn
McCartney had written a new record called “Come and Get It” for an upcoming film called “The Magic Christian.” At that point, McCartney was easily one of the most famous and talented songwriters on the planet. So, Badfinger jumped at the chance.
Even their manager couldn’t deny the song was going to be a hit. The band recorded the track, and lo and behold, they got their first hit single. The track ranked at number four in the UK charts, making them the most successful band ever to sign with Apple Records.
Their Own Songs
Their first single might not have been to the world’s taste, but the band was spending most of their time together, practicing, jamming, and writing. As a result, their songwriting skills were getting better every day. They wrote some of their best original songs in the late 60s and early 70s.
One of their most-loved songs was “Carry On Till Tomorrow.” The track is a solemn low-tempo song with the band singing along to melancholy guitar strumming. The track is certainly Beatles-esque but with Badfinger’s own unique emotional flavor.
Rock of All Ages
Badfinger released “Rock of All Ages” in 1970, which was one of the most popular tracks on their debut album, “Magic Christian Music.” It was co-produced by McCartney and Mal Evans and recorded on September 18, 1969.
Although Evans helped write the song, he went uncredited. During the recording session, McCartney played the piano and sang a guide vocal, along with Evans. The track was the most popular Badfinger song to date, firmly establishing the band as a formidable act.
The Best Rock Tune
The song was so well-received, critics called it one of the best British rock and roll tunes since The Beatles released their song, “I Saw Her Standing There.” Almost overnight, Badfinger was considered one of the hottest new bands on the planet.
People were even talking about whether the band could compete with The Beatles, and many thought they were even better. What was perhaps most exciting about Badfinger was it seemed there was no end to their creative energy.
Badfinger released their second studio album, “No Dice,” on November 9, 1970. The album was the first to include guitarist Joey Molland, and the album significantly increased the band’s popularity. They were getting payouts from every major radio station in the country.
The album included some hit singles, namely “No Matter What” and “Without You.” The songs were covered by many artists, including Harry Nilsson and Mariah Carey. As well as seeing significant success with the album, the band had their fingers in other pies too.
All Things Must Pass
With their endless creative energy, they helped produce George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” and John Lennon’s 1971 album, “Imagine.” Everything was going extraordinarily well. It seemed that there was no end to the possibilities of this band.
But then, Badfinger made the worst decision of their career and for their individual lives. They felt they’d come to the end of the road with their current manager, and when they met music agent Stan Polley, they decided to give things a try with him.
A Six-Figure Deal
The idea of money and fame was tempting for the band, and Polley was well-known for securing six-figure deals for his clients in the music business. He had plenty of experience working with world-class acts, so Badfinger didn’t doubt that he’d excel as their manager.
It’s important to remember, Badfinger was hungry and ambitious. They’d been chasing success for many years and had many false starts. Now, they believed they were surely on the brink of big-time fame and fortune. In some ways, the band was blinded by their desperation for recognition.
Taken Advantage of and Blinded by Ambition
Sadly, Polley took advantage of Badfinger. His status meant he could easily pull the wool over their eyes, and he organized their finances in a way that meant they would see almost none of the money they earned from their record sales and concerts.
Polley used his shrewd business mind against them, and because the band had very little experience in the industry and were, quite frankly, naive, they didn’t realize Polley was taking advantage of them until it was entirely too late.
A Suffocating Relationship
But, there was another difficult relationship at play here. Badfinger was finding their association with The Beatles stifling. After all those years honing their sound, they were sick of being compared to the boys from Liverpool. What had once been exciting had become suffocating.
Slowly, over the next year or so, things started to unravel for Badfinger. They were becoming increasingly famous and were releasing hit after hit. But their passion for music and the industry was starting to wane. They resented all the people who’d taken advantage of them.
The Fab Four
Badfinger couldn’t shake the feeling that it was their association with The Beatles that drew the crowds. It seemed that no one was that interested in their live shows or their songs. Instead, they just wanted to be as close to their Liverpudlian heroes as possible.
In 1973, it became abundantly clear that Apple Records was struggling with its own problems. The only people who were benefitting financially from the label were The Beatles and Badfinger. So guess who stepped in to sort that out?
That’s right – Stan Polley told the Beatles he could help sort out Apple’s money problems and stepped in to reorganize the finances just as he’d done for Badfinger. It’ll come as no surprise that Polley made sure most of the money would go to him.
Polley distracted Badfinger with lots of TV opportunities, tours, and gigs. He knew if they stopped to look around, they’d find out something wasn’t right. He made sure the band stuck to a brutal schedule to exhaust them and drain their creativity.
Fell on Their Ass
So it didn’t come as a surprise to those close to Badfinger that their next studio album, “Ass,” was a total flop. The album didn’t capture the hearts or ears of Badfinger’s fans and even led them to lose fans as a result.
Badfinger was desperate. They were mentally drained from touring, had nothing left over creatively, and had very little money. Nonetheless, they threw everything they had at their fans in a bid to keep them interested. Surely, more music was the answer. Or, so they thought.
A Self-Titled Album
The band holed themselves up in the studio in-between shows, writing and recording as much music as they could in a bid to win back their fans. They even started working on a self-titled follow-up album, hoping that would cancel out the failure of their last one.
They released that album in 1974, hoping fans would come back to them. Unfortunately, the opposite happened. The self-titled album was considered such a flop that they continued to lose fans. Their shows were no longer selling out. They didn’t know what to do.
A Deal With Warner Bros
The difference between this album and those before it was the band was signed to Warner Bros. They originally planned to call the album “For Love or Money,” an apt title perhaps referring to their relationship with Apple. But they ended up calling it “Badfinger” instead.
Rolling Stone didn’t write nice things about the album, and the single, “Love Is Easy,” didn’t even reach the charts. A subsequent single that was released in the U.S., “I Miss You,” didn’t do well either. In fact, the album was the lowest-charting album the band ever released.
The Only Way Is Down
Now that Warner Bros had signed the band, they seemed extremely laid-back about promoting them. The band released a follow-up album in 1974 called “Wish You Were Here,” which reached only 148 on the charts.
Some songs like “Just a Chance,” “No One Knows,” and “Dennis” did well, but Warner Bros withdrew copies from the shelves after they found out that a large chunk of money that had been placed into an escrow (or third-party) account had mysteriously disappeared.
The Subsequent Lawsuit
The next thing they knew, Badfinger was being sued, and Polley was accused of mishandling the band’s finances and affairs. The lawsuit would land the band in hot water for years to come, dragging on and losing them millions of dollars.
It was too much for Pete Ham. He was burnt out from touring, sick of being questioned about The Beatles, and had been robbed of almost every penny he’d earned as an artist. He quit the band, and the keyboardist, Bob Jackson, was brought on to replace him.
Can’t Live Without Them
But within a few days, Ham realized he’d made a mistake. He begged to be allowed to rejoin the band. It was as though he couldn’t live with Badfinger, but at the same time, he couldn’t live without them. It was a co-dependent relationship that wasn’t doing Ham any good.
Thanks to Tom Evans, Ham was allowed back in the band. However, Badfinger was growing resentful of the poor reception and press they were getting in the UK. They felt more bruised when they were forced to step down the ladder and support Man, a band from Swansea that was outrunning them in popularity.
Another Studio Project
Molland decided to quit the band at that point. The lack of success, confusion with money, lawsuits, and mistrust became too much for him. But, it became clear that Badfinger would power on when they re-entered the studio in 1975 to work on “Head First.”
U.S. producers Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise flew over to manage the sessions, and Apple studios offered support, suggesting there was no ill-feeling between the label and the band. But, the former members of Badfinger did not share the same viewpoint.
A Rock and Roll Tragedy
Tom Evans wrote two bitter songs for the album about his frustration with their mismanagement. But sadly, the album and Evans’ songs wouldn’t be released for three decades due to one of the most tragic events in rock and roll.
In the early hours of April 24th, 1975, Pete Ham hung himself in his garage. He was just 27 years old and scribbled a note damning his U.S. manager, Stan Polley. He called him “a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.”
In Too Deep
A closer look at Ham’s finances revealed he had been in way deeper than anyone realized. He’d just bought a new house in Surrey but was struggling to pay the mortgage. He’d hooked up with the estranged wife of the of the band’s roadies, and she was expecting their child.
In Dan Matovina’s book, “Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger,” Matovina suggests “Head First” was another rushed album that was undoubtedly going to be another flop and further sink the band’s popularity. Polley had told them they had just three weeks to complete it, adding further pressure to the band.
What Are We Doing This For?
The drummer began questioning why on earth the band was doing it all and what for? We thought: ‘What are we doing this for, when we haven’t got the money for the last one yet?.’ Our hearts weren’t in it. But, being a musician, it was: ‘At least we’re doing something, at least we’re playing music.’”
But, for Ham, making music simply hadn’t been enough. The mild-mannered singer had spent all his creative genius and got nothing back in return. Before Ham’s death, he’d thrown a rare Martin guitar across a stage in rage.
They Look Different
Before Ham’s death, a friend had gone to dinner with the band. She hadn’t seen them in a while and commented that “they looked different, especially Pete… their look of worry changed their [appearance].” At the time of Ham’s death, Paul McCartney was finishing his Wings’ “Venus and Mars” album.
He told the media he was very upset to hear of Ham’s death. “He was so good…” said McCartney. “You think: ‘What if I called him a week ago? Would that maybe have stopped him?’” But, the press didn’t make a big deal of Ham’s death at all.
But, Badfinger’s tragic story was nowhere near over. The band’s former Apple collaborator, Tom Evans, died violently after he threatened the Los Angeles Police Department in a drunken stupor. They shot him multiple times, and he died immediately. The second tragic death was too much for the band to take.
Only the drummer was able to keep a handle on it and continue to make music. The others were so shattered they left the industry. In 1978, Joey Molland was working in LA laying carpets, and Tom Evans was insulating pipes in the UK.
A Renewed Energy
In 1979, a chance came for the band to reform, and the old Badfinger members jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, despite a similar line-up to the original band, their comeback didn’t happen. Perhaps it was just never meant to be for poor Badfinger.
Unlike their counterparts, The Knack, The Records, and The Cars, who made very successful comebacks in that period, Badfinger just didn’t have the edge anymore. But Evans was more concerned about something else – money. He’d never gotten his fair share.
The Touring Continued
Desperate not to return to their pipe-insulating career, the band split into two warring factions. Since they weren’t making money off their records, Evans and Bob Jackson ended up battling with Molland to keep the Badfinger name so they could make money off a touring schedule.
Dan Matovina’s book shares an account of a disastrous gig where Evans was so insufferable that his guitarist walked off stage. The bassist started playing “Stairway to Heaven” in protest. In a chilling statement, it’s reported that Evans said, “Peter had the right idea.”
A Desperate Evans
Evans was not seeing the money come in from “Without You,” the song he co-wrote. Andy Williams had covered it and was making a fortune. Down the road, Mariah Carey would too. There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing other artists make money off your own work.
Royalty payments from the time when Badfinger was signed to Apple had been halted in 1974. Apple said they’d hold on to them until the ongoing financial conflicts with Badfinger and their court case had been ironed out. But no one knew when that would be.
A Final U.S. Tour
The band embarked on one last attempt at touring success in the autumn of 1983. However, this didn’t provide any comfort for Evans, and upon his return to England, he took his own life in exactly the same way that Pete Ham did.
He didn’t leave a suicide note. However, there’s no doubt the pressure and mismanagement drove him to do it. In an ironic twist, the royalties came through a year later, which would have set Evans up financially for life and assuaged his frustration at the industry.
The Most Tragic Band in History
The story of Badfinger is one of mismanagement, exploitation, and a lack of humanity. The boys from Swansea’s dreams were snatched from them by a greedy and self-serving industry, and it led to the tragic deaths of two of Britain’s most promising artists.
Joey Molland and Mike Gibbins have since toured as Badfinger, and Gibbins even released a solo album in the late 90s, which brought some positive reviews. However, Badfinger will always be remembered as one of the saddest and most tragic bands in UK rock history.