Badfinger: Straight Up and the Famous “George Harrison/Pete Ham” Cherry Red SG Standard
If any band seemed poised to carry on the mantle of The Beatles at the dawn of the ‘70s, it was Badfinger. Signed to The Beatles’ Apple label, the group had scored two Top 10 hits by 1971. The first, an irresistibly catchy tune titled “Come and Get It,” was penned and produced for the group by Paul McCartney. The second, a punchy blast of power-pop titled “No Matter What,” was written by Pete Ham, who along with bandmate Joey Molland honed and perfected Badfinger’s distinctive dual-guitar sound.
Such was the backdrop for Straight Up, the band’s third album. Co-produced by George Harrison and Todd Rundgren, the disc spawned classic-rock staples in the shimmery hits “Baby Blue” and “Day After Day.” The album’s pitch-perfect balance of infectious melodies and sonic aggression owed much to the deft six-string interplay of Ham and Molland. In an interview with Goldmine, Molland said he and Ham shared lead and rhythm parts, but that their styles were different.
“My playing [was] a little looser, a little scrappier than Pete’s,” Molland said. “Pete’s style was more contained, and methodical and melodic. He taught me a lot about melody, and I taught him a little about the blues.” Molland elaborated further in a 2012 interview with Gibson.com. “Pete practiced scales and did more formal-musician types of things,” he said. “Even when he was jamming, he was more under control and very methodical about it, whereas I tended to go off the edge.”
Despite these differences, Ham and Molland possessed similar tastes in guitars. In a chat with Ultimate Guitar, Molland said both he and Ham played Les Pauls on Straight Up, with his own choice being a 1957 TV model. Molland added that he also played a ’68 or ’69 Gibson J-50 acoustic. Far and away, however, the most famous guitar used on Straight Up was Ham’s legendary cherry red 1964 Gibson SG Standard. The SG belonged to George Harrison from 1966 till 1969, the year he gifted it to Ham. Previously, Harrison had often played the instrument during Beatles sessions, as had John Lennon during the making of the “White Album.”
George Harrison Playing the Cherry Red SG Standard on “Paperback Writer”
Badfinger biographer Dan Matovina, who has extensively researched the “Harrison/Ham” SG, cites a placard that accompanied the guitar while it was on display at the Rock Hall: “Harrison gave the instrument to Pete Ham, guitarist, songwriter and vocalist of Badfinger, who used it throughout his career. Ham played the guitar on the Badfinger hits ‘No Matter What,’ ‘Day after Day’ and ‘Baby Blue.’ This guitar was allegedly used on Beatles sessions for the single ‘Paperback Writer/Rain,’ and can be seen on their promo films. Also, the guitar can be seen on footage shot during a Beatles recording session of ‘Hey Bulldog,’ and a promo film of ‘Lady Madonna’ was made from some of that footage.”
Pete Ham Playing the SG During a Performance of “No Matter What”
The placard went on to read: “This guitar was also likely used during sessions for the albums: Revolver, Yellow Submarine, Magical Mystery Tour, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the “White Album” and may have been on other Beatles LPs. Beatles experts will have to debate the particular ‘songs’ it was used on. It is likely one of the most important guitars Harrison ever used during The Beatles.”
Matovina goes on to point out that, during all the Badfinger tours, Ham played the “Harrison SG” to the exclusion of nearly all other guitars. He also notes that Molland often played a red SG as well, although it’s not to be confused with the Harrison guitar. Upon Ham’s death in 1974, the guitar went to the guitarist’s brother, John Ham, who stored it beneath a bed in his London home. The SG remained there until 2002, when Rock Hall representatives contacted Ham and requested he loan it to them for a Badfinger retrospective. Two years later, the SG was sold at auction to an anonymous bidder for $567,500.
As their devoted fans know all too well, Badfinger’s fortunes spiraled downward not long after the monumental success of Straight Up. Poor business decisions and alleged corruption within the band’s management and financial team have been cited as contributing factors. Tragedies of Shakespearean dimensions were the ultimate result, but that’s a story for another time. Nothing, however, can diminish the brilliance of what Badfinger achieved while they were at the top of their game. In the end, Straight Up remains a shining star in a legacy cut far too short.
Further Reading: Badfinger’s Joey Molland Talks Gibson Guitars, The Beatles and the Making of Straight Up