At the turn of the ’70s, no band was better poised to carry on the mantle of The Beatles than Badfinger. Releasing a flurry of power pop gems – “Come and Get It,” “No Matter What,” “Baby Blue” and “Day After Day” – Badfinger seemed a sure bet for a lengthy, glorious future. As rock fans know all too well, however, the band’s career was cut short in horrific fashion. Victimized by allegedly corrupt management, the group split in 1975. Tragically, two founding members – Pete Ham and Tom Evans – ultimately took their own lives.
Though unspeakably sad, the loss of Ham and Evans doesn’t diminish the brilliance of what Badfinger achieved. Forty-plus years after its release, the band’s masterpiece, Straight Up, continues to be hailed as a rock and roll landmark. Today, Joey Molland, who along with Ham powered the band’s distinctive dual-guitar sound, continues to keep the Badfinger flame alive. Backed by his own band, Molland performs Badfinger shows regularly, delivering faithful renditions of the group’s biggest hits and lesser-known nuggets.
“We try to bring those songs to life in the way they were done in the original band, back in the day,” Molland says. “Fortunately, my voice has held up, to the point where I perform those songs better now than at any other time in my life. Badfinger was never a ‘cabaret’ band, and I don’t do a cabaret show.” Recently, Gibson.com spoke with Molland about Badfinger’s legacy, the band’s twin-guitar approach and what it was like to work so closely with The Beatles.
Do you consider Badfinger a pioneer of power pop?
I’ve come around to that view. We saw ourselves as continuing in the tradition of the music we had grown up with, which was everything up to and including The Beatles. Our influences ranged from Welsh traditional songs to George Formby kinds of songs to folk songs to American rock and roll and American vocal bands. We were exposed to all those things when we were young. We gave the Badfinger songs a hard edge, because we liked rock and roll, and we made those songs melodic for all the reasons I just said.
If it fair to say you brought the rock side to the band, and Ham brought the pop side?
It’s not that cut and dried. People tend to think that’s the case, because the band released “Maybe Tomorrow” before I joined, which was very pop-oriented. But I don’t think I necessarily brought rock and roll to the band. When the band formed, in Wales, they were a rock and roll and R&B band. That’s what they did for the first two or three years of their existence. But it’s true that my history was one of being a rhythm guitarist, a rhythmic sort of guy who played electric guitar and sang a bit. And it’s true that I played a lot looser than Pete did. Pete practiced scales and did more formal-musician types of things. Even when he was jamming, he was more under control and very methodical about it, whereas I tended to go off the edge.
Badfinger self-produced the first version of Straight Up, but then Apple Records insisted the album be re-made. What was the biggest change that occurred, when George Harrison came in as producer?
The idea was to smooth things out, to make it more of an Abbey Road-style album. Apple thought our recordings were a bit crude, so we went in with George and did something more sophisticated. George took our original version of Straight Up, went through the songs and the lyrics, and arranged them very much as he did with his own music. And then he had us play those arrangements. That was the biggest difference. It turned out great, although to this day I think some of those original versions are closer to what the band was about.
Was Harrison pleasant to work with?
Oh, yes. George didn’t behave like a rock star, or like a “Beatle.” It was very comfortable working with him. He also had no qualms about strapping on his guitar and playing a bit of guitar with us. I think he enjoyed doing that, as much as he enjoyed everything else. He worked on lyrics with us, and he got excited about the songs as they went down. He started sensing that this could be a hit record. He completely changed “Suitcase,” for instance, and you can hear that on the record. He even changed the lyrics. I didn’t play guitar on the “George” version of “Suitcase,” whereas on the original version I played all the guitar.
On “Day After Day,” did both he and Pete play slide guitar?
That’s right. Pete and I were in the studio, working out the parts, and George came in and asked if we minded if he played on it. Of course we said, “No, we don’t mind!” I gave him my guitar, and he just went to work on it.
What were your main guitars during those years?
Gibsons, predominantly. I used a “first year” 1963 Firebird that I brought along from The Merseybeats, another Liverpool band that became quite successful. I still have that guitar. I also played an SG Standard. Then, after we had some success, I started to get Les Pauls. I bought a ’53 Les Paul that had been converted to humbuckers, and a ’59 Les Paul Custom, with three pickups. I also bought a ’52 Les Paul Goldtop that was extraordinary. I had the trapeze bridge taken off. It was modified so you could set the action with the Tune-o-matic. I played that guitar for years.
What made you gravitate toward Gibsons?
Gibsons are “broad” guitars, versatile guitars. You can play a Gibson on anything. The first guitar I ever bought was a cherry red Gibson 345 stereo guitar. I was very much into Chuck Berry. My dad signed for me to buy that guitar on credit, and I made the payments. I was 16 years old. My main guitar today is a beautiful R9 Les Paul, a ’59 Custom Shop Reissue, made to the specs of a ’59 Les Paul.
People associate the Badfinger sound with SGs, more than any other guitar.
Oh, yes. Once we got the SGs, we really hung with them. We played them on everything we did for a couple of years. I loved the meatiness of them; I thought they were a lot fatter sounding than other guitars. And they were very comfortable to play. They also look totally cool. Even today, if you plug an SG into an AC-30, you get a sound as good as anything you can find on an electric guitar.
A couple of years after making Straight Up, you worked with John Lennon on the Imagine album. What was that experience like?
It was great. I had never met Lennon. I had seen him around Apple, but I had been too shy to say, “Hello.” He was a lovely guy – forthright and just the way you see him. There was no artifice in John Lennon, no front; he was totally natural. I can still see him singing “Jealous Guy,” with the headphones on. All the Beatles struck me as wonderfully normal guys. And they cultivated that same attitude in the people around them. Eric Clapton is like that. Klaus Voorman and Billy Preston were like that. I got the impression that all the big rock stars who I met through the Beatles shared that characteristic. The guys in the Beatles didn’t like guitar players who were flashy. It was a great experience working with them.
There was a rumor that surfaced, around the time of Straight Up, that it was actually The Beatles who were playing the instruments on the Badfinger recordings. Did that rankle?
[Laughs] No, it didn’t rankle. That passed pretty quickly. It was a great compliment to be compared to them in any way. When people said we sounded like them, singing and playing, we thought, “Well, we must be pretty good.”
Would Ham and Evans be surprised by how vibrant Badfinger’s music is today, how it continues to be played and revered?
I think they would be. We were paranoid in those days. We were forever striving to do something great. We paid close attention to what our peers were doing, to what the bands of our era were doing, and we wanted to be as good as any of them. Today, years later, the music of a lot of those bands hasn’t stood the test of time, but the Badfinger stuff carries on. I think they would be very surprised. I also think they would be very happy.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing shows, and I’ve just finished recording a new album in Memphis, that will probably be coming out in August or September. I’ve just sent out copies to some friends of mine, to get their impressions. I’m going to shop it to labels as soon as it’s mastered properly. The producer for the album, Carl Wise, is steeped in the Memphis music scene. We recorded at Royal Studios, the old Hi Records studio, where Willie Mitchell pioneered his soul sound. The album has a distinct R&B flavor. Nothing has changed much. I don’t make as much money as I once did, and I don’t do as many gigs, but everything else is the same.