By Richie Unterberger

When Badfinger assembled to record Wish You Were Here in April 1974, business pressures were accumulating that would not only accelerate the group's commercial demise, but also help ensure that their best-known lineup's days were numbered. Although they'd made their initial mark upon the rock world with singles and albums on the Beatles' Apple label—with considerable encouragement and production input from the Beatles themselves—as their Apple contract neared its end, they'd struck a deal with Warner Brothers. However, their last Apple LP, Ass, ended up being released just three months before their first Warner Brothers album, Badfinger (also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music), came out in February 1974.

    Both records ended up suffering commercially, yet in early April 1974, the band were already going into the studio to record a follow-up. They had to; the Warner Brothers deal specified six albums within three years, a ridiculously prolific schedule by twenty-first century standards, but a pace that was still not unknown even in the mid-1970s. Nor was there much downtime granted in their hectic schedule, the band having just completed their sixth American tour in three-and-a-half years. (A tape of one of those shows, on March 4, 1974 in Cleveland, was eventually issued on CD, with additional recording and post-production work, in 1990 as Day After Day: Badfinger Live, though apparently it wasn't seriously considered for official release at the time.)

    As producer, Badfinger retained Chris Thomas, who'd already produced their previous two albums; Thomas had also worked with the Beatles on The White Album and produced Procol Harum, and went on to help mix Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and produce the Sex Pistols, Roxy Music, and the Pretenders. For this project, however, Badfinger began the sessions not in London, their usual recording base, but on Caribou Ranch in Colorado, about 60 miles from Denver. The new recording studio, where Joe Walsh's 1973 hit "Rocky Mountain Way" had recently been cut, was co-owned by James William Guercio, then fresh off production successes with Chicago (whom he also managed) and Blood, Sweat & Tears.

    "I remember the first night I got there we all met and I was wondering how they were," recalled Thomas in Dan Matovina's book Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger. "I asked them, 'Are you really ready to make a new record? Do you have enough material?' They were bringing up problems; they hadn't had a chance to write any songs, they were upset about the tour, their manager. They felt the reason they were in the studio so soon was so the advance could get picked up. Then it was brought up that nobody wanted it to end up like the last album. So I said, 'Look, the way out of all of this is—let's just make a great album, the best you've ever done!' Sure, everybody wants that, but I thought we should make a very conscious effort to succeed. It was a pep talk."

    In early May, Badfinger finished the portion of Wish You Were Here recorded at Caribou Ranch, completing the album with Thomas at AIR Studios in London. While the result was, like all of their previous recordings, reminiscent of the Beatles in its varied pop-rock melodies, layered guitars, and vocal harmonies, there were some differences in the production, particularly on tracks with orchestral arrangements by Anne Odell (who was responsible for the dramatic instrumental section that opens "In the Meantime"). A couple others had contributions from the horn section of the Average White Band, credited on the LP sleeve as "Average White Horns." As on Badfinger, the songwriting and vocals were spread among all four members, though guitarists Pete Ham and Joey Molland (with four songs apiece) were most heavily represented, while bassist Tom Evans penned just one, "King of the Load."

    "The atmosphere as far as recording the Wish You Were Here and stuff, it was really pretty good," said Molland in the Gary Katz-directed documentary Badfinger. "I thought we were writing as good as we'd ever written. Wish You Were Here, a lot of people say, is the best record the band ever made." But despite the good vibes in the music, not all was well within the band. Upset by the group's increasingly serious business and management problems, Evans had briefly quit during the Caribou Ranch sessions, drummer Mike Gibbins recalling in Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger that "he couldn't write or play. He was useless. He wasn't around half the time. We'd be doing backing tracks with no bass." Then in August, Ham quit briefly, replaced by keyboardist Bob Jackson, though Pete came back a month later, the band doing a British tour as a quintet. And Molland, himself unhappy with the group's management/business situation, quit on November 4, 1974, the month after Wish You Were Here was released in the US.

    Critical reaction to the record was positive, however, and the band (minus Molland, and with Jackson) wasted no time starting work on a new album in November (the material, though unissued by Warners in the mid-1970s, was eventually released in 2000 as Head First). Bud Scoppa praised Wish You Were Here fervently in his Rolling Stone review, enthusing, "At last, they've made an album (their sixth in five years) that derives a general style from what the band constructed on [their hit] singles: the captivating melodies, melancholy vocals and big bell-like rhythm guitars outlining a stirring, full-bodied sound...Wish You Were Here is loaded with songs that are both catchy and electric. Strategically placed horns (by the Average White Band's sax duo) and strings enlarge the guitar chordings to symphonic proportions, giving this record a creative fullness and making it a wonderful album to play right through." Concluded Scoppa, "Badfinger has been in the shadow of the Beatles so completely and for so long that the idea of the group as an autonomous unit takes some getting used to, even now. But—lyrical slightness aside—they've always been a joy to listen to for their compositional and arranging invention and for their vocal attractiveness. Wish You Were Here, their most fully formed album, makes it clear that Badfinger—despite never having won a substantial audience for themselves—have lost none of their unity or their determination. And they're still one of the best singles bands in the business."

    As an early warning sign that all might not be right with their relationship with their record label, however, no single from the LP was issued in the US or UK, though Ham's "Know One Knows" [sic] would have made an obviously commercial one (and was released as a 45 in Japan). Yet much worse was to come, when Warner Brothers pulled the album from distribution in early 1975 after its publishing division initiated a lawsuit against Badfinger Enterprises due to $100,000 having been taken from an escrow account. "Wish You Were Here—it was like, Wish You Were Where?," observed Gibbins in the Badfinger documentary. "They pulled it off the shelf. As soon as it was done...I can't believe they did that, you know? They should have at least made some money off of it."

    The record had already risen to #148 in the charts without a single, tour, or much promotion, and according to Molland in the Badfinger documentary, "I know it was selling...until [business manager Stan] Polley took the money from the escrow account. Unbelievable. He emptied a Warner Brothers escrow account, and Warners pulled the record from the stores immediately and sued Badfinger. We lost everything. Killed the record dead, and I think that was a major disappointment to Pete, 'cause he'd done some terrific numbers on that record, terrific songs. 'Dennis' was brilliant, 'Meanwhile Back in the Ranch' was really, really on top form. All of his songs on that record are really pretty strong. We put a lot of our own money into the record, a lot of time, effort...the record was killed, I left the band. I guess he had a song on the next record called 'Keep Believin',' which was a song for me, Tommy and Mike and everybody told me later."

    And much, much worse was to come months later, when Pete Ham, despondent over the band's financial problems, hanged himself in his garage on April 23, 1975. Wish You Were Here would not only be the last Badfinger LP on Warner Brothers, the label for which they'd so hopefully and recently signed a six-album deal. It was the last Badfinger album to feature Ham, Evans, Molland, and Gibbins—the quartet who'd recorded the bulk of the group's output, and the one that will be remembered as Badfinger's best and most creative lineup. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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