Sharps and Flats

David Downie, in his book "Enchanted Liguria," describes the cuisine of one of Italy's most fascinating culinary regions.

Published April 26, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

In the early '70s, radio was suffering from Beatles' withdrawal. After announcing their break-up in 1970, John, Paul, George and Ringo began cranking out solo albums of various quality while rock listeners became instantly nostalgic for the Fab Four. Even straight publications such as Life got in on the act, lauding their collaboration as genius, their days as halcyon.

Badfinger arrived at the time of the Beatles' demise, and though they may not have filled the void, the English foursome did offer a paler version of the Beatles' sound that radio audiences found winsome: Between 1970 and '72, "Come and Get It," "No Matter What" and "Day After Day" haunted the top 10. Their sound-alike ascendancy was not coincidental. As the Iveys, they were one of the first bands signed by the Beatles' Apple Records, and it's small wonder that McCartney picked theirs out of the avalanche of demo tapes the label received. Hearing principal singer-songwriter Pete Ham's McCartney-inspired compositions must have made this a no-brainer for Paul, like George Bush picking Dan Quayle out of a line-up of vice-presidential contenders. He knew this kid, he liked his style.

It was McCartney who wrote the band's first hit, "Come and Get It," which appeared on the soundtrack of "The Magic Christian" (a film starring, as luck would have it, Ringo Starr). Soon the newly christened Badfinger was backing the other former Beatles in their solo efforts and reaping the benefits of pop success. At 7 Park Ave. -- the band's residence/rehearsal space/studio -- Badfinger biographer Dan Mantovina reports, "everyone else living in the house would just be waking up and making breakfast, and Pete would pop out of the studio with a new song." This was a familiar rock 'n' roll dream, a scene from a Beatles movie.

Some of the songs Ham composed and recorded in that room are included on "7 Park Avenue," a collection of 18 unreleased solo recordings from the late '60s and early '70s. Some are finished and radio-ready, featuring Ham and a band of non-Badfinger sidemen; others have a workbook quality and feature a double-tracked Ham accompanying himself on vocals and guitar. While some will be familiar to Badfinger fans (a sweetly confident solo version of "No Matter What"; a rave-up variation of "Day After Day" entitled "Matted Spam"), most of the songs collected here rescue Ham from the power-pop bin to which he has been consigned by giving us a glimpse of the singer's more introspective side. "Weep Baby" and "Dear Father" are positively downbeat but filled with pop inflection -- like Nick Drake sitting in with the Hollies -- while in gems like "Hand in Hand," Ham puts on the brave face, beseeching a lover to be strong.

It was strength, apparently, that the singer lacked. Badfinger's financial troubles, part of the legacy of the snake-bit Apple enterprise, were complicated by the band's switch to Warner Bros. in 1974 for a reported $3 million advance. The label immediately accused Badfinger of misappropriating funds and pulled the debut Warner LP from stores. On April 23, 1975, Ham hanged himself at his home in Weybridge, England. He was 27. And while his problems presumably ended there, the band's continued: Surviving members did not see royalties from their Apple days until 1985, after bassist Tom Evans had worked as a pipe fitter and keyboardist Tom Molland installed carpets. Evans tried reviving the outfit before he, too, hanged himself in 1979, setting an odd and unenviable rock 'n' roll precedent.

There are problems with looking for clues to Ham's self-destruction in the sometimes formulaic pop melodies collected on "7 Park Avenue," though it's hard to ignore lines like "I can't face the mirror anymore." The singer may have written his epitaph in "Just Look Inside the Cover." Most of these songs were written at the height of Badfinger's fame, when they were ubiquitous and seemingly anointed. 1971 found them playing house band at George Harrison's Concerts for Bangladesh, backing up such rock royalty as Harrison, Clapton and Dylan. Standing in the shadows onstage at Madison Square Garden, with their fresh faces and shag haircuts, they looked like snapshots of the early Beatles -- kind of like those wax figures on "Sgt. Pepper's" funeral tableau, just a few feet away from the real thing, mournful at the undertaking.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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