Pete Ham's "Misunderstood": Inside the final, unreleased recordings of Badfinger's tragic frontman

This new digital album offers an unprecedented window into the Badfinger songwriter's last months

By Kenneth Womack

Contributing Writer

Published May 20, 2023 2:59PM (EDT)

Photo of Badfinger and Pete Ham performing on stage (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images)
Photo of Badfinger and Pete Ham performing on stage (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images)

When it comes to rock 'n' roll tragedies, the list is fairly macabre, a sad roster of unmet potential and early death. Plenty of talented musicians fit the bill — as the so-called "27 Club," Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison comprise the genre's most notorious triumvirate. The sheer amount of loss can be downright stultifying at times. Take the plane crash that claimed most of Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1977. Or worst of all: the terrible winter's night in December 1980 when John Lennon was felled by an assassin.

While it may not enjoy the same level of infamy, Badfinger's tragic end makes for one of rock's truly heartbreaking stories. A promising beginning as the Apple Records heir-apparent to the Beatles resulted in a spate of hit singles, including "Come and Get It," "No Matter What," "Baby Blue" and "Day after Day." But by the mid-1970s, the group's forward momentum had been stalled by a series of unsavory business deals. The royalties from "Without You," composed by Pete Ham and Tom Evans, Badfinger's uber-talented songwriting duo, were stalled in red tape after scoring an international hit in the hands of Harry Nilsson.

Things went from bad to worse, thanks to manager Stan Polley, who had wrested complete control over the group's finances and absconded with the lucrative advance from their most recent recording contract, leaving the band members essentially penniless. Having grown despondent about his ability to earn a livelihood, Pete died by suicide, hanging himself (at age 27, no less) on April 24, 1975. In a note, he wrote, "I will not be allowed to love and trust everybody. This is better, Pete. PS: Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me." And incredibly, the tragedy didn't end there. Evans would do the same in 1983, still smarting from Ham's loss and despondent over Badfinger's awful fate.

Thanks to "Misunderstood," a digital album's worth of Ham's unreleased recordings, we enjoy an unprecedented window into the singer-songwriter's last months, when he attempted to create new work, and, hope against hope, to keep his demons at bay. The LP was compiled and produced by Dan Matovina, Ham and Evans's rights manager and the author of the superb biography, "Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger."

Matovina's painstaking efforts to capture Ham's swan song have come up trumps, affording listeners with a new take on the songwriter's last days. "The interesting thing with the music," Matovina recently explained to me, "is that he had never stopped with his ability to craft a strong melody, to create something catchy and melodic. While there are morose lyrics in many songs, as you might expect, there are also upbeat songs about his new girlfriend and protecting the environment."

With the original demo for "Ringside," the album's first track, Ham offers many of his broadest lyrical hints about the quandary unfolding in his mind. In such moments, Matovina points out, "Pete's raw lyrics show that he's clearly upset, that he's letting go. He's no longer holding back any emotions."

Listen to "Ringside" (Original Demo):

The same could be said for "It Doesn't Really Matter." Deceptively upbeat—and with a British Invasion flavor, to boot—the composition finds Ham having reached a state of resolution. Clearly, his worst, most fatalistic instincts about his prospects for the future are coming true.

Listen to "It Doesn't Really Matter":

In Matovina's highly capable hands, "Misunderstood" comes vividly to life as a tender, loving epitaph to one of the towering songwriters of his day. From one standout composition to another, the LP reminds us of Ham's signal place at the heart of Badfinger, a band whose story will always be "what might have been."

If you are in crisis, please call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

By Kenneth Womack

Kenneth Womack is the author of a two-volume biography of the life and work of Beatles producer George Martin and the host of "Everything Fab Four," a podcast about the Beatles distributed by Salon. He is also the author of "Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles," published in 2019 in celebration of the album’s 50th anniversary, "John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life" and the authorized biography "Living the Beatles Legend: The Untold Story of Mal Evans" (November 2023).  Womack is Professor of English and Popular Music at Monmouth University.

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Badfinger Misunderstood Music Pete Ham