Great Songwriting: Bob Gentry On Badfinger’s Legacy And ‘Straight Up’

If you haven’t heard of the band Badfinger, you’re not alone by any means, but there are many excellent reasons to catch up on them and listen to their music. But with that amazing music comes a heavy, tragic backstory alongside a story of sparkling promise and international success, so brace yourself. The broad overview goes like this: Badfinger were the first band to be signed to the Beatles’ Apple label as The Iveys, who later underwent a name change. While they loved making music and being part of Apple, they often struggled to get enough attention for their music, and when they finally did, it came mainly from charts in the USA. In the 70s, when life at a disintegrating Apple became harder, the band finally made a big leap stateside to Warner Bros., leaving their first home behind.

However, an agonizing pattern of criminal mismanagement ensued where their manager ended up with all of their money and caused legal disputes with Warner Bros. that eventually ended the band’s relationship with the label through no clear fault of their own. Soon after, Badfinger’s Peter Ham committed suicide in the midst of destitution, and several years later, the band’s Thomas Evans also committed suicide. Somehow in the midst of all of this struggle and mismanagement, they managed to write, record, and release dozens of hauntingly beautiful and edgy songs that often speak to the realities of the world and hint at the troubles they faced in the music business.

Badfinger is the subject of Wildfire Music + News’ first entry in a “Great Songwriting” series. Singer/Songwriter Bob Gentry is a particularly passionate fan of Badfinger’s legacy and joins us to talk about their work, their music’s impact on his own work (including 2020’s EP Back on the Horse and 2021’s LP Fortune Favors out now from Blue Elan), and how he processes such a sad story while continuing to appreciate Badfinger’s unique genius. You’ll find the first half of our discussion below, particularly focusing on the Badfinger album Straight Up.

Bob Gentry: What did you have in mind with talking about Badfinger? As I said online, meeting someone who can talk Badfinger is like being in another country and finding someone else who speaks English. It’s like, “Oh my god!” Most people don’t know who they are.

HMS: I had a few goals. As I said to you before, I also have never managed to have a conversation about Badfinger with anyone. But it’s also a good way to talk about songwriting and think about that. Hopefully, this will find more fandom out there who wants to hear about Badfinger, but if people read this who don’t know about Badfinger, it might get them interested, which would be great.

BG: You know it’s such a crazy story, and a tragic one.

HMS: Knowing how tragic the story is, how do you approach that and still hear the music as it is? Do you have to kind of push through that to hear the music, or do you just sidestep it?

BG: I have experienced it a couple of different ways, because when I first heard their music, I didn’t even know the story. When first hearing the songs, I related to them to my life, and thought, “This is great. I love the songs “Take It All”, and “Day After Day”. Then, later, hearing all the stuff about what the bands went through, being screwed over by managers, and not getting money ever, then the two guys killing themselves, it put a whole new level on these lyrics. It just opened it up for me. I’m not even sure if, in their lyrics, they are writing about their then current situation, or if they had other things going on, but I read my own stuff into it.

HMS: To start with, there’s the first wave of experiences that they went through for years where, I think, they were dissatisfied with their experience on the Beatles’ Apple label. I’m sure they weren’t always unhappy, but I’m surprised to find these really worldly-wise, slightly darker lyrics, even in their earlier stuff. I think that they started commented on the music industry early on and kept on with it over time.

BG: Back when they were the Iveys?

HMS: Yes, I think even then.

BG: It’s hard to process because I’m such a Beatles fan as it is, and it’s hard to know what would make someone want to get away from Apple as they eventually did. Was it money? Did someone promise them more if they went to Warners?

HMS: I’m not an expert, but to answer that a little, it seems like ever since they started working with Apple, pretty soon they felt that they were not getting promoted or helped along enough. Because Apple was chaotic, though it was a happy chaos. Eventually, they complained enough that Paul McCartney got more involved and helped them a bit. As to why they left Apple, I think they found it a grind to self-promote because everyone was distracted, and of course the Beatles broke up during that time, but the real clear consensus is that the changes brought in by the new management of Allen Klein drove them out. Klein was cutting the overblown expenditure which Apple was guilty of. But no one wants to be scaled back on deals they’ve already made, so that contributed their move to Warner Bros.

BG: It’s good to be educated on this stuff because this all happened around the time I was born, but this is my music. I love this stuff. I gravitate towards this.

HMS: Do you have any thoughts on why you like older music in that way? Did you have a period when you were younger when you thought all that was hokey, then didn’t later?

BG: No, I don’t know why. I think I got hooked on the Beatles first. I think everyone does when they are young, really, or at least I did. Then, when I heard Badfinger, it was kind of in a similar vein, and I thought, “Oh, it’s like more of this, but it’s different. It’s not the same, but I still like it. As far as why I like the 60s and 70s music, maybe it’s a nostalgic feeling. I don’t want to say that it’s better than today’s music, because that’s not fair to today’s musicians, but when I listen to it, I just connect with it, lyrically, sonically. It just feels more like it speaks to me. I don’t know if it’s just the way things are recorded. The production back then might be part of it.

HMS: I like that aspect too.

BG: We grew up with LPs, though I don’t have an LP player anymore, I need one. I saw you have one and I’m jealous.

HMS: Yes, it’s a dangerous road. I held off on buying records again for a long time, and I should really limit myself. The thing is, sometimes you can find the first releases for ten bucks, so it has that historical value, too. You can read the liner notes.

BG: There’s also the smell of an LP, and the vinyl. It’s like an old library book. It’s just got history. I miss that. I miss LPs, but hell, I miss CDs. But with Badfinger, I get being disenchanted with the music industry, but I can’t imagine what these guys went through with being such huge successes and not having a penny. It’s ridiculous.

HMS: It is. I think, for me, there’s having the apocalyptic experiences with the music industry which they had, and that’s one thing, but then there’s the depressing aspects of the suicides part of it which is often too heavy for me to think much about. I definitely try not to think about that stuff when I hear Peter Ham sing.

BG: You can hear it in the music though.

HMS: There’s a realism, an angle, and perspective to a lot of their lyrics that seems to say that they know all the darker stuff that goes on in the world. Some of their lyrics are still very uplifting. Some of it just tells it like it is. It seems like if you wanted to make a hit back then in the later 60s, you could make a choice to be bubbly and cute, and that’s not what they did.

BG: Yes, they weren’t The Archies! I like The Archies, but they didn’t do that. The songwriting is certainly there and the songs still last even today. I was listening to “Take It All”, again recently and it’s just so good. I don’t hear that today. I’d like to hear it today. I’d like to create that.

HMS: I think there’s a directness to the compositions, to the lyrics, and to the way they are delivered that just cuts through things. It just cuts right through things. Did you listen to the songs or albums in order originally?

BG: No, I didn’t know the chronology of the albums or anything. Even now I have to look to see what album things are on.

HMS: I first became aware of Badfinger because of their connections to George Harrison and his help with their music, as well as their performance at the Concert for Bangladesh, so I listened to that album first, but I looked up several songs of theirs recently and found that many of my favorites were actually from the album Straight Up.

BG: Yes, Straight Up is great. That’s the one that George Harrison and Todd Rundgren worked on.

HMS: It is. That is the one that gets the most critical acclaim these days and is considered the start of Power Pop.

BG: That one has my top three Badfinger songs, “Baby Blue”, “Day After Day”, and “Take It All”. I like the other songs, like “Apple of My Eye” from Ass, which is a great song, but those are my three.

HMS: A couple of other songs on Straight Up are considered hits, “It’s Over” and “Sweet Tuesday Morning”, which is simple and Folky, but interesting. I find it kind of mystifying to see what was a hit then and what wasn’t because all their music seems of similar quality to me. It must have had to do with timing and promotion, too.

BG: I’ve searched through a lot of Youtube stuff, actual videos, to try to find stuff that’s out there. I know they did regular shows and TV shows, but there’s not a lot. I want more. I’ve seen the same videos of “Day After Day”, but I would really like to see some other stuff. So I’m not sure how much TV promotion they had. I know they were a success in concert.

HMS: To go back in time for a minute, are you familiar with their song “No Matter What”? It was one of their first hits. It was on No Dice and was released in 1970. It hit big in the USA, but not in the UK. I feel like you do get a sense of the band in that song. It’s a love song and has a late 60s feel. I don’t think I’ve heard a song from that period that is kind of radical in its approach to a love song. The line that keeps repeating is, “No matter what you are, I will always be with you.”

BG: It’s a great line and a great song. I love the guitar sound on that, too. It’s so distinct. When I hear that song, I actually think of the band as being happy. Maybe they were in a good zone at that time. I don’t hear the depression that I hear in some of the other stuff. It’s a good-feeling song and it’s definitely a good song.

HMS: The late 60s line for the win is “Knock down the old grey wall/Be a part of it all.” That’s very counter-culture.

BG: And it was a huge hit, and they still play it. But it broke them into the US, but not the UK? I wonder why?

HMS: This is a huge subject of debate. I don’t think there’s a consensus on why that happened, but there was an ongoing problem for them of their music charting in the US but not the UK. The explanation that some Brits offer is that the press was not on their side and compared them to knock offs of the Beatles too much. They were possibly considered old-fashioned at the time, because things were breaking into that edgier Rolling Stones-Rock style. They were well-behaved and nice guys.

BG: They were like The Carpenters of their generation? [Laughs] Is it like people were thinking, “Oh man, we’re listening to John Denver? Is that what this is?” Though I love John Denver.

HMS: Maybe. They were themselves in a very honest way at a time when other people were creating bad boy personas and they just weren’t elbowing their way to the front of the line in the same way.

BG: When I hear the stuff, I actually think of the late 60s, but it was actually 70s, really.

HMS: Covering songs played a big part in the Badfinger story, too. They got famous with Paul McCartney’s song, “Come and Get It” and other people made some of their songs more famous in turn. As a songwriter, what do you think about a situation in which other people might perform your songs? Is that one of your goals as a songwriter?

BG: I would welcome that a million percent. I would love that. I would definitely be all for that. People have done it before, and I like it. It’s always interesting to see someone else doing your songs. I worked with another songwriter a long time ago who was really well known, Rod McKuen. He wrote “Seasons in the Sun” which Terry Jacks made big. He told me stories about how Terry put an extra verse in it, and it made him so mad. But the song made the guy enough to get 13 bathrooms in Beverly Hills and a mansion, so it was a double-edged sword. He loved the fact that the guy covered the song and made it a huge hit, but he hated the fact that there was an extra verse in it.

Personally, though, I would love it. I like to hear someone else sing the song. I never really thought of myself as the greatest singer, the greatest piano player, the greatest guitar player, but I think I could write a good song. I just want to write.

HMS: You obviously put a lot of attention into the composition and layering of the songs you’ve done with Blue Elan, so it’s not as if you’re making a version just to put it out there.

BG: Well, when it comes to Badfinger and the song “Without You”, look how many times that was recorded. Harry Nilsson made it really big, and then you had Mariah Carey’s version, which I’m not a huge fan of, but I still like the song.

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