Badfinger was the first band to be signed to The Beatles’ Apple label and notable for eventually taking their departure from Apple to sign with Warner Bros. Aside from a number of hit songs, they are often remembered for the terrible experiences they suffered in the music industry at the hands of their manager, who appropriated almost all of their funds and created a legal struggle with Warner Bros. that led to the label dropping them at the height of their success. Subsequent tragedies followed, including the suicides of lead singer and songwriter Peter Ham soon after, and songwriter and bassist Thomas Evans some years later.
It’s hard to listen to their amazing, versatile, and musically challenging work without hearing echoes of the immense difficulties that they encountered, but it’s an even bigger shame if their work is not celebrated and remembered. Some of their financial horrors were finally resolved decades later and the band is survived by active member Joey Molland who is still creating and releasing excellent music. Singer/songwriter Bob Gentry previously joined us for the first part of our Badfinger-focused “Great Songwriting” series, where we talked about this harrowing history, but found a lot of magnificence in the music that Badfinger created. Now, Gentry is back to wrap up our reconsideration of Badfinger by discussing his favorite Badfinger song, “Take It All”, from their 1971 album, Straight Up, and why the intense experiences that the song suggests resonate so much with him as a musician and a person.
Hannah Means-Shannon: After releasing songs like “No Matter What”, that’s when Paul McCartney got more involved in helping them out, and George Harrison, and some people think that’s when they became more commercial sounding and that enabled them to succeed in America.
BG: I’m not sure about that. I listen to a song, commercial or not, and I listen to the melody and the lyrics. I figure out, sonically, what things are, and Badfinger just hits all the right buttons for me. It’s not the Beatles, but it’s the same genre of stuff that I like.
HMS: Do you, as a listener, respond differently to hearing songs that have been laid down in a basic way versus hearing songs that have had more production put in? These later albums, like Straight Up, did have more production, so maybe that’s what people mean by “commercial sound”.
BG: Even with the production, I can still hear the songs. I guess there have been occasions where production can make or break, but not with this band. If the song is there, it’s there, even if it’s on a four-track recording.
HMS: If you had a chance to listen to an original demo version of one of these Badfinger songs versus a fully produced version, would you want to do it?
BG: Oh yeah! I would listen to a pre-recording. I’m fascinated by those.
HMS: Is it interesting to you, as a songwriter, to hear the rougher versions of things and see how the songs develop?
BG: Definitely. When I was going through my massive Beatles phase, I think I listened to about twenty different versions of “Strawberry Fields”. There are a million different versions of it, and they couldn’t figure out which they liked, so they finally came up with a final version by putting them all together. I’m interested from a production point of view to see what can be done to songs or what has been done. Badfinger had some good production, but I don’t think they are overly produced. To me it seems clean.
HMS: Yes, I don’t think it takes the life out of the songs as well. But it might have brought their sound a little more up-to-date which could’ve helped. How do you feel about them singing the Paul McCartney song, “Come and Get It”?
BG: It’s not my favorite song of theirs. I get why people like it. When it’s on, I don’t stop and listen. But if “Take It All” or “Day After Day” come on, I stop and take it in, or “Baby Blue”.
HMS: Do you think that you like sad songs? Is that part of this?
BG: I do!
HMS: I guess I do, too, but what I really respect about Badfinger’s sad songs is their honesty. A lot of their relationship songs are about suffering, and there’s always a twist to them that I haven’t seen anywhere else. They have some darkness to them.
BG: I do like sad songs. I don’t necessarily want a song to make me sad. But it’s like the story of an artist or painter who cuts his ear off and then paints it. I don’t want to hear someone’s pain, I’m not saying that I enjoy that, but there’s a comfort in knowing that someone has felt some of the things I have felt. I relate some of my own stuff to some of the lyrics in some of these songs, but that’s true with anyone. I can gravitate towards the more sappy stuff, too. I like the fun stuff.
HMS: These guys pull it off. They can get away with sappy. Do you feel like you can hear in these songs that they are expressing their experiences as artists as much as their experience as human beings?
BG: Knowing their story, now that I listen to them, I wonder, “What were they thinking at the time? When was this happening?” Was “Take It All” happening while they were at Apple, and they were saying, “Screw It?” Lyrically, the guy is saying, “In a way, the sun has shone on me”, which is,“Listen, this is amazing, but in a way, you’re taking everything, so I don’t want it. Screw it!” That’s what I get from this song. I’ve felt that way myself on certain occasions. You’re baring your soul out there, and people just keep taking and taking. I don’t think “Take It All” was a huge hit, but it’s my favorite Badfinger song.
HMS: Musically, it’s really there and could have been a hit. The construction is amazing. The vocal choices are remarkable.
BG: It’s powerful. When he belts out “Makes it easy”, it’s just so good.
HMS: Did you always interpreted this song along the lines of, “Life may have these glamorous aspects, but that’s just not worth it”?
BG: I listen to it as from the perspective of someone who feels they have been defeated. They are exhausted and saying, “Here it is.” That’s my take on it. Was Peter Ham talking to Paul McCartney or Apple? I don’t know. Maybe the best part of it is wondering and that you and I are here talking about it.
HMS: I think there’s at least two major directions for interpretation in the song and I feel like the song seems to go in both and means both equally. To me that’s amazing. To be able to construct a song that does that is astonishing. About half-way through the song, it changes a bit, and then it starts to use the word “you” a lot. It kind of flips around.
BG: I know on some of their songs, they collaborated, so maybe different members contributed to the song. Is it attributed to Pete Ham?
HMS: I believe so. And, of course, different members are credited with writing different songs on their album, but I don’t know the extent to which everyone worked on everything.
BG: I know that Tommy [Evans] and Pete were the main songwriters, but I don’t know how they wrote together. I really want to know that, but I also want to know how the financial stuff was settled because I don’t want to buy things these days if the money is going to the wrong people.
HMS: Yes, me too. It’s pretty far out of my wheelhouse to talk about business stuff, but I know there were different ways in which matters were settled. There was a time when Badfinger’s agreement with Warner Bros. was cancelled out. I believe it was after Peter Ham’s death. Then there was a kind of forensic follow-up to try to deal with the loose threads. It took stupidly long. It was decades before their manager, Stan Polley, was properly sued by Warner Bros. and was held accountable for all that money that he took. Then he was obliged to give some of it back, but it wasn’t enough. It was not all of it by any means. Then, he continued to live for a long time in California and got to live his life out.
BG: It’s so slimy, it’s awful.
HMS: But I believe the rights went back to some of the musicians. I believe the reissues have benefitted the owners.
BG: It’s all in the publishing. But I don’t hear their songs placed much in film and television.
HMS: That’s true with a couple of exceptions. “Baby Blue” was played during the finale of Breaking Bad and it brought some renewed attention to the band after that aired. It had also previously been used in the film, The Departed.
BG: I hope at least some relatives are getting money out of that, because in music that’s where the big bucks come from. If you get a song placed in a TV show, and whoever writes the song gets paid every time it airs. I had a song placed in a TV show in 2006, they used twenty seconds, and they are still paying me. I can’t imagine having a catalog like Badfinger’s, so I hope someone is doing placements. They are like the Beatles.
HMS: This is pretty heavy stuff, but we knew that going in, deciding to talk about Badfinger. But I really like Joey Molland’s most recent album, Be True To Yourself. Knowing the context of the band actually helps when I listen to his latest work. It shows how he has dealt with the stuff that he’s been through. The fact that he can say things about holding onto hope and beauty and things like that moves me because I know the darkness that he’s been in. He does some great songwriting. He actually did some crowdfunding to finish that album and get all the studio time and many musicians needed, and it worked out.
BG: He’s the last surviving member now, right? That’s great to hear things from his perspective. More generally, though, unfortunately, it’s the music industry. But it’s not just the music industry, it’s everything in entertainment. There are similar things in many lines of work. It’s sad, though. I do relate to being in bands and having things torn apart, though, in the end, I just like their music so much.
HMS: If you don’t mind me asking, what led to your band, Moisture, breaking up?
BG: I don’t mind answering at all. It’s a typical story. I was in the band in Detroit, and I rebuilt it after I came to California. Then, everything happened so fast. We went into a recording studio, made an album, played our CD release party, and a guy at the release party worked at a TV show. He said, “We like you, we want to put you on the show.” He put us on the show, and it was like an A&R record label television show called Farm Club.
After we were on the show, the next day they called us and said they wanted to sign us. We were jumping up and down and it was literally a scene out of a movie where people are shouting, “It’s finally happening!” But we didn’t have a manager or a lawyer even though we had a big record deal. It was a lot of money for us, but we had nothing to support that. The A&R guy referred us to a lawyer and a manager.
By the time we found someone to help the deal go through, we had a bunch of planes hitting buildings in New York. Things just stopped. The world stopped, and by the time things started going back, people started losing their jobs in the music industry. Napster was up. Internally, as a band, we broke up because we were trying to get the deal back and every person who came to watch a showcase would say things like, “We like Bob, but we don’t like the band.”
It was really awful, a horrible thing. I loved the guys I was with. These were my friends. I was put in this position of, “We’ll take Bob if he loses his band.” I fought that for a long time, but kept doing showcases and kept hearing the same thing. I didn’t get it. I found myself getting older and thinking my time was running out. In the back of my head, I tried to justify it.
HMS: That’s a really uncomfortable position to be in.
BG: It was horrible. Eventually, I dissolved the band, but by the time I did, all the people who said they would take me if I lost the band were gone. Karma kind of struck me and to this day I still regret it. I’m still friends with the guys and we still play. But I have a lot of regrets. I listened to a lot of people feeding me lines. In the end, it was all about money, because it was cheaper for them to produce one guy than deal with a whole band.
HMS: Also, they probably thought it was easier to influence one person, in terms of business and creative direction, than a whole band.
BG: Much easier, yes. The band were great players and I miss that. I miss having a group of people that I’m with. Then, when I went solo, I was alone, and I had to learn how to do all those things on my own, which has been tricky and tough. So, I totally get “Take It All”!
HMS: I wasn’t going to hammer home that point, but yes, but this is why you can relate to this song, right?
BG: I’m not saying that’s the only reason, but in my head, that’s definitely a “Yes”.
HMS: Did you write songs differently back then, when you were in a group?
BG: A little. But the songs all started off as these little Folk songs that became big Rock songs. Even when I was in Detroit, with my schoolmates, it was the same kind of thing. I’d play a song like John Denver, but then it became a Punk Rock song.
HMS: That can be challenging in an interesting way, bringing a song from one genre to another.
BG: Some genres are harder than others. If you wanted to take a song that I wrote and turn it into a Country song, that would be really easy. If you wanted to make it a Rock song, you could probably do that easily. Techno I’m not really sure about! As far as a Metal song, who knows? Maybe the subject matter wouldn’t be the same.
HMS: Do you still feel like you have a relationship to the songs you wrote for that band?
BG: Yes, it’s like chapters in my life to me, like a scrapbook. If I listen to the audio, I can tune into what I was doing at the time, what I was feeling, and what was going on. I’m transported right to that moment. It’s like looking at an old photograph rather than listening to it as a song.
HMS: How have you been able to get past your “Take It All” experiences to work in music again, in a mental and emotional sense?
BG: When I was approached to come back into it, I was a little skeptical. I felt like, “I don’t know if I want to do this again. I don’t know if I want to go down this road.” But I’d missed so much. Once I got another taste of it, I said, “Okay, I have missed all this. I feel like I have gotten my identity back. I feel like myself again.” I’m talking about music again, and I wasn’t doing this five years ago. Five years ago, I was talking about what night I was going to go bowling.
HMS: Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But in a way, you had to navigate so many of these past experiences in order to accept a new record deal with Blue Elan.
BG: All I know is that they believe in me enough to record and release albums, and I like them. I like Kirk [Pasich], the owner. This guy is just a fan of music and signs people that he likes. It’s very cool. I’m still pinching myself today. I’m very grateful. I hate to be sappy about it, but I am grateful.
HMS: Do you now see yourself as an independent artist who would continue making music somehow, regardless? Is this return to music something that you’re determined to hold onto?
BG: Great question. Yes, whatever could happen in the future, I’m still going to play. I still want to write, I still want to record, I’m still going to try to perform more. I’m back on the wagon, I’ve realized I missed it, and I’m writing more than ever. I’m still going to keep going. I’m going to be 70 or 80 year old guy still writing songs.
If you’re local to California’s Coachella Valley, also of note is that Bob Gentry has been nominated by the CV Independent as part of their “Best of Coachella Valley Awards” as “Best Local Musician” and voting is now open until October 25th.