College was no different than high school. In the set-off corners of the classrooms, students would discuss what seemed most important. So, if the Beatles won’t get back together, who will be the next Beatles? Someone said the next great thing would come along in ’74. After all, in ’54 Elvis Presley made his first classic recordings. Then in ’64 the Beatles commanded the world’s attention. That means in ’74… Of course, quirky logic often prevails over common sense. The teachers should have instructed the students to pay more attention to the class assignments and be satisfied with the vast body of work already assembled by the Beatles. Then too, the teachers might’ve observed that Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were releasing stellar solo albums. So forget about a Beatles reunion and don’t count on any other act of their equal to come around in your lifetimes. That would’ve been good advice.
In the two-three years that followed the announcement of the Beatles’ break up, there was much great new music happening, and as with what the Beatles created, said new music would matter for decades to come. The Rolling Stones released Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. There were terrific studio and live albums from the Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead. Neil Young was on one of his rolls with After the Gold Rush and Harvest. The pre-Hollywood Rod Stewart was doing great work on his own and with the Faces. The Who came forth with Who’s Next and Quadrophenia. Between October ’72 and July ’73, an interesting new American group, Steely Dan, released two smart and resonant albums, Can’t Buy A Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy. Bob Dylan had slowed his pace but his October ’70 album, New Morning, was a quiet work of beauty that Rolling Stone columnist Ralph J. Gleason called “the best thing new to come over the airwaves and out of the grooves in I don’t know when.” The exuberant Mr. Gleason said he couldn’t find one weak track. So what was all the complaining about? Besides, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass would follow New Morning in less than two months.
But we always want what we can’t have. And we often look when we are guided by wishes instead of wisdom. That led some to Badfinger. And why not Badfinger? Or at least that reflected the feelings of those who believed a band signed to the Beatles’ Apple label could only do great things. The band had already recorded one album as the Iveys, a name totally devoid of hipness, yet with a new handle inspired by the working title* of Lennon-McCartney’s “With A Little Help From My Friends” and a crisp song written by Paul McCartney that would be in The Magic Christian, a film starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, greatness seemed within reach. The McCartney song, “Come and Get It,” worked like a charm for Badfinger, making it to number four in the UK and number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 in America. Magic Christian Music, the album featuring “Come and Get It,” had two other fine songs, “Rock of All Ages” and “Maybe Tomorrow,” but if memory serves, the album wasn’t satisfying enough to make for a complete listen more than a few times. With their next album, it was hoped Badfinger would serve up a more ample supply of songs worthy of the curiosity they generated. They did. Badfinger’s second album, No Dice, was a giant leap forward. No Dice, released in November ’71, just nine months after Magic Christian Music, demanded attention on its own, never mind the Beatles connections.
No Dice certainly caught the attention of Rolling Stone record reviewer Mike Saunders. In the magazine’s December 2, 1970 issue, Saunders wrote that “the whole album adds up as close to the monster Badfinger may well make, in time,” calling it one of the best records of the year. People looking for the next Beatles took heart when he had this to say about Badfinger’s lead singer Pete Ham:
Without doubt, Badfinger’s most noticeable trademark is Pete Ham’s ability to write, sing and even look uncannily like Paul McCartney.
Ham did have that McCartney thing working, just as Eric Carmen of the Raspberries would in the next few years. And there was no doubting the improved quality of Badfinger’s material. No Dice kicked off with a great rocker, “I Can’t Take It,” paving the way for a solid first side which included perhaps their best song ever, “No Matter What” and the original “Without You,” which became a chart-topper for Harry Nilsson in 1972. There were some fantastic moments on No Dice, but Beatlesque or not, the album still didn’t possess that classic sense, particularly on side two. Still, for those who took Saunders’ words of praise to heart, grander things awaited when it was learned George Harrison would produce their next album, Straight Up. Harrison, at the time, the most favored ex-Beatle, would show Badfinger the way.
Harrison’s guidance took Badfinger only so far. Caught up in the organizing and enduring responsibilities with Concert for Bangladesh, Harrison produced only four songs for Straight Up, leaving Todd Rundgren to produce the rest of the tracks as well as handle all the mixing. Rundgren and Badfinger worked very well together, especially so on “Baby Blue,” the second hit single from the album. “Baby Blue” peaked at number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 after “Day After Day,” a track that Harrison not only produced but played slide guitar on, reached number four.
Surprisingly, Straight Up made it to only number 31 on the Billboard pop album chart. Doing no better than that, given the emphasis on album sales in America’s rock scene, was a portent for Badfinger. The group’s moments of brilliance on Straight Up, like those on No Dice, indicated much promise, but Badfinger’s best moments, even at this early stage, were already behind them. The albums released over the next three years, even the critically acclaimed Wish You Were Here, sold poorly. Even worse, Badfinger’s manager, Stan Polley, managed to allow the group’s money to disappear. Badfinger was broke. And tragically, soon they were without Pete Ham, who hanged himself on the morning of April 24, 1975. Eight years later, Tom Evans, who had been with the group since 1967, took his own life in the same manner as Ham.
I’ve Been Waiting … On “All You Wanna Do Is Dance,” a track from his Turnstiles album (1976), Billy Joel mused, “Why don’t the Beatles get back together?” But more than six years after their break up, the idea of a Beatles reunion or the next Beatles was seldom discussed. Elvis Costello, from a period beginning in ’77 and ending in ’83, recorded seven excellent albums which recalled much about the Beatles’s output of the mid ’60s. Yet Costello, consistently brilliant in those years, couldn’t equal the magical essence the Beatles created. However Costello must be given credit; loads of credit. His music, bright, melodic and energetic, along with material by his fellow Englishmen Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds and Graham Parker, brought freshness and clarity back to rock and roll in an age of droning disco, faux country and heavy metal.
More than 4,000 miles from Costello and colleagues was an emerging rock scene in Athens, Georgia. The first act to hit the big time was the B-52s, with their first single, “Rock Lobster,” initially released by Danny Beard on his DB Recs label. Operating out of his Little 5 Points record shop, Wax ‘n’ Facts, in Atlanta, Beard got the singles pressed and sold them at his shop as well as on consignment at the larger stores, including Peaches Records and Tapes. “Rock Lobster” was a local hit that caught the attention of the New Wave scene in New York. The B-52s went on to perform at the New York City clubs, CBGB and Max’s Kansas City and were signed by Warner Brothers Records, which sold millions of B52s albums, none on consignment.
Making the greatest impact by any Athens band was R.E.M., working from a more serious perspective than the B52s. While not embracing the B-52s’ party band approach, R.E.M.’s path to big-time recognition was similar. Jonny Hibbert, a law student and surely Atlanta’s best saxophone player, released the R.E.M. songs, “Radio Free Europe” and “Sitting Still” on 45 in 1981.That was enough to get the band a major label deal and a nationwide following. Emphasizing vibrant melodies and Peter Buck’s jangly guitar chords, R.E.M. could count Big Star, the Byrds, Neil Young and the Velvet Underground as musical influences. They also learned from other Athens bands such as Pylon. DB Recs signed Pylon and other groups in the Athens-Little 5 Points Axis including the Swimming Pool Q’s, the Jody Grind, Right as Rain and Oh-OK. Lauded by critic Robert Christgau and graced with a flair for melodious pop-styled songs, Oh-OK featured Lynda Stipe, sister of R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe on bass and vocals and Matthew Sweet on guitar. Impressing fans and industry insiders as well as critics, Sweet was judged quite a talent, signing a solo deal in 1985.
By the mid-90s, Danny Beard was back to devoting most of his attention to Wax ‘n’ Facts, a store that has remained as unique and down-home as it was when Beard and co-owner Harry Demille opened it in June ’76. Given the large amount of albums being reissued on CDs at the time, weekly trips to Wax ‘n’Facts were in order. When Badfinger’s Straight Up came out on CD, I stopped by to purchase a copy. After discussing whether it was as good or better than No Dice with the staff, I walked around the corner to the whimsically-named Euclid Avenue Yacht Club for a couple of beers. EAYC has long been a welcoming bar for old hippies, bikers, working stiffs, journalists and even politicians. Finding a choice table, I ordered a beer and began perusing a few out-of-town newspapers, deep in thought. However the music on the bar’s CD player sounded familiar but I couldn’t quite place the song. Don “Hippie” Hinamon, owner of EAYC, walked over to say hello and I asked him who was on the CD player. “It’s the guy two chairs down from you, Matthew Sweet.” Doh! Hippie then made the introductions, leaving Sweet and I to start an excitable conversation. He was there – early – for a party to promote his new album, Altered Beast, and yes, that was what I had been hearing. We talked about his previous album, Girlfriend, Lloyd Cole, sneakers and our mutual friend, Danny Beard. Then he noticed my stack of CDs by the newspapers. Sweet asked, “What you got there?’ I handed him the CDs and upon seeing Straight Up, he got excited. “I heard this was coming out; what a great album,” he said, reviewing the song titles. Sweet was barely 7 years-old when Straight Up was first released, but it was an album he would grow to embrace, in part, no doubt, for its Beatlesque qualities. After all, Matthew Sweet could make some Beatlesque sounds himself.
Sweet’s Girlfriend album, released in 1991, was recorded the previous year, just following his divorce. He later told Rolling Stone, “It’s funny how the album ended up showing everything I needed to feel. Everything I needed as an antidote is there.” The album was also an antidote for those lamenting the paucity of Beatlesque melodies and Beatlesque ingenuity at the time. Paul Evans, in his Rolling Stone review of Girlfriend, noted the album’s “sonic gorgeousness of Revolver-period Beatles.” Evans made a good point, given that Revolver, back in ’66, captured so much of where the Beatles had been and where they were going. On Girlfriend, Sweet, vulnerable and tough at the same time, delivered all his findings from the world of romance: the yearning, the celebration, the confusion, the betrayal and the heartache; yet he’s confident it’s worth pursuing again. The exhilerating passion of “I’ve Been Waiting,” the album’s second track, conveys surprise at how great the pursuit can turn out. “I didn’t think I’d find you perfect in so many ways,” Sweet sings with a fresh and youthful vigor. “I’ve Been Waiting,” a joyful rocker, should have been a monster hit in 1991; why it wasn’t blaring from car radios coast to coast is a mystery. Perhaps it would’ve been a hit in the early to mid ’70s, when melodious songs with power chords were favored, as was the case for Badfinger’s “No Matter What” and “Baby Blue.” And, if in ’73 or ’74, had Badfinger released a powerful album like Girlfriend, the rock and roll dreamers waiting for the next Beatles would’ve said, “Maybe this one is it, or at least it comes close.” Their excitement would’ve been like Matthew Sweet’s when he saw my Straight Up CD. Sweet seemed more interested in Straight Up than his own album, the one he was there to promote. Maybe after the promo party, with “Baby Blue” playing in his head, Sweet walked around the corner to Wax ‘n’ Facts to get his own copy.
*Lennon hurt his forefinger on a piano when using only one finger, so the working title for “With A Little Help From My Friends” was “Bad Finger Boogie.”