Back to where they once belonged

It was one of the great lost rock albums. Now, 25 years after its recording at Apple Studios, Badfinger's Head First has been released. So has it been worth the wait?

Mariah Carey ought to be pretty grateful to Mal Evans. Originally a bouncer at the Cavern, Evans became one of the Beatles' dependable lieutenants. He drove the band up and down the country, helped to forge Beatle signatures on publicity photos and, in the studio, provided ad hoc percussion on tracks such as "Dear Prudence" and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer". Not that any of that will matter much to Mariah. For Carey, and indeed all of us, Mal Evans's greatest contribution to pop was discovering the Iveys. The Iveys became Badfinger, and Badfinger, you see, gave the world "Without You", Carey's biggest hit - and, of course, a Grammy award-winner for Harry Nilsson a couple of decades earlier.

Mariah Carey ought to be pretty grateful to Mal Evans. Originally a bouncer at the Cavern, Evans became one of the Beatles' dependable lieutenants. He drove the band up and down the country, helped to forge Beatle signatures on publicity photos and, in the studio, provided ad hoc percussion on tracks such as "Dear Prudence" and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer". Not that any of that will matter much to Mariah. For Carey, and indeed all of us, Mal Evans's greatest contribution to pop was discovering the Iveys. The Iveys became Badfinger, and Badfinger, you see, gave the world "Without You", Carey's biggest hit - and, of course, a Grammy award-winner for Harry Nilsson a couple of decades earlier.

The four-piece Badfinger were one of the finest English bands of the early Seventies. At times more Beatles than the Beatles, their principal songwriters, Pete Ham and Tom Evans, had a rare gift. Ham and Evans's songs are as lonely as Eleanor Rigby, as troubled as, well, Maxwell Edison and his silver hammer. And, as sure as life imitates art, Badfinger's own story has more than its share of melancholy; it is perhaps the saddest in rock history. In five short years, Badfinger suffered label rejection, withdrawn albums, management misdemeanours, litigation, even suicide. But remarkably, they now have a new album out. It's called Head First and it's rather wonderful. The thing is, this album was recorded 25 years ago. So why has Badfinger's final recording taken so long to appear?

Let me take you down. Mal Evans had already seen the Iveys play live when, in the summer of 1968, he persuaded them to send a demo of their melodic pop-rock to Paul McCartney. Macca liked what he heard, signed them to Apple and changed their name to Badfinger - the original name sounded "too nice". With full Beatles backing, their first release was the McCartney composition "Come and Get It", a bouncy piece of bubble-gum that chewed its way up the charts in early 1970. Toughening up their sound, they produced a quartet of excellent albums, including the classics No Dice - which features "Without You" as well as the hit single "No Matter What" - and the George-Harrison-and-Todd-Rundgren-produced Straight Up. But by late 1973 Apple had become little more than a house label for solo Beatle projects. After a valedictory single, the touching "Apple of My Eye", perhaps the only love song about a record label, their contract expired. Badfinger was a band on the run.

Pete Ham was keen to renegotiate with Apple. Their manager, Stan Polley, had other ideas. In 1974 he set up an astonishing $3m deal with Warner Bros, assuring the boys, "You're all millionaires!" In return Polley demanded two albums a year and 50 per cent of all income. Unconvinced, the band signed. "Pete was a sensitive guy and perhaps he trusted people too readily," says the keyboard-player Bob Jackson, who joined the band shortly after the move. The band's doubts proved well founded. "After we signed, and recorded an album, it emerged that a publishing advance of something like $163,000 was missing from the escrow account Warners had set up," Jackson explains. Warners withdrew the album and sued Badfinger's management for recovery of the money.

Polley's response was to urge the band back into the studio. " Head First was recorded at the Apple studios in Savile Row in just 11 days," says Jackson. "But when we delivered, Warners refused to release it or even pay the advance due on it. Clearly they wanted out." The mounting pressure was taking its toll on Ham. "There had been some tension in the group over the withdrawn album and relations with Polley," says Jackson. "Pete left the band and then rejoined, but he felt trapped and unable to move on."

On the evening of 23 April 1975, just weeks after laying down the tracks for Head First, Ham bid Tom Evans goodnight with the words: "Don't worry; I know a way out." The following morning his body was discovered hanging behind the garage door. "Pete had money problems of his own, but I'm sure that the management difficulties contributed. I really don't think he would have done that otherwise," says Jackson, quietly.

With the loss of Pete Ham, Badfinger called it a day. But the curse would not lift. Eight years later, still haunted by Ham's death, his writing partner Tom Evans also committed suicide. Listening to "Without You", even Mariah Carey's overblown version, there's an almost unbearable poignancy to the chorus of Ham and Evans's best-known song.

That was almost the end. Almost, but not quite. Over the years, the still-unreleased Head First acquired a reputation as one of the great lost rock albums. Jackson has been determined to see it released. "It's already been bootlegged at least three times to my knowledge," he says.

There was one drawback: despite repeated requests over the years, Warners claimed the master tapes were missing. In the end, Jackson dug out his copies of the rough studio mixes. "Warners had no rights over these, as they had never paid for them," he says. "We did some detective work a couple of years ago and concluded that no one owned them." After a false start with an American company, Jackson hooked up with the British reissue label Snapper, which, using Jackson's tapes, has finally given the long-lost album the attention it deserves.

Bearing in mind the conditions under which it was recorded, Head First has a remarkably rounded feel. It comes with a bonus CD of demos and out-takes, a sort of Badfinger anthology, which also reveals some hidden treasures, such as the tear-stained "To Say Goodbye". Bob Jackson is clearly chuffed that the package is seeing the light of day after so long. "Snapper have done a great job," he says. "The rough mixes sound just as good as the tapes Warners lost." It seems appropriate that Badfinger's final album should have been recorded at Apple, thus renewing the association with their early champions. Were Badfinger still the apple of their eye, I wondered. It seems not. "We had no contact at all with McCartney or the Beatles after we left the label," says Jackson. Still, it's a nice detail. Like coming home.

A quarter of a century on, Badfinger sound surprisingly fresh, and the release of Head First is bound to fuel interest in the quintessential pre-Britpop band. I can even see one of those tribute albums in the offing. I'm sure Richard Ashcroft or Supergrass would be proud to have their name on tracks such as "Lay Me Down" or the moody "Turn Around". Somehow, I can't see Mariah Carey bothering, though.

'Head First' is released on Snapper Music on Monday

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