Takes from the Top: Badfinger’s ‘No Dice’

The accents were Liverpudlian, the songs were convincingly Fab. By the time sessions for 1970’s “No Dice” were complete, Badfinger - guitarist Pete Ham, bassist Tom Evans, lead guitarist Joey Molland and drummer Mike Gibbins - was beginning to look and sound very much like the Beatles’ hand-picked heir apparent.

Posted in Songwriter 101 on November 12, 2009

While attempting to salvage what they could of their various business interests, in mid-1969 the disintegrating Beatles focused on one of their brightest prospects: Apple recording artists the Iveys, whose single “Maybe Tomorrow” had dented the charts months earlier. Re-christened Badfinger (from “Bad Finger Boogie,” the original title of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends”), the group proceeded to cut the Paul McCartney-penned “Come and Get It,” with McCartney himself manning the controls. The song bolted into the Top 10 - and Badfinger was off.

By May 1970, Badfinger was back in EMI’s Studio Two, set to record a debut album for Apple. Inside EMI’s control room were a pair of familiar faces: Geoff Emerick, chief engineer for the Beatles since 1966; and longtime Fab Four road manager Mal Evans, who would serve as co-producer with Emerick. By the time sessions for No Dice were complete, Badfinger - guitarist Pete Ham, bassist Tom Evans, lead guitarist Joey Molland and drummer Mike Gibbins - was beginning to look and sound very much like the Beatles’ hand-picked heir apparent.

“We were much too excited to be making our own record to think about who else had recorded there,” remembers Molland, “but once in a while those kind of thoughts would creep in. But the vibes in that room were just fantastic. Knowing all the things that Geoff and Mal had done in that studio gave us a lot of confidence. At the same time, they gave us the confidence to come up with ideas of our own.”

Though the thick accents and mod hairdos helped fuel the “new Beatles” hype, it was the presence of Emerick that sealed the deal. While working with the Beatles, Emerick had introduced an array of recording innovations, from close-miked drums to ultra-compressed piano, vocals and guitar, all of which were now liberally applied to No Dice cuts like “It Had to Be,” “No Matter What” and “Midnight Caller.”

“Most of the songs were cut live,” says Molland. “We just set up like we were on stage and Geoff just miked us up. Abbey Road had these huge isolation baffles, about eight-feet tall and four-feet wide, with solid-bottom panels and transparent top panels, so we could always see each other. For the most part, the mics were AKGs and Neumanns, and they had plenty of them. Under the stairs that led up to the control room was a cupboard that contained some of the Beatles gear, but we never got into it.”

In Ham and Molland, Badfinger sported a pair of first-rate players equally capable of crafting memorable guitar lines on the spot. “When it was time to do the lead work on ‘No Matter What,’ both Pete and I were keen, so Mal told us both to go for it,” says Molland, who opted for a George Harrison-like slide solo. “There was this lap-steel that was just laying about and I decided to try it; it just seemed right for that song. On some of the other tracks I used my Gibson Firebird through a Vox AC-30. The solos were almost always done live and spontaneously; it still amazes me how close Pete and I were in our ideas.”

Released the same day as the Harrison opus All Things Must Pass, No Dice immediately spawned a Top 10 smash in “No Matter What,” the first in a series of Ham-written hit singles. Ironically, the song that would become Badfinger’s most notable work had been casually tossed into the middle of the track lineup. Reminiscent of “White Album”-era Beatles, “Without You” was a melodic ballad featuring layers of acoustic guitar, compressed piano and high harmonies buried deep in the mix. Hearing the song at a cocktail party, singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson promptly cut his own version, which hit Number One in early 1972. Some 20 years later, Mariah Carey returned “Without You” to the Top Five, and in 2002 Kelly Clarkson used the Ham-Evans original as her ticket to the American Idol finals.

All told, “Without You” would garner hundreds of covers over the years, yet neither Ham nor Evans would reap the benefits. Victimized by a ruthless manager (who made off with nearly all of the band’s income) and abandoned by their Beatle mentors, the two songwriters became hapless players in a tale of woe almost too tragic to believe. By the time Badfinger disbanded in the early ‘80s, both Ham and Evans had taken their own lives - Ham in 1975, Evans in 1983, both by hanging - leaving surviving members Molland and Gibbins (who himself passed away in 2005) fighting for unpaid royalties. Today, the “I can’t live” refrain of “Without You” remains the most haunting epitaph in pop music.

“It is sadly prophetic,” remarks Molland, “and yet not everything about Badfinger was quite so bad. As a band, we made some extraordinary music in a very short period of time. Pete and Tom achieved something most writers can only dream of. It was an incredibly exciting experience that I’ll never forget.”

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