Sometimes, as someone interested in obscure and arcane music history, one wishes that one could re-write the story of a band to give them the sort of ending they deserve. Though I have commented on my interest in music history before , I would like to take a little time to comment on a couple of obscure bands to the casual music fan and their tragic histories, as well as the difficulty in searching for good books in public libraries.
One of the books I was unsuccessfully looking for today was Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger. Now, in reading about the band Badfinger, whose biggest American hit, “Day After Day,” a yearning and bittersweet love song, the word tragic appears often . Here is a band that had a great deal of success, was the only successful band other than the Beatles to come on the Apple Records label, but whose history can only be termed cursed. After catching a break and receiving a little help from their friends, the Beatles, the band carved out a following, were successful backing artists for solo Beatles (after the breakup of that band), but none of them ever profited from their work. Only lawyers and accountants made money from their years of touring and hard work. Their career trajectory was cut short by the bankruptcy of Apple Records as well as by financial chicanery engaged in by their “manager” which led to their second record contract being pulled and their last two albums as an intact band languishing in obscurity.
This is where the story becomes tragic. With a pregnant wife whom he could not support and in despair of ever receiving any money from his recordings, the lead singer of Badfinger, Pete Ham, somewhat moody but very talented songwriter and singer (one of his songs, originally recorded by the band, became the well known rock standard “Without You,” made popular by such singers as Henry Nilsson and Mariah Carey, its title serving as the name of the band’s biography). Eight years after that, another longtime band member, Tom Evans, committed suicide after an argument over the phone with a third band member. Here was a talented group of successful rock musicians, their career derailed and a couple of lives destroyed by “vultures” in the music industry, including a corrupt manager and politics on the record label level, rather than by excesses on their parts (other than perhaps an excess of melancholy). Making the story even more tragic is that instead of closing ranks and supporting each other, the surviving band members enriched the vultures further by their legal squabbles with each other and their fronting rival incarnations of the band. It is a tragedy that disunity reigned, when unity in the ranks may have helped their cause and given them a better fate.
Nor are they the only power pop tragedies to spring out of the early 1970’s. The band Big Star was another band long on talent, long on importance, and short on contemporary success . The band owes its reputation to the somewhat obsessive favor it has from rock & roll critics as well as successful bands and musicians such as REM, Matthew Sweet, and the Replacements. Of course, these artists are successful college rock bands who in the 1980’s and 1990’s helped bring College Rock into the mainstream, helping keep bands like the Goo Goo Dolls (who had a similarly torturous early career regarding record label problems) from turning into tragic cautionary tales themselves (to the gratitude of fans like myself).
Big Star was another band whose immense talent was overshadowed by appalling, almost cursed, fortune. Two highly rated albums, the over-optimistically named #1 Record and Radio City, received high praise from music critics but virtually no sales due to bungling on the part of record labels like Stax and Capitol, and their third record, the moody masterpiece Third/Sister Lovers, sat unreleased for years. While the band’s success stagnated, emotional band member and lead singer Chris Bell, whose drug use and depression caused serious problems, died in a single car accident, while the other part of the band’s core of “sister lovers,” Alex Chilton, remained emotionally detached from the band’s rabid enthusiasm among other bands.
A biography of Big Star was written by an English music historian named Rob Jovanovic called “Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop,” but the book is somewhat hard to find in the local public library system, and was timed a tad conveniently to drum up attention (and perhaps sales) for a comeback album in the early 1990’s. Again, one wishes for such a band to write a counterfactual history where such beloved and immensely influential music found a wide audience appreciative of their efforts, and where tragic deaths were not necessary to tell cautionary tales of incompetent record labels and the disastrous effects of their bungling on emotionally fragile but immensely talented singers and songwriters.
In light of that sort of desire for a better fate than premature death and obscurity, I tried to find what other obscure sort of books could be found on rock & roll history within my entire county’s public library system and the answer was: two, the first an examination of anti-establishment rock bands from the 1980’s called Our Band Could Be Your Life, which in the light of my above commentaries on the tragedies of power pop acts, one might hope (I would) that the stories of these bands would *not* be one’s life, and the second a book that appears to be a fascinating “secret history” of obscure rock & roll bands. Both, of course, will be reviewed in due time, to help flesh out my collection of material on music history.