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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Badfinger: Magic Christian Music


BADFINGER: MAGIC CHRISTIAN MUSIC (1970)

1) Come And Get It; 2) Crimson Ship; 3) Dear Angie; 4) Fisherman; 5) Midnight Sun; 6) Beautiful And Blue; 7) Rock Of All Ages; 8) Carry On Till Tomorrow; 9) I'm In Love; 10) Walk Out In The Rain; 11) Angelique; 12) Knocking Down Our Home; 13) Give It A Try; 14) Maybe Tomorrow; 15*) Storm In A Teacup; 16*) Arthur.

A bizarre title. This is pretty good music, here on Badfinger's debut album, but it could hardly be called «magic», and it's certainly not very Christian, either. So perhaps it is really the soundtrack to The Magic Christian, an eccentric black comedy from 1969 featuring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr? Not really, since only three songs out of fourteen were actually used in the movie: ʽCarry On Till Tomorrowʼ, ʽRock Of All Agesʼ, and ʽCome And Get Itʼ — all three songs produced by Paul McCartney, and the latter one actually written by McCartney, and, as the now-available de­mo version on the Beatles' Anthology 3 clearly shows, recorded following McCartney's original arrangement and instructions to a tee.

Of the remaining 11 songs, 7 were taken by Apple Records directly off the poorly promoted LP Maybe Tomorrow, which Badfinger released in 1969 when they were still going around as The Iveys; and only 4 were newly written by the band members. Still, the results are not really as cha­otic as they could seem — in the early years at least, Badfinger had a pretty steady style of pop songwriting, and as for production values, there is relatively small difference here between the styles of Paul McCartney or Tony Visconti, who produced the early Iveys material: maybe be­cause both of them were still relatively inexperienced in the tricky art of production, and for the most part, let the dogs run free wherever they wanted to.

Anyway, it is best to forget about any phantom «soundtrack» connections (there actually was an entirely different, much more obscure «proper» soundtrack to The Magic Christian) and just treat this as a standard debut album, especially since it's a very good debut album. Guitarist Pete Ham and guitar / bass player Tom Evans emerge as chief songwriters (although early member and bass player Ron Grif­fiths' sole contribution, ʽDear Angieʼ, is among the catchiest tunes here as well), and they already try their hands at different varieties of the pop sound.

ʽCome And Get Itʼ, typically of any McCartney-colored song of the era, became a big hit for the boys, although Paul had a very good reason for not leaving the tune for himself — it very clearly sounds underwritten and unfinished, and he probably just could not find the proper way to turn it into something truly Beatles-worthy, so he just decided to leave it at a «Badfinger-worthy» stage. It's basically just one verse and a «semi-chorus» (you sort of expect a second half after the "...will you walk away from a fool and his money?" line, but it never comes), repeated several times — with a melodic hook strong enough to trigger a mild attack of beatlemania and guarantee sales, but not strong enough to bring a sense of completion to the song, so that I cannot even state that ʽCome And Get Itʼ is the best song on the record.

Although, granted, it is pretty hard to single out any highlights. Both Ham and Evans were sym­pathetic, innocent, romantic boys with a deep love for «pop beauty» and a good understanding of rock'n'roll, even if they were always much too «clean» and «pretty» to be able to rock out along with the best of 'em. There is exactly one bona fide «rock'n'roll» number on the album — ʽRock Of All Agesʼ, which sounds almost exactly like classic Slade, right down to the throat-bursting vocals (the likes of which are usually expected to come from Scotland), and it kicks plenty of ass, but its barroom boogie atmosphere feels quite out of place on the album (although, as an under­cover admirer of the barroom boogie atmosphere, boy am I glad it's there!). Every other track where you hear heavy distorted riffage — ʽMidnight Sunʼ and ʽGive It A Tryʼ, in particular — is in the «power-pop» vein: although Badfinger did not necessarily pioneer the synthesis of Britpoppy hooks with heavy guitar sound, it is also true that ʽMidnight Sunʼ, almost gloating over that synthesis, sounds like nothing else from 1970, when most people were concerned about ma­king an ultimate choice between the «hard» and «soft» camps.

On the other hand, without displaying any aversion towards distorted guitars, Badfinger's prefer­red means of expression is still a folkish vibe, best served with a mild touch of psychedelia, as on ʽBeautiful And Blueʼ, the album's finest, most delicate ballad, built on a complex contrast be­tween at least three different guitar tones (one hard-rocking, one psychedelic, one country-rock­ish) and a strings arrangement on top. Songs like these derail the stereotype of Badfinger as «Beatles-lite» (as well as it could be supported by the likes of ʽCome And Get Itʼ) — unlike the Beatles, Badfinger were never as experimental and unpredictable in the studio, but their arrangements, even though always sticking to time-approved instruments, could be equally complex and varie­gated if they really wanted to.

At the other end of the anything-but-monotonous spectrum is ʽCarry On Till Tomorrowʼ, starting out nice, quiet, acoustic, lightly sprayed with high-pitched harmonies, but eventually building up towards a set of orchestral crescendos and powerful electric solos that almost presage the emer­gence of ʽStairway To Heavenʼ (except that Badfinger, at this point at least, preferred to stay on the optimistic side and not share the burden of all the griefs and sorrows of humanity).

And in between these mini-epic, homebrewn-grand highlights, we get pretty ditties a-plenty — unless the concept of a «pop song» as such annoys you, ʽDear Angieʼ, ʽI'm In Loveʼ, and ʽGive It A Tryʼ are all charming little catchy trifles, and the boys' slightly parodic attempt at writing some­thing in the musical genre (ʽKnocking Down Our Homeʼ) is a bit kitschy, but works due to their «angelic» harmonization.

In short, do not be fooled by the title of the album or its patchy reputation: assembled as it is from several various sources, it already shows all the strengths of Badfinger, even though some of the craft still remained to be perfected, and some extra seriousness and depth still had to be attained. It simply happened to become very quickly overshadowed by No Dice, seen as the «proper» de­but for the band — a little unjust, I'd say, considering that there is not a single genuine misstep on Magic Christian. So we will decisively disregard the gesture on the album sleeve and raise our thumbs up instead.

Check "Magic Christian Music" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Magic Christian Music" (MP3) on Amazon

7 comments:

  1. Midnight Sun sounds like nothing else in 1970? Please compare Deep Purple's Why didn't Rosemary. The difference is that the first is planted on optimistic pop and the latter on slightly gloomy blues, but both songs refuse tho chose between soft and hard. In DP's case it's mainly thanks to Rod Evans of course. Even entering Ian Gillan and Roger Glover did not immediately force a decision. Try the flopped single Hallelujah.
    Also remember Rainbow's Black Sheep of the Family, the reason Blackmore left DP.
    Midnight Sun still is a nice song indeed; I only dispute it's uniqueness.

    "building up towards ...."
    Eh no. Carry On is just structured along the stereotypal lines of verse, chorus plus instrumental sections. The two short guitar solo's serve to contrast, they are not the climax of a build-up. That idea stems from Deep Purple's Child in Time of course. The first one, as far as I know, to use folk as the start of a crescendo might very well be Lead Belly in the song Gallows Pole. One of the lamest and most boring attempts stems from Bob Dylan, Seven Curses.
    Again Carry On is still a very nice song.

    Based on the few songs I have heard Badfinger deserves your praise indeed. As Jeremy Nicholas (who?) wrote about your compatriots AS Arensky and SE Bortkiewicz (talk about obscurity and oblivion): "Does the only music we appreciate have to be by the great composers who overturned systems, struck out for the unknown and challenged their muse? One hopes not. There must always be a place for those who reflect so elegantly and expertly on what has gone before, rather than shake us by the ears and grab us (sometimes screaming) into the future."
    Thát's why Badfinger deserves the thumbs up, as long as they pull this off. There is no need for a forced quest for originality.

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    1. Deep Purple fetish detected.

      Nothing against "Why Didn't Rosemary", but it's a blues-rocker that only slightly departs from the likes of 'I'm A Man', and it's in a completely different style (and there's nothing "soft" about it). Deep Purple is a fine band, but power-pop pioneers they were anything but.

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    2. Oh yeah, I foster that fetish since I listened to Made in Japan for the first time 35 years ago. Btw, I do have a little something against Why didn't Rosemary, but that's not relevant here. Neither is it relevant that it's a different style; thát's something I already mentioned in my third sentence. I didn't argue that DP pioneered power-pop. But there is more between hardrock and softrock I postulate.
      I guess we have rather different notions of what "hard" and "soft" mean, something I already noticed when reading your reviews of Aerosmith. For now it suffices that for someone who was in hardrock since 1975 Badfinger definitely belongs to the soft camp, even when they play a riff or a solo. Same for Aerosmith.
      For an old-fashioned hardrocker you are a bit misleading on this point, though I have learned to recognize it. High Tide, they were rocking hard on their debut. Thanks for that one.

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    3. Aerosmith are normally regarded as either hard rock or arena rock. It's actually a hard call, same as with Queen. The most sensible thing to say is maybe that they stand on the line between "hard" and "soft".

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  2. Please read: from the perspective of an old-fashioned hardrocker .....

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  3. I'm waiting to see whether you will have a review of Straight Up this time around :)

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  4. George, thanks for this review. I'd spent years thinking this was a substandard Badfinger album, based on some old review I'd read, but yours inspired me to find "Magic Christian Music" and listen to it. And it's every bit as good as you say—a very worthy addition to the Badfinger catalog. So thanks for keeping up this blog and writing so indefatigably about music!

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