BADFINGER: NO DICE (1970)
1) I Can't Take It; 2) I Don't Mind; 3) Love Me Do; 4) Midnight Caller; 5) No Matter What; 6) Without You; 7) Blodwyn; 8) Better Days; 9) It Had To Be; 10) Watford John; 11) Believe Me; 12) We're For The Dark; 13*) Get Down; 14*) Friends Are Hard To Find; 15*) Mean Mean Jemima; 16*) Loving You; 17*) I'll Be The One.
It is easy to see why this record is generally seen as Badfinger's «proper» debut. It is their first album with a stable lineup, as Joey Molland replaces Ron Griffiths, with Tom Evans switching to bass duties — and all four members of the band sharing songwriting duties, while no longer accepting donations from outside songwriters (not that they were offered any: by this time, Paul McCartney had his own solo career and could keep all of his non-Beatle-worthy trifles for himself if he wanted them to appear at all). Furthermore, all the songs were written and recorded within a limited time period, with the sole purpose of forming a coherent cycle.
And that they do. On No Dice, Badfinger are a perfectly competent, self-assured pop band with one edge very faintly touching the hard-rock scene and the other one reaching out to folk- and country-rock. They are not Beatles clones — even though the album is full to the brim of conscious and subconscious Beatles references and quotations, No Dice was made out of love for music, not just out of the realization that «wouldn't that be cool to be the next Beatles?»
Badfinger did inherit some of the elements of the early Beatles' spirit — a propensity to keep it simple (occasionally, simplistic, but we will have to cope with the fact that the songwriting caliber of these lads was a little less impressive than that of John/Paul and even George), a predilection for idealistic sentimentality, and a penchant for expressing loneliness in music. But all these things seemed to come quite naturally to the band members — they were lonely, idealistic, unsophisticated sentimentalists, born to create lonely, idealistic, unsophisticated melodies.
And therefore, even their «rip-offs» are perfectly forgivable. ʽBelieve Meʼ steals half a hook from Paul's ʽOh Darlingʼ, but steers further proceedings into a soft, ironic, «homely» direction instead of the deep soul tragedy of its main source of inspiration. The chorus of the bonus outtake ʽI'll Be The Oneʼ accidentally (?) coincides with "eight days a week...", but the arrangement of the song is far more «rootsy» than the Beatles usually allowed themselves. And Joey Molland's ʽLove Me Doʼ shamelessly steals its title from one of the Beatles' first songs and almost lifts the basic rhythm from one of their last ones (ʽGet Backʼ), but did the Beatles ever have those crunchy rhythm chords and loud, dynamic, distorted boogie solos on their songs? Not these ones, they didn't, if only because these ones bear the mark of the next musical decade upon them.
The hit single ʽNo Matter Whatʼ is usually singled out as the major highlight of the album, although the lead-in number, ʽI Can't Take Itʼ, could be just as representative of Badfinger's brand of power pop — it's just that ʽNo Matter Whatʼ has this instantly captivating monster riff and a strong atmosphere of gallant chivalry about it (speaking in Beatles terms, its chief inspiration would probably be ʽAnytime At Allʼ), whereas ʽI Can't Take Itʼ is a bit more diffuse and does not wear its heart on its sleeve. Over time, though, both songs should be able to take their rightful stand in the "power pop laureates" corner of the museum — ʽI Can't Take Itʼ, in particular, could serve on its own as the blueprint for most of Cheap Trick's career.
At the same time, Badfinger show excellent skill at exploring the depths of the human heart as well. ʽMidnight Callerʼ is a ballad written in strict accordance with the McCartney recipé — simple, but moving piano chords, «humanistic» vocal modulation, and sincere pity for the protagonist à la ʽFor No Oneʼ. Like McCartney when he's at his worst, though, the song sounds disappointingly unfinished — "...she unlocks the door and there's no one there..." is a fairly weak resolution for the bridge, and, overall, the song seems one or two musical ideas too short, and the exploration of the human heart remains inconclusive.
Whereas ʽWithout Youʼ, a song that I would like to like less than ʽMidnight Callerʼ, preferring lonely melancholy over grand sentimentalism, is certainly one of the most «conclusive» Badfinger songs ever, and this version, despite Harry Nilsson's solid job with it several years later, still remains the definitive one for me (granted, there have been many covers since, and the only other one I know of belongs to Mariah Carey — no comments here). One can shed a river of tears to it, or engage in four minutes worth of Bic-flickering, but what I like most about it is: (a) Tom Evans' subtle bass work on the acoustic intro, especially the moment at 0:39 into the song where his syncopated minimalism morphs into full phrasing; (b) the equally minimalistic beauty of the guitar solo, again, clearly influenced by Harrison's style but not necessarily following any particular «Harrison-esque» chord layout. These are among the elements that provide ʽWithout Youʼ with integrity and even «grit», saving it from tumbling into a sea of cheap soft-rock mush — a sea that usually eagerly waits for every song whose chorus goes "I can't live, if living is without you". (At the bottom of this sea, you'll find Mariah Carey waiting for you).
If there is anything close to a glaring misstep on the album, it might be ʽWatford Johnʼ — that one time when Badfinger are not trying to be themselves (by «being the next Beatles»), but instead try to be... Elvis. (With even a «teddy bear» reference in the lyrics). As long as you keep yourself from realizing that fact, the piece works as a bit of generic boogie, but eventually it just becomes sad, particularly since Badfinger can rock — as long as they do not dress their rock and roll in the clothes of a rockabilly revival. ʽLove Me Doʼ, snappy and modern as it is, works very well; ʽWatford Johnʼ is a near-parodic send-up that doesn't.
But all in all, beginning with the muscular power-pop of ʽI Can't Take Itʼ and ending with the pretty acoustic balladry of Pete Ham's ʽWe're For The Darkʼ (a perennial fan favorite, although I still find the melody somewhat flat), No Dice is the ideal «unpretentious pop album» for 1970 — and marks a brief moment of good time for Badfinger, when the band really had a chance to make it on the strength of their singles; a chance blown away almost entirely due to the incompetence and greed of their management. Not a masterpiece — mainly because the ratio of «cool ideas» per song is too small — but a very solid thumbs up all the same. And the bonus outtakes on the CD edition are well worth taking in as well.
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