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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Badfinger: No Dice


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.

Check "No Dice" (CD) on Amazon
Check "No Dice" (MP3) on Amazon

7 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. (sigh...I need to accept that I will never find all the typos...)

    I love this band: so much heart. Everyone in the band could write good songs; the only analogous major group that comes to mind in this respect is (dare I say) Queen. They were all outstanding "feel" players, and Pete in particular also had impressive guitar chops, not far from his friend George Harrison. (Pete was also something of a multi-instrumentalist, as his posthumous demo albums show.)

    There's a lot going on on this album... I'll comment on a few more songs:

    "I Don't Mind" -- this has very much the sound and feel of Big Star's first album, which it anticipates by a couple of years.

    "Better Days" -- nice, loping country feel with those guitar lines from Joey. (Usually, but not always, Joey plays lead on Joey's songs and Pete does on Pete's, so you can identify their styles. Pete's playing is more fluid and generally better; Joey's is a little more Lennonesque -- think of the triple solo in "The End" -- and has a more "stinging" tone.)

    "It Had To Be" -- nice number from the drummer; all of his subsequent numbers (AFAIK) feature him singing. Amazing how moody they all were, as you mention. No wonder they took it so horribly (and in Pete's case, engaged in active denial at first) when their manager screwed them.

    "Watford John" -- I can't stand this one either. Generic boogie was one of their major taste-lapses.

    "Friends Are Hard To Find" -- neither a major song nor does it sound finished, yet there's something instinctive here... these guys really had pop-rock in their bones.

    "Loving You" -- Can't believe that this and "I'll Be The One" went unreleased for so long. Granted, the latter wouldn't have fit on "Straight Up", but it could have been a single in 1971 -- hell of a good song, even with the (I suspect unintentional) Fabs nick. But "Loving You" would have fit, with its "All Thing Must Pass" vibe. Composer/drummer Mike Gibbins even sounds like George here.

    How anyone could diss these guys for sounding like the Beatles is beyond me. If their voices blend in a similar way, how is this their fault, or even a problem? As you say, they certainly weren't clones; they just had ears, ability, and a love for the genre. Sure, they weren't as *original as the Beatles, nor nearly as *diverse, but I can let these two factors slide somewhat as long as your other three for great music are in place. Badfinger were one of the most *listenable bands ever (at least when they weren't rushing out product and/or letting Joey write too much), and almost acheingly *resonant. And with the exception of a couple of bonehead lyrics, they never ventured into the cringeworthy territory of *inadequacy either. One of the greatest early '70's artists (which by definition, imo, makes them one of the greatest ever). With "No Dice", "Straight Up", half of "Ass" and "Badfinger", "Wish You Were Here", and a bit of their first record along with most of their last, delayed-release one ("Head First"), they've got five great albums. More than, say, Wings (counting "Ram"!) or Elton John, although Wings almost certainly do have the equivalent of five great albums if you do some sorting and weeding, and the same may even be true for Elton. Point being, they're in that same tier...

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    1. The riff at the start and at the end of 'Better Days' sounds very close to the one in 'I Feel Fine'.

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    2. @Alexis - true. Never caught that one before either, and it's not as if I'm deaf to such things -- it's hard for me to enjoy it when Ray Davies nicks a riff, or for that matter when Peter Buck keeps recycling his own. But with both this and "I'll Be The One", Badfinger aren't just appropriating the hook to prop up an otherwise unremarkable song. They're taking it (perhaps unconsciously, maybe as tribute, as George mentions; but not brazenly) and putting it in a new context, alongside other hooks, and making something different (and good) of it, much like Hari did with "My Sweet Lord". I don't mind this at all. I love this genre and want to hear new permutations. Let's face it, when you break things down enough in rock, there are only so many basic building blocks to work with.

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  3. "How anyone could diss these guys for sounding like the Beatles is beyond me."
    Badfinger, as far as the songs I know go, dó sound like The Beatles very much. The real question is if we should hold it against them. In my comments on the previous album I argue we shouldn't. Instead we should judge the songs on their merits, Beatlesque or not.
    Well, they are good. Not that I'm a fan; but I'm not a fan of The Beatles either.
    Originality is an overrated quality in music, even by GS on his original site. From hís point of view I think he rated the band too low.

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    1. @MNb - yes, agree all around. Badfinger sounds like the Beatles, and that, for Beatles fans, is the good news. I wish more bands would play in this territory so effectively. Granted, Badfinger got into the game when there was still some relatively untrodden ground. Still, they did encounter critical snobbery that today would probably be praise of their "uncanny ability to... (blah blah blah)". Well, I guess World Party, for example, got dissed by some for sounding so retro, but again, for me all that is a feature, not a bug.

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  4. I have to disagree with GS on We're for the Dark. I do appreciate that you've warmed up to it since last time, but that melody is anything but flat. Maybe a little cliche on the chorus, but as we've demonstrated above, this is not necessarily a negative. But the stucture and chord sequence, particularly that shift upward preceding the chorus (VI Chord? Where's Red Heylin when I need him!) demonstrate Pete's innate ability to develop melodies and hooks.

    I have really come to respect this sad-eyed but deeply-gifted young man and wonder what might have been had he stayed with us. He had the ear of a producer and the artistic sensitivity of a poet, and I love that he could so effortlessly pull double duty on guitars and keys. And that voice. Somehow, he managed to have the lilt of a tenor with the manly resonance of a baritone. You can tell he was born to play music--folk, Broadway, rock & roll, it didn't matter--and also flourished in the rich musical soil of postwar Britain. It didn't hurt that he had close access to John and Paul's genius from whom to learn a tip or two, but it was just fine tuning, really. One of the lost heroes, he was!

    I suspect that maybe what is "flat" about WFTD is that after all of those crunchy, ballsy grooves and hooks, the album ends with a low-key, string-led ballad that seems out-of-place on what is now considered the original autograph of British power pop. It's also is ironic that such a bright, cheerful tune has "The Dark" in the title. Maybe they not only prophesied the advent of power pop, but also the over-use of irony in modern music?

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