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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Badfinger: Ass


BADFINGER: ASS (1973)

1) Apple Of My Eye; 2) Get Away; 3) Icicles; 4) The Winner; 5) Blind Owl; 6) Constitution; 7) When I Say; 8) Cow­boy; 9) I Can Love You; 10) Timeless; 11*) Do You Mind.

Badfinger's last album for Apple Records is usually considered their «heaviest» record — which automatically generates a premature bias: «Badfinger? Heavy? Is that a contradiction or a contra­diction?» Well, not so much a contradiction as a slight exaggeration. The trick is, for some rea­son Pete Ham took a relatively small part in the songwriting process this time — he only contributes the first and last track, while the majority of tunes on Ass belong to Joey Molland, and Joey Mol­land was, indeed, the «resident rocker» of the band, its one and only member who had a genuine penchant for boogie, and was always tempted to create it, not just play it.

This does not mean, however, that Badfinger tried to go «heavy metal» or anything like that. In fact, there is only one genuinely «heavy» rocker, with deep metallic bass, dark riffage, and scor­ching wah-wah solos — ʽConstitutionʼ, an amusing attempt on Joey's part to sing about how he chooses to «be like everybody else» against a musical arrangement that sounds like nothing else Badfinger had ever done before. The tune is completely generic, but saved in the nick of time by Ham — he didn't write it, but he plays terrific wah-wah throughout, once again proving how se­riously underrated he has always been as a lead player, learning a little from everyone but directly imitating no one.

In the meantime, Molland's biggest problem is that, unexpectedly faced with the reality of beco­ming the band's main songwriter, he does not live up to the task, and frequently falls back upon clichés or, as I suspect, subconscious rip-offs from whomever he happened to be listening to at the time. The oddest Frankenstein here is ʽThe Winnerʼ, which takes its vocal hook ("you can drive a car, be a movie star...") from Ringo's ʽIt Don't Come Easyʼ, its closing vocal harmonies from the Beatles' ʽThe Wordʼ or suchlike, and its bridge riff from Deep Purple's ʽSpace Truckinʼ (not quite sure about the chronology: ʽThe Winnerʼ is one of two songs that the band recorded while still under the supervision of Todd Rundgren, in early 1972, but ʽSpace Truckinʼ did come out in March — coincidence?).

ʽGet Awayʼ is faceless (but still not very heavy) roots-a-boogie as well, leaving the ballads ʽIci­c­lesʼ and ʽI Can Love Youʼ as Joey's finest contributions to the record — which is not to say they are very good: ʽIciclesʼ is a bit too flat, pathetic, and moralistic, and ʽI Can Love Youʼ tries to establish a cunning hook in the chorus, but fails, I think. Overall, both are just sort of stuck in inoffensive, evenly flowing mid-tempo without generating much excitement. Big difference be­tween both of them and Pete's only ballad on the album — ʽApple Of My Eyeʼ, not too subtly commenting on the band's severing of relationships with the label. It may not be a huge improve­ment on Joey's standards in terms of melody, but Pete was always the better «artist», and his ly­rics, vocal modulation, and phrasing convey the atmosphere of bittersweetness to a tee — making the song into one of the most gallantly and chivalrously delivered «fuck yous» in the business.

Evans' and Gibbins' contributions are not particularly memorable or respectable (Gibbins' ʽCow­boyʼ might, in fact, be one of the most oddly misguided Badfinger efforts ever, along with ʽWat­ford Johnʼ: har­monica, fiddle, and steel guitar-driven coun­try-western? Silliest moment: "...now I know you well enough to say ʽyeahʼ... YEAAAAH!"), which leaves us with a very weak Side B, and the most difficult question here is what to do about Ham's eight-minute epic ʽTimelessʼ, an attempt to suck up to the «pretentious art-rock» movement, but still following the guidance of the Beatles rather than Yes or King Crimson — the structure, the mood, the duration, the chords, the lengthy coda sprayed with blasts of white noise, all of this brings on obvious associations with ʽI Want You (She's So Heavy)ʼ, although in strict factual terms the song is, of course, quite an ori­ginal creation. Does it work or doesn't it?

It does for me, to some extent. First, everyone is entitled to a little bit of metaphysical panic from time to time, and Pete Ham is as qualified as anybody to ask the question «are we timeless?». Se­cond, it is his first attempt to write something oddly shaped, decidedly removed from the stan­dards of a potential pop hit — the instrumental melody seems cobbled from unpredictable chord sequences, and the vocal melody is more akin to a Shakesperian monolog than a sym­metric pop construction. Third, the coda is very well made, with another of those stirring, aggressive solos of Pete's that are just so goddamn believable.

In the end, Ass is an album riddled with problems — starting with its very title (and the illumi­native picture of a donkey on the front cover does not really help out) and ending with the unfor­tunate story of its creation (Apple once again rejected the original version, and ended up releasing the final product something like a year too late, clashing with the band's new first album for Warner Bros.). It is not a complete disaster, and there is nothing wrong about including one or two heavy rockers as long as Joey Molland remains a rocker deep in his heart and Pete Ham can easily slip into rock'n'roll mode on the strength of his natural gift. But it is a «middle-of-the-road» effort, as it downplays the presence of the band's finest songwriter and, on occasion, slips into embarrassment mode (really, ʽCowboyʼ is something I'd think they should have left behind in their early Iveys days). Ham's contributions are still strong enough to guarantee a shaky thumbs up, but, overall, the album is one of those «transitional» efforts that give more food for thought for band historians than cause for joy for regular fans.

Check "Ass" (CD) on Amazon

2 comments:

  1. Perhaps it's just me, perhaps it's because the song on YouTube only can be found in a live version of 1979, but I just listened to The Winner twice in a row and don't recognize any influence from Space Truckin'. Am I the only one?
    For history's sake: being from 1963 I can witness that at least until 1975 and highly possibly until 1980 the labels hardrock and heavy metal were synonymous. It didn't make any sense to separate two genres if only four bands had made it big (BS, DP, LZ and UH). It made even less sense when the whole genre was declared dead around 1977, thanks to punk.

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  2. I can see the correlation...

    Ass) "here he comes (doodle-oo do-do), that's the winner..."

    Machine Head) "come on, (doodle-oo do-do*)... let's go space truckin'"
    *albeit with a different melody

    It's there, but it's not super-apparent. I wouldn't even call it the same riff or melody; more of a pattern. One could just as well point out that both album titles imply sex. Sure, but that's hardly unique to these albums, and the same goes for the melodic & rhythmical pattern that have in common. Rock music has a finite number of such building blocks.

    That being said, I dig this album, although I think only about half of it holds up well. Joey's best songs are the softer ones, "Icicles" and "I Can Love You" (and the bonus track "Do You Mind"). "The Winner" is ok, "Constitution" has its moments (incongruous lyrics though) and "Get Away" is generic and useless. Pete's songs aren't his best, but they're still good. Tom's "When I Say" is lovely but the lyrics are too simple, and "Blind Owl" is fun but would have made more sense with a softer, more pensive arrangment, i.e. closer to its demo. Midtempo was usually the way to go with these guys. And Mike's "Cowboy" is just about unlistenable.

    Still, what are they going to do? This was recorded right around the time their manager was pushing them toward quantity over quality. Their first album for Warner Bros (the eponymous one) had the same amount of filler as this one, and came out at the same time. Such rotten management.

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