BADFINGER: WISH YOU WERE HERE (1974)
1) Just A Chance; 2) You're So Fine; 3) Got To Get Out Of Here; 4) Know One Knows; 5) Dennis; 6) In The Meantime/Some Other Time; 7) Love Time; 8) King Of The Load (T); 9) Meanwhile Back At The Ranch/Should I Smoke.
Wish You Were Here may be no masterpiece for the ages, and it might not have the most easily memorable, stay-with-you-for-life Badfinger songs, but it is definitely the Badfinger-est album of the all. A record, that is, which tries to dig as deep and to climb as high as could be physically possible for these guys, without a single overtly wrong twist or turn, a single glaring lapse of taste, a single court case of the band trying hard to be somebody else. It probably would not have been a big commercial success even if it did not undergo the proverbial «Badfinger luck» treatment (due to legal haranguing between Warner Bros. and the band's management, it was pulled from the stores only seven weeks after the initial release; we cannot even technically call it a «flop», since it did not have enough time to flop). But it is exactly due to the fact of sounding like a Badfinger album, not like a «1974-oriented album», that it has aged much, much better than numerous hit records from that year.
With all the neuroses and psychoses pursuing the band's members, I do not even manage to understand how they succeeded in getting it so right after two relative misfires in a row. Maybe things had temporarily settled down, and the band just had a chance to sit down, catch a breath, and realize that, perhaps, if they were not able to achieve success with stuff that they weren't too good at (hard rock, funk, arena-rock, whatever), then they might be able to do better if they just concentrated on what they did best — folk-based pop songs with «power» arrangements, with varying degrees of complexity.
Chris Thomas is still retained as producer, but who could tell? The production is no longer muddy: the guitar sound is effervescently clear, and the vocals are for the most part echo-free (with one or two exceptions) — there is simply no need to compensate for the melodic weakness with extra varnish, since the melodies are anything but weak. Furthermore, there is not a single song here — not one — that has any direct connotations to a Beatles predecessor. On Wish You Were Here, Badfinger are, for the first time in their life, fully transformed into a self-sustainable band. Big tragic irony, considering all that happened next.
Song-wise, Pete Ham is almost absent on Side B, but his creations dominate Side A, creating a somewhat tilted balance of quality. ʽJust A Chanceʼ is one of the band's crunchiest pop-rockers: the riff may not be nearly as much in your face as on ʽNo Matter Whatʼ, but it's still a good roots-rocky riff that earns extra points for subtlety — and the song could have easily become a classic rock radio staple, if only there had been an opportunity to cull a couple singles from the album. ʽDennisʼ is a slightly veiled ode to Pete's little son, Blair, which starts off a little lumpy (not unlike, say, a «prog ballad» à la Styx, with a somewhat heavy accent on «anthemic» power chords), but soon picks up steam, conjures some genuine fatherly love, and then ends in an optimistic explosion of heavenly harmonies — the coda is a brilliant example of the band's «lush pop» sensitivity, here rivaling the Beach Boys themselves in force of expression, I'd say, if not necessarily in the technicalities (perhaps if Pete Ham only had two brothers and a cousin...).
Most won'drous of all, and my personal favorite Badfinger song of all time (yes, with these guys, I'm really quite a sucker for conciseness and simplicity), is the orthographically silly ʽKnow One Knowsʼ, which, as a chivalrous love confession, I'll take over ʽDay After Dayʼ, well, day after day after day. Where that particular classic had a little blemish — it was way too self-consciously designed as a thing of «heavenly beauty ™» — ʽKnow One Knowsʼ is perfectly natural, and it might even have been by pure supernatural accident that Pete (or was that Joey?) fell upon that particular sparkling guitar tone when recording the rhythm parts, the kind of deep ringing that affects the subconscious in such a special way (later favored so much, for obvious reasons, by the Cocteau Twins). The riff itself could hardly be any simpler, but this is gorgeous simplicity, and taken together with Pete's catchy and ever so «humanly» singing, the sparse, but meaningful guitar solo aping the vocal melody, and the strange gimmick of having Japanese artist Mika Kato reciting the chorus words translated to Japanese over the instrumental section (somehow it does add a little extra mystery spice, particularly if you have no knowledge of Japanese) — well, personally, I like to describe these moments as «breathtaking beauty». There's not much of it in the overall Badfinger catalog, but there's plenty of bands who aren't capable of even a single moment like this, so let us give due where due is due, I say.
Amazingly, the rest of the guys generally rise to the challenge. Gibbins contributes the lightweight, but amicable folk-rocker ʽYou're So Fineʼ — perfectly adequate, especially when you remember that, only a year ago, he was veering into the realm of the cowboy song instead. Evans' ʽKing Of The Loadʼ is a bit of meditative Brit-pop with Dylanish lyrics, which they decided to set to the sound of two different keyboards and no guitars (bar Pete's shrieky solo) — again, nothing great, but it gets where it wants to get. And Molland's highest point is ʽGot To Get Out Of Hereʼ: an attempt not to «rock out», but to create an oscillating mood piece that would take you from despair to hope and back to despair and back to hope depending on whatever simple organ chord is played at the moment. J. S. Bach would certainly be appalled at the crudeness of it, but for less demanding tastes, it works quite well.
The two long medleys on Side B are not quite as striking — I am not even sure they should have been medleys, even if Ham's ʽMeanwhile Back At The Ranchʼ and Molland's ʽShould I Smokeʼ do belong together quite naturally, with a melody overlap in the chorus. They seem to have a little too much of everything thrown in, without the ability to grow a face of their own. Still, there is nothing embarrassing about them or even particularly boring — I just wish they didn't put that goddamn echo on Pete's vocals on ʽRanchʼ — and quite a few people list them among their favorite tracks on the album, maybe because of some sort of Abbey Road-esque thrill which I do not think was intended here at all (in line with the overall «no more Beatles dependence!» policy).
Contrary to what one could expect, and contrary to the lonely whiff of the title and the album cover, Wish You Were Here is not a particularly depressed record. On Side A, in fact, there is only one track dealing with despair — ʽGot To Get Out Of Hereʼ — and although some of the songs on Side B are a little more mopey, nothing here even remotely approaches the universalist grief of ʽTimelessʼ. Rather, it is just a very humane record, and a mature one at that. The love songs are never sappy, the complaining songs never wallow too heavily in misery, and there are no attempts to suck up to someone or something just for the sake of «trying out something that's not us». All of which makes this one of the most wonderful not-to-be-thought-of-as-wonderful albums of the decade, and my guess is that, had Badfinger's career not crashed right upon its release, this is as high as they could go anyway. Naturally, a delighted thumbs up.