Last week I got a text from my bandmate Andrew Boulos that simply stated, “Badfinger’s ‘Baby Blue’ was used for the final scene in the finale of Breaking Bad tonight.” I laughed to myself because this 1972 Badfinger hit has been on our cover band’s setlist since we got together three years ago. In fact, it’s almost been bounced off the setlist a few times due to new songs coming in and a few of us thinking it wasn’t really going over with the crowd. I’ve always loved the song, and singing the lead vocal and harmonizing with my guitarist bandmate Chad Murphy never gets old. It’s got such a great swing to it, and the half-time bridge (“what can I doooooo, what can I sayyyy”) is delightful. I always push for it to stay on the list when the subject of dropping it comes up. After the Breaking Bad finale news, I doubt I’ll have to fight for it to stay anymore. The next gig should be interesting. This song has always gotten a lukewarm response. I predict it will be different this time, seeing that 10.3 million people viewed the Breaking Bad finale and the song is currently #27 on the iTunes sales charts. I listened to the song myself about 8 times today. It’s as addictive as Walter White’s blue meth.
In 1969 The Beatles took interest in this young, obscure English band (called The Iveys at the time), signing them to their Apple label and funding their recordings. Lennon came up with their name, McCartney wrote their first hit, “Come and Get it,” and Harrison helped produce their second album, 1971’s Straight Up (you can hear him playing slide guitar on their hit “Day after Day”). Midway through the making of Straight Up Harrison bowed out due to demands of the Bangladesh project and Philly producer Todd Rundgren stepped in. It is his expertise you hear on “Baby Blue.” The young producer molded this natural hit into a radio-friendly masterpiece. (Note: The 45 single did see a remix at the hands of Jimi Hendrix mastermind producer/engineer Eddie Kramer, who fattened the drum kit and guitars.) Obviously the attention paid to this song is a testament to the hit potential these producers heard in it. Yet it only made it to #14 on the US Billboard charts, and it wasn’t released in the UK as a single at all. This showing lagged behind the other two hits they had around this time, 1971’s “Day After Day” (#4 on US Billboard) and 1970’s “No Matter What” (#8 on US Billboard).
This is the beauty about a great song: it has an unlimited shelf life. It can go decades languishing in the shadows of people’s record collections and playlists, and all of a sudden one single large-scale exposure sends it skyrocketing back into the minds of the people who remember and into the welcoming arms of those new to it. I can’t imagine what it would be like watching a TV show and having such a great song come on, only to find out that it was recorded 40 years ago. Of course this leads one to search out other songs by the artist, and this is what’s happening with the Badfinger catalogue right now as the music business scrambles to retrieve the dollars that the public is currently throwing at it.
Sadly, the personal history of Badfinger rivals the emotional darkness of the show that helped in its resurgence. A simple Wikipedia search on the band will tell you that two of the four members of Badfinger committed suicide decades ago, and a third has since died. Only Joey Molland, the lead guitarist, is still with us (and performing under the name Joey Molland’s Badfinger). Lead singer and principal songwriter Pete Ham (who penned “Baby Blue” and most of the other hits, including the oft-covered “Without You”) took his own life out of sheer desperation in 1975 following news that Badfinger manager Stan Polley had stolen/squandered all the funds after the band had spent years slogging it out on the road. According to the book Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger (2000), Bass player Tom Evans was with Ham the night he took his life. They were out drinking, and shortly after Evans dropped him home at 3am Ham went into his Surrey garage and hung himself. In his suicide note, he called Stan Polley a “soulless bastard.” Tom Evans followed Ham’s tragic lead in 1983, devastated over his bandmate’s death and unable to cope with the lingering sadness. (Drummer Mike Gibbins died in 2005 at 56, in his sleep.)
Despite Badfinger’s initial successes, in the grand scheme of things they are a footnote in rock and roll. Many know the songs and the group name, but few can readily match them up. Most hear a Badfinger song on the radio and say, “great tune. Who sang that song again?” Of course the main reason for their footnote status is that Ham died at 27 – much too young to leave any sizable musical legacy. So Badfinger’s catalogue gets indexed next to the others in the 27 club with limited output: Jimi, Janis, Jim, Kurt, Amy, etc.
In light of the tragic events surrounding Badfinger and their unreached potential, it is truly satisfying to see one of their songs peaking through the clouds of obscurity and making its way into the iPods of a new generation who obviously enjoyed the way the lyric and groove worked with Breaking Bad and its sordid, horror-comedy derangement of a plot. Taking into account the dark themes surrounding the reality of the band’s personal lives, we can readily see why it’s such a good fit.