There would already be a biopic film about Badfinger if their story weren’t so irredeemably tragic. The ˜70s power pop progenitors started as the first rock band signed to The Beatles‘ Apple Corps. They ended with the hanging suicides of two singer-songwriters, after years of frustrations, betrayals, theft, and unrealized potential.
So it was a huge bonus, as the extremely satisfying series’ finale of Breaking Bad drew to a conclusion, to hear Badfinger’s 1971 classic Baby Blue take over the soundtrack while Walter¦well, no spoilers here. Not only was it the perfect note on which to end the show “ a lyric about bitter loss and regret against a sweet melody, tied up with the obvious ˜blue’ reference “ but, damn, it also just sounded so good (hat tip to producer Todd Rundgren). Surely, that will sell a serious chunk of downloads, which (we think) will benefit each band members’ estates (one member survives), despite the convoluted financial entanglements and legal maneuvering that drove the band desperately apart.
So, if not redemption, perhaps the heavily watched Breaking Bad finale provides at least, as a friend put it last night, some vindication and much deserved exposure for songwriter Pete Ham and a great band who should have gone much further. If some teenagers are online right now, searching for Badfinger, and hearing for the first time amazing songs like No Matter What, Come And Get It, Day After Day, and the original recording of Without You (later a record-breaking smash hit for Harry Nilsson, Air Supply, and Mariah Carey), well then the Badfinger story can’t be all bad. Rest in peace, Pete.
We’re just glad it wasn’t fucking Journey.
When the rolls of power-pop royalty are read, before one can go back to early-˜70s ur-power-pop bands like Big Star and Badfinger, you have to hail the genre’s late-˜70s/early-˜80s heyday. Among the handful of acts whose names are invariably invoked in that context”Cheap Trick, Dwight Twilley, The Knack, The Rubinoos, etc.”Shoes are always near the top of the list. The Zion, IL band is considered by the cognoscenti to be one of the quintessential bands to combine melodic pop hooks with urgent rock & roll momentum. Their discography boasts stone-cold classic albums like Black Vinyl Shoes (1977), Present Tense (1979), and Tongue Twister (1980), and most of the rest rate just a step behind them. But Shoes released only one new album in the ˜90s, 1994’s Propeller, and haven’t really been heard from since, until now.
Ignition, the first record to feature new Shoes material in 18 years, will be unleashed on August 14. It features all three original Shoes: Gary Klebe and brothers Jeff and John Murphy, all of whom have always made equal singing/songwriting contributions to the band’s albums. In fact, a key aspect of the group’s sound is the way the members’ individual styles blend together to create a true collective identity. Jeff Murphy says it comes from the fact that Klebe and the Murphys all learned their instruments between ˜73 and ˜74 specifically to start Shoes. That’s part of why we communicate so well with each other, Jeff explains, adding the striking admission, We still don’t know anything about music. We can’t read music, we don’t know what proper chord structure is, or scales, or any of that. But we learned together, so we’re all in the same skill level. We speak the same language.”
A friend of mine suggested some good ground rules for this one: You have to strip out covers of old blues tunes (sorry Stones and Beatles). Also strip out cover bands (sorry Joe Cocker and Nouvelle Vague) and cover [tribute] albums. He suggested “Police & Thieves,” with which I concur, as well as Souxie And The Banshees’ “Dear Prudence,” with which I do not. This could still be a huge, huge list, but these are some of the very best, in order.
10. Benny And The Jets “ Beastie Boys w/ Biz Markie (original by Elton John)
Benny And The Jets is my least favorite of Elton’s hits (I’m not counting anything after 1989, cause why would I?), but it is given a reason for existing here by The Biz, who was fucking around in the studio with The Beastie Boys, checking out old records, and decided to cut this version, where he slurs lyrics he clearly doesn’t know, ridiculous crowd noise included. Hilarity ensues.
That’s the thought bubble I could have sworn I saw spring from my friend’s head several weeks ago when I mentioned that my all-time favorite remake is Aretha Franklin‘s 1971 Sunday-morning-at-the-pulpit rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” “You mean her version isn’t the original?” he asked, totally floored. No, she borrowed it from Simon & Garfunkel, who had hit No. 1 with it the previous year, and never gave it back.
Every time I think of Franklin and the crafty way she used to take ownership of other people’s hits (Dionne Warwick‘s “I Say a Little Prayer,” Ben E. King‘s “Spanish Harlem” and most famously, Otis Redding‘s “Respect”), I remember a story Dusty Springfield once told me. Franklin was originally offered “Son of a Preacher Man,” and when she turned it down, Springfield snatched it up. Shortly after Springfield’s version hit the Top 10, she met Franklin for the first and only time in an elevator. Franklin walked in, put her hand on Springfield’s shoulder and simply said, “Girl.” Not another word. “I just about fell out!” Springfield told me, still in shock and awe decades later.
Franklin eventually recorded “Son of a Preacher Man,” and Springfield so liked what Franklin did to her hit that she began performing it in concert Franklin style. And that, folks, is what you call running off with someone else’s song. (For the record, I prefer Springfield’s original.) Now, here are ten other cases of musical robbery.
Marvin Gaye “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” Just one year before Gaye went to No. 1 for seven weeks with his biggest hit, Gladys Knight and the Pips took their gospel-infused version of one of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s two crowning achievements (the other being the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”) all the way to No. 2. Both are spectacular, but Gaye’s moody, brooding take, which actually was recorded first, making it a “cover” in timing only, will always be definitive.
Harry Nilsson “Everybody’s Talkin'” and “Without You” Little-known fact: The late singer-songwriter who wrote Three Dog Night’s “One” had his two biggest hits singing other people’s words. Fred Neil‘s 1966 original version of his own “Everybody’s Talkin’,” though moving, lacks the mournful tremulousness and vocal drama that Nilsson brought to it three years later. Nilsson’s emotional bells and whistles sell the song. “Without You,” his biggest and signature hit, was written and recorded by Badfinger in 1970, two years before Nilsson took it to No. 1, and has since been covered by Mariah Carey and seemingly at least one contestant per season on American Idol. The song, however, belonged to Nilsson in life, and it still does in death.
Billy Paul “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” Bob Dylan’s song has been done to death”by Peter, Paul and Mary, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, The Four Seasons (under the pseudonym The Wonder Who?) and so many others”but Paul’s jazz-inflected rendition gave it a certain soulful urgency lacking in every other version I’ve heard. This is one of those rare times that someone not only did one of Dylan’s compositions justice but did it better than Dylan, too.
Anne Murray “You Won’t See Me” I’d read it many times and always assumed it was a suburban myth, so when I met Murray in the ’90s, I asked her, “True or false: Did John Lennon really tell you that your 1974 version of “You Won’t See Me” was his favorite Beatles cover?” True. Better than Marvin Gaye’s “Yesterday,” Elton John’s “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and Aretha Franklin’s “Eleanor Rigby.” (I wonder what he would have made of Tiffany’s “I Saw Him Standing There” had he lived eight years longer to hear it.) Once again unwrapping her gift of interpretation six years later, Murray took the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” and made it listenable at last.
Linda Ronstadt “You’re No Good” Dee Dee Warwick recorded it first, and Betty Everett took it for its first trip up Billboard’s Hot 100 (to No. 51 in 1963). As great old-school soul singers go, both were up there with the best, but what made Ronstadt’s version pop and rock and sent it to No. 1 for one week in 1975 was the mix of Peter Asher’s haunting production, a tough-as-nails Ronstadt at the peak of her vocal power and the best instrumental outro in the history of ’70s rock. Love and anger rolled into one of music’s great transcendent kiss-offs.
Amii Stewart “Knock on Wood” Eddie Floyd‘s 1966 original is a soul classic and deservedly so, but Stewart’s 1979 cover”which went all the way to No. 1”is a highlight of the era of disco balls, bell bottoms and white polyester.
Darlene Love “River Deep – Mountain High” I know, sacrilege! How dare I say that anyone ever topped Ike & Tina Turner’s 1966 classic! But there you go. Recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Love, whose voice is one of the greatest instruments ever committed to record, covered the Phil Spector track for the 1985 Broadway musical Leader of the Pack, and nailed it effortlessly on the cast recording. She sang it with a soulful clarity and technical precision that matched and then surpassed the Queen of Rock & Roll because Love, unlike Turner, didn’t have to claw her way out of Spector’s great, big, oppressive “Wall of Sound.”
Marc Almond Featuring Special Guest Star Gene Pitney “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” Topping Gene Pitney is hard work, but when Pitney revisited his own 1967 UK hit as a male-on-male duet with Soft Cell’s Marc Almond, the result not only improved on its source material, but it gave the singer one final trip to No. 1 in 1989.
David Cook “Always Be My Baby” In what remains one of American Idol‘s greatest moments, during season seven, Cook took a sappy Carey song I’d always despised and turned it into a grungey, slow-burning stalker anthem. In the process, he proved himself a true artist and Carey a songwriter capable of greatness.