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'Breaking Bad' success a little blue for guitarist

| Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
Badfinger back in its heyday.
Badfinger back in its heyday.

Breaking Badfinger, anyone?

The defunct, ill-fated British rock quartet has broken back into the charts with a 41-year-old song, “Baby Blue.”

The Badfinger tune played during the final scene of the AMC drama “Breaking Bad” as an ironic coda to the Faustian bargain struck by Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a high-school chemistry teacher turned murderous meth kingpin.

More than 10 million viewers watched the finale, which concluded its five-year run Sept. 29.

“Baby Blue,” a hard-rocking, lovelorn expression of regret, was written by Badfinger guitarist Pete Ham in tribute to Dixie Armstrong, a woman he met while on tour in America. It reached No. 14 on the Billboard rankings in 1972.

“Breaking Bad” repurposed the song as a rueful reference to the crystal-blue methamphetamine that White made and sold, and which cost him his family and his soul.

Within hours of the broadcast, “Baby Blue” racked up more than 5,000 downloads on iTunes. Streaming of the tune on Spotify rose 9,000 percent. At one point, it became the ninth-best-selling song on Amazon's MP3 chart. “Blue” also boosted sales of the band's 1971 album “Straight Up,” where the song first appeared.

But most of Badfinger won't reap the benefits. Despite a string of hit singles, including “No Matter What,” and “Day After Day,” the band collapsed after years of crushing legal and financial turmoil. Ham hanged himself April 23, 1975. He was 27. Bassist Tom Evans hanged himself Nov. 19, 1983. Drummer Mike Gibbins died in 2005.

Guitarist Joey Molland, Badfinger's sole surviving member, agrees that the belated recognition is bittersweet. Molland contributed his share of songs to the Badfinger catalog and still tours as Joey Molland's Badfinger.

That's him playing those sobbing guitar arpeggios on “Baby Blue.”

“I wish the guys were here to enjoy this,” he says in his thick Liverpool accent. “It's a sad affair that they're not. (But) their families will be benefiting from this.”

Molland says he didn't follow “Breaking Bad,” but caught the finale when his son watched the show Sunday.

“It's really been quite remarkable,” says Molland of all the attention. “My reaction is probably the same as everybody else, complete (expletive) surprise. Obviously, there hasn't been this much attention to the band or any of their recordings for a long period of time.”

The band's decline was an appalling reversal of fortune in a career that began with enormous promise. The band, which formed in Wales, was signed to the Beatles' Apple records in 1968. They took their name from a Beatles song, “Bad Finger Boogie,” which was the working title of “With A Little Help from My Friends.” Paul McCartney wrote their first hit, “Come and Get it.” They played on solo recordings by John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison and appeared with Harrison at the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden.

Only one thing was missing: their money. The collapse of Apple records tied up their publishing royalties. A cash advance from their new label, Warner Brothers, mysteriously vanished from an escrow account. Band members couldn't get access to their money, which was controlled by their manager, American businessman Stan Polley. Ham became despondent over his failure to support his wife and unborn daughter.

In his suicide note, Ham called Polley “a soulless bastard.”

“They had everything going for them,” says Carl Grefenstette, drummer for local band the Flashcats and the former owner of Pittsburgh Guitars on the South Side. “What they did not have was a Brian Epstein watching over them. That's the tragic tale. The Beatles were lucky enough to have somebody on their side who took care of business.”

Sean McDowell, drive time on-air personality for WDVE-FM, says he still gets requests for Badfinger.

“They wrote some really good pop songs that have stood the test of time,” McDowell says. “You still hear 'em on the radio. I still have their albums on vinyl.”

Molland, who lives near St. Paul, Minn., has a new release out next week, “Return To Memphis.” But he, more than most, knows that the spotlight is fleeting and fickle.

“We really don't know what's going to happen. Today, everybody in the world wants to talk to us. Tomorrow, it could all go away.”

William Loeffler is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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