7 Park Avenue

article supplied courtesy of Big O Magazine
September 1997

No Matter What

MATTHEW LEWIS TALKS DAN MATOVINA ABOUT THE UNEARTHING OF PETE HAM'S 7 PARK AVENUE

Never as popular as they deserved to be, Badfinger were considered by some connoisseurs to be the ultimate power-pop group of the 70's. "During their peak years, Badfinger embodied the essence of power-pop, successfully walking the fine line between hard rock and enduring melodies," writes Ken Sharp and Doug Sulphy in their excellent new book, Power Pop! Conversations With The Power Pop Elite (Poptomes, PO Box 1249, Willow Grove, PA 19090, USA)

The Liverpudlian/Welsh group was originally considered Beatles proteges and was signed to the Fab Four's Apple records label in the late 60's. The band - and leader Pete Ham in particular - quickly proved themselves formidable songsmiths, reeling off a clutch of memorable hit singles including No Matter What, Baby Blue, and Day After Day.

Even their lesser-known, later albums, such as 1974's Badfinger, feature great songs that should have been hit singles, including Shine On and Lonely You. Their existence as a recording unit, from 1969 to 1974, produced six albums, with some critics considering the 1971, Todd Rundgren produced Straight Up a masterpiece worthy of mention in the same breadth as The Beatles.

Depressed by business problems, Ham hanged himself in his garage on April 24, 1975, at the age of 27. History tragically repeated itself in November 1983, when bassist Tom Evans - who co-wrote with Ham Without You, a number one single for Harry Nilsson in 1972 - committed suicide in the same manner. "Badfinger's story is the most tragic story in rock'n'roll," author Ken Sharp told NME recently. "Half the band killed themselves because of outside problems, management problems, business problems.

"But I think Pete is really the shining light in the world of power-pop as a writer," Sharp said, "He would have accomplished so much more, had he lived.'

Some 22 years after he died, Ham is making a comeback of sorts, thanks to an amazing archival discovery. 7 Park Avenue, released by Rykodisc in February, features 18 home demos by Ham. Most of these songs were never recorded by Badfinger, who subscribed to a democratic recording ethic. Unlike some other artists' posthumous projects, this is far more than a mercenary scraping of the barrel for studio out-takes, etc.

These previously unheard songs stand up against anything Badfinger ever released during their lifetime. Particularly good are Coppertone Blues, Sille Veb, I Know That You Should, and Just Look Inside The Cover. Uplifting and haunting at the same time, 7 Park Avenue is a virtual goldmine of hit singles that never were.

Dan Matovina, 39, is the producer and writer who rescued Ham's unheard music from the vaults. "These tapes were in greatly decayed condition," Matovina, who lives in San Mateo, California, told me. He discovered the Ham tapes - whose existence had only been vaguely rumoured - in 1992, after interviewing Ham's brother, John, in Swansea, South Wales, while researching a biography on the ill-fated group.

Matovina's book, Without You: The Tragic Story Of Badfinger, will be published later this year.

"(John Ham) told me he had some of Pete's demo tapes and that I was free to listen to them," said Matovina, who is an authorised designate of Ham's estate. The album's original mono master recordings were sonically cleansed in 1993 to remove dropouts, clicks and generally brighten their quality. Matovina also judiciously added some drums and bass by former Badfinger members Bob Jackson and former Iveys (Ham's pre-Badfinger group) member Ron Griffiths.

"The overdubbing was done trying to preserve as much integrity as possible," said Matovina, who doesn't like to make a big deal of it. "Most of it was bass and drums on tracks that were obviously meant to have bass and drums."

"The most important focus of each song was to still make sure that Pete's original vocal and instrument performance had priority." The album, not co-incidentally, showcases Ham's underrated guitar-playing. Matovina and Ken Sharp are among those who think Ham's playing is in the same league as George Harrison's and even Eric Clapton's.

"What impressed me most about Pete was not only did his songs have beautiful, memorable melodies that touched your heart, but it seemed like everything that came out of Pete came directly from his heart," Sharp said. Sharp rhapsodises about the bridge section of Baby Blue, which he deems one of the most sublime moments in the history of pop. "Every time I hear that, something about it is so emotional, and he's tapping into something that most (other) songwriters can only wish they could tap into. Pete was just coming from the heart. Boy, it kills me." Why did an artist so clearly gifted want to take his own life?

"He became depressed over issues of dealing with the music business,' Matovina said. "He basically was a sensitive type who could not handle the harshness of the music business and what it entailed to stay within it." According to Matovina, the main villain in Ham's story was Badfinger's American manager, who was mentioned in Ham's suicide note.

By early 1975, Ham's career had become "locked in a box" through lawsuits, Matovina said. "At the time of his death, he had no outlet for his music. His career was locked up in lawsuits that he had nothing to do with... He was prevented from playing, putting out music, doing anything. He was shut down, financially and creatively. He was suddenly penniless and had no recourse to do anything."

A month after his death, Ham's daughter, Petera Ham, was born to his girlfriend, Anne Herriott. Petera now lives in Glasgow, Scotland. "He was an unusually sensitive type of person who, in one particular moment, just lost it," Matovina said. "It's very likely if he had been helped at the right time, he would still be alive today. It was just a lot of factors that came down, that one particular night that he killed himself."

Matovina said there are dozens more previously unheard Ham songs still lurking in the vaults. He hopes to put out another CD's worth next year. Matovina also sheds light on why Badfinger's Tom Evans took his own life. "Tom Evans was a much more emotional, manic depressive type who drank a lot and took things very hard, he said. "He basically never got over Pete Ham's death. When his own life started to crumble, for physical and business reasons, this allowed him to sink into his depressions more deeply, and he ultimately killed himself in the same way Pete Ham did. It was really a symbol of his sadness over the whole thing."

"He lived near Pete. When Pete's girlfriend found Pete hung in the garage, she called up Tom. He didn't know what had happened, so when he came over to the house, he couldn't find her or anybody, and he ran into the garage and discovered Pete's body right in front of him. So it was very traumatic... And he was with Pete the night before, so he had a tremendous amount of guilt."

Happily, Badfinger fans now have 7 Park Avenue, which is almost an instant classic. "It's a wonderful testament to Pete's work, beyond just what he accomplished in Badfinger," Sharp said. "The CD really shows Pete stretching out and able to tackle a lot of different musical styles... The best thing about this (is) to hear Pete singing songs you've never heard, and to hear that wonderful voice again."

© 1997 - BIG O/Matthew Lewis
September 1997
writer - Matthew Lewis

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