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'Breaking Bad' Swan Song: Producer Todd Rundgren Looks Back at 'Baby Blue'

The AMC series met its end with a Badfinger classic. "They were kind of like almost an ersatz Beatles," says Rundgren of the band.

Todd Rundgren Breaking Bad - H 2013
Getty Images; AMC

When The Sopranos ended with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” it gave an extra jolt of life to a song that already enjoyed a significant pop-culture cachet, having previously been used in everything from Glee and the Rock of Ages stage musical to a Family Guy karaoke episode.

Badfinger’s Todd Rundgren-produced “Baby Blue” hasn’t had the same ongoing shelf life, and it was a far unlikelier candidate for being a 21st century hit until Breaking Bad reached its final breaking point to the tune of this lesser-remembered 1971 classic. More than 10 million viewers tuned in for Sunday night’s series finale, so it’s no surprise that many wanted to hear Walter White’s swan song again immediately after.

The day after the show aired, “Baby Blue” rose out of nowhere to No. 16 on the iTunes chart. Tuesday, it actually went up, to No. 13. Spotify reported that streams of the Badfinger song rose by 9,000 percent, while Billboard reported a 3,000 percent sales gain, which should be good enough to put the song back on the next Hot 100 chart after 41 years, even though only a day’s worth of sales and streams will figure into the tally.

It’s a sort of bittersweet vindication for Badfinger, whose collective and individual fates have conjured a sense of sadness over the years. “The band in retrospect was one of these kind of tragedies … one of those head-shakers,” said Rundgren, reached by The Hollywood Reporter at his home in Hawaii on Monday. “They had a lot of problems dealing with management and that sort of thing,” he noted -- not to mention the greater sorrow of the eventual suicides of two band members, including the singer/songwriter behind “Baby Blue,” Pete Ham. “So a lot of the time when the band’s name comes up, it’s usually in this context of an ‘if only’ kind of thing: ‘what if’ this, ‘what if’ that. And it’s kind of interesting now to have the band getting some recognition in a different context. Good for them!”

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The context in which “Baby Blue” was placed by Breaking Bad could scarcely have been imagined by Pete Ham when he wrote it as a sort of apology to an estranged girlfriend, Dixie Armstrong, who’s mentioned in the lyrics. The opening line, “Guess I got what I deserved,” certainly applies both to Ham’s sorry romantic lot at the time and to Walter White’s rueful, bloody end.

But there’s also a decidedly wry aspect to the placement of the song. While Ham was writing a love song to a girl, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan used it as Walt’s final love song to his beloved blue meth. Not since Paul Thomas Anderson placed ELO’s “Livin’ Thing” at the end of Boogie Nights as a tribute to Dirk Diggler’s penis has a pop song been used quite so ironically by a director as an unexpected grace note.

“So he’s fondling the equipment?” quipped Rundgren -- who as of Monday still hadn’t seen the episode -- as THR described the context of the final scene to him.

The 1971 album from which “Baby Blue” sprang, Straight Up, is now regarded as a classic, and in some ways the prototype for an entire genre of power pop, bridging the gap between the Beatles and Big Star. Badfinger was the one act on the Beatles’ Apple label that bore any resemblance to their corporate bosses, and they had a lot to live up to. They did, with four top 20 singles, of which “Baby Blue” was the last (preceded by “Come and Get It,” “No Matter What,” and “Day After Day”).

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“They were kind of like almost an ersatz Beatles,” said Rundgren, who counted the Straight Up album as one of his first big production credits. “And when their very first records came out, like ‘Come and Get It,’ they were produced to sound like the Beatles, in a way. Paul McCartney’s writing songs for them! So it was kind of a way of broadening the Beatles’ franchise, I think … Badfinger was almost filling a void that was opened up when the Beatles stopped recording together.”

George Harrison was even intended to be the producer for Straight Up, and he gets sole producer credit for “Day After Day,” although that’s long been a sore point for Rundgren, who substantially reworked that track. In any case, there’s no dispute over “Baby Blue,” which was the first track Rundgren recorded from scratch with the band when he took over the project. The tortured history of the album has been recounted in a couple of well-regarded books (Dan Matovina’s Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger and Paul MyersA Wizard a True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio).

Rundgren elaborated on the process for THR: " 'Oh geez, let’s just get this thing wrapped up somehow!’ was essentially the mandate,” the producer recalls with a chuckle, reflecting on how little crafting a future classic was on everyone’s mind. “It seemed to me that they had spent enough time working on the record and that they really needed to get it done.” Indeed, the making of the album had been drawn out for over a year -- first with Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick in the producer’s chair, then Harrison -- before management brought in Rundgren, who then was known primarily for working with The Band and having a minor hit with “We Gotta Get You a Woman.” He was a fast worker, all right: About half the album consisted of all-new tracks Rundgren recorded with the group, and the other half existing tracks that he did substantial rerecording on, all in about 10 days.

“It wasn’t so much focusing on any one or another track to make sure that they would make good singles. The band had something of a sensibility for that anyway … I got two batches of tapes: the ones that George had worked on and the ones that Geoff Emerick had worked on, and they sounded like two completely different records. The intention had been that George was going to do a complete record with them using that au courant sound that was going around at the time, [a la] Phil Spector, that involved five or six acoustic guitars playing all the time, double-tracked drums and all kinds of stuff to make it sound really big. But everything that you produce with that style tends to sound the same. I was a little more interested in actually moving a little closer to what Geoff Emerick was doing, which was trying to capture what the band actually sounded like."

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Erasing a Beatle's efforts was just in a day’s work for Rundgren. “A lot of the George Harrison mixes, I stripped stuff out or replaced things, because it sounded like a George Harrison record, just with other people singing the vocals. I had a certain way of recording the drums, and that usually for my productions was what in some ways helped everything hang together -- the sort of basic sound at the center of everything. In the end, you didn’t want the record to leave people with the impression that the record was from three different sets of sessions … ‘Baby Blue’ was the first new track that we actually recorded. I was putting a guitar through a Leslie [amplifier], which was designed for an organ, so it got this kind of swirly guitar sound that was somewhat signature on the song. But in terms of, did we think this was a hit or that’s a hit or whatever? I recall it more being a question of, ‘Let’s just finish it somehow!’ ”

More than four decades later, the song was used to finish off Walter White. Did everyone get what they deserved? Badfinger fanatics -- who are legion -- are reveling in the revival, even as they feel sorrow recalling that the ill-fated group never again cracked the top 50 after “Baby Blue” peaked at No. 14 in 1972. (Ham committed suicide in 1975, followed by Tom Evans in 1983.) For his part, Rundgren went on to much greater success: He went directly from Straight Up into recording his signature solo album, Something/Anything? and had a production career that has encompassed everything from Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot” to Meat Loaf’s 14x platinum Bat Out of Hell.

Rundgren is torn about whether to watch Sunday night’s show, after only having seen a few installments. “I was thoroughly aware that last night was the final episode of the series, because my wife had spent the last week trying to get caught up after we’d been out of the country for the last eight or nine months.” (He was touring behind State, his 24th studio album as a solo artist.)

“It seems like there are two worlds out there -- one that has revolved around Breaking Bad, and then the one that I’ve been in, which just kind of observes it from afar. My band members are just fanatical about the show but [insist you have] to see the episodes in the proper order. I’m kind of torn now about whether I should just out of vanity go watch the last episode and have it done with -- which I understand is a strict violation of the code!”

Twitter: @chriswillman