The Guess Who introduced their Canadian brand of rock to most Americans in 1969 with These Eyes. More Top 10 hits followed: Laughing, No Time and their double-sided number one, American Woman and No Sugar Tonight.
The core of the Guess Who was singer Burton Cummings and guitarist Randy Bachman, who co-wrote most of the Guess Who’s hits. Cummings’ distinctive voice and Bachman’s versatile guitar work allowed the band to easily move between ballads, hard rock and jazz.
It was a shock in 1970 when Bachman rejected the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and left the Guess Who at the height of their success. Bachman founded Brave Belt, a country rock band that never clicked with fans. Then Bachman switched gears and with bassist Fred Turner roared back in 1973 with Bachman-Turner Overdrive, a working man’s band that scored with Takin’ Care of Business, You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet and Roll On Down the Highway.
Bachman left BTO in 1977 but continues to perform solo and with his former bandmate as Bachman & Turner. As host of Sirius Radio’s Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap Stories, the guitarist shares his favorite music and stories of his decades in rock. Bachman expanded the concept with Every Song Tells a Story, a 14-track CD/DVD set released in August.
Recorded in concert, the new DVD delivers a masters course in rock music as Bachman reveals the stories behind his greatest hits. Bachman recently talked with Rock Cellar Magazine about his life with two groundbreaking bands – and why he almost sued Ringo Starr and the Who’s John Entwistle.
Rock Cellar Magazine: After the country rock of Brave Belt, why did you make the shift to the blue collar style of BTO?
Randy Bachman: Trying to pay the rent. When I left the Guess Who, they were the number one band with American Woman. They had a string of five or six million sellers. I didn’t have a great voice like Burton Cummings to sing the songs. Neil Young told me, “You can’t be a second-rate Guess Who. It’s just like me leaving Buffalo Springfield. I can’t get five guys and try to do the same thing. It’s gotta be something different.”
We got mild radio airplay and starved. It was the wrong thing on the radio at the wrong time to come from a number one band and go to below ground zero to the basement and start over.
We found that every time that we would play a song that wasn’t ours, like Brown Sugar, Jumpin’ Jack Flash or Proud Mary, people would get up and dance. When we played our country rock stuff, nobody danced. After two records our label had to drop us. We were way below the bottom line and not selling anything.
I’d say to Turner, “OK, let’s write a song like Proud Mary. Let’s do sing-along choruses like ‘Let it roll down the highway,’ or ‘Try, try, try to let it ride.’ Like Proud Mary’s ‘Rollin’ on the river.’ And so we did it really simple. Once in a while I’d throw in a jazz song like Lookin’ Out for #1.
I finally had a guy from Mercury Records call and say, “I’ll give you a shot with Brave Belt III but change the name.” So we changed it to Bachman-Turner Overdrive and on the album was the “let’s play to survive” rock ‘n’ roll, the “let’s play meat and potatoes” rock ‘n’ roll. And guys who eat meat and potatoes, the blue collars out there ended up calling our album “blue collar rock ‘n’ roll.”
It was rock ‘n’ roll for the average guy who wore jeans and a flannel shirt.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You’ve talked about how John Fogerty came backstage and heard you playing jazz licks. What did he say?
Randy Bachman: “Gee, that’s really great. Never play it on stage. Play something that people can sing and listen to.”
I was also told if you can find the melody in your head and play it, somebody else can remember it and then play it in their head and then that’s how you’ll sell records.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You’ve said the art of songwriting is the art of plagiarism. What do you mean by that?
It’s all been written. There’s nothing original. If you ask any songwriter of any hit song, he should probably tell you – if he’s honest – what inspired that song.
I was born with music in my head. Most songwriters were. And so there’s this soundtrack playing all the time. And so when you pick up an instrument, if you have the talent, you start to play that music that’s in your head.
If someone comes up and says, “You stole that from Chopin or Irving Berlin or Brian Wilson,” you say, “I’m sorry, I had no idea. It’s just in my head, I don’t know where it came from.” That happens to me all the time.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Stuttering has been a staple of rock since the early days. How did you come to add the stutter of You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet?
Randy Bachman: The song was a work song, it was not supposed to be on an album. It was goofing around and tuning up the guitar and getting a sound in a studio. I have a brother who stuttered and so I stuttered throughout the song. The song means nothing, I don’t even know what it means. I just sang about meeting a woman and she took my heart away and she said, “Buh-buh-buh baby, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
I was only going to mix one copy and send it to my brother to tease him that it was going to be on a BTO album. And when the head of our label, Charlie Fach, came in to hear the album as I was mixing it – this was Not Fragile – he said, “I’m looking for a song to get you on Top 40 radio. It’s icing on your cake, you’ll get more money for your box office and you’ll sell more singles and that will sell more albums.”
So he hears all of Not Fragile and he says, “They’re really great album cuts but I don’t hear a Top 40 single.” So I said, “Well, that’s the album, we’ve had a week to cut it, we’ve cut the album in a week. That’s the album, take it or leave it.”
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