Randy Bachman’s Storied Career

Randy Bachman talks with Pollstar about his incredible rock ’n’ roll career and how he became a musical storyteller.

There’s probably a Bachman song playing somewhere, every single moment of every day.  A founding member of The Guess Who, Bachman wrote or co-wrote many of the band’s early hits, including “American Woman,” “These Eyes,” “Undun” and “No Time.”

But it was when he formed Bachman-Turner Overdrive when Bachman’s affinity for writing chart-toppers shifted into high gear with hits like “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” “Let it Ride,” “Roll On Down The Highway” and “Takin’ Care Of Business.”

Bachman recently released Every Song Tells A Story, a 14-track CD/DVD featuring the guitar-man captivating a hometown audience at Winnipeg’s Pantages Playhouse Theatre by telling the stories behind his songs.

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Do you ever think your years with The Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive were to mainly to provide stories for you to tell years later?

Who knows?  You never know what’s next. This came out of the blue.  We’d seen Ray Davies doing his “Storyteller” thing with The Kinks music in London about 15 years ago. We met him backstage and he said, “You can do a better show than me. You have two bands, 15 hit songs to talk about.”

I got back to Vancouver and was asked to do a show for a fundraiser for the Canadian Cancer Society.  “We’ve chosen you for our favorite entertainer,” they told me.  “But we don’t want you to blow the plates off of the table.  It’s a $5,000 a plate dinner … in a big country club.”

And I said, “I’m not really great at acoustic.  My music’s not really acoustical, but I’ll play it quieter and I’ll tell the stories.”  I do the Ray Davies thing and it was a big success and everybody says, “Why don’t you put it on a DVD? We’d buy 12 of them and send them to our family and friends around the world.”

So as time goes by, I do it better and better.  My stories get better and smoother.  I get a radio show where I tell the stories behind all the music I’ve played.  Last spring I started to do it and my manager says, “Let’s record it live for DVD when you get to Winnipeg.  It’s your home town.  You can go home again, you can tell the stories again.  All these stories germinated out of Winnipeg. Let’s go and do it.”

We do it at the Pantages Theatre.  It [the DVD] comes out and starts to sell … which triggers releases in England, Germany and Australia and everybody’s suddenly into the story-telling thing.  I’m getting incredible reviews, sales starting … and people are loving it.  I think the songs, I think they become more precious or they take on more meaning.  Just like going to see Paul McCartney.  Every song is a damn tear jerker.  I’m going to see Eagles tonight.  I’ve seen them three times in the last three years.  I’ve seen Queen twice in the last two months.  I love it. Every song rips your heart out.  They remind you of the happy days.  We all had our happy days.  It wasn’t Fonzie and Richie Cunningham, but we all had our happy days.  That’s what the music reminds us of.  So it’s great.

What was the story behind one of the first BTO singles – “Blue Collar?”

That wasn’t a big hit but a lot of people love it.  The whole album was rock ’n’ roll and that little token sidestep, that little speed bump was “Blue Collar.”  It was written about a blue collar guy and how musicians rest their feet when the world’s in heat and wish you could do the same.  And I got to do a lot of my Lenny Breau, Howard Roberts, Barney Kessel jazz stuff.  Especially doing the ending where we double-timed it.  I’ve had such great comments from guys like George Benson and Roy Buchanan, Gary Moore, Eddie Van Halen, saying that guitar changed their lives. … Also writing “Undun” by The Guess Who – the same, similar jazz thing.  Then “Lookin’ Out For # 1” with BTO later on.  Those songs were life-changing moments  for rock ’n’ roll guys to know that you could play jazz.  When they heard it on the radio they couldn’t believe it was a rock ’n’ roll band – BTO playing just cool jazz stuff.  Which to me was a thrill. 

I couldn’t do a whole album about that.  I tried a whole album and it was very boring because I played the same things over and over… Play rock ’n’ roll and do a jazzy, bossa nova song like that is a lot of fun.  I can pull it off once in a while.

So “Lookin’ Out For #1” was another attempt to  have a hit with that sound?

Yeah … it got a lot of airplay.  I think BTO’s name was known.  Then our greatest hits album. … When you have a hit album … people go back and buy your old catalog.  So a lot of people bought the first album.  It sold 6 million or 7 million copies but it took 6 or 7 years.  The first year it didn’t sell.

It [“Lookin’ Out For # 1”] gets played on radio a lot.  They love it on jazz radio, MOR radio, on adult radio.  Being a rock band, it’s amazing for BTO to get played on different formats.  And that’s the song that got us played [on those stations].  Then people go and discover the rock side because they’ve heard us on AOR radio, jazz radio or adult contemporary. Then they play “Blue Collar” and “Lookin’ Out For # 1” back to back and people go, “Wow! This guy can really play guitar.” And it’s nice to be known as a guitar player.

You mention in the story behind “American Woman” that you and your Guess Who  bandmates almost got drafted in the U.S.  As Canadian citizens, why were you targeted by the Selective Service?

Instead of a work permit you get a green card which means you can live and work in the States. And when a war is going on it means you can be drafted.  You’re treated as an American citizen. When you’re in a war in a jungle and you run out of young guys to draft and everybody between 18 and 35 is gone into a jungle war … or are draft-dodging in Canada, and healthy Canadians come down and you can draft them – bada bing, you’re going to get drafted.

We almost got drafted. The draft board was after us.  We had to drive around, cross over the border, turn in our green cards and come back home to Canada.  I break a string, put a [new one] on, play a riff and Burton [Cummings] ran on stage and sang, “American Woman.  Stay away from me.”  That was not the woman in the street.  That was the Statue Of Liberty in the “Uncle Sam Wants You” poster.

But The Guess Who toured America after that.

The war was over and they did go back and get more green cards.  Then The Guess Who is suddenly Tricia Nixon’s favorite band and was invited to play the White House.  I wasn’t there.  I left right after “American Woman” and they played the White House without me.  Amazingly enough, they didn’t play “American Woman.”  They were told not to play it and they succumbed.  If I was there I would have played the damn song.  The person who needed to hear it was Richard Nixon.

Didn’t BTO have some strict rules compared to other ’70s bands?  Such as no drinking, no drugs, no sex outside of marriage?

I wouldn’t say all of that.  That’s a little puritanical.  But I said to the band, “I got screwed in The Guess Who.  They screwed themselves up with drugs and alcohol. … Let’s not be idiots here. I’m investing my money in you guys who know nothing. You are my younger brothers, you’re Fred Turner I’m giving a break to.  You want to waste my time and money?  Go do it somewhere else.  I know how to do this.  You want to get on my train and ride? I’m going to pay your bills and salary out of my own pocket because we’re earning nothing as BTO until we have a hit.  You’re going to stick to my rules or don’t get on my train.”  [They said] “OK, Randy.  We’ll do it.”

The minute we did it and everybody is a millionaire, they went berserk.  In ’76, ’77, it was time to end that ride.  I don’t want to waste my money doing that.  I have never done a drug in my life.  I stopped drinking when I was 23. I rock out, I have sex, I have a lot of girlfriends.  I’m a divorced guy.  Two out of three ain’t bad. The sex is fine, but forget the drugs and alcohol.  I don’t need it.

Do you think being clean and sober during ’70s is why you can remember all of these stories?

Exactly.  I’m the only guy who remembers the ’60s who was there in the ’70s.  I remember every gig, every song, everybody I ever met.  That’s why I have a radio show called “Vinyl Tap.”  I tell these stories every Saturday night for two hours and I have 11 million fans who listen to Randy’s “Vinyl Tap” on CBC Radio or on Sirius Satellite or on CBC internet radio.  That’s my fun thing.  That’s how I remember these shows and stories.  There’s no script for “Every Song Tells A Story.”  I just tell similar stories every night on how I wrote these songs.  A lot of guys in the bands don’t remember how these songs were written or where we were.  I remember everything.

Were you able to hold on to your publishing rights?

I did for a while then I had a chance to sell them a  great monetary profit to Sony, but the reversion laws [mean] I’m getting them back in a couple of years.

The royalties on something like “Takin’ Care Of Business” Or “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” have to be immense.

They are.  I just got a deal with Mark Burnett.  His new ABC reality show called “On The Menu.” The new theme song is “Takin’ Care Of Business.”  It [publishing] is the gift that keeps on giving. 

Are  you still observing your own experiences today for stories to tell  tomorrow?

Oh, yeah.  I have a new blues album coming out next year.  The way I wrote these songs and how I got the band was amazing.  My whole life is one amazing thing, every couple of years I can go back and tell people the story, tell my children and grandchildren.

My life is like a fairy tale in a way.  There are bad moments, bad corners and speed bumps along the way, generally, I’ve had a lot of strike outs.  But like all the home run kings, you got to go to bat and strike out 100 times, then maybe hit 10 home runs.  And everybody will say, “Wow!  He hit 10 home runs” and not that he struck out 100 times.  They only remember the hits.  So there I am celebrating 15 hits and not the other 250 songs or 1,000 songs that were flops.  It’s like rewriting history in a way with your successes, [while] omitting the errors, so to speak, or treating them ever so lightly.  But I cherish the errors.  They were falters, false stops, mistakes that I decided not to make again.  They were learning experiences.  I learn from every error, cherish every hit and every successful moment because they are few and far between.  When you’ve had as long a career as I have, it’s quite impressive to look at the back of Every Song Tells A Story” and go, “Wow!  The guy has 16 hit songs and he left out a couple. … That’s pretty darn good, that’s a nice little collection of a lifetime of music.

And it still goes on. My blues album Is coming out and it’s going to blow everybody away.  Whether it does or not, it doesn’t matter.  In my mind it’s going to blow everybody away.

“A lot of guys in the bands don’t remember how these songs were written or where we were.  I remember everything.”

Randy Bachman’s upcoming shows:

Oct. 14 – Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Community Theatre Centre
Oct. 17 – London, Ontario, Centennial Hall
Oct. 18 – London, Ontario, Centennial Hall
Oct. 19 – Kitchener, Ontario, Centre In The Square
Oct. 22 – Ottawa, Ontario, Centrepointe Theatre
Oct. 23 – Saint Catharines, Ontario, Brock Centre For The Arts
Oct. 24 – Mississauga, Ontario, Living Arts Centre
Oct. 25 – Markham, Ontario, Flato Markham Theatre
Oct. 26 – Burlington, Ontario, Burlington Performing Arts Centre

Please visit RandyBachman.com for more information.