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Archive Interview: Randy Bachman (2014)

Did you know that Randy Bachman is the only person to be inducted twice into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame? He didn't know it either!

You can't blame him. Bachman has had an amazing, very busy career which has taken him to the top of the mountain twice as a member of the Guess Who and a founding member of Bachman-Turner Overdrive along with a multitude of other projects that have kept him in the studio and on the road for over fifty years.

His latest release, Vinyl Tap Tour: Every Song Tells a Story, is a DVD and CD of a concert that Bachman has been doing over the last couple of years where he takes a chronological journey through the songs that he has written and recorded.

VVN Music had the honor of talking to Bachman at length about that release and his amazing 50+ years in the music business.

VVN Music (VVN): Congratulations on the new album and DVD.

Randy Bachman (RB): Thank you. It's been out in Canada for awhile. That triggered the U.S. and U.K. release because, to my astonishment, it's selling!

VVN: This album came about because you did a tour which was, essentially, a Storytellers type show. What made you decide to go out and do that type of program.

RB: Well, about ten years ago I was in London, England and I saw a show called Storyteller: An Evening with Ray Davies. I went running there, which is pretty hard to do in London because you can't run anywhere. The streets aren't parallel or perpendicular, so I go lost. I finally got a taxi and I'm swetting like mad. I want to make this show and I tell him "take me to the Drury Lane Theater" and he says "are you sure?" and I say "Yes!" So he drives me around the corner and says "here it is" and it cost me five pounds.

So, I go running in and the opening act is done and it's intermission. Ray Davies is about to come on, so they are taking down the merch stand and the posters. It was the last date of this tour after four or five shows. I go running up to the merch counter and say "Can I buy this poster?" and he says "You can have it, we're just throwing them away."

I roll up the poster and take it in to my seat and I sit next to a guy named Rupert Perry who used to be the head of Capitol Records in Canada and was then the head of EMI all over Europe and the U.K. We're sitting there talking and, at the end, I say "This show is so great." He says, "Do you want to meet Ray Davies" and I go "Yeah! Are you kidding?"

So, we go backstage and meet him and I have the poster so I pull it out and he autographs it. He's stunned that I have his poster and want it autographed. I say "that was just an amazing show" and he says "you can do a better show than me. You've got two bands, the Guess Who and BTO. You could tell all these stories." So I thought "Hmm...not a bad idea."

I went back to Canada and, at the same time, I got a request to do a charity show to raise some money for the cancer society. I thought, instead of blowing everybody's face off with rock 'n' roll, cause it's a sit down dinner and they're paying $2,500 a plate, I'll just get an acoustic guitar and my band and I'll tell the stories like Ray Davies. I had told the stories to different DJ's all my life like "How did you write American Woman or Taking Care of Business." Still, utting them all together was quite an exercise of brain power and recollection.

I put them chronologically which makes it much easier for me to recall them and did the evening. Everyone came up to me when I was done and said "boy, if you recorded that, we'd buy twelve copies and send them to our relatives all over the world because everyone knows these the songs but they don't know the background and how you wrote them."

I ended up doing a small tour and it was successful and we did it again last year just by public request. Now you can find out what the public wants because fans e-mail your website. We took it out on the road and did about 30 or 40 dates in a row.

We finally put together a montage behind me so, when I'm talking and my band is waiting for me to play my song, there is a screen showing old baby pictures of me and my first guitar and the early Guess Who and early Bachman-Turner Overdrive and pictures of Neil Young. We all hung out together in Winnipeg at that time and all had the same teenage dream in the mid-60's.

We did the DVD and it has sold like mad in Canada and it triggered the release now in the states and U.K. and Australia and everywhere else. I'm thrilled that kicking it up a notch has gone so great.

VVN: It will hopefully have the same results here in the U.S. as you did in Canada.

RB: That would be nice. I've been going to Nashville for years and look for songwriters shows with people like John Phillips or David Gates of Bread or someone like that.  I'm very touched by their stories. I imagine in my mind that my stories would also touch people in a good way or a deep feeling way or in a funny way. I think it shows in some of their faces in the audience. It's quite a trip down memory lane to hear me tell the story and visually see behind me the clothes, cars and haircuts of the decade it was written. Then the band performs it and it's the final kaching where you actually hear the record that kind of completes the picture.

Not only am I doing that, but other people I've seen in the last two years like the Beach Boys and Barry Gibb. They all put up the old videos. Even Queen, who I've seen twice in the last month with Adam Lambert. They put those things up and there's nothing like seeing what they used to look like because they don't look like now and neither do you. You go "Oh my god, weren't we silly. Weren't those mullet haircuts stupid. Weren't those plaid pants insane. Weren't those cars cool." Those kind of things.

It's kind of a whole memory lane type of thing. In Canada, it's been called a "must see historical event. A history lesson in Canadian music." It's not just me and my band. It's basically what was happening in Canada from the early-60's when I was in the Guess Who and we had our first hit with Shakin' All Over. It was around '65 and we're all like teenagers in high school not knowing what a hit record meant except that you heard it on the radio. Then, to be revisiting that thirty or forty years later, it's an amazing thing for me to recall every night. To actually be sitting there with people who know artistically what I've done for the last forty or fifty years.

VVN: I noticed from the track list on the CD/DVD compared to the original set list from those shows that you cut three songs. Was there a reason to do that?

RB: It was all timing. Some of the stories I told on that DVD were so long, I had the video editor calling me saying "you can't fit this all on a DVD. You've got to cut some of it off so can we cut the story of Undone with the Bob Dylan thing?" I'd tell them as long as it doesn't hurt the story. Taking Care of Business is a huge, long story that goes from '67 up until right now.

They ended up taking off some songs that they thought weren't as important. They took off Oya Coma Va because it was just part of the song and it was part of the story of Taking Care of Business. They said they couldn't get clearance from the publisher for the Tito Puente song.

They did a lot of things there that weren't artistic. They were business. As long as I touched on my main hits. Maybe the next one will squeeze in a few more.

VVN: On the DVD, you start with Prairie Town. What's the story behind that song?

RB: I had a chance to do an album in the mid-90's. A new guy had taken over Sony Canada and he was looking for Canadian talent. He called me up and asked if I had a record deal and, when I said no, he asked if I wanted to do a solo record. I sat down and wrote a song that was retrospective about growing up in Winnipeg, the ultimate prairie town. As I was rewriting it and recording it, I got a FAX from Neil Young's guitar roadie Larry Craig saying he was looking for a switch tip for a Gretsch and I knew you were a Gretsch collector. Do you have any?

So, I threw a couple into an envelope and mailed it to him down in California. I also put in the lyrics to Prairie Town. A few days later, out of my FAX machine, comes a thing from Neil Young from Broken Arrow Ranch. I'm looking at this in amazement. It was from Neil saying "thanks for the switch tips for the Gretsch. Read the lyrics to Prairie Town and I want to be part of the song. I love the lyrics."

I called him up and he said "come on down to the ranch and I want to play on this song." I told him I had two versions, slow and fast. He said "Great, I'll play on both. It's like Tonight's the Night. I did like ten versions of that song."

I flew down to his ranch and recorded the slow and fast versions of the song. I stayed overnight and was having breakfast the next day with him and Peggy and he said "I want to be in the video" and I'm thinking "What? Am I going to do a video?" I wasn't planning on it. I didn't think this was a single because it's a long story song. At that moment, I didn't know I was shooting a video.

He said "Come on back in a week or so and I'll get my crew together", because he has a crew available all the time that shoots everything he does. I went back and we shot a slow and fast version with him playing on both.

Neil is an integral part of my beginning in Winnipeg and I was an integral part of his beginning and we were all going at the same time. The early Guess Who, the Deverons that Burton Cummings was in, Neil Young and the Squires. We were all bands in the Winnipeg area in the '65, '66, '67 time and then, boom, we all left town and had our hits with the Guess Who and Buffalo Springfield.

It's very important to have that song in there. It kind of puts the setting in there, especially if you are Canadian.

VVN: When did you join with Chad Allan? Was that in the late 50's?

RB: No, it about '61, '62. Something like that.

VVN: Then, in '65, Shakin' All Over happened and it was a hit in a number of countries. Was that supposed to be put out as Chad Allan and the Expressions?

RB: We wanted to be like Cliff Richard and the Shadows. So Chad Allan's real name is Allan Kowbel, which was not a great musical name at the time. He decided to keep Allan as his last name and get a British name, like Chad and Jeremy, so he became Chad Allan and the Reflections.

Then a band called the Reflections had a hit called Just Like Romeo and Juliet and we got a letter from their lawyer saying you can't be called the Reflections, so we tried to find something that sounded like Reflections and I thought of Expressions. So we became Chad Allan and the Expressions.

A month later we got another letter from a lawyer from Detroit which said "I represent a band called the Expressions. They've been together 14 months. We just signed with Motown. You can't use that name."

Meanwhile, we cut the song Shakin' All Over which we had gotten from somebody in England. It had been a hit in England in '61 by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates who wrote it.

We recorded the song and sent it to our record label in Toronto and they said "This song sounds like a hit. It sounds like a British party record. It's really great. What's the name of the band?" We said we don't have a name. Every time we get a name we get a cease and desist order. They said "We want to put this out right now" so they put out a record with a white label that said Shakin' All Over in about half inch tall print and at the bottom they put "Guess Who?".

They did fifty copies. It went out to fifty radio stations in Canada and then the buzz started and the company was saying "This was cut at a British party by Joe Meek who cut Telstar (also at a party) and it's got Brian Jones on it and George Harrison and they can't say who it is because they're all in different bands so you've got to guess who this is." So it has this British mystique and it sounded very British because we were copying a British hit. It went to number 1 in Canada and Scepter Records put it out in the states where it went top twenty in Billboard and suddenly we were called Guess Who and that's how we got the name.

I tell that story on the DVD so people know we didn't think of this name. This was no brainstorm. We thought it was stupid at the time because we went through all the jokes. That's when Abbott and Costello were big with Who's on First. Then the Who came out a couple of years later and we went to England in '67. We went to see the Who at the Marquis club and said "You can't use this name. We own the name Guess Who and that's us. They said "There's the Byrds and the Yardbirds so there can be the Who and the Guess Who so just bugger off."

We were going to tour with them just as John Entwistle was passing away and call the tour Who's on First because they were going to open one night and we were going to open the next night. We were going to take advantage of the Abbott and Costello joke and, right as we were about to start, John Entwistle passed away.

VVN: You continued to have hits in Canada after Shakin' All Over but, here in the states, it was four years before These Eyes broke.

RB: Yeah, quite a dry spell. We had to comeback after Chad Allan quit the band because he became nameless and faceless. There was no Chad Allan anymore. He had started the band. He was the lead singer. He used to play lead guitar.

When I went to my first audition with the band, I learned a whole bunch of Shadows and Ventures songs. He broke a string and I finished playing the lead guitar part. I had grown up playing violin and all you play on violin is lead. It's a lead instrument like a clarinet. So, I finished playing the song and he said "Wow, you play better lead then me" and I said, smugly, "Yes, I know."

So he said "It's hard for me to play lead guitar and sing at the same time so I'll just play rhythm and you'll play lead" so he got bumped out of the lead guitar position and then, suddenly, his name got taken off the marquis as we were called Guess Who. He said, "I don't like this: and went back to school. He went back to the University of Manitoba and got his degree and we looked for another band in Winnipeg who had a great lead singer. That was the Deverons and their lead singer was Burton Cummings.

So we got Burton Cummings to join the band in late '66/early '67 and we struggled playing high school dances and churches and socials and weddings and bar mitzvahs and fashion shows and anywhere we could play until he and I started writing together. Out of that came These Eyes, Laughing, No Time, American Woman, that string of hits for the Guess Who that all happened in about two years from '68 to '70 and then I left in May of 1970. At that point I'd been with the band eight or nine years.

VVN: It's my understanding you left the Guess Who because of health problems and because of disagreements over lifestyle.

RB: Yeah, that's a good way to put it but the real term is the drug culture and everything else that was happening in the music business. I was in it purely for the music and the other guys were in it for the party aspect and the music. The lifestyles split in the late 60's when I realized I'm allergic to smoke and everyone else was starting to smoke, not just cigarettes, but everything else. That was a big division.

Then, being Canadian and having to cross the border all the time back and forth, there was the chance of these guys getting busted and not be able to work in the states again. The old John Lennon green card one marijuana joint bust where he couldn't work in the states but he could live there because he couldn't be deported. It was a haunting kind of thing. I didn't want some other guy's bad habits, as I called them because I didn't have those habits, to prevent my dream of being a touring rock and roll musician in the states and Canada and all over the world.

I kept saying to them "You guys don't need to do this. We started out straight and we can still make our music straight." They still wanted to party and I was like the narc at every party. We didn't have a manager. I kind of managed and was the leader of the band. I had to get everybody up in the morning and deal with their headaches and hangovers and it just became so tedious.

Then, I started to have a gall bladder problem, having an attack every night on the road which is the most painful thing in the world. Every single night for two weeks. I went home to Winnipeg and the doctor said "you need to take three months off, rest and stop eating fried foods and sugary foods". I went to the band and said "I've got to go in the hospital" and they said "Great, we're replacing you." So the was sort of mutual. I wanted out, they wanted me out. Unfortunately, it happened when the American Woman album and single were number 1 on the charts and I was painted to look like an idiot leaving this band at the top of the mountain.

VVN: You were a practicing Mormon at the time. Are you still with the church?

RB: No, I stopped that about ten years ago. I have to say that, when I decided that I couldn't smoke and drink, I joined the Mormon church and it kept me alive through those years. Many of my other friends never made it. They either OD'd or became alcoholics or drug attics. Whenever I could, I went to church on Sunday. I dressed up and went to church and it was like a health club in some ways. You knew that everybody either doesn't or tries not to drink or smoke or drink coffee. I've never drank coffee to this day in my life. I haven't had a drink since I was 24. I've never smoked. I've never done any drugs. If I keep on going it's because of my love of being alive and making music and searching for the next hit record that I'm going to try and write and play and sing.

VVN: It looks like you took about a year off between the Guess Who and when you started Brave Belt.

RB: Yeah, that was my hospital recovering, going out to the in-laws in the country and just laying there in the sun and doing nothing phase. With the Guess Who, we were on the road for five years solid. We never went home. We never did our laundry. We'd leave behind our dirty laundry in the hotel and go to J.C. Penney's and buy three packs of underwear and t-shirts and socks and just keep buying clean clothes and throwing the old ones away. We just toured and toured.

Then I took that time off and started BTO and it became the same thing. When BTO was together, or Brave Belt as we started out, we would tour 300 days a year. We'd do 90 days and go home for a week and go out for another 90 days. Suddenly three or four years go by. Those were the days before nationalized radio, before internet radio, before MTV and you had to go everywhere for people to see you and to get radio momentum going. You had to visit all these stations.

VVN: I'm not sure, though, with the way that record sales have gone that it wouldn't almost be the same thing now since people are making so much of their money from touring.

RB: It is. It's totally gone back to the 60's. All your money is from touring or getting your song used in a movie or television show or commercial. As a songwriter, you're getting ripped off and as an artist you're getting ripped off. They could fix it but they choose not to.

VVN: Down here in the states, I'm not sure about in Canada, I think that BTO is probably better remembered then the Guess Who, primarily because of constant play on classic rock radio.

RB: I think so. The Guess Who were more of a pop band whereas BTO were more heavy rock. It was a new genre. We kind of evolved as 60's bands got louder, the PA systems got louder, which they called heavier which is a polite word for loud. It became heavier loud rock with big hooks in the choruses. It was still pop music but played heavier.

BTO was about a four or five year flash where the Guess Who was about double that but BTO sold more records in a shorter period of time and hit number 1 with You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet and the album Not Fragile and sold another thirty million records in the space of three to four years where it took the Guess Who a long, long time. The Guess Who went on without me into the late 70's and, still, BTO surpassed them in record sales and I think the public does remember BTO more because we're from that era of '72-'73, when there was an explosion of Aerosmith and Peter Frampton and the Doobie Brothers and ZZ Top and the Allman Brothers. It was two guitars, bass and drums basically and everybody loved it. Everybody was a guitar player. It was a carrying on of the tradition of the Beatles and the Stones. It was time for a new group of bands and I was very lucky that BTO was one of those bands. Plus, those artists are still around today. I'm flying out next week to play with Peter Frampton and Frampton's Guitar Circus with him and Buddy Guy and Billy Gibbons. We're all still around which is quite amazing.

VVN: Is it hard for you, in the show you did for this DVD, to transition between the Guess Who and the BTO music as far as style changes.

RB: No, because I did it chronologically. I start the show with Prairie Town, which is me and Neil Young and the whole story of growing up in Winnipeg and how all the bands got started and then I go right from Shakin' All Over to American Woman followed by an intermission.

So, that's the first half of my musical life, take a little break, come back and put on your seat belts and we're going to get into overdrive and Roll on Down the Highway. So, the transition is quite natural as far as leaving behind the pop music and leaving it on the edge with American Woman which is when I got to my peak with guitar riffs. If I had stayed with the Guess Who we would have gotten into heavier guitar riffs because it was me evolving and getting more of myself into the songs.

VVN: I was doing a bit of research getting ready for this interview and I saw, if I'm not mistaken, that you are the only person that has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame twice. That must have been an amazing honor.

RB: I didn't know that but, if that's true, it is an honor. I knew I was in twice but I didn't know if anybody else was. I was very fortunate to be in these two bands out of Winnipeg that really rocked the world with music. I didn't make it happen. It just happened. I was there chasing a dream of being a guitar player. Be like Elvis and be like John Lennon and Jimmy Page. Wanting to be like Neil Young and Neil Young wanted to be like me and like Elvis. We all wanted to be like the next guy up the ladder and then, suddenly, you look back and you are sort of up the ladder and near the top and all these younger guys trying to be like you. It's a really fun circle to get into. I'm waiting for my next hit. I'm writing my next hit as we speak.

VVN: Are there any plans to recreate the show on the road again?

RB: Yeah, I'm going to take it on the road. I've got a bunch of shows around Toronto in the middle of October. Now I'm getting calls to go down to Detroit and Toledo and Cleveland. I could take it to New York. If people see the DVD and want it, I'll do the show. It's a piece of cake. I'm sitting down. I sit on a stool and talk to people because the visual is going on behind me.

I could easily take that on the road. All I need is a phone call. My whole life is one phone call way.

VVN: It sounds like you have absolutely no plans at all of retiring.

RB: No, I have a new album coming out next year that's a total blues album that I cut with a female drummer and bass player. It's heavy blues like the late British 60's. Peter Frampton is a guest. Scott Holiday from Rival Sons. Neil Young's a guest. Joe Bonamassa has a solo. It's going to be amazing. I've reinvented myself at Neil Young's urging, who said "Don't put out a new album of the same old stuff. Do something totally new. Scare yourself. Scare the fans. Amaze yourself and maybe you'll amaze the fans."

So I wrote all this stuff, got this new band with these two ladies who play like Keith Moon and John Entwistle. It's called Heavy Blues and it's coming out next spring.

VVN: You're getting advice from the man who reinvents his sound almost daily.

RB: That's what he said to me. He said "Don't do the same old Randy Bachman and call it a new album. Change your guitar. Change your amp. Change your clothes. Change everything."  It was very exciting.

Plus, I didn't produce myself. I got Kevin Shirley to produce me. He produced Silverchair and the Zeppelin reissues and the new Aerosmith and Journey and Joe Bonamassa. He's a really incredible producer. I threw my hat into the ring and said "OK, you tell me what to do. You're getting more out of me than I can get out of myself" and he did. I've only got five songs done because we're waiting for the solos to come in from Billy Gibbons and Frampton and guys like that who are all on tour. When those all come in, we'll have the album mixed and it will come out next year. I'm excited about it.