Not a day goes by that classic rock radio stations don’t play a Randy Bachman song. Whether it’s the Guess Who tearing through “American Woman” or Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care Of Business,” the songs of the seventies that Bachman helped create are a staple of everyday radio. For the Canadian-born guitar player, this is a good thing because he likes to talk about his past. On both his popular radio program, Randy’s Vinyl Tap, and his solo tour, appropriately titled Every Song Tells A Story, Bachman engages listeners with his tales of touring and crossing paths with some of the biggest rock stars as if it had just happened yesterday.
Now, he has brought his successful tour to your home via a new DVD/CD set. Recorded last year in his hometown of Winnipeg, Canada, the DVD gives you the full experience of Bachman taking us through his musical history (the CD contains only the music). Starting with the Guess Who’s earliest hits (“Shakin’ All Over,” “No Sugar Tonight”) and then into the boisterous BTO rockers (“Let It Ride” and “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”), you get the songs as well as the stories behind them.
Last month, Bachman took some time out from his busy schedule to share with Glide a few of those stories, as well as what it was like in the early days of the Canadian rock scene with Neil Young, meeting Les Paul, hearing his first song on the radio and having to take on everything when no one would work with him.
Why don’t you tell us about your new DVD/CD set that you have out.
It’s an evening of retrospect, looking back at the six or seven songs that were big hits that I wrote for the Guess Who. Then there’s an intermission, which my life had an intermission after the Guess Who (laughs), and then it picks up with the songs I wrote for Bachman-Turner Overdrive. I tell stories, some are three and four minutes long and some are ten minutes long, and then me and my band play the song. And behind me while I’m doing it is a visual screen with all the old hi-8 films, things that have been transferred, and old still pictures of every band in every era that I am playing a song to. So it’s like a retrospective historical look at the musical timeline of my life and for all the people who are fans, it’s also a soundtrack to their life. They all know the songs that are on classic rock radio today and this is how they were written and where they were written and the stories behind them. I’m getting great response to the whole DVD and CD. The DVD has the stories but the CD just has the music that you can play in your car.
You’ve been doing your shows like this for a while.
I’ve done it off and on for a couple of years but it just so happened with this new band, my stories took on more of a streamline cause I’ve done them so many times. You’re like a comedian: you know what to leave in and what to leave out (laughs). And they put together this visual montage behind me that is going on while I’m telling the stories and that is quite amazing. I’ve never seen it. I’ve only seen the little bit on the DVD cause my back is to it and I’m facing the audience. They put it on behind me and I see the faces of the audience and I see looks of laughter and joy and all that stuff so it’s pretty amazing.
We were doing about forty of these dates last spring, in 2013, and as we got near the end my manager said, “Well, the show is going really good. The audience is loving it, you’ve got your schtick down, the band is playing really good. Let’s record three days in Winnipeg, which is the hometown, it’s a comfort zone, it’s where these songs were born, where the Guess Who and Neil Young and BTO are from. So let’s do it at home.” So we did it and put it out and it started to sell and keeps selling and is selling to this day like mad and that triggered releases in the States and the UK and England and Australia. And I’m getting calls from Germany and Denmark and Sweden and everything.
Who are you seeing in your audience when you look out there? Is it fans you’ve seen for years or are you seeing a lot of new faces?
Oh I see both. I have a weekly radio show called Randy’s Vinyl Tap that I play two hours of my old vinyl and I tell my own personal stories behind meeting the artists that I play. So it might be a story of Brian Wilson or Carl Wilson or Jeff Beck or Ringo Starr or Tina Turner or somebody like that, and the audience got used to me telling those stories. The people listening to my radio show are like ten and twelve year old kids, listening for a music lesson or a musical history lesson, up to their grandparents. So when I’m playing my rock shows I’ll look out and see a teenage boy, I’ll see his dad who might be in his forties and I’ll see his granddad who might be in his sixties and they know all the songs from the Guess Who and BTO and they’ll be singing. They probably all play guitar together at home and it’s just really fun to see.
Is it true that Ray Davies had a similar show which actually influenced you to do your own?
Yes, I saw his show in London about twelve years ago and it was called Storyteller. It was a one man show and there was one ticket left. It was the last show of the week, he had been there a whole week at the Drury Lane Theatre and that’s where the Kinks started and played “You Really Got Me.” So I thought it kind of cool to go there. I got the last ticket for sale and I went in and sat beside a guy whose name was Rupert Perry. I knew him from Toronto. He used to be the head of EMI/Capitol Records in Toronto and at that time he was the head of EMI in England and in the UK and Europe. So after the show he said, “Do you want to come back to meet Ray?” And I said sure, wow, great, fabulous. So I go and meet Ray and I say, “What an incredible, amazing show,” and he looked me in the eye and said, “You can do a show better than this.” I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “You got two bands to celebrate. I only had one. You’ve got twice as many hit songs. So why don’t you try doing a show.” For years I had told the stories about how I wrote “She’s Come Undone” and “Let It Ride,” you know, one at a time, so to put them all together chronologically, it wasn’t that much of an effort.
Then I got an offer to play a fundraiser in Vancouver where they didn’t want me to blow the plates off the tables (laughs). It was a $5000 a plate fundraiser and they said, “Could you play something quieter?” And I said, “Well, I can tell some stories behind my songs and play just a little bit of the songs. I won’t blast the plates off the tables.” We raised a lot of money and at the end of that night a lot of people came to me and said, “You know, if you put that on a DVD we’d buy ten copies and send it to our relatives all over the world.” So a couple of years go by and because of my radio show, I get an offer to take my own show, Every Song Tells A Story, on the road again and we recorded it last year. It’s been out a couple of months now and the sales are really good and getting great responses. And now I’m getting offers of, “Why don’t you bring it to our town? We’ve got a thousand seat theater. Come and do it in New Jersey, come and do it in Eugene, Oregon, come and do it in New Mexico.” They all want me to come and bring this to their towns so we may be looking at that for later this year into next year.
All the memories that you’re sharing, are they coming straight from memory or did you keep a journal or a diary back then that you go back and refresh from?
No, it’s all from memory. I’ve always been a drug-free individual and I don’t drink or smoke so I remember every single gig and most people, I might not remember their name but I remember their face, and it’s all from memory. Although when I am doing my radio show and I do remember a story, I have to look up the exact date cause I don’t remember the exact date. Maybe I saw Gene Vincent in Winnipeg and we had a day off and I invited him to my house for Easter dinner cause he was on the road and eating road food and I wanted him to have a normal Easter dinner. I have to look that date up, it was 1959, so I have to look up some dates in Wikipedia or on the website. The rest of the story is out of my heart and my brain.
What was the music scene like in Canada when you first started with the Guess Who?
Well, Winnipeg, Manitoba, is the center of Canada so all the railways went through that. If you look at a map of North America, it’s almost the center of North America and it’s also the middle of nowhere. The nearest city is four or five hundred miles – Minneapolis to the south, Regina to the west and Toronto to the east. So you’re in the middle of nowhere in this land of snowbound about seven months a year so when you’re a young kid in a band, you tend to stay home and go to school and outside of your school was the community center, just a local hall that the old ladies played bingo in. If you had a wedding, you had the wedding reception there. If you played hockey, you changed your skates in there and went outside and played on a rink outdoors. And if you were in a band, you went there Friday night and had a dance and danced to records and then played in the band for the kids.
The drinking age in Winnipeg was twenty-one so everyone from the age of twenty-one down went to these dances. When we played a high school dance, a community center dance, it would literally be twelve, fifteen hundred kids there dancing. It was like a dance festival and everybody would go and have fun. There would be twenty year olds dancing with their little sisters or little brothers who were fifteen or sixteen, everybody dancing, and the Guess Who came out of that; Burton Cummings & The Deverons, Neil Young & The Squires, were all bands playing around town at that time, all helping each other, trading amps and guitars and basses cause we all weren’t playing that regularly. We’d play maybe two or three times a month on a Friday or Saturday night, and out of that we, I don’t know, fed our dreams. I left town, Neil Young left town, Burton Cummings left town, and I still see them all today and I still play with them off and on and record with them.
What do you remember most about touring life in the seventies?
Touring in the seventies, there still weren’t tour buses. You did it in station wagons or jammed in a van, an econoline van. It’s gotten much better as almost everybody has their own tour bus with a bathtub in the back or something crazy, or a waterbed in the back and a studio in the back or satellite dishes. Or they have their own private airplane like Bon Jovi or Neil Young. You get to an earning potential where it’s better to get your own plane cause you’re traveling with forty or fifty people in your crew. You got a masseuse, a chiropractor, a cook, all your roadies, all your techs; you just buy your own trailer or charter your own plane. So everything has gotten much different. I mean, I’m used to in the seventies jamming all the gear in one station wagon with the seats down. Two guys in the front seat and the rest of us all sitting in the other station wagon and driving in two wagons from gig to gig, four or five hundred miles a night.
When was the first time that you heard one of your songs on the radio?
It was in Winnipeg, our hometown. We had cut a record called “Shakin’ All Over” and they changed our name on the record. We were called Chad Allan & The Reflections but they put Guess Who on the record and they played the record and they said, “Here’s a song called ‘Shakin’ All Over’ by Guess Who.” And I remember phoning the radio station saying, “You got it wrong. It’s Chad Allan & The Reflections.” They said, “No, we have the label right here and it’s by the Guess Who.” And that changed our name to the Guess Who. That was the first time I heard myself on the radio.
That song in itself had been a hit in England in 1961 and we recorded it in 1964 and putting Guess Who on it, the record label called a few DJ’s and this whole buzz started that this song was recorded at a party with Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones, Keith Moon from the Who and all these guys playing on it. And they couldn’t put their real names on the record because they were all signed with different groups with different record labels, so they just put the Guess Who on it as a white label and put it out for fun. So everybody started to buy this record and trying to figure out if that was really Brian Jones playing guitar, was it really Keith Moon on drums or was it really Hank Marvin from the Shadows playing this and that. So this whole mystique started up about it and within two weeks it was a number one record in Canada and it was released in the States and went to top twenty in Billboard and we were still in high school. And we quit school and came on tour here in 1965 and did the Kingsmen “Louie Louie” tour and toured with Dion & The Belmonts and the Crystals and the Ronettes, and we were the backup band for the Crystals and the Ronettes. We had a wonderful summer.
BTO recorded at Sound City. Was it as great as Dave Grohl makes you believe it to be?
Yes, later on with BTO we went to Sound City and did the Not Fragile album there and the Four Wheel Drive album there. We had Neve boards and great rooms. When I was there, Fleetwood Mac was just starting up because they had blown up and Peter Green had left and Jeremy Spencer had left. They were hooking up with Buckingham and Nicks at that time. It was a beehive of rock & roll at that time and we cut our record there and Fleetwood Mac cut their record there and great music came out of there. Nirvana went and cut their record and you’ve seen the Dave Grohl movie I’m sure. He bought that place and it was a magical place.
You’re a producer and you produced some of BTO’s biggest hits. How easy was it for you to one minute be a musician and then the next minute turn around and be the producer of yourself?
It wasn’t easy but I watched the best cause in the Guess Who our producer was Jack Richardson. When I started BTO, I was kind of blackballed in the music industry and nobody wanted to be in my band, nobody wanted to produce me, nobody wanted to book me, so I did everything myself. Then when BTO hit big, I owned everything. I owned the publishing, the production, everything. I made all the guys in the band very rich. They were my brothers. I was the oldest of four boys and my brothers were in the band and my old friend Fred Turner and we made a stack of money because nobody else had any percentage of it cause I did it all myself.
It was a very hard thing to do. It took three albums. I had two albums, Brave Belt I and Brave Belt II, where I fell flat on my face and didn’t know how to mix and didn’t know how to do this and that and I learned really quick cause we got dropped by Reprise Records, the deal Neil Young got me, but got picked up by another label that said change your name, put Bachman in it, put Turner in it. And we put Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Brave Belt III became BTO I and from that point on, I hit the formula for heavy rock and we had all our hits in a row and sold twenty million records.
You’re always asked about “TCB” and “American Woman,” so why don’t you tell us about “Let It Ride.”
Okay, I had read that John Lennon was influenced by a guy named Stockhausen and different classical musicians like Bartok and things like that. I couldn’t find any and I went into a record store and found an old record, Antonin Dvorak’s Piano Concerto In D, and I figured this might influence me. So I played this whole record and it’s really, really, really boring (laughs) and near the end he does this little chord progression. So I figured out on guitar and I have it in my head and then Fred Turner and I are driving down to play New Orleans, play Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and a couple of truck drivers cut us off on the freeway. When one of them takes an exit, we go off to get gas and Fred and I are going to have words with this truck driver, saying, “You’re driving very unsafe and you had us boxed in and you cut us off there on the freeway.” And the guy said, “Look, if it’s no big deal to you, why don’t you just let it ride.” So I look at Fred like, what does that mean? This is 1972, what does let it ride mean? (laughs) It was a trucker’s term that means just let it go, chill out, it’s no big deal. So I have this Antonin Dvorak piano riff that I now play on guitar and I go to our dressing room in New Orleans and I play it for Fred and we write “Let It Ride” in the dressing room. And sharing the dressing room with us and playing Mardi Gras with us were the Doobie Brothers. So go to your record collection, play the beginning to “Let It Ride” and then play the beginning to “Long Train Running” and you’ll hear what the Doobie Brothers took from my Antonin Dvorak guitar lift (laughs).
Were you playing at the Warehouse in New Orleans?
Yeah, the Warehouse. We played the Warehouse about twenty times, with ZZ Top, with Peter Frampton, with the Doobie Brothers, with Dr John. It was one of the coolest places in the world. It was a great place and in fact I saw Don Fox not long ago. He’s a promoter for Michael Buble. He had retired but Bruce Allen talked him out of retirement just to do Buble and I saw him with Bruce Allen, who manages Buble and managed BTO, at Bruce’s sixtieth birthday party a few years ago. It was really great to see Don Fox there.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
Well, I met him before he was a rock star and that was Neil Young (laughs). I met him as a kid who came to my concert in Winnipeg. And I might be the biggest rock star he met who wasn’t a rock star yet (laughs). I was sixteen and he was fourteen back in Winnipeg and we both had the same dream and we see each other every couple years. But I went to the Winnipeg Arena many times. I had an aunt who took me to all these shows. I was fourteen or fifteen and she was only like five years older than me. She was my mother’s younger sister. So she took me to see Ray Charles and the Champs and the Ventures and Brenda Lee and Johnny & The Hurricanes and Gene Vincent and Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, all these early rock & roll caravans that would come through Winnipeg. I went to every single show because I had an aunt who would take me and she was older and had a boyfriend with a car.
I was fourteen or fifteen and I couldn’t go anywhere but on my own I went to meet Les Paul one night at a nightclub in Winnipeg. The drinking age was twenty-one at the time, I think I was sixteen or seventeen, so I went all the way there after school and I couldn’t get in the club. So I was sitting there, very forlorn, I mean, I had been so excited to see Les Paul, and then the owner said, “What are you doing here?” And I said, “I came to see Les Paul.” And he said, “We don’t even open till 6:00. We’re a supper club.” So I was sitting out on the lawn very forlorn cause I couldn’t get in cause I was under the drinking age and up pulls a black Cadillac and it’s Les Paul, and Mary Ford is sitting next to him, and in the back was their son who was a drummer. He said, “Hi kid, what’s up?” And I said, “Wow, you’re Les Paul, would you sign my album?” I had taken my album there and he did. And he said, “Are you coming to the show?” I said I came here to go to the show but I can’t get in cause I’m too young. And he said, “I’ll get you in.”
He went to the owner of the club and he said, “I want this guy to watch my tape recorders.” He had six big tape recorders, single track, that he put in the kitchen, and I stood in the kitchen next to the tape recorders pretending I was watching them. And next to me were these two big swinging doors on hinges that swung both ways with big round windows, about a foot and a half round, so the waiters could see each other through these portholes and not bang into each other, knock the door into each other and knock the food off the trays. So I saw the back of Les Paul and Mary Ford for two hours while they were playing this show (laughs). They were walking around from table to table. They had gooseneck mics on their guitars on long cables, from his guitar running each tape recorder that was beside me. He would play rhythm and then record it and then push a switch on the guitar and play it back and play lead to himself. He had headphones on his ears and he was doing this whole thing being recorded live in this nightclub. At the end he came to me and said, “Here, hold this guitar, Kid,” and he gave me his guitar to hold, a white Les Paul, which is very heavy. He wipes his brow with a napkin, went out and did an encore, came back in and said, “Hold my guitar again,” and when he was all done he said, “Well, how was that Kid?” And I said, “That was amazing, would you show me a lick?” And I had him show me a lick from “How High The Moon” and he showed me the lick and I remembered it.
Fast forward about thirty years and I’m opening for Van Halen on the 5150 tour when Sammy joined them and I played the Meadowlands Coliseum in New Jersey and Les Paul comes to the gig and he comes and shakes hands with Eddie Van Halen, who, you know, was Mr Wiz on guitar, and Sammy, and he comes up to me and says, “Do I know you?” And I go, “I met you, Mr Paul, at the Rancho Don Carlos in Winnipeg.” And he looks at me and he goes, “Hold this, Kid.” And I go, “Wow, you remember me?” And he said yeah (laughs). He remembered the lick he showed me and he gets me a guitar and I show him the lick. I can still play the lick.
Then he invited me to the Iridium Club. So I go to the Iridium Club, where he played every night, and there’s different guests in the audience who have come from all over the world, and he’s announcing these guests and then suddenly at the end of all the guests, he said, “There’s a special guest out there I taught a lick to when he was seventeen years old. I want him to come up and play ‘How High The Moon’ with me.” And it was me and he called me up on stage and I’m going like, wow, this is amazing. So I go onstage and he plays “How High The Moon” and I play the lick with him and then he looks at me and says, “Okay, Kid, play one of yours.” So I play “Takin’ Care Of Business” and Les Paul backs me and his bass player was a lady named Nicki Parrott from Australia and his normal guitar player, who I forget his name, with a black Les Paul. So the Trio backed me up on “Takin’ Care Of Business.” I’ll never forget that.
Then I went to New York again and went to the club again. He invited me to his place in Montauk and the next day was 9-11 and I couldn’t go to his place and I never went to his place to see all of his toys, and then he passed away and I never saw him again. But that is my really cool Les Paul story. But that was really the first big star I met. The first star who showed me that stars were really nice, generous, kind, wonderful people. Some of them are jerks. Some rock stars are jerks (laughs) but then you get a guy like Les Paul who was very nice.
I hear you are actually working on a new solo record.
Yes I am. It’s a blues record called Heavy Blues. I have a new band with a girl on drums and a girl on bass, who play like Keith Moon and John Entwistle. It’s like I have a female Who backing me (laughs). It will be out in March and it’s being produced by Kevin Shirley, who is probably the best rock producer around today. He just did Aerosmith and Journey and he’s doing Iron Maiden at the end of the year. He did the Zeppelin remixes, he does all Joe Bonamassa. It’s a great blues album with me and these two girls and the guest artists I have on it are quite a guest list of Joe Bonamassa, Peter Frampton, Neil Young, Jeff Healey, Robert Randolph, Billy Gibbons, Scott Holiday from Rival Sons. There are a lot of great guitar guests on here.
The song with Jeff Healey must be an older song you worked on before.
Yes, he passed away a couple years ago. He and I were great friends and we cut a live album in Toronto about six years ago and I called his wife Cristie and said, “You know, I’m doing a blues album finally” – cause Jeff kept saying to me, “You got to do a blues album.” So I called Cristie and said, “I recorded a song, a BB King song, with Jeff Healey,” and she said, “Yeah, I remember.” And I said, “Can I just lift his guitar off that and put it in one of my new songs and he’ll be in good company, with Scott Holiday and Neil Young and Frampton and Billy Gibbons.” And she said, “Oh please do it. Jeff would be very pleased and I’d be very honored.” So I dedicate this song to him on the album, cause he passed away about five years ago. I’ve played at many of his memorial concerts, which is amazing. I was there on stage playing with Ian Gillan from Deep Purple and Jack Bruce from Cream, these incredible musicians, all there paying tribute to Jeff Healey. So to have him on this album to me is really special.
How are your brothers?
They are all really good. We got inducted into the Juno’s Hall Of Fame last May in Winnipeg, our hometown. We all got together and we played “Takin’ Care Of Business” at the finale with a band called The Sheepdogs, who are friends of mine from Saskatoon. So the Sheepdogs were up there and they did “Let It Ride” with us and “Takin’ Care Of Business.” It was great.
What was cooler: being on The Simpsons or having your first number one record?
Wow, how about having two number one records (laughs). No, I was very thrilled to be on The Simpsons but nothing can beat the fact that when you want to get a record deal, then you get a record deal. Then you want to get a song on the radio and you get a song on the radio. Then you want to get it on the Billboard charts and then you want to be in the top ten and then suddenly your single and album is number one and you can’t believe it, cause you’ve been trying this hard for ten years and to have that happen with the Guess Who and again with BTO a few years later, was like the biggest deal of my life. To do it twice, not just once. And I really didn’t do anything. I just followed my heart and my passion and played music and because of the charts and whoever was going up and down, we had our moment at the top and it was a wonderful moment and it lasted one week or two weeks. And the problem when you hit number one is there is nowhere else to go except down (laughs). So you got to get used to that ride.