How Randy Bachman Got Bachman-Turner Overdrive in Gear: Interview
Bachman-Turner Overdrive's '70s-era success represented vindication for Randy Bachman, whose decision to leave the Guess Who had been widely questioned.
“I was totally driven,” Bachman tells Ultimate Classic Rock in an exclusive interview. “I was bent on proving to everyone that I could do it. I didn’t want to do it alone, but I had to do it alone."
They said he needed a manager in order to strike a label deal, so he drafted booking agent Bruce Allen. They said he needed a signature hit, so he wrote that, too. In fact, BTO scored a trio of Top 20 hits over the course of about a year beginning in early 1974 – including the chart-topping "You Ain't See Nothin' Yet." A fourth single, "Hey You," just missed the Top 20 in 1975.
"I had to get people like Bruce Allen to join me," Bachman says. "When [BTO] got inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, I pointed out Bruce in the audience. This guy and me did the impossible. They said we couldn’t get it done. We did it. There was a roadblock, we went around it; we crawled over it.”
Things began in a decidedly small-scale way, as Allen initially booked the fledgling BTO into the clubs of Vancouver. “I moved the whole band from Winnipeg and we’re living in a motor home under a bridge in Vancouver,” Bachman says. Meanwhile, the band demos Bachman had been working on prompted a phone call from Charlie Fach, an Illinois-based executive with Mercury Records.
As Bachman recalls, Fach told him, “‘I’m willing to sign you guys, come to Chicago, meet the head of the label, and bring your manager.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well, you got to have a manager.'" Allen, who now manages Bryan Adams and Michael Buble, would have to use a little deception.
“I went into Bruce Allen’s office,” Bachman adds, "and said, ‘Hey Bruce, I want you to come with me to Chicago and pretend to be my manager, and then I’ll get a record deal. He asked, ‘What does a manager do?’ I said, ‘The same thing you do, but a little bit louder. You’re yelling at everybody.’ And he said, ‘I can do that.’
"So, we put on our clothes, go to Irving Steinberg, who was the president of Polygram/Mercury Records in Chicago. Charlie Fach was there. We met with these guys and they said, ‘You got a deal.’ I said, ‘Bruce, congratulations. You are our manager.’ He went, ‘Wow.’”
Fach also redirected Bachman's attention back to a certain song he'd previously overlooked.
"'You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet' was omitted from the third BTO album [Not Fragile] until Charlie Fach heard it,” Bachman remembers. “He said, ‘That’s magic, put it on.’ I said, ‘There’s no room. We already have our eight songs.’ ‘Take the longest songs, put them on one side, and squeeze this song as the fifth song on the other side.’ I did, and it was the No. 1 record and sold millions of copies, So, you know never know what’s gonna be the hit and what’s gonna live on. You just chug along.”
Watch a DVD Bonus Clip From 'Bachman'
So they did. After the band's self-titled debut stalled out at a disappointing No. 70, Bachman-Turner Overdrive reeled off three consecutive gold-selling Billboard Top 10 albums.
The symbol of all this success, as underscored in the new John Barnard-directed documentary Bachman, was a dream house in Washington state that the guitarist was building for himself, his wife and their children. But there was the flip side, since being on the road took Bachman away for long periods of time. He'd earlier left the Guess Who because of lifestyle differences, and similar problems were also creeping into his new group.
“The worst thing about being in a band is doing what you love, which is music,” Bachman says. “Your office is not even in your hometown. Daddy goes to work; Daddy’s gone to work for a month. I had six kids at the time. [BTO bandmate] Fred Turner was the same as me, I think, with four [or] five kids. We’re older guys. My younger brother Robbie is playing drums, he’s 10 years younger than me. We get [second guitarist] Blair Thornton, who’s more of Robbie’s age. These guys want to get chicks and party on the road, and Fred and I want to do the gig, get the money and go home to our wives and kids.”
By the end of the ‘70s, Bachman again found himself without a band. Meanwhile, his marriage crumbled.
“The worst thing of all is when you quit your band, you are home all the time. Your wife never gets to say, ‘He’s gone. I can have things my way," Bachman notes.
"You’re expected as the man in the relationship to run the household. You’re bashing heads all the time with your wife. She’s used to picking the wallpaper and hiring the gardener. You go to try to do it, and it’s not the way she does it. And then you end up not liking each other. You end up building a dream house together, and suddenly the house is done and you go, ‘Well, that’s very nice, but I’m not Beaver Cleaver. I don’t like living in this house. This isn’t Happy Days.' By the time anyone is building the dream house, the family grows out of it. By then, your kids are off to college or they run away from you because they think you’re weird, and life is not a storybook."
As he had done in the past, Bachman gradually overcame those adversities and has continued to record and perform as a solo artist or in collaboration with others. BTO staged a series of reunions between 1983 and 2005. Bachman and Turner began co-leading their own band in 2009. He also hosts a radio show called Bachman’s Vinyl Tap that airs on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
More recently, Bachman jump-started his solo career. Still proud of the classic songs he made with the Guess Who and BTO, he's also a staunch advocate for moving forward. He says his past two projects – 2015’s Heavy Blues and last year’s George Harrison tribute By George by Bachman – should have garnered far more attention.
“Those albums break my heart,” Bachman explains. “I listen to them and I'm like, ‘Oh my God, those are moments of brilliance to me.’ People say to me the best albums are [the Guess Who’s] American Woman and [BTO’s] Not Fragile. They ask, ‘Is that it?’ And I say, ‘No, you’re missing the other two great albums of my life.’ This is some of my best work, but right now they’re treated as strikeouts because nobody has heard them."
Watch Randy Bachman Perform 'Heavy Blues'
Make no mistake: At age 75, Bachman is still trying different things. “We keep going from success to success but people don’t realize that in between are one, two, three or four monumental failures, because we’re bored with being ourselves. We try to do something new," he says. With Heavy Blues "I’ve would've been so damn happy to go on the road and play blues for three hours. I would have loved to have toured and did the By George thing for a whole year. Nobody got it. Those are the heartbreaks. You go and try something that for you is very uplifting and inspiring and really makes you work. I had to really work to rearrange the George Harrison songs so you wouldn’t recognize what it was until I start singing, then the lyrics are familiar. That was a really creative thing for me.”
Bachman blames those who are reluctant showcase newer material by veteran rock artists. “[Eric] Clapton put out a new album and got no airplay. I put out a new album and got no airplay. [On] Vinyl Tap, I play old vinyl, but I also play new vinyl by these guys who I’m telling stories about touring with the Beach Boys, or meeting Jimmy Page with the New Yardbirds and he told me he was starting a new band called Led Zeppelin. I wish classic rock radio would do a then-and-now format and say, ‘Here’s 'American Woman,' here’s Bachman now – he did an album of George Harrison songs. It would change our lives.”
In the meantime, Bachman says everyone should take stock. “I urge anybody, when Clapton is playing, or Jeff Beck, Jeff Lynne or Brian Wilson, go see these guys," he says. "These are the Tony Bennetts and Frank Sinatras of our generation from the ‘60s and ‘70s. People are so lucky that I’m still touring, I’m 75, [but] I feel like I’m 62. I look like I’m 62 because I haven’t drank or smoked or anything. I’ve always been taking care of myself. I’ve learned to control my weight problem.”
Now, Bachman is passing on the classic-rock torch directly to his grandchildren. He took them see the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody while spending the Thanksgiving holiday at his daughter’s home in Utah.
“I’ve known Brian May since 1977, but my grandkids did not like any classic rock," he recalls. "So, I said to the kids, ‘Okay, I’m going to take you to see something great.’ They didn’t know who Queen is; they like this rap stuff. Suddenly, after they saw [the film], they asked for Queen’s greatest hits on vinyl for Christmas. My daughter calls me and says. ‘Dad this is amazing. Can you get us tickets for ELO and Queen?' I’m so thrilled to take them backstage to meet Brian May and Jeff Lynne and say, ‘These guys are like me.’”
Performing is still in Bachman’s blood, as evidenced in the Bachman documentary, which arrives March 26 on iTunes, Google Play, Prime Video and DVD. He's the opening act for Lynyrd Skynyrd as their farewell tour makes its way through Canada. Bachman approaches these new challenges the same way he did when Bachman-Turner Overdrive was just starting out: He just keeps working.
“I’ve known Skynyrd since the ‘70s,” Bachman says. “For me, it’s like going to a high-school reunion. Last year, I [played] with ZZ Top, and ZZ Top was an opening act for BTO. [Peter] Frampton, the Doobie Brothers – I go see these guys all the time on the road and we hug like we’re long-lost friends. We’ve all lived the same life and we still get to live it. We’re still living our dream [after] our fathers said, 'Get a real job or a backup job. Get a plan B.' I’ve never had a plan B. I’ve stuck with plan A.”