Randy Bachman : Still Rollin' Down The Highway

By Jeb Wright

Randy Bachman has been around the block a few times over the last 40+ years. He became a star with the Guess Who and then, at the band’s peak, left to form a Country Rock band. When that didn’t pan out, he got a second chance at stardom with Bachman Turner Overdrive.

Despite the fact that the world mispronounced his name (it is actually BACK-MAN) the band hit the big time before internal, and family, conflicts arose with the Bachman’s, brothers Randy and Robin. Randy left and the band continued on as BTO.

Now, BTO is no more and Fred Turner has teamed up with Randy to form Bachman & Turner (still mispronounced). The band released a studio album and has now released a live CD of a concert recorded at the legendary Roseland Ballroom in New York City.

In the interview below, Bachman discusses the subject he knows most about, music, in-depth and in detail. This is a great interview with a true icon of rock and roll. Randy even tells us that there is a video of the show on the way, as well.

Ladies and gentleman, may I introduce to you the man who’s been Takin’ Care of Business all of his life…Randy Bachman (pronounced BACKman)!

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Jeb: I liked the studio album Fred Turner and you did and now you’ve followed it up with a live album. How did you decide the second album should be a live offering?

Randy: PBS is going to be a 3D network in a couple of years and they want content. They are shooting a bunch of concerts. They are going to all be 3D, high Def, 12 camera shoots. We had a choice Chicago, which didn’t work out, or the Roseland in New York. We were being shot between some major superstars like Jessica Simpson, Josh Groban, Journey and others like that. It is a five million dollar truck and set up that they are using.

We ended up doing it at the Roseland, which was great because I was able to get my buddy, Paul Schaefer, to play on a few tracks, as it is just down the block from the Ed Sullivan Theater.

We started at Sweden Rock and then we played a few festivals in Canada and the States so we were in really good playing shape. We were able to integrate a few songs from our studio album into our stage show and we managed to put in “Shakin’ All Over,” which was the first hit that I ever played guitar on, and “American Woman” from the Guess Who. It was preordained by PBS, to answer your question. We didn’t decide to do it, we agreed to do it.

Jeb: The CD of the show has been released but I had no idea you filmed it as well.

Randy: It will come out on Blu-ray, DVD, and Surround Sound and there will be a selected forty minutes of it on PBS on a show called Front Row Center. I got a couple of emails from some people out in California and they said that they saw the show on their PBS station that said they saw the show and that it looked great. They liked it so much they said they are going to some see us when we play in Orange County with Heart, Foghat and some other bands. I called my manager and asked what Front Row Center was because I had never heard of it at the time. I didn’t want to feel like an idiot responding to the emails and tweets. He told me that is what they decided to call the series. We are very excited to be a part of it. They shot us, Frampton, the Doobie Brothers and others.

Jeb: Did you have to do extra stage moves for 3D effects? Did they push you to animate towards the camera?

Randy: There was no John Belishi, Saturday Night Live play to the camera type stuff. We were really concentrating on the music and the audience. It was really weird because between us and the people in the audience was this railroad track because the camera goes back and forth on this railroad track. There are guys climbing all over like monkeys with shoulder cameras. We were really trying to concentrate on the music and the show and trying to get a flow. They told us that if we made a mistake then we should stop cold and do it again. We didn’t want to do that; I think we did it once when someone made a mistake.

I have not even seen the show yet but it should look great as our lighting guy even created a new set for us. When 3D becomes normal, it will be like MTV when it started out because they will need more content and everyone will be scrambling to get their content to them. When 3D comes big then they will be playing this Bachman Turner show quite regularly, so it is a great opportunity for us.

Jeb: The Roseland is a historic venue. Had you ever played there before?

Randy: I don’t remember ever playing there. I have got to tell you the truth, I had never heard of it. They have closed a lot of places like the Fillmore and I just didn’t keep up with it. A lot of places will chance names and it is hard to remember everything. When I walked into the place I was like, “Oh my God, I have seen this place in a zillion movies.” It was in Scarface and it was The Copacabana in a lot of movies because the Copa was closed so they used the Roseland. I had seen Cab Calloway in movies on this stage. It was really great.

Jeb: I didn’t know you and Paul Schaefer were close friends.

Randy: Paul is from Thunder Bay, which is about 300 miles from Winnipeg. The Guess Who would go there every Christmas Eve Eve, which is the 23rd of December, and play a gig at the hockey arena, where they would put plywood sheets over the ice. We would get four hundred bucks for the gig, which was a hundred bucks for each of us in the band. We would then go home and do all of our Christmas shopping the next day for our kids and our friends.

In the audience, every single year, for eight or nine years, was little Paul Schaefer. He would come and talk to Burton Cummings about playing piano and this and that. I remember one time he said that he was going to Toronto to play in the band for Godspell and then he was going to be in the Saturday Night Live band. He, then, ended up playing in David Letterman’s band. I emailed him when we were playing the Roseland and I said, “Hey, we’re playing the Roseland and we could sure use a piano player.” He said, “I’ll be there but you’ve got to play “Shakin’ All Over.”

During the end of “Takin’ Care of Business” he was going so crazy his piano fell off of the stand – it was on a little roller. I ran over and grabbed it. I said, ‘We’re the Who and we’re smashing our instruments!” He was half on the floor and half on his knees when he was playing. It wasn’t something we planned; it just happened. The producer said, “Do you want to shoot that over” and we were like, “Are you kidding?”

Jeb: The new songs went down well during the show. It was not a case where people just wanted to hear the hits.

Randy: I went to great lengths in the studio to recreate the Bachman Turner sound. I have all of the same gear, I have the same amps and the same guitars and I even used stuff that was older, like Harmony guitars and things. You can’t get the old sound anymore so we used the original stuff to get that sound. The solo I did on Fred’s song, “Moonlight Rider,” I used an old Harmony Stratotone guitar through this tiny little amp, which was like the one Jimmy Page used on Led Zeppelin I.

I used this little 15 watt amp and I laid it down, flat, on the ground and pointed it at the ceiling and I put a microphone over it. What happens is that you get this incredible sound like a wall of Marshals. The distortion is just coming from the tube and speaker, so there is no pedal distortion at all. It is just a little amp on full. The notes end up having a unique clarity because it is not using contrived distortion. It works great for power chords and it really makes your solos stand out. The greatest compliment I have gotten on the new album is that someone said it sounded like the lost BTO album from 1978 that never came out. It really does fit right in there.

Jeb: Are you okay with using the digital world over the analog world?

Randy: You can use the new technology and just decide to record live, with no overdubs, which is what we did. You take the first take of your guitar solo and even if you don’t know what to play, or if you hit a bad note, then you leave it. You capture a performance. If there is a little gronk note in there then who cares, as I might have done that live anyway. You just capture a moment in time. You can go ProTools and make everything perfect but that is not a rock and roll record. That is a modern contrived overdubbed record. You can make a perfect performance but that does not evoke your hair standing up on your arms like Elvis doing “Hound Dog” or Aretha Franklin doing “Respect.” Because old songs like that are true performances they really get you going. Guys go nuts now and try to fix everything but all of those old records have mistakes on them and nobody cares because rock and roll is not about perfection, it is about groove and feel.

The new technology can help when writing songs. You can decide that the verse is too long and then cut down the first line to the forth line and cut out some of it and get to the chorus faster. You can cut it down faster and it makes a lot of sense. In the old days you would take the tape and cut it with razor blades and splice it back together. It was pins and needles when that happened. Now, my favorite thing in the studio is the button that says ‘undo.’ To have eight or nine levels of undo is fantastic. In the old days, you needed two tape machines. One with the good tape and you tried to make a copy. If it didn’t work then you just destroyed your masterpiece if you didn’t have a taped copy of it.

Jeb: That had to be nerve racking. Did it ever happen to you in the studio?

Randy: Sometimes you’re trying to do an album in a week because you’ve got to go back on the road, so you’re working eighteen hour days. The engineer is so tired that when you want him to punch out at a certain place and he pushes the button but it doesn’t go out because he is recording over everything by mistake. What do you do, fire the guy? You’re in the middle of an album and he just made a human mistake but you really have to go back and start all over again. It has happened to me many, many times. It is the loss of music that you never ever can get back.

There are all kinds of great stories about engineers being fired instantly. It has happened during Quincy Jones sessions and Ahmet Ertegun sessions…everyone will be sitting there in silence waiting and then after eight or ten seconds nothing is happening and the engineer realizes that he is accidentally recording over your masters. He is then fired.

Jeb: Things are sure different today.

Randy: There are these plug ins now where you can add all of this stuff. You can set things up just as you want it. There is even a new APP out for iTunes called Vinyl Tap, which is the same name as my radio show, so I am going to be suing them for some royalties [laughter]. The APP makes the songs on your iPod sound like vinyl records with the crackles and everything.

Jeb: For years Fred played with BTO with your brother, Robin. What happened to put you and Fred back together?

Randy: It all came about when the guy who runs the Sweden Rock Festival wanted us back together. He didn’t want Fred and a bunch of clones, or me and a bunch of clones, he wanted us together, as he recognized that we were the main components of the band. I had been playing with this back up band of three guys for 26 years. Fred and I both know them and go way back with them as they are from Winnipeg. I said to Fred, “Why don’t you just step into my band? Bring your bass and show up. We do your songs but they don’t sound as good without you singing them.” When he showed up, the first song we tried at rehearsal was “Let It Ride” and we played the intro and he came in and sang, “You can see the morning” and I just looked at the band and smiled. Next we played “Roll on Down the Highway” and “Four Wheel Drive” and “Not Fragile” and it was really amazing to have that voice back.

Jeb: Fred and you never had any animosity?

Randy: The weirdness was with my younger brother, Rob. Fred had fallen in with Robby after I left BTO and, unfortunately, our manager, who was Bruce Allen, didn’t do what really good managers do. For instance, when Peter Gabriel left Genesis, the manager kept them all friends. Bruce made us choose sides.

I had similar problems when I left the Guess Who in 1970, after “American Woman.” I had a medical problem. I also had a wife and six kids. It was the same when I left BTO, the other guys didn’t have all of that. If you had to pick a winner and pick a loser then I can see where Fred could go with Robby and Blair [Thornton]. He was with them for ten or twelve years. One day, Fred called me and said, “Robby’s a lunatic. He makes decisions that don’t make any sense. I realize that I made some wrong choices. If we could get together and play then it would really mean a lot to me.” We got the offer to play Sweden Rock and I said, “Let’s do it.” We are doing it again next year. Why don’t you come over and see us next year? Who knows, maybe by then Axl Rose will be back with Slash and Guns ‘N Roses can play too. Everyone may be healing the rifts and getting back to the music and forgetting all of the petty stuff like, ‘you did this’ and ‘you’re a prick and you stole my girlfriend’ and getting back to letting the music do the talking.

Jeb: Do you still get goose bumps when you are playing your big hits?

Randy: All of the time. When I kick into “Takin’ Care of Business” and I see and hear the audience’s reaction I get goose bumps. I don’t get goose bumps over me playing; it is the reaction of the people that do it. When I see the reaction on the people’s faces on those hits songs, or even on songs like “Hey You” or “Looking Out for #1” it just is amazing. I see them dancing and closing their eyes and singing all of the words. I can tell that they are 18 again, or 21 again and I’m 35 again. They go back to that moment when that song really meant something to them and it is really a trip down memory lane.

Jeb: Your writing style and your guitar sound drastically changed from the Guess Who to BTO. Did you realize you needed to do something completely different?

Randy: Yeah. I left one of the best pop bands of the late ‘60’s in the Guess Who to play rock and roll. I didn’t want to be a second rate Guess Who and I knew I couldn’t compete with the voice of Burton Cummings. The machine that I helped create was in high gear as they had the number one song and album. I went completely the other way and went country and started a band called Brave Belt. I had to change because I knew I was going to have to compete with a winning team. I had to change to something new, which in our case was country rock. We were starving doing country rock so we got Fred Turner into the band with his Harley Davidson voice. We wanted people to react to our music by moving and dancing. We were playing clubs and we started playing songs by the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival and people were dancing. I said to the band that we needed to quit playing country rock and start doing heavy Cream like stuff. Somehow, out of that, we evolved and created our own kind of music that was then called heavy rock.

In 1972, we started to do this and then the Doobie Brothers started to do it and the came ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd and they started to do it. We all were making it a little heavier and the amps got a little bigger and a little louder and we got bigger PA systems. We got monitors so you could hear your voice. Up until then you had to play quieter so you could hear the singer. Everything could then get louder and it did. We gave up singing harmonies and we were all singing like a bunch of guys at a soccer game, all singing in unison. We became a real guy’s band. When “You Ain’t Seen Nothing’ Yet” came out we toured the world. When we went to the UK there wasn’t a girl in the audience. We were like AC/DC. When we played in Australia there was nothing but guys with beers who sang along to all of the songs.

Jeb: I love hearing these stories of how innocent things were back in the beginning of heavy rock.

Randy: In the beginning we felt too guilty to charge someone ten bucks for a t-shirt so we gave them away. We didn’t realize that there was a thing called ‘merchandise’ which they now just call ‘merch’ where you can make a shirt for five bucks and sell it for forty bucks and make something called a profit. It helps pay your hotel and gas bills.

There was no MTV then and you didn’t sell things at your gigs. It was all radio. If it were not for the guys at radio it would not have happened. The morning show guys used to play songs like “Let It Ride” and “Roll on Down the Highway” and all of the truckers and the bikers out on the road would hear us. We were a real guy band.

Jeb: Is it harder to write a three minute and thirty second pop classic than it is to write a ten minute guitar jam?

Randy: It is hard to get something into that magical three and a half minutes, which means that it will get played on the radio. I figured out early on that radio exists for one reason and that is to play commercials. If your song is short enough then they might put it in-between commercials. The reality is that you have to make something that is short and sweet and is a commercial for your band. You have to make it so people will want to buy the album. You are just giving them a little taste. You’re not playing the eight minute version of “Roundabout” but rather you’re playing the edited down version.

“Let It Ride” on the album has a long thing in the middle like the Allman Brothers. That was edited out of the single because if we didn’t edit it down then they would not have played in on the radio.

Jeb: You have a talent for adding very melodic lead parts to songs that are sing-albe.

Randy: I hear those in my head. I grew up playing violin. What do you play on violin? You play melody, melody and melody. If you listen to the solo on “American Woman” then you will notice that it is a violin solo. It really is exactly what I would have played on a violin. They invented this thing called a Herzog that gave me a lot of sustain on my notes. It was just a pre-amp and two tubes turned up loud into my amp. They allowed my notes to sustain, so I could sound like a viola, or if I am really low, then I sound like a cello. Look at “Roll on Down the Highway.” The solo is very violin like and everyone can sing that part. People have told me that my solos are like little compositiona, or little songs within the song and that is basically what they are.

Jeb: Do you always think the solos out so clearly?

Randy: I do think them out but when I play live I will do it differently. When I play live, I honor the original solo and then I will make one up later on the spot.

Jeb: What is the plan after the live album for Bachman and Turner?

Randy: We are writing some more tunes, playing gigs and we’re enjoying ourselves a lot. I have a book coming out in September on Penguin Books. I am doing my radio show, Vinyl Tap, where I tell the stories of my twelve hits. I am not a one hit wonder I’m a twelve hit wonder. I am going to do a solo tour across Canada in 2013 where I am going to sit on a stool and tell the stories of the hits and when I get to the punch line my band kicks into that song. The tour went on sale last week and half the dates are already sold out.

I will be doing that in New York in September. Everybody knows the Guess Who and BTO and this is the story behind the songs. We are taping the show in New York in September so we have it on sale in March of 2013 at the live shows we are going to be doing.

Jeb: Tell me more about your radio show.

Randy: It is Sirius Satellite 159 in the States and it is on in Canada. It is on Sirius three or four times a week in the States. Just Google Randy’s Vinyl Tap and it will all come up. There are probably 500 shows online that you can listen to. Each show has a theme, like one show will be on Fender guitars and another on Gibson guitars. We may have a show on piano songs where I tell the story of meeting Elton John when he was known as Reginald Dwight. Every show has themes and stories to it which allow me to play five generations of rock and roll. My show will go from Louie Armstrong to Lady Gaga.

There are no commercials in the show and there is a library of about thirteen million songs. When I say I want this riff by Robert Johnson then by Eric Clapton then by John Mayer then by the Black Keys then I can do so. I can show the same riff by MC Hammer and Rick James that was the same one that was used in Germany by Falco. Other stations don’t have the access to all of the music that I do.

Jeb: Many musicians from your era were known for the wild life. You never fell into that crowd. How did you avoid the pitfalls that so many of your friends were trapped inside of?

Randy: I was allergic to smoke so I never smoked. I never smoked a joint or anything like that. I think smoking a joint is the keyhole to trying more and more drugs. If you feel good smoking a joint then you will feel better if you do this or that. You end up trying more and more stuff. It ends up like going to a buffet where you can’t just eat one kind of food.

I made a fool of myself drinking at a young age. I made an ass of myself and ran over my own foot with a car. I remember having my father stand over me when I had driven over my own foot; one leg was out of the car and one leg was in the car. He looked at me and told me that I was a drunk and that he was ashamed to call me his son. That night I stopped drinking and I never drank again; I was twenty four. I never have even drank coffee in my life. I have managed to be unscathed. I have a great memory.

On my radio show I tell stories of Little Richard and of Led Zeppelin when they were starting out and they are my own stories. There were a few guys who were straight like Frank Zappa and Ted Nugent – they were both on the straight and narrow. There is a new thing now; they call me ‘straight edged.’ They used to call it ‘straight as an arrow’ but now it is ‘straight edged’ and it is starting to be seen a lot in new music, which is good. It is nice to see people not killing themselves. It you OD then it is a quick death but if you don’t then it is a slow death.

Jeb: Just sitting here listening to you, I can tell you kind of like doing this show…

Randy: I love it. Every band loved a deejay back in the day because he was the guy that was playing your record and introducing people to your music. I always wanted to be a deejay and now I get to be one. I just got renewed for another three years and I have been doing it for five years. I also have the book coming out. If you want to find out more just go to www.randybachman.com and you can check everything out. I am telling you, the rock just keeps rolling.

www.bachmanandturner.com