The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive are undoubtedly two of the most famous and prolific Canadian rock bands of all time. Decades after first reaching the charts, their large and varied repertoires of hits — both in their home country and abroad — have remained in the public consciousness and in the people’s ears, making it difficult to find a casual radio listener who hasn’t heard “American Woman” or “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” at least once.
A music fan can’t help but wonder how this eclectic library of memorable songs came to be in such a brief period of time. From the cool lounge sounds of “Undun” and the biting lyrics of “No Time,” to the wistful keyboard riff of “These Eyes” and the fiercely unforgettable hook of “American Woman,” the Guess Who possessed a truly impressive ability to pull from various sounds and styles to craft indelible pop tunes out of them, all in the brief span of a few years.
Likewise, Bachman-Turner Overdrive hit the ground running a short time later, earning an international chart topper with “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” and racking up more rocking singles like “Let It Ride” and “Takin’ Care of Business.”
How did these legendary groups so firmly cement their place in popular music history? There’s probably no better person to ask than the link between the two — guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter responsible for most of those bands’ enduring gems, Randy Bachman.
REBEAT recently spoke with Bachman about his time in both the Guess Who and BTO, along with what came before and since, including his newest album and next month’s appearance at the the Fest for Beatles Fans.
REBEAT: How did you first become interested in a music career?
RANDY BACHMAN: Oh my goodness. Before I knew what I was doing, as a child, I was into music. I started violin when I was five years of age and played ’til 14.
I got a gig with the Winnipeg Junior Symphony Orchestra as second violin and realized I didn’t know how to read music, even though I had this sheet of music in front of me.
I had had a teacher that would put the music in front of me. You could see the notes go up and down, so it’s a little clue. Then she would play it first, and I would memorize it in my head, so I knew at that time I had a photographic memory. If I heard it, I knew it.
Did a certain artist get you into playing rock ‘n’ roll, or did that shift just happen gradually?
[After that first rehearsal], I packed up my violin, I was in tears. Walked out of the symphony and never went back. Went home and told my mother, “I’m quitting violin. I can’t even read music.” I was embarrassed at the symphony tryout. That next day, Elvis Presley was on Ed Sullivan.
My mother’s younger sisters were at our house. They were screaming because Elvis was on TV shaking his hips. I said, “What is that?” They said, “That’s a guitar, and that’s Elvis.” I said, “I want to do that.” My cousins had a guitar, and they showed me three chords.
The first song I learned was “I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash, and after that, all Elvis songs were the same. All you play in violin is lead, so I gravitated towards playing lead guitar right away.
I got asked to try out for a band who didn’t have a name yet. I was to learn all the rhythm guitar, which is all the chords, and I learned that real easy.
When I went to the rehearsal, the guy who was lead guitar broke a string, and I finished playing the song. He looked at me and he said, “Wow, you play better lead than me. Do you want to play lead guitar?” I said, “Yes. That’s why I’m here.”
From that point on, I played lead. We recorded a song called “Shakin’ All Over.” They named the band the Guess Who, and that began my career.
The Guess Who had a lot of hits in the US and Canada in such a short amount of time. Which of those songs are you still most proud of today?
All of them are really special. First of all, we had that hit with “Shakin’ All Over.” It was like ’64 or ’65. [Burton Cummings] and I were the forces of the band because he was the lead singer and keyboard player, and I was the guitar, and we started to write songs together.
Burton and I happened to write “These Eyes,” and it was a million seller. We went on American Bandstand and got our gold record from Dick Clark, and then bam, bam, bam, we wrote “Laughing,” “(She’s Come) Undun,” “No Sugar Tonight,” “No Time,” and “American Woman.”
Suddenly, like you said, within two years of “These Eyes,” the summer of 1970, the American Woman album and single were #1 in all three trades — Record World, Cashbox, and Billboard — all at the same time. In this haze and maze of coincidence or happenstance, suddenly we’re like the #1 band in the world. I had been with them nine years by the time “American Woman” hit.
Many Guess Who and the BTO songs still get a ton of airplay today. Why do you think those songs hold up so well?
It’s somewhat mystical and magical to me. When I was writing with Burton Cummings, we got together every Saturday at his house in the morning at about 11 o’clock. We’d have done a gig Friday, and we’d get together Saturday at his house.
We would study and listen to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys’ records, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bacharach and David, who were writing big hits at the time for Dionne Warwick and people like that. We would study these guys, going, how do they write these songs? How does Chuck Berry have all these songs, which the Beatles were copying?
You have to get to the person by the first 60 seconds. “These Eyes” has a little piano beginning. “Laughing” has a little guitar intro. “Undun” has a guitar intro. “American Woman” has a guitar that’s recognizable. The minute you hear the first four or five or six notes, it’s recognizable.
“Let It Ride” with BTO. “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” “Roll on Down the Highway.” They all have a recognizable intro that then repeats in the middle of the song and brings you back to the chorus. There’s a certain formulaic thing you fall into.
They become hit singles, and you have no idea why because, if I knew why, I would do it over and over again. Luckily I did it, but it’s from doing a mass amount of writing.
Was working in the Guess Who very different from working in BTO?
Yeah, it was different because, in the Guess Who, unfortunately, I was one of the last guys in the band. Although I became the leader by default when the lead singer quit, and I got Burton Cummings in.
Our lead singer, who sang on “Shakin’ All Over,” didn’t like [the lifestyle]. It was more like a committee voting on things—five guys, then four guys voting. When you have four guys voting, it doesn’t work.
I was sick of the road and having gallbladder problems on the road, which I didn’t know what it was. I just had this pain every night. Then it was time for me to leave the band. I had to go under medical supervision. It took me about six months. Got really restless and started another band that evolved into Bachman–Turner Overdrive. I left the Guess Who, and I had nobody who wanted to work with me, so I got my brothers to be in the band.
In two years, we were number one in the world and sold more records than my nine years with the Guess Who. They listened to me. I was a benevolent dictator. Everybody became super millionaires in two or three years. The problem was the minute they got all the money in the bank, they thought they knew more than I did, and then all my rules were thrown out of the room again.
One guy drinking all the time, one guy smoking weed all the time, one guy shooting meth all the time, or speed, or whatever it was. I didn’t do any of that; I have never done it in my life. When that happens, I try to go and say, “Hey, we agreed that this wouldn’t happen, and you’re doing it. You’ve got to get out of the band or guess what? I’m leaving.” They said, “Great. F.O. Get out of the band.” So I left. I left both bands for that reason.
You’re going to be a guest at the Fest for Beatles Fans in March. What are you most looking forward to doing at the fest?
It is my first time there. Before that, I’m playing B.B. King’s on February 24, which is the weekend of George Harrison’s birthday — he’ll be 75 on the 25th.
My new album is called By George, and it’s me revisiting or re-visioning 12 of George Harrison’s songs that are completely unrecognizable. If you’re a Beatles or George Harrison fan, you can sing along to it, but when it starts, you have no idea what it is because I didn’t use any of the Beatles or George Harrison templates. I invented my own. I’ll be playing five or six of the songs from By George at the Fest.
For me, it’s a great launch. It’s coming out on vinyl as well. It’ll be four vinyl sides. Two discs that are going to be in black and white and marble, because my album cover is the eclipse that happened in August.
Did you ever get to meet George Harrison at any point in your career?
When I left the Guess Who in May 1970, the Beatles had broken up already. I had a publicist named Ritchie Yorke. He was also the Beatles’ publicist at that time. He called me and he said, “George Harrison’s putting a band together in London because the Beatles are all over. They’ve been over for a year. Why don’t you give him a call?” Here I am, a kid in Winnipeg, and it’s about noon, and I’m phoning George Harrison’s house, Friar Park, where he lived.
I can’t afford this phone call, by the way. It’s long distance to England. I wait, and wait, and wait. A voice then goes, “Hello, this is George,” in this Liverpool accent. “Who is this?” I go, “It’s Randy Bachman. Ritchie Yorke gave me your phone number. I’m out of a band called the Guess Who.”
He said, “Oh, I saw you on Top of the Pops doing ‘American Woman.’ Great song. You’re in Winnipeg. I’m in London, and I’ve already got a guitar player, and I’ve got a band. I’m going out on the road. Good luck to you.” That was it. That was the only time I talked to him.
I [also] toured with Ringo Starr in ’95 as part of his All-Starr Band. I was on the road with Ringo for 11 or 12 months.
What was the best part of being in the All-Starr Band?
The best part, I can’t even tell you, because nobody would believe it.
We’d all tell our stories on how we got shafted by managers and other guys in the bands and the record labels not paying the royalties. That was the most fun thing and very Spinal Tap to have everybody saying, “You think you got shafted,” and then they would tell us an amazing story.
What would you do if you weren’t in music? Is there another dream career that you would have?
No. People have said to me, “What would you be if you weren’t a successful songwriter/musician?” I would say, “I would be an unsuccessful songwriter/musician.” At the age of five, I knew it was music. I already knew I was good.
Speaking of your early years in music, do you still play the violin at all?
I didn’t play it for years. I totally wiped it from my mind because it became very unpleasant. It got to a point where I would be not a good child. I mean, really being a bad kid. My mother would say, “Okay, go to your room, and practice your violin.” It became a punishment. My reward of going in my room and burying myself playing this music suddenly became a punishment.
When I left it behind and switched to a guitar, my punishment was, “Go to your room and play your guitar.” This was the greatest thing that could happen to me. When I first got this guitar, literally I flunked grade 10 and 11. I would get up in the morning at six o’clock and play the guitar.
Do those formative artists still have a lot of influence on the music that you make now?
I think so. There’s probably 10 or 12 guys who are the founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll — or the amalgamation of putting together doo-wop, bluegrass, blues, heavy rhythm beats and calling it rock ‘n’ roll — and that foundation of those dozen guys is still there.
All of us in music still go back to that. People don’t realize they’re going back to it — they’re copying me or John Mayer or Eric Clapton. They don’t realize that Mayer, and me, and Clapton are copying Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Eventually, they realize that we’re all derivative of the original 10 or 12 guys.
What are you most proud of in your entire body of work?
I think I’m the most proud of, speaking to you right now, about playing in New York very soon at the Fest and my new album. It gets to a point where you think you’ve done everything, and you’re really repeating yourself. When I had this idea to do a George Harrison album, it came from three years ago going to Liverpool to celebrate John Lennon’s 75th birthday.
I came home, and I thought, “Wow. When is George’s 75th? Oh, in a couple years. Maybe I’ll do a George Harrison album.” You try to do George Harrison songs, and everybody’s done them, and they do them the same way. I thought, as a songwriter, I’m going to reinterpret these. I’m going to reinterpret George Harrison.
It was very, very hard to leave behind the originals because they were so etched in everybody’s memory and mind and heart and soul. I’m the most proud of how I rearranged those and produced it with my band. It was an amazing process. The reaction we’re getting to it now is quite surprising. It’s what I dreamed and hoped for, and it’s almost too good to be true.
I almost feel a convergence of people in radio and planets all aligning like it happened with the Guess Who and like it happened with BTO when I hit the top of the charts. I feel a synergy like that may be happening again. I’m grateful for this moment right now. Everything else was over and done with. The only thing to celebrate is now and tomorrow and what’s going to happen.
Pre-order Randy Bachman’s album By George on Amazon, and catch him at the NY Metro Fest for Beatles Fans from March 9-11.