Story time with Randy Bachman Part I

BTO, Guess Who main man shares tales from the past, talks up his new live DVD
By Peter Lindblad

Randy Bachman - Every Song
Tells a Story 2014
Randy Bachman just keeps rolling down the highway, carrying a truckload of enduring songs from his days with The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, as well as his solo work.

Along the way, his career in music spanning 50-some years, Bachman has seen it all and lived to tell about it. Which is exactly what he does on a new live CD/DVD package called "Every Song Tells a Story" that's similar to the "Storytellers" series made popular by VH1 in the mid-1990s. It was recorded in April 2013 at Pantages Playhouse Theatre in Winnipeg, Bachman's home town.

In his own understated and lighthearted manner, Bachman candidly shares the compelling stories behind some of his biggest hits, as a video montage offers a seamless visual history of his life and times. Journeying through the social and political unrest of the '60s in America, Bachman talks of Winnipeg's musical groundswell, his struggles to get BTO off the ground and forming a partnership with Burton Cummings, all while performing the classics that made him one of Canada's most revered and successful songwriters.

His legacy includes No. 1 hits in a number of countries, 120 gold and platinum album and singles awards and record sales topping 40 million. And in recent years, Bachman has become a radio personality, his award-winning radio program "Vinyl Tap" allowing him to impart a wealth of knowledge about rock 'n' roll and connect to fans who want to know more about this legendary figure. In this two-part interview, Bachman talks in-depth about his new live "storyteller" release and his own path to greatness.

What prompted you to do this kind of performance? I understand Ray Davies of The Kinks played in this.
Randy Bachman: Well, I’m a fan of Ray Davies, as most people are. He tells the story of The Kinks, and I go backstage and I say, “That was amazing.” And he looks at me and he says, “Well, you could do it better or more amazing than this.” I said, “Well, what do you mean?” He says, “Well, you’ve got two bands. You could tell the stories behind the songs. You’ve got more hits than me.” And I went back to Vancouver after that, this little bit in London, and got asked to do a show for the Canadian Cancer Society – a fundraising dinner, $5,000 a play, black-tie dinner at a big golf country club, everybody’s dressed up and a silent auction is auctioning Harley Davidsons and stuff. This is to raise many hundreds of thousands of dollars for the cancer society, and the people voted that they wanted me as the entertainment. But they said, “Could you come and play for these people? But they’re having dinner. We would blow the plates off the table.” They said, “Can you kind of do an acoustic show?” And I said, “My music doesn’t really translate acoustically, at least the BTO stuff doesn’t. But how about if I sit on a stool and tell stories about how I wrote the songs, and I’ll play a little bit of the songs, and it won’t be a night of blasting it in their faces, because they can kind of talk as they’re having their dinner.” 

So I go there and I do the night and nobody talks when I’m telling my stories. They’re all listening. And I’m kind of frightened at this – that they’re listening to me. And then we play the songs, and when the evening is over, they came and said, “You know if you would put this on a CD or a DVD, we would buy a dozen copies and send it to our relatives all over the world. This is just the most wonderful insight into all these songs we all grew up with. It’s the soundtrack to our lives – our teenage lives, our married lives, our working life and everything.” So I let that go by and then somebody said, “Will you do that storytelling thing again? Will you do it again?” So it became “Every Song Tells a Story,” and I put it chronologically so it’s from the early Guess Who right up to the present. And I did a run last spring, about 38 dates, and near the end was Winnipeg. And my manager said, “Well, if you’re going to be in your hometown, where all these songs originated and you’re talking about Neil Young and the Guess Who and BTO and Portage and Main, and things like that, which is the main intersection in Winnipeg there, let’s DVD it.” So we did it and they put together a montage to show behind me, a visual of where we were – the haircuts, the clothes, the cars, the guitars at the time. So it’s kind of a history lesson of biographical significance if you grew up in Canada and into the States, too – you know these songs. 

Some of the greatest critiques I’ve had is that it’s the most wonderful history lesson of Canadian music, especially out of Winnipeg, that anybody could have, because that’s the music that rocked the world – the Guess Who and BTO and Neil Young were the music that came out Winnipeg that’s still going and still being played on radio to this day. So I’m kind of thrilled that … it wasn’t a big plan. No big producer came and said, “Let’s do this.” It kind of evolved from me just following my passion and getting that idea from Ray Davies and developing the idea, putting visuals behind it, incorporating both bands, taking it on the road, and doing a DVD of it and now this DVD that we put out a little while ago has now gone triple platinum in Canada. It’s triggered now releases in the States, in the U.K., in Germany, in Denmark, and Australia. So I’m doing phoners all the time, and I’m kind of stunned at the reviews. My manager just sent me 40 or 50 great reviews that are just … I’ve never had reviews like this in my life. I don’t know what I’m doing, but it must be something good (laughs). I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but it’s funny, it’s funny.

The tide is turning, right?
RB:  It’s like when you have a hit record. You go, “What did we do that made this a hit record? We’ve got to do it again, but we don’t know what we did. Everybody likes this song, so …” So everybody liking this DVD is really an honor to me and a thrill, and a way of people I guess acknowledging and recognizing that I’ve made a difference in their lives with my music.

I know Winnipeg was ideal for this, and the Pantages Playhouse Theatre was really a great location. 
RB: Well, that was our dream to play there back in the old rock ‘n’ roll days. I mean, I went to that theatre to see the "Dick Clark Caravans." I saw Johnny and The Hurricanes there. I saw The Champs. I saw the Bill Black Combo. I saw everybody there … Dick and Dee Dee, Lonnie Mack. Everybody would play the Winnipeg Playhouse. It’s now renamed the Pantages, but we knew it as the Playhouse. So when you came to Winnipeg, you either played there or the big arena, which is a big hockey arena, which is a big, booming barn. This is a theatre, where you sat down and really got to the see the band and hear the music. So for me to go back there – and it’s all been refurbished and it’s all really quite beautiful – it was really wonderful to go there. They say you can’t go home again, but I went home and it was really, really great. It was wonderful. I went home and celebrated the songs from both bands that I’d written there, and I knew the audience. I must have known everybody in the audience. They were all related to me. I either went to school with them or grew up with them or played in bands with them. I really felt like I was at home in a reunion, so I was very comfortable that whole evening and I really felt warmth and love from the audience, and I guess it shows in the DVD because people are saying it’s really a magical moment that we captured there.

Do you have a favorite moment from that show?
RB: My favorite story of all, which even amazes me, is the entire story of “Takin’ Care of Business,” how I started it in the late ‘60s, was called “White Collar Worker,” how it transformed to become what it became about five years later through an accident at a BTO show when Fred Turner lost his voice and I had to sing, to the pizza guy who came in and brought the pizza and played piano on it … that whole thing is … no writer in Hollywood could have written a better story, but it happened and I tell the story and it’s pretty amazing.

That is a great one, and it’s a longer story and it takes a while to spool out …
RB: I picked that one and that’s kind of appropriate for that night, right? And I tell people it’s a long story, because actually it starts when I went on the “Louie, Louie” tour with “Shakin’ All Over.” (mistakenly credited to The Guess Who's in the U.S. release of the single) That’s when it starts, that’s when I wrote that song. That’s when I met Stanley Greenberg, who was the blind engineer, Florence Greenberg’s son, the engineer at Scepter's studio. So it goes back to the beginning of the show and pulls it right up to the present, so it’s a little bit longer, but the threads pull the people in, because they want to know what happened in between.

You talked of Winnipeg in the ‘60s being like Liverpool. What made it such a vibrant musical community and how were you able to carve out your own place in it?
RB: Well, a lot of things made it vibrant. Winnipeg is about 450 miles away from anywhere else. It’s far to Minneapolis – 450 miles. Regina – 400 and something miles. There’s nothing near it. It’s the dead center of North America, the center of Canada and the center of nowhere. There’s nothing else near it, so consequently, when you’re there, you’re there. So the ethnicity of your parents, if they were from England or Germany, or Scotland, their parties, their bar mitzvahs, their church gatherings, their weddings – all that ethnic music is there. And then the stuff we heard late at night on the radio – because Winnipeg is the top of the Great Plains – so late at night I was able to listen to my little AM radio as Neil Young was listening, too, on the other side of town, and Burton Cummings listening to WLS in Chicago, WNOE in New Orleans, “Cousin Brucie” in New York, “Wolfman” Jack … on a good night I’d get “Wolfman” Jack from some station in Mexico or something, and hear this music that we’d never heard before. It was so exciting. It was called rock ‘n’ roll, and rock ‘n’ roll was starting. We were like 14, 15, or 16, hearing this music for the first time, it was really, really amazing. 

And so when we started a band, the drinking age in Winnipeg was 21, so everyone from 21 on down came to your dance. High school dances didn’t have high school kids. All the older kids came who had graduated came back to their old high school. Being at a high school dance, you had 500 to 800 kids dancing in the gym, and they had already seen it on the rock ‘n’ roll movies, the Allen Freed movies – “Rock Around the Clock” – and they had seen it every week on “American Bandstand.” Everybody knew how to dance and there were 150 bands in this little town of 300,000 people playing every church, every community center … community centers were a building in the middle nowhere, where they’d flood the field in the winter and we’d play hockey on it. And then in the summer they’d put lines on it and we’d play baseball or soccer on it. We had these community centers, and women would play bingo there, and if you had a wedding, the wedding reception would be there. You’d go from the church to the community center, so we had all these high school gyms and community centers, and ethnic halls, like the Jewish Hall or the Polish Hall, where these people went for their weddings and stuff. And we also had friends and relatives in England who would send us this incredible music from England of Cliff Richard and The Shadows and the Telstars, and The Beatles and then all the Beatles clones, Gerry and the Pacemakers and everybody else. 

And we had this great music there, and we’d just all try to outdo each other, even though it was a community but we shared things because if someone got the first bass in town, and Jim Kell had the first electric bass in town and the amplifier, we’d loan it to Neil Young. If we weren’t playing a gig and Neil Young had a gig, he’d call and say, “Are you guys using your amp and bass next week?” And we’d say, “No, you can use it.” So we would take it to the gig and watch him play with The Squires, and then he’d come and see us play the next weekend. It was kind of a “helping each other out” kind of thing, because he’d play his end of town, and we’d play our end of town, and then we’d talk to each school or promoter and say, “Why don’t you book Neil Young and the Squires on our end of town?” And then he would talk to his places and say, “Why don’t you book The Guess Who in my end of town?” And we would trade community centers or halls and get to play other schools. And you’d make like $20 a night, and each guy in the band would get $4 or $5, and that was a big deal – better than delivering newspapers, which was how we earned our money to buy our guitars. We all had a paper route, do you know what I mean? Or mowed lawns … that was it.   

Some of the funniest and most poignant moments had to do with your first trips to America. It was a country at war. What were your initial impressions of the country and how did they change as your career advanced?
RB: Well, there were two things going on at the time. We would play a concert, and a race riot would break out. We’d be in Chicago or we’d be in Minneapolis, and you were told by the promoter, if black and whites start fighting, do not stop playing that song. Play that song forever, because a lot of the people won’t know there’s a fight. There’ll be dancing. They’re hearing the music. The minute you stop and hear a scuffle, they’re going to go and it’s going to turn into a mass riot. So if it’s two or three guys having a fight or four or five guys in the corner, we’ll try to get the bouncers in, we’ll call the police. Don’t stop playing. But that is frightening when you’re playing, and you’re looking down and guys are fighting with knives in front of the stage and they’re black and white guys. I’m onstage backing a black band. I’m with the Guess Who. We’re backing The Shirelles or The Crystals or The Ronettes. We’re thrilled to be backing these black artists, because to us, they were superstars. And here they are fighting in the audience – it was amazing. 

And then some of the towns we went to, we would be the only guys between 18 and 30. Women would come to our dance and touch us like we were aliens. There was no guys in some of these places; they were all drafted. I’m talking about ’67, ’68 – there were no guys. The war was going full-tilt; they were drafting everybody. Then the riots were starting. The students were starting to protest the draft and the war, like, “Why are we at war? Why are we losing our youth to the war in a jungle somewhere, for what purpose? We don’t understand this.” And the whole thing was in turmoil, and here we were on tour, Canadians at the time. They tried to draft us. We came back to Canada and wrote “American Woman” on the spot. “Stay away from me/let me be/we don’t want your war machine.” That was the whole idea behind that. “American Woman” was the Statue of Liberty; that’s what that stood for. It wasn’t the woman on the street. And I tell that story on the DVD. It was like us almost being drafted and coming back to Canada and turning in our green cards. And that night onstage, I broke a string, I wrote the riff, Burton Cummings sang the line, “American woman/stay away from me” … bam, we wrote it, and it was a No. 1 hit.

Yeah, that was an amazing story from the DVD, and it kind of brings me into my next question. You describe your career as a “series of accidents” that you followed wherever they led. Was there a time when you felt most scared that the break you were looking for wouldn’t come, whether that was with The Guess Who or BTO?
RB: Well, the whole thing is, the whole music business, and from my thinking, you have a dream to be like Elvis. You have to have a dream to be like John Lennon. You have a dream to be like Clapton. You have somebody to look to. You have a dream if you’re a kid to be like David Beckham or Michael Jordan, or somebody like that. You have a dream to be like Robert Dinero if you’re an actor or somebody, or Nicholas Cage or somebody like that. So everybody laughs at you saying, “You’ll never be another Dinero. You’ll never be another Clapton.” And then suddenly, they’re paying money to see you act or play or shoot a hoop or play guitar, and then suddenly, they’re buying your record, and suddenly, they’re saying, “You’re the new Eric Clapton.” And so there’s this change if you keep at it. You have Plan A and if you stick to Plan A and Plan B is to stick to Plan A, which is you plan to chase your dream no matter what and climb every mountain that’s in your way and crawl through every gutter that’s in your way and keep chasing your dream and keep doing it, and suddenly you achieve and you become something. And your whole life becomes that. And in a way you’re a spectator and can look back at it and go, “Wow! We broke up 22 times, but the 23rd time we got back together, that’s when it happened,” because if we’d broken up, it never would have happened. 

And you learn to keep going, and then I also learned back when I was writing a song or seeing something or feeling something happening onstage to just let it happen. It’s almost like a psychic. You feel this thing coming to you, this revelation or this story or this fact about someone, you open up and let it come and suddenly you sit there, and you’ve written this amazing song in like five minutes and you write it down. And you go and play it for someone, and you say, “Listen to this,” and they go, “Did you write that? That’s amazing.” And all you can say is, “Yes, yeah. I think I wrote that. I think I wrote it,” because it’s in you and you don’t know where it comes from, and you don’t know if you’ve heard it before. If you play it for someone, they’ll say, “Oh, we’ve heard that. It’s on the new Beatles record, right?” And you go, “Really?” And they go, “Yeah. That’s Side 2, Cut 3.” And you go, “Oh, yeah. That’s a Beatles song. It was on my mind,” but if nobody recognizes it, you claim it as your own and as years go by, you have accolades for having written these songs and that’s what it is, because there’s nothing new. It’s so hard to get something new, and when something comes, I’m quite surprised that I’ve written something new out of all the things I know that are begged and borrowed and stolen. You know what I mean? And if you can shape something new and call it your own, it is in fact a miracle, and on this “Every Song Tells a Story” DVD, I’m celebrating about 50 miracles that nobody called me on. Nobody said, “Well, you stole that song.” They’re saying, “That’s a great song. You wrote it by yourself,” and so I’m excited to have that out there and I frankly tell the stories where the songs came from and what inspired them and all that.

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