Randy Bachman of the Guess Who & BTO: Interview

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An early promo photo of the Guess Who. Bachman is at far right.

In part one of our interview with Randy Bachman, which you can read here, the legendary Canadian singer-guitarist-songwriter, of Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive fame, talked about his early roots and his love of the Beatles—specifically George Harrison, the subject of Bachman’s new tribute album, By George—By Bachman.

In part two, the affable musician digs deep into the highlights of his years with those two classic rock cornerstones, taking us from the Guess Who’s first hit and on to his return to the top of the charts with BTO, the band he formed in the early ’70s. 

The Guess Who had a hit in 1965 with “Shakin’ All Over,” with Chad Allan as the frontman, and then we didn’t hear anything from you for four years, when you returned with Burton Cummings singing. What happened in between?
Randy Bachman:
We went back to Winnipeg. We didn’t quit school and Chad Allan said he wanted to go back to college. He said, “No one knows who I am. They don’t call [the band] Chad Allan anymore, they call it Guess Who and I hate it.” I don’t care what they call me—just give me some money and I’ll show up and play a gig. Suddenly we were called the Guess Who and his name was off the marquee. There was no mal-intent from anybody; that’s just what happened.

The Guess Who in 1970 (from their Wikipedia page)

When we left town for the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” tour, and we were gone for about a year [1964-65], the next band in town took our throne as Winnipeg’s top band. They were called the Deverons, and their lead singer was Burton Cummings. So we went back and had a meeting and Chad Allan said he wanted to go to the University of Manitoba and finish his degree and stay home with his girlfriend. When you quit school and go on the road you’re basically leaving your girlfriend behind and your brothers and your dog and the woman who does your laundry, who’s your mother, and the woman who cooks, who’s your mother. He was really homesick.

We basically poached Burton Cummings away from the Deverons. He and I became cohorts—I wanted to write to please his voice. I would take him songs I wrote and he would say, “Can we change this part?” He would bring me a song and I’d say, “Your middle is good but your verses suck.” We started to write together and then we had this bang, bang, bang of “These Eyes,” “Laughing,” “Undun,” “No Time,” “No Sugar Tonight” and “American Woman.”

Watch an early Canadian TV appearance of the Guess Who, from 1968

The Guess Who were among a handful of bands that successfully straddled the line between AM and FM radio. You had hits but were considered a cool band, much like the Doors and Creedence.
We were very lucky. We were at a period of time when there were slight crossovers. We had a hit with “These Eyes” and we did American Bandstand—Dick Clark gave us our gold singles. We were invited to New York, to RCA Records, where we had the songs and albums—we recorded the [Wheatfield Soul] album at Phil Ramone’s A&R Studio in New York. He was the engineer on that and that’s why it still sounds great on the radio today. Rocco Laginestra, who was the head of RCA, said, “I want you guys to do me a favor and write another song like ‘These Eyes.’” We said, “We don’t want to write another song like ‘These Eyes.’ We’re not Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. We’re a Canadian prairie rock band. We want to light a prairie fire and burn down the world with our rock ’n’ roll.” He said, “Nobody’s gonna play it. You have to write a followup to ‘These Eyes.’” So we wrote “Laughing.” Then the flip side of “Laughing” was “Undun,” which was a very weird song.

I have to ask you something about “Undun.” There’s a little vocal thing you do in the verses that sounds like what the Zombies did in “Tell Her No” and “Time of the Season,” a whispery “cha” sound. Was that a deliberate nod to them?
Of course! You copy the best! You open your mouth and hit your cheek and go [makes a popping sound], “Ahh.” I did that as a tribute to two of my favorites, Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone.

After those hits you finally got to rock out with “No Time.”
That was our tribute, basically, to Neil [Young] and Stephen [Stills] and Buffalo Springfield. We wanted to do what Neil was doing, kind of pop/acid /country/rock, with blazing guitars. Not really Poco-ish with a pedal steel or anything. So “No Time” was our attempt at Buffalo Springfield and then right into “American Woman,” which became a heavy riff song, even though it’s not that heavy.

Did you catch a lot of flak from Americans for “American Woman”?
Nobody knew what it was. We were on such a momentum—and this is a great place to be—that radio didn’t even audition it: “The new record by the Guess Who, let’s put it on the turntable.” We’d come out with hit after hits and a lot of them, like “Laughing” and “Undun,” were double A-sides. Then out comes “American Woman,” the longest song to ever be number one at the time. [Editor’s note: The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” released the year before “American Woman,” was considerably longer.] The other side, “No Sugar Tonight,” which I wrote alone, was the shortest. [Editor’s note: Elvis Presley’s “Teddy Bear,” from 1957, was 1:46, about 20 seconds shorter than “No Sugar Tonight.”] So by the time it was number one, they realized it was an antiwar protest song, sung by four Canadians. It was too late; it was number one.

Up until then there was an edict: They couldn’t play Country Joe and the Fish’s “1-2-3, what are we fighting for” [“I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag”]. They had to play “The Ballad of the Green Berets” by Barry Sadler. Even [the Shirelles’] “Soldier Boy” got banned. [Ed. Note: Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” was a number one hit in the U.S., and other antiwar songs did receive radio play.] There are terrible things that happened with the U.S. in war, and the U.S. has always been at war. So that’s what happened with “American Woman.” It got to be number one before they realized that there was a line in there that went “We don’t want your war machine/We don’t want your ghetto scenes/Colored lights can hypnotize,” which was Broadway, “sparkle someone else’s eyes.” “American Woman” was not the woman on the street; it was the Statue of Liberty and the Uncle Sam poster with the stars and stripes hat.

Watch the Guess Who perform “American Woman” live in 1970

You walked away at the peak of the Guess Who’s success. Why?
I had a gall bladder attack every night for three weeks, and didn’t know what it was. The road manager would take me to the hospital and they’d say, “This guy is really sick. We want to keep him and do some tests.” He’d say, “I’m sorry but we have to leave Philadelphia because we’re playing Manhattan tomorrow.” The attacks lasted for hours. So I flew home and the doctor said, “You have a gall bladder problem. All you can eat is Jell-O, skim milk and crackers.” Great diet. So I left the band. Plus, I had other differences, but that was the tipping point. They were all into drugs and I wasn’t. I didn’t drink, smoke, do drugs or anything. I was the one who tried to get them out of bed and drove the car and I was the narc. I was the one who took the money—everything was cash and we’d get paid in one-dollar bills, which I carried in a brown paper bag. I’d go to the bank every morning, count out 800 dollar bills, put it in the bank, get a cashier’s check and mail it home—there were no Visas back then or bank transfers. I was doing everything and I’d had enough of these guys being like party children. I’d be waiting in the car and they’d be asleep. It was absolute pain.

Related: A look back at the American Woman album

Bachman Turner Overdrive in 1974 ((L–R: Fred Turner, Robbie Bachman, Randy Bachman, Blair Thornton) (Photo from their Wikipedia page)

Another few years passed before we heard from you again. When you returned with Bachman-Turner Overdrive, it was a completely different sound and you had enormous success for the second time. Tell us about the band’s biggest hit, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.”
“You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” was a song that I created to get a sound. I was the producer of BTO so I would always make up a verse. For this one I was copying “Only You Know and I Know,” the Dave Mason song, nice jangling chords in there, and then I wanted a heavy part. I wanted to create music that was somewhat like Creedence or the Who or what the Stones were doing—this was ’72, ’73—with kind of a pop verse. But then I wanted the chorus to be a shovel-in-the-face power chord rock ’n’ roll thing that you could sing.

“You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” wasn’t even a song—I was stuttering to tease my brother, who had a stuttering problem. I mixed one version of it on a cassette I was going to send to him and when the head of our record label heard our album, Not Fragile, he said, “I like ‘Sledgehammer’ and ‘Roll on Down the Highway” but I don’t hear a hit to get on the radio.” He said, “You already had ‘Let it Ride’ and ‘Takin’ Care of Business’ on the radio. I’m looking for something to get you into the top 5, maybe even the top spot.” I said, “We have nothing else. We had 10 days to do the album. We just finished a 90-day tour and we’re starting another 90-day tour.” The engineer said, “Play him the outtake.” [The label person] went crazy and said, “Put it on the album the way it is.” It sold millions of copies and was number one in 22 countries.

What’s the current status of your relationship with Burton Cummings? Will there ever be another reunion?
There’s always offers but I’ve sent him many emails and gotten no replies. I get better replies from Brian May or Neil Young or Eddie Van Halen or Sammy Hagar. Nothing from Cummings.

Randy Bachman today

Tell us about your weekly radio show.
It just got renewed for the 13th year—it’s on CBC in Canada and on the Internet. “It started as a joke in a summer replacement and it’s become such a big part of my life. I get to play all my old vinyl and tell all my own stories. I get to do that every Saturday for two hours. It’s like having your friends over and having a party and playing your old records.

The Guess Who have not been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Does it bother you?
It bothered me 10 or 12 years ago. Now I don’t care. It means nothing.

Watch Bachman-Turner Overdrive perform “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” in 1974

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Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been a prolific music journalist for more than four decades. He is formerly the editor of Goldmine, CMJ andRelix magazines, has written for dozens of other publications and has authored liner notes for more than 80 CDs. Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. His first book was 'Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.' He is also the co-author of 'Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.,' with Howard Kaylan.
Jeff Tamarkin
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