With the Guess Who, Randy Bachman made radio listeners “come undun,” and as the co-leader of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, he “took care of business,” but what Guitar World readers really want to know is…
You cut your new album, Heavy Blues, with a female rhythm section: Anna Ruddick on bass and Dale Anne Brendon on drums. Was it any different working with two girls in the studio than with a bunch of guys?
Yes, it was, and only in a good way. These two girls had never played together before, but once I got them together, it was as if they’d been lifelong bandmates. Things gelled very quickly. I saw Dale Anne at the premiere of Tommy in Stratford-Ontario. I was sitting with Pete Townshend, and he leaned over to me and said, “That drummer is amazing—sounds just like Keith Moon.” I said, “Yeah, and it’s a girl.” Pete couldn’t believe it: “A girl can’t play like Keith Moon.” But sure enough, Dale Anne can. After the show, I went back and met her. I knew I wanted to work with her.
Neil Young had told me, “When you do your next record, don’t do the same old shtick,” and that stuck with me. After meeting Dale, I saw Anna play in a Crazy Horse–type band, and she was brilliant. I met her and found out that she liked Jon Entwistle. I thought, I should work with these chicks. That would be different. They nailed first takes in the studio. Everything they did, it was like Cream’s Wheels of Fire. They didn’t just play their instruments; they attacked them.
You’ve got some guitar greats on your new album: Neil Young, Joe Bonamassa, Peter Frampton. Did you give them ideas or direction, or did you just let them go?
We did the album in four days. One day I got a call from [producer] Kevin Shirley, who had gone to Australia, and he said, “I got my next door neighbor, Joe Bonamassa, to do a solo.” Kevin sent me the track, and it was incredible. Joe’s solo really stood out and complemented the one I had played.
That gave me an idea to use a solo of Jeff Healey’s.
I called his widow, and she said she was okay with it, so I wrote “Confessin’ to the Devil” to match up with Jeff’s guitar playing from a track he had done. Meanwhile, I emailed Neil Young and Peter Frampton, and I got them to do tracks for me. I just told them, “Here’s the tracks. I know how you play, so just give me your heart and soul.” That’s what they did, and I couldn’t be happier. Absolutely amazing performances.
Is it true that Kevin Shirley told you to “shut up and listen to him” in the studio? If so, did you take offense to that?
—“Gentle” Jim Manna
No, I didn’t. When Neil Young told me that I had to reinvent myself and do something different, I took that seriously. So, no, I didn’t get mad when Kevin told me I had to listen to him. When you produce yourself, you write a song, the band tells you it’s great, you record it, and that’s it. I’ve done that, and you wind up with a certain kind of record.
When you work with a producer who pushes you and who doesn’t just tell you everything you want to hear, you’re gonna wind up with another kind of record, and it might be a better record. Kevin was honest with me, and that’s what I wanted. He told me, “I’ll do the record, but I have to be the captain. I’ll listen to your opinion, but it means nothing to me.” I was okay with that.
I read that you recently bought some guitars on eBay. Isn’t that a tricky way to buy guitars? Don’t you need to try them out first?
It is tricky. It can be a little like joining an internet dating site: You get an old picture of a chick when she was much younger. Then you go to meet her and you’re looking around for this tall, slim blonde, but the only woman is this huge, gray-haired old lady. Luckily, that wasn’t the case for me. I got these black Supro archtops with no f-holes. They’re really cool, rare guitars, and the Valco pickups in them are incredible. I was looking for one of these guitars for a while, and I couldn’t find them. Then one day I found three, so I bought them all. I love ’em.
I know you’ve played a lot of guitars through many different amps over the years, but what’s the best guitar-amp combination you’ve ever had?
—Dr. Robert Meckler
That’s changed, because it’s hard to take your favorite amp on the road these days unless you’ve got a bus or a truck. A lot of guys like me do fly-ins, so you’re using the backline of whatever the venues give you. When I can get them, I like Fender Hot Rod Deluxes. They have a nice clean headroom, and they’re dependable. I play my ’59 Les Paul reissues, which are chambered—the old guitars are too heavy. So give me the ’59 reissue and the Fender Deluxes—that’s a good combination.
What was the secret to your songwriting with [Guess Who frontman] Burton Cummings?
We studied the best. Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Brian Wilson; for ballads, we studied Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Whatever was on the hit parade, we studied it, and we took note of who wrote the songs. We tried to write follow-ups to whatever was big on Billboard, and those songs became our own. We tried to have memorable intros and huge hooks. You had to be able to sing every part of the song, even if it was a guitar part. “American Woman”—you can sing that intro guitar part. You’ve got three minutes, so make every second count.
You said in an interview that “Undun” is your favorite Guess Who song. Which begs the question: What’s your least favorite?
—Roarin’ Robert Feller
All the others. [laughs] How’s that for an answer? Honestly, it’s hard to say, but yeah, “Undun” is my favorite. I always thought it was very different, and it stood out from everything else that was on the radio. It reminded me of “The Girl from Ipanema”—nothing sounded like that, either. In the late Sixties, everybody was rocking out, and here you had this dreamy, jazzy song. The song just lifted you up and carried you away. Burton Cummings sang his face off and did a little flute solo. How could you not love that?
Did you ever record a version of “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” without the stuttering?
I tried. When I stuttered on the original version of the song, it was never supposed to be on an album. It was a work track that I was going to send to my brother, because he stuttered. It was supposed to be a tease. The head of our label heard the song and loved it—he said it was our next single. I tried to record a version without the stuttering, but it didn’t work. I sounded like a lounge singer, a little like Frank Sinatra or something. So we kept the version with the stuttering, and it was a smash.
Brave Belt, your band that became BTO, was rejected 26 times by record labels. With all of your success from the Guess Who, why did no label want to sign you?
When I left the Guess Who in 1970, I didn’t want my next band to be a second-rate version of the Guess Who. I went in an opposite direction and did a country-rock thing. I went over-the-top with it—pedal steel, accordion, fiddle. It was almost like what Gene Clark was doing. Radio wasn’t interested in Brave Belt and labels didn’t want it.
Finally, I got a deal, but the head of the label said that we had to put my name, Bachman, on it. So it became Bachman-Turner Overdrive—same guys but a different name. We didn’t do the country thing. We played gigs and noticed that no one danced to the country songs; whenever we played the heavier rock songs, that’s when people danced. I grew up watching American Bandstand, and I knew that if people danced to the songs, they became hits. It’s pretty simple.
You’ve written a lot of hits. Did you know they were hits when you wrote them, or were you always surprised?
Every song’s a hit when I write it, or else I wouldn’t finish it. What always happens is that the people at radio have their own ideas. You write a song and you think it’s a hit, but the radio people say, “No, not that one. That one—that’s a hit.” And then they play it, and you see what kind of reaction you get and whether it clicks with the fans. No, I’m usually surprised at the songs that become hits, and I’m especially surprised—very happily so—to see radio still playing my songs 30, 40 years later.
Were you offended by the band that called itself Kathleen Turner Overdrive, or did you think it was funny?
I thought it was funny; I thought it was great. I was with BTO and we were traveling, and we were told by a guy at our hotel that Kathleen Turner was in town. She was doing [1986’s] Peggy Sue Got Married at the time. What was amazing was, Kathleen Turner Overdrive was playing at the Holiday Inn next door. So we went to their show, got a T-shirt, signed it, and left it for Kathleen Turner at the hotel desk. We never got to meet her, but we left her the shirt. No, I wasn’t offended at all by the name. I thought it was terrific.