When Bachman-Turner Overdrive thunders into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at the Juno Awards in March, the honour may well feel overdue.
Not because of any reticence on behalf of organizers to fete the flannel-clad masters of hard-chugging rock and roll. More than a decade ago, the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences was ready to induct BTO, but various members were still ensconced in conflicts over who had the rightful claim to the band’s name and which lineup precisely would be ushered in.
Such spats now seem a distant memory, and each of the four band members being inducted — the lineup of Randy Bachman, Fred Turner, Blair Thornton and Robin (Robbie) Bachman who created the 1974 hit album “Not Fragile” — insists that no hard feelings will remain when they’re appropriately beckoned into the Hall in their hometown of Winnipeg.
So, what changed?
“It took decades, but we all grew up,” Randy Bachman said in a telephone interview. “As in any family, as in any band, as on any team, as in any relationship, there are bound to be ... differences. And some of the differences are irreconcilable and some of them are really tiny, stupid, little petty things and some of them are big things. But as time goes by and you grow up as an adult ... you look back at it and go: ‘Wow, the guy was an absolute jerk and guess what? I was a jerk too in my own way.’
“All the little differences that cause a band to break up or one guy to leave ... looking back at it, you go, oh yeah, he was a jerk, I was a jerk, he was a goof, he was always late, he was a maniac, he spent all his money, whatever.
“What in the end matters is, in our own way, we went out ... for our own little period of time, we became something. A band that other bands wanted to be like.”
And for Bachman, this gilding of his band’s legacy seems to carry extra significance. Because he remembers vividly how close the venture veered toward failure.
In May 1970, Bachman had somewhat abruptly decided to depart the Guess Who when the rock band was at the peak of its powers, just months after the release of “American Woman.” He had been suffering gall bladder attacks that had sentenced him to nightly visits to the emergency room, feverish, doubled over in pain and vomiting blood.
When he said he couldn’t continue touring, the Guess Who lined up a temporary replacement guitarist and soon after, Bachman decided to leave the band.
“Looking back at it, if the Guess Who were in the right state of mind — Burton Cummings and the band — that I was, we would have recognized that ‘Randy has a problem, he’s bleeding to death, he’s in pain, we’re No. 1, let’s take a month off and see what’s wrong, get him fixed and go back on the road,“’ recalled Bachman now.
“There never would have been a BTO.”
But BTO didn’t emerge immediately. Bachman’s first move was to form — with substantial help from fellow Winnipeg native Neil Young — a country-pop outfit called Brave Belt with his brother Robin and former Guess Who associate Chad Allan. Turner was added soon afterward on bass.
Brave Belt put out two records that “kind of went nowhere,” and a third underwhelming effort got the band dropped from its deal with Reprise Records. Randy Bachman shopped that third record around but found a tepid response, initially. After 20-plus refusals, Warner Bros. expressed interest but demanded the band change its moniker to something that capitalized upon Bachman’s name recognition.
They switched to Bachman-Turner and picked up “Overdrive” from a “trucker magazine.” Suddenly, they “had this magical thing,” Bachman said, noting having a name easily shortened into an acronym was “really hip” in the era of CSNY and CCR.
The newly christened band had a new sound, too, which Bachman calls “lumberjack rock”: “plug in guitars, plug in your amp, and knock down trees. It was not sophisticated rock and roll.”
Determined to make it big, BTO spent 330 days of their first year together on the road.
“(We) had no hit singles, just sheer force of determination,” Bachman recalled. “And then suddenly the hits started to come, like ’Let it Ride’ and ‘Takin’ Care of Business’ and ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ and ‘Looking Out for No. 1’ and ‘Hey You.’ Suddenly the floodgates were open. Everybody wanted what I was doing.
“Suddenly you go from super cold to super hot.”
Indeed, the band’s first self-titled album — the Brave Belt record no one wanted — eventually climbed to gold sales. “Bachman-Turner Overdrive II” went platinum, as did the chart-topping “Not Fragile” in 1974, which also spawned the band’s first No. 1 single in Canada with “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.”
Not bad for a quartet that Bachman frankly points out didn’t look the part of pinup pop stars.
“We couldn’t afford clothes. We wore jeans and T-shirts and flannel shirts. We looked like the boys next door who would take your grandmother’s garbage out to the curb,” he said with a laugh. “We weren’t pretty boys in silver leotards with eye makeup. We were the fat guys next door. We were like Seth Rogen when he started.
“We were average guys that would have worked at a gas station. We were blue-collar guys.”
That sensibility extended through to the band’s music.
“It was very unsophisticated,” Bachman assessed. “We’re talking about guys who’ve never had a lesson in their life. Me trying to get my brother to play like Ringo Starr or Charlie Watts ... it was very primitive. Simple, simple, simple drums. Just keep a beat. I don’t want any drumrolls. ... Fred on bass, just play simple bass and give me this animal jungle thing to play guitar over and we’ll sing a bunch of lyrics over it and maybe everybody will sing with us.
“If you compare us to Yes, who had an album called ‘Fragile,’ and then we named ours ‘Not Fragile.’ Theirs was full of harmonies and counterpoint guitars ... they’re absolutely two ends of the rock and roll spectrum,” he added. “(But) nobody dances or sings to ’Roundabout.’ Everybody dances and sings to ‘American Woman’ and ’Takin’ Care of Business.’”
To Robin Bachman, the band’s success is no mystery.
“We didn’t tell anybody they were wrong or anything was bad or don’t do this. It was basically, have a good time, fun music,” he said in a separate phone interview. “Just coming out of the ‘70s with the Vietnam War and all the political things going on — in Canada with Trudeau, and Richard Nixon and stuff like that — we just basically had enough of that stuff.”
Oddly, a band that’s now associated with suds-soaked singalongs never had much time for hard-living.
Randy Bachman, ever the responsible older sibling, says he insisted upon a code of conduct that precluded wild partying.
“We were drug free and pretty much alcohol free,” he said. “I was investing my money from the Guess Who in the band. You gotta remember I’m the oldest guy and my best friend Fred Turner, he’s the same age as me, and I’ve got my younger brothers in the band. So all my whole life, I was told: ‘Babysit your brothers, look after your brothers, don’t let them cross the street alone, watch out for them.’
“We didn’t have any roadies, we set up our own gear, we set up our own PA, we put two lights on either side of the stage — that’s our light show,” he added. “We’d just go out as a family and we’d do it. They listened to me. They had to — I was paying their salary. I wasn’t going to waste my money on guys who wanted to party and wanted chicks.
“This was a business to me. At that time, I had two children and a limited amount of money from the Guess Who because I got shafted on that whole thing.”
Thornton and both Bachmans interviewed agree that “Not Fragile” was the band’s highpoint. (Turner declined an interview request). As far as other highlights, Randy Bachman points to a show BTO headlined at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium with support from Styx, Kansas and Foghat that drew more than 47,000 fans.
Thornton and Robin Bachman, meanwhile, recall attending one of Elvis Presley’s shows in Las Vegas in 1975 — “This was in the fat Elvis day, I’m afraid,” Thornton notes somewhat ruefully — at which they were swarmed by autograph seekers.
Later, they were called back to meet the King and Thornton recalls presenting him with a silver medallion reading “Takin’ Care of Business.”
“It’s weird to have Elvis know your name,” Robin laughed. “Basically, we talked to him about karate, firearms and cars.”
As far as any erstwhile animosity within the band, Thornton says: “Once you put the unit together, it doesn’t matter.”
And Randy Bachman, for his part, looks back on the band’s achievements with deep — even defiant — pride.
“They said it couldn’t be done,” he said. “I did it again. I started another band from the wilderness of Winnipeg out of nothing — untrained musicians, musicians who weren’t in bands before except for Fred Turner, and somehow got to No. 1 album and No. 1 single and sold 20 million records, more than the Guess Who had at the time, in a three-year period span. So it was an unbelievable effort of concentration.”
And this time, nothing will stall Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s victory lap.
“To go back now and reflect on it and celebrate it, it’ll be fun and an honour for me,” Bachman said. “And for the other guys to come back and smile and give each other a hug and shake hands and go: ‘We really did rock the world. We really did.’”
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