In his career as a co-vocalist/guitarist/songwriter for not one but two pretty successful classic rock bands (The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive), Randy Bachman has sold tens of millions of records, sold out concerts, and hit the top of the charts.
But, according to his son, singer/songwriter Tal Bachman (who had a hit of his own in 1999 with “She’s So High”), dad didn’t really make it in the music biz until he became animated in a 2000 episode of “The Simpsons.” It’s where Homer loudly requests the band play “Takin’ Care of Business” and “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”…and continues to bellow for the tunes after the band has obliged.
“A lot of other musicians had been on the show. Matt Groening went to college near Seattle, and that was the town where B.T.O. first broke, so he was a fan,” Bachman recalls today.
“So he wanted to animate me and [B.T.O. co-vocalist/bassist] Fred Turner. It was a lot of fun, and they treated us like royalty. Matt even sent a huge box of ‘Simpsons’ stuff, and sent Fred and I an autographed cell afterward.”
Bachman’s cartoon legacy makes for an interesting story, but it’s not one that he tells on the recent DVD, Randy Bachman Vinyl Tap Tour: Every Song Tells a Story. Part concert, part interview, and part documentary, it features Bachman weaving tales of his life and career while he and a band play excerpts from 14 of his biggest songs as he tells the stories behind their creation.
Filmed in his hometown of Winnipeg, Canada on the last date of a tour, it combines Ray Davies’ Storyteller format with aspects of Bachman’s own Canadian radio program, “Vinyl Tap.” Throughout, vintage pictures and video clips play on a screen behind him.
“I haven’t even seen it because I am always facing forward, so I don’t know what they’re showing behind me!” Bachman laughs. “And the format certainly beats standing up at 2 p.m. in the heat playing a pop festival.”
Today, music fans take it for granted they can get pretty much every song every recorded immediately at the click of a mouse. But in early ‘60s Canada, Bachman and future Guess who co-vocalist/keyboardist Burton Cummings relied on painstakingly taped compilation reels of American and English rock music sent to them each Christmas by one of Bachman’s family members.
The pair (and other bandmembers) would learn as many of the songs as possible to play themselves at gigs, as well as buying what they could.
“New albums cost $3.98. So Burton and I would save up money from gigs or throwing newspapers and pitch in $2 each. One of us would get possession of the record for a week, and then give it to the other,” Bachman remembers.
“And we’d learn every groove, every lick, and every lyric on both sides. Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley stuff. We even knew the names of the producers!”
One of the more interesting aspects about the DVD is how many of Bachman’s songs that classic rock listeners know and love by heart came about as flukes.
The Guess Who’s “American Woman” was born from an impromptu stage jam with lyrics invented on the spot about the Canadian band’s desire not to be drafted in the U.S. Army. “No Sugar Tonight” was what Bachman heard a San Francisco biker mama tell her man-who-turned-into-a-mouse what he would be getting from her later.
B.T.O.’s “Takin’ Care of Business” had a similar musical origin, with lyrics drawn from words Bachman wrote years before about a blind engineer who commuted to the studio on the train. Originally called “White Collar Worker,” it took on the more familiar title from the tagline of a Canadian DJ. “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” was an after-hours goof off performed as a playful poke at Bachman’s stuttering brother.
“I could sit down with a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus and try to sound like a great songwriter, but’s it’s contrived,” Bachman says. “But when you let it go, something happens. It’s a ball of energy that comes from the Angel of Song.”
The music of both the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive – as well as his solo work – fall into the category of that sort of blue collar “meat and potatoes” rock of the ‘70s. Think Bob Seger, Grand Funk Railroad, Foghat, and the James Gang.
And while the genre doesn’t get critical respect (saved, it seems, for prog-rock bands with intricate instrumentation who write about space like Pink Floyd and King Crimson), Bachman is nonplussed.
“It’s all just music. I mean, Burton and I started out playing classical music. And country music today is basically classic rock. All of them are playing Les Pauls through Marshall amps!” he says. “Lots of people don’t own up to liking meat and potatoes thumping rock. But if you get them at a party, they’ll want to hear ‘Takin’ Care of Business’ and ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’ and will sing along!”
Randy Bachman’s plans for the next year will keep him busy. He’s touring (some gigs with the “Vinyl Tap” format, which hopes to bring to the U.S.). He’s also recorded a blues record with a female drummer and bassist (“They sound like the Who in their prime!”) with producer Kevin Shirley called Heavy Blues. There have also been occasional gigs with B.T.O. partner Fred Turner and Peter Frampton’s Guitar Circus.
“I’m having the time of my life recycling myself and reinventing myself over and over, doing things I thought I couldn’t do again in terms of songwriting and singing,” he says.
And who knows? Maybe Randy Bachman will someday, somewhere, somehow overhear a snippet of your conversation and turn it into a classic rock hit. Homer, are you listening?
A version of this article originally appeared in The Houston Press.