So the DVD and CD release in 2014 of Vinyl Tap Tour: Every Song Tells a Story was most welcome, as fans could now finally get the stories behind such tunes as "These Eyes," "Undone," "Laughing," "No Sugar Tonight," "American Woman," "Four Wheel Drive," "Let It Ride," "No Time," "Takin' Care of Business," "Hey You," "Prairie Town," "Lookin' Out For Number 1," and "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet."
Bachman spoke with Songfacts right around the release of Vinyl Tap Tour ("Vinyl Tap" also being the name of a radio show that he has hosted since 2005). In this interview, he breaks down "American Woman" and "Takin' Care of Business," and explains why Van Halen enlisted BTO for their first tour without David Lee Roth.
Randy Bachman: I'm a songwriter. When people ask me what I am, I say I'm a songwriter. I'm not that great a guitar player or entertainer. But my craft is writing songs.
Songfacts: And that's, I think, the most important thing. It seems like today with modern-day rock players, sometimes there's an overemphasis on how fast you can solo, but I always think that it's the importance of the song that's the main thing.
Bachman: It truly is. It's like if you've got a bad movie with Robert DeNiro in it [The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle?], it's still a bad movie. If you've got a good script, doesn't matter who's in it, it's great. There could be an unknown actor. It's the same with a song. Doesn't matter who sings it. If it's a bad song, it's a bad song. If it's good, it's going to be a hit.
Songfacts: That's also evident throughout the new CD/DVD set, Every Song Tells a Story. How did the release come about?
Bachman: Well, the idea came when I was in England about 10 years ago. I saw an ad for a show called "Storyteller," and it was on Ray Davies from the Kinks. So I went down there and I got in just at the end of intermission. There was one seat left and I go sit in it.
I'm sitting beside Rupert Perry, who used to be the head of Capitol Records in Toronto, now he's the head of EMI in London. I say hello to him and then it gets dark and Ray Davies comes out and tells all his stories. When it's all done, I go, "That was amazing." And Rupert says to me, "You want to go meet him? I'm going backstage." So I said, "Great!"
So I got back and I meet Ray Davies and we shake hands. We had done some gigs together back in the '60s. I said, "It was an amazing show." And he looks at me and he says, "You can do that show." I said, "What do you mean?" He says, "You've got more hits than me. You've got The Guess Who and BTO. Put them all together, do this show." So I go back home to Canada and I get an offer to play for the Canadian Cancer Society, a big fundraising dinner at a big country club/golf club. $5,000 a plate, silent auction. They want me to perform for the audience there, but they don't want me to rock and roll and blow their faces off. So I say, "How about if I sit down with an acoustic guitar and my band's there, we play real quiet, and I tell the stories behind my songs?"
Every radio interview I do, the DJs would say, "'Takin' Care of Business' is our favorite song, how did you write it?" Or "She's Come Undone." So I would tell those one at a time.
So I put them all together chronologically, and out came this booklet of a historical line of my life, so to speak, a musical timeline. I did it that night and everybody was just dead quiet when I was telling the stories, and they'd clap when I sang the songs. And when it was all over, they came and said, "If you would put that on a CD and DVD, we'd buy 10 or 20 copies and send them to our friends and relatives all over the world, because everybody knows these songs, but it's so charming to know where they came from and the stories."
So I did a little tour of that, and then I got asked to redo it again last year. And I did it to much more acclaim, because it had gotten street cred and word of mouth: "You've got to go see this show, it's a history lesson of The Guess Who and Neil Young and BTO and music out of Winnipeg." So we did that and recorded that DVD last year. It came out and it's gone double or triple platinum in Canada, which triggered the release in the States and the UK and Australia and Germany and everywhere, which is a complete shock and surprise to me. I didn't have any great expectations for it, but it's being received very well, and I'm thrilled. I'm now getting asked would I take that on tour and play it on the road. And I'm saying, "Of course I will, are you kidding?" I get to sit on a stool for two hours rather than standing up. I can entertain the people and still play my songs, but give them the whole "buffet," so to speak. Right from the appetizer to the dessert. Not just the main course. And explain how I write the songs.
Some of them wrote themselves: I opened up, they came into me, I played them. And some of them were kind of contrived. Some I co-wrote them with somebody. I tell how they were put together and some of the stories in there.
And basically it's a story on plagiarism, or just no new ideas. You've got to get them, reshape them, and hopefully they are reshaped enough that you can call it original. Because I think almost everything's been done musically, and probably was done 30 years ago, so everything we do sounds like something else now. So that's in there, too. I unabashedly show where I got "Let It Ride" from, which is Antonín Dvořák's "Concerto G in D"; how "No Time" is exactly like Law & Order, but Law & Order came after "No Time," so Mike Post maybe borrowed "No Time." Things like that. The Doobie Brothers, "Let It Ride" became "Long Train Runnin'," the same kind of guitar intro. When I showed "Let It Ride" to Fred Turner in the dressing room at Mardi Gras, we were sharing a dressing room with the Doobie Brothers. Things get recycled or begged, borrowed and stolen, or honored or quoted by somebody else.
Songfacts: As far as songwriting, how would you say that you write your best songs?
Bachman: Every one is different. I used to have to write maybe 24 songs to get one good one. Then I got one out of 10, and now I can get two out of four good ones. I can write 50 percent.
When I'm writing with someone else, usually a songwriting session produces two songs, and one of them really rises to the top, and the other one falls. It's like the "hello handshake" song - it's the one you come to write, but it's the one that you put aside, because out of meeting someone, this chemistry comes and ba-da-boom, you write a song.
I wrote with the great Paul Williams last week when I was in LA. He's written a zillion great songs. I show up and I say to Paul, "I've had this chorus for 15 years and I've been saving it for someone like you, somebody who will write in 3/4 or 6/8 time. And here's my chorus."
I start to tell him my lines: "The four winds will always blow, a rainbow will follow the rain." And he looks me in the eye and he says, "I don't want to write another song about a f--king rainbow." [Laughing] He says, "I've written them all, that's why I wrote that song, 'Why Are There So Many Songs About Rainbows'" ["Rainbow Connection"]. I go, "Well, okay, let's change the second line."
And out of that we wrote a really great song. But, you know, you show up with a preconceived idea that I'm going to keep these four lines or this lick and we're going to write a hit around it, and you play it for the other guy and it doesn't ring his bell. And he just takes a little minuscule part of that and then he throws something in there. And if you're open, you go, "Wow, I never would have thought of saying that. I would never use those words."
Paul Williams is an amazing lyricist. It's like writing with Bob Dylan. I said, "I would never use those three and four-syllable words in a song." And he said, "Exactly. I'm taking you out of your box, Mr. Bachman. We're going to write a song you never would have written on your own." I said, "Well, I already brought you what I wrote and I couldn't get beyond it." So we wrote a great song together. I can't wait to demo it.
But that's what happens at every songwriting session: you go in with a preconceived notion, and it gets put in a corner. And if you have the right chemistry with the person you're writing with - no matter their age or sex - it doesn't matter. This thing happens in the middle of the room, this ball of chemistry comes together and sometimes it's absolutely magical.
Songfacts: Would you say that the '70s is responsible for spawning some of the best rock music?
Bachman: I think so. I think all the bands of the '70s took the lessons, and there certainly were a lot of great lessons out there, from Bacharach and David, Jagger and Richards, Lennon and McCartney, Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Goffin and King.
Burton Cummings and I would get together every Saturday morning and play each other what we thought were the best songs we heard on the radio that week. Then we bought the singles and tried to copy songs like "Ruby Tuesday," "I Get Around," "Day Tripper." And by copy, I mean get the vibes out of it, the tempo, writing about other things.
Because you usually write about falling in love and falling out of love. Writing about a T-Bird: "Fun, fun, fun till her daddy takes her T-Bird away." Writing about a message from Michael. "While my guitar gently weeps." And writing about other subjects and stuff like that.
So it was a great lesson. Bands in the '70s were using all the '60s hits, all these great teams of writers. And because things got louder and amps got bigger and you played louder, it was called heavy rock, and it became classic rock. Everybody wanted things louder. PA systems got louder. I remember seeing The Beatles at Shea Stadium, and nobody could hear them. The PA system was like a little record player.
So everything got bigger. If The Beatles were around in the '70s they would have been the greatest heavy rock band of all, because they had the greatest lyrics, great musicians, three or four lead singers. They were amazing.
And they got amazing at the final end. Like, "She's So Heavy" and and "Revolution" - they really played some heavy stuff. They were almost the leaders, because to come from pop music into this heavy stuff like they did on The White Album was quite an amazing, heavy thing. That influenced Led Zeppelin, I'm sure. The Beatles were cranking up the guitar and getting it distorted and putting blues into pop music and melting it all together.
So from about '63 to '78 I think was the most wonderful 15 or 16 years of evolution that came from the R&B blues that spawned rock & roll in the late '50s.
Bachman: Well, I think that's 100 percent true. But you have to look at the twin-headed monster there, which is radio. FM radio doesn't exist anymore. FM radio is AM radio from the '60s: they stopped playing album cuts. When FM radio was playing album cuts, the eight-minute version of "Roundabout," instead of the four-minute edited version, or the eight-minute of "Smoke On the Water" rather than the three-minute version, the labels let the bands do it, because FM radio was playing it. Now FM radio is so commercialized they won't play anything over three-and-a-half or four minutes - everything has to be edited down. And everybody wants something short enough to fit into commercials. Radio stations stopped playing music and played more commercials, so you have to make your music sound like a bloody commercial and you can't really expand or play anymore.
Consequently, playing live has become the new black. Playing live is the new hip thing: going out and doing your classic rock, and at the end of your solo that everybody knows, you double that length of solo and you go into a new territory, like a jazz guy would go to, or you play a big outro, a big fade - you get to really play some guitar. And people are really enjoying hearing musicians play again, because you don't hear them play on records anymore. Their solos are not even 12-bar solos, they're cut down to a three or two-bar or four-bar intro. Country music has cut it way down. Country music radio has killed a lot of stuff and so has modern rock radio. Everything is too short.
Songfacts: And there's less individuality, too. It seems like there's just a lot of bands sounding the same, whereas you could say in the '60s or '70s, people were putting their own unique spin on things.
Bachman: Well, yes. I was born in the '40s, and most of the guys that were in bands in the late '60s and the '70s, we were given one thing by our parents: music lessons. Kids these days don't have music lessons. And by music lessons, I mean you were taught to read and write and appreciate music, and to play in ensemble. I grew up playing violin from the age of five to about 14, then I switched to guitar. And Burton Cummings grew up playing classical piano - he had grade 12 classical piano.
When we started our band we were accomplished musicians, and we were 14 or 15. We'd been playing 8 and 9 and 10 years. We knew how to play everything: Beethoven, Bach, Chopin. We switched to rock & roll. It was real easy.
These guys now, the kids learn three chords, they start a band, they write a song, they get lucky, they can't write a follow-up song. They're here today and gone tomorrow. These Idol shows and The Voice and stuff, they're very, very hard to sustain a career. Because somebody comes out of nowhere, they have their moment in the spotlight and then when the next Idol comes in, that Idol is pretty much gone, forgotten. So you're displaced in a year or 14 months.
Whereas somebody like me has been able to come in and learn one record at a time, because you could only buy one record at a time. Because the money then, you had to save your allowance for a month to buy a 45 or a 78, save for a long time. Burton Cummings and I used to chip in and buy an album for $3.98. He would have it for a week and I'd have it for a week, and we'd listen to the songs and try to write songs like them.
Songfacts: You just mentioned the show American Idol. And I always think it's funny that probably the greatest singer that it has spawned, Adam Lambert, didn't even win his season - he came in second place [to Kris Allen].
Songfacts: Something else that I always find fascinating are artists that are able to sustain a string of hits over a period of time, which obviously you did with The Guess Who and also BTO. Did you ever wonder how that happened?
Bachman: I think persistence. Because I'd already written songs. I guess just persistence in doing it over and over again. And getting lucky.
Songfacts: Obviously, talent also has a lot to do with it, as well. I mean, you can't just pick someone off the street.
Bachman: No, no. Literally, Burton Cummings and I would study Lennon and McCartney, Bacharach and David, Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Jagger and Richards, Steve Winwood. We were just fans of all the music that was out there, and, how can we do this? How can we write this way? We would get a song and dissect it and copy it. I taught bands how to do this. You take your favorite song, you take the chords, the notes, and then you write your own lyrics to it. So you're writing your own lyrics to, let's say, "I Get Around" or "Johnny B. Goode." And then the next thing is once you've written your new lyrics, you go and you change the chords and reverse them, or play your A chord twice as long or half as long.
I found this out from Brian Wilson when I was touring with them. I said, "How do you get all the great progressions for your songs?" He said, "My dad Murry has a fake book, which is all the Broadway hits. All I do is get the Broadway hits, like 'Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue,' and that became 'I Get Around.'" I said, "How did you do that?" He said, "Well, when they say to stay on the C chord for two beats, I stay on it for four. Or if they say stay on the C chord for eight beats, I stay on it for two." So if you listen to "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue, oh, what those five feet could do," that's "I Get Around." But they went, "Round, round, get around, I get around." And then he put his own, "Woo-oo," and then he wrote his own song and he put in his own lyrics. But you get another template from somewhere.
And I know John Lennon did this, also. He would get chords and then he would write all the chords to a song down, and then he would play them backwards. He would go to the last chord of the song, which is the resolution ending up in your one chord. And then change it around and play things backwards. Because everything's been done and written. So you've got to go and copy things and try to make them your own and find your own melodies. It's a really great exercise.
And one of my own self-assignments was when somebody has a #1 hit, I would sit down and write their follow-up. What would be the next progression of this hit song? And it could be Celine Dion, it could be Cher, it could be anybody. I'd write the follow-up song. Well, of course, I'd never had a publisher, I never knew how to get them the song. But I would craft the song that I would think would be good enough, if I ever met them or went backstage - and a lot of times I did go backstage and took them my songs, from everybody from Tina Turner to Sheena Easton when they were playing Vancouver - I would take my song on a demo and give it to them. They never did the song, but I had the dream of them doing my song. And I did the song.
It's like getting an assignment: write a new commercial for Ford and you'll get paid $100,000. Well, I'd sit down and I'd write a commercial for Ford, "let it roll down the highway." Ford never picks it up and I have a song called "Roll On Down the Highway." I've written a song because someone's asked and then inspired and got me to do it. So it's an assignment, and it's a deadline. It's, Can I do this? Of course I can do this! And it's pushing yourself to do stuff even with fake deadlines and writing fake songs for artists who are never going to do your song. It's a motivational kind of thing for me.
Bachman: Well, I was on stage with The Guess Who. I didn't have a spare guitar. I didn't have a tuner. I didn't have a roadie. I broke a string. In those days when you broke a string, the lead guy, who was Burton Cummings, said, "Randy broke a string, we're going to take a break." So the band took a break while you struggled up there to change your string.
This is a '59 Les Paul with a Bigsby tremolo bar, so it took a while to change a string. It's got to go over and under a Bigsby and over the bridge and tack on. So I found myself kneeling in front of Burton Cummings' piano. Not having a tuner, we would tune to the electric piano every night. So I'm hitting an E and a B on the piano: "bong bong bong bong," and I'm hitting up my guitar and I'm tuning up my E string on the guitar.
And with the Bigsby on the guitar, you've got to tune the guitar over and over and over again, because the Bigsby has a spring. And as you tune your guitar and the strings reach the pitch, then they all go out of pitch again. You've got to retune and retune till the spring finds its resting place.
I always tune my guitar to ones and fives - ones and fives all the way across and open strings. I started to play that riff on stage, and I look at the audience, who are now milling about and talking amongst themselves. And all their heads snapped back. Suddenly I realize I'm playing a riff I don't want to forget, and I have to keep playing it. So I stand up and I'm playing this riff. I'm alone on stage.
I look into the audience and there's my drummer, Garry Peterson, so I get him to come onstage and we start to play it. Then I see [Guess Who bass player] Jim Kale, he looks up and me and Garry are playing. I call him up and he starts to play the bass riff. And then we get Burton Cummings on the stage, and it's a jam session. We're jamming this riff over and over and over.
I yell out, "Sing something!" And he goes, "What?" And I say, "Sing anything!" And the first words out of his mouth were, "American woman, stay away from me." We had been touring the States. This was the late '60s, they tried to draft us, send us to Vietnam. We were back in Canada, playing in the safety of Canada where the dance is full of draft dodgers who've all left the States. This is in Kitchener-Waterloo, which is a town right outside of Toronto, and we write the song right there on stage. It's basically an antiwar protest song saying, "We don't want your war machines, we don't want your ghetto scenes, stay away from me."
"American Woman" is not the woman on the street. It's the Statue of Liberty and that poster of Uncle Sam with the stars and stripes top hat where he has a finger pointing to you, "Uncle Sam Wants You." That basically was our thought at the moment onstage when that song was written.
And then it went to #1 in Billboard before they realized it was an antiwar protest song, because they weren't allowed to play protest songs on the radio. The government outlawed it. They couldn't play, "1, 2, 3, what are we fighting for?" ["The 'Fish' Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag"]. By Country Joe. They only played "Fighting Men of the Green Berets," the Sergeant Barry Sadler of the Green Berets kind of thing. They wouldn't play that.
The Guess Who were on this roll of "These Eyes," "Laughing," "She's Come Undone," "No Sugar Tonight," "No Time," and then "American Woman." Radio just played it automatically without even thinking we were saying antiwar words in there, antiwar lyrics.
Songfacts: You just mentioned the song "No Time." What about the inspiration and lyrical meaning behind that song?
Bachman: Well, we grew up and started a band in Winnipeg. I started The Guess Who, Burton Cummings was in The Deverons, and the other band was Neil Young & The Squires. So we would leave town and come back to Winnipeg and play each other our records we had cut out of New York or where we had cut. Neil Young came back to Winnipeg and played us an acetate of Buffalo Springfield, and it blew us away. That's what we wanted to do, "country-rock" like that.
I got the Buffalo Springfield album and I was enthralled by the song "Rock & Roll Woman" and "Hung Upside Down." I took it and tried to put those two things together and write my own song. I played it for Burton Cummings and we did write our own song, and it was called "No Time."
If you listen to my lead line in that, that's an inversion of Stephen Stills' lick in "Hung Upside Down," which I borrowed and inverted. And then years later, that was borrowed by Mike Post, who wrote "Law & Order." It's the same riff. So it's just recycling the riff in a different context.
That was our country-rock song. Me and Burton trying to be like Neil and Stephen Stills.
Bachman: That was a joke song that was supposed to not be on an album. It was a work song - I used that song in the studio because of the light guitars on the verses and the heavy guitars in the choruses. I was producing BTO, and to get an instrumental of light and heavy shades of music, the engineer and I would move the mikes around, get a different guitar, get a different kick drum sound, get a different bass sound, try different mikes.
I stuttered over it to tease my brother, who stuttered. I was going to mix one copy of that and send it to him on a cassette, so I sang over it once. The guitars are not even in tune in that song. It was a leftover from the Not Fragile album, because then classic rock on vinyl, each song was over four minutes long, which was over 20 minutes a side, so you put four songs on a side of a classic vinyl album. This was the extra song.
But then the head of our label came in to hear the album, as was traditional, near the end. He came to hear the mixes, and he said, "Well, I'm looking for something to follow 'Let It Ride' and 'Takin' Care of Business,' and I want it on this album and I want you to get on Top 40 radio." And we didn't have a song. I played him the album and the engineer said, "Why don't you play him the work song?" I said, "No, it's lousy, it's terrible." And Charlie Fach, who was the head of the label, said, "You got another song? Let's hear it." We played him "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet," and he said, "That's it. It's charming. I can hear the pitch in the guitar, it's not really in. I don't even know what you're singing about."
I didn't even write the song, I just sang it off the top of my head and stuttered in there to tease my brother.
Charlie said, "I want to put this on the album." And I said, "I need to remix it." And he said, "Don't touch it. Put it on the way it is. When you play this with the other songs, it just jumps off the turntable."
He put it on the album. That's the first BTO album that has a ninth song. It went to #1 and was a million-selling single.
Songfacts: I remember BTO opened for or played shows with Van Halen in 1986, which was Sammy Hagar's first tour with Van Halen. What sticks out about those shows?
Bachman: Well, Sammy called me and he said, "Why don't you open for Van Halen? I just joined the band, and I don't want anybody yelling, 'Where's Dave?'"
I'd seen Van Halen a lot with David Lee Roth, and normally they'd have a really crappy opening act, which they'd call the "merch act," because everyone then is buying Van Halen merchandise and popcorn and getting to their seats. So this band would come out and play 20 or 30 minutes, then they'd have a 10 or 20-minute break where they were still selling merchandise. Then Van Halen would come out.
Sammy called me up. He was a friend of mine, we'd written a bunch of songs together. He said, "I want BTO to come and open, I want you to do 35 minutes of hit songs: blam, blam, blam, blam, blam, and do a five-minute switchover. We don't want to hear anybody yelling 'Where's Dave?'"
I said, "Fred Turner can't tour. He's got a problem at home with his wife and kids." Sammy said, "Well, who sang 'Takin' Care of Business'?" I said, "Me." "Who sang 'You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet'?" "Me." "Okay. That's all I need. I need 35 minutes of you. Can you sing a couple of Fred songs?" I said, "Of course I can." So he said, "Great, you come and open for Van Halen, do a 35-minute opening. We'll test you out for a weekend."
So we played with them for a weekend, and they came to us later and said, "We want you to open the 5150 tour. It's going to be 11 months." So we went on the road opening for Van Halen for 11 months! But it was those hit songs and getting the audience riled up, especially ending with "Takin' Care of Business," and then the audience screaming on their feet and yelling, and then the changeover wasn't even five minutes. Our amps would be off in two minutes, Van Halen would be on, blam blam. If you saw us play, you saw how quickly they were on and picking up the energy we left behind with the audience. And nobody yelled, "Where's Dave?" Sammy came out and rocked, whether he was singing Dave's songs or singing his own.
We called it "Takin' Care of Breakfast" and "Why Can't This Be Lunch." [Laughs]
But the hit songs achieved the ultimate goal, which was getting the audience off their feet and their hearts pumping.
December 23, 2014.
For more Randy, visit his official site. Photos (as they appear): Mike Hough, Mark Maryanovich.
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