"Neil (Young) looked me dead in the eye, and he said, 'If you're gonna do a new album, don't do the same old shit and call it a new album."
"Kevin Shirley said to me, 'If I'm going to produce you, you have to promise me one thing. That you will do everything I say, you will not interfere, and you'll keep your mouth shut.'Randy Bachman has sold over 40,000,000 records. He's played before millions of adoring fans. He's been in two of classic rock's most enduring bands (The Guess Who, and Bachman Turner Overdrive), and he's done it his way, every step of the way. So, while it may seem unusual for me to start this interview with him quoting two rock icons, I think it's instructive - in spite of unquestionable and unflagging success, Bachman still knows how to listen, and how to take heed of wise and good counsel.
He's currently crossing North America with Frampton's Guitar Circus, his own solo shows with his successful, Every Song Tells A Story evenings - in which he tells the tales and plays the hits that have kept him in the limelight for very nearly 50 years, and more shows with old BTO partner Fred Turner.
But that's not all - he's soon to start working on a series of shows with a symphonic setting of his vast catalog (Bachman Symphonic Overdrive), and perhaps the most exciting news is his soon to be released Hard Blues, an album that is being produced by the aforementioned Kevin Shirley. An album inspired by a conversation with his lifelong friend Neil Young, an album which features an earthshaking female rhythm section (Dale Anne Brendon on drums, and bassist Anna Ruddick), and guest appearances by Young, Joe Bonamassa, Peter Frampton, Rival Sons guitarist Scott Holliday, and a posthumous appearance by Canadian blues legend Jeff Healey.
I caught up with the Canadian rock legend last week before he was due to hit the road for some heavy touring. I started off our chat by asking about his reaction to performing his Vinyl Tap: Every Song Tells A Story on tour:
Randy Bachman: "Very Surprised! It's like telling little kids bed time stories, and they're on the edges of their seats, listening with wide eyes.
"So telling the stories behind these songs is quite amazing. Behind me is a montage, a visual of stills and videos that are kind of taking you to the era that I'm talking about when the songs were written in the '60s and '70s, showing the hairstyles, the clothes, and it kind of puts everybody in the moment, right?
"Then the stories are there, the band's onstage, and we slam into the songs. My reaction has come from watching the faces of smiles, astonishment, and sometimes tears from bringing back old memories."
I then asked Randy about the genesis of this show:
Randy Bachman: "Well, a couple of things prompted it.
"One was seeing Ray Davies, like twelve years ago in London, doing a thing he called, Storytelling. It was him alone onstage with a guitar, and another guy backing him up on another guitar, telling how he wrote The Kinks' songs, and how his brother had plugged into a little tape recorder and got the distortion for You Really Got Me, and stuff like that.
"I went backstage to see him after that show, and it was amazing. I told him how great I thought it was, and he said, 'Well, you could do a better show that I can, you've got more hits than me. So that stuck in my head.
"Then, when I got back to Canada, I got asked to do a show for the Canadian Cancer Society - a big, high level, dress-up show where there were $2500 a plate dinners, auctioning off Harley-Davidsons, and things like that, to raise money. But they said, 'We want you to play, everybody took a vote and we want to hear you play, but we don't want you to blow everyone's face off with rock 'n' roll. It's a black tie thing, so, can you do something acoustic?
"Well, I thought, my songs aren't really going to make it acoustically, they're really electric songs, so I'll do this thing where I'll tell a story. I'd already told these stories to DJs one at a time - I'd do an interview, and the DJ would say, 'She's Come Undun' is my favorite song, how'd you write it?' Then I'd tell that story and a week later another DJ would ask about American Woman, so I put them all together chronologically, and made this evening.
"So, I did that, the society raised a lot of money, and then people came up to me later and said, 'Gee, if you put this down on CD or DVD, we'd buy a dozen copies and send them to our family and friends all over the world,' because everybody knows these songs, but they take on way more meaning when you tell how, or why you wrote them, or what instigated them.
"I did that quite a while ago, and did a tour, but it got revitalized just by public demand because of the Internet, and my radio show, which is on every Saturday night (see link at bottom), where I tell the stories behind other songs not my own, but to put my own together, and to do this tour grew on such a roll last spring. When we were doing this, my manager said, 'Why don't we record this as a DVD?'
"So, we did that, and we've put it out - to my astonishment, it went double or triple platinum in Canada, which has now triggered a US release, as well as the UK, UE, and Australia. So I'm dealing with this right now, and I'm pretty amazed at the whole thing."
At this point I mention to Bachman that I've heard from many people via social media that they would love to see the show, but the show isn't coming anywhere near them, a situation that is becoming more common in the States:
Randy Bachman: "I could see doing a show like this anytime!
"We're doing about ten in the middle of October, all around the Toronto area, because of the demand. Those are all on our calendar, so we could definitely do more next year in the States. We're getting the phone calls from radio stations and theaters - it has to be kind of a theater show, because it has to be a kind of theater show, it's gotta be 12-1400 seaters, because there's an intimacy involved. I'm telling stories, and there's no script, no teleprompters, it's just me doing that. So I can't really do much bigger places.
"It's like a comedian, you can't really go out and make 10,000 people laugh, if there's guys fighting in the background, or something. You need everybody looking at you. I'd be into doing that in the states!"
Bachman is taking his Vinyl Tap show to the Hollywood Bowl this week, so I had to ask him what it was like to be in a band with Ringo Starr, who's other band had made such a splash there a few decades ago:
Randy Bachman: "It was very surreal!
"When he phoned me, let's see, he phoned me on a Thursday morning - the day before I had been watching PBS, and it was one of their fundraisers. They were playing Help!, and A Hard Day's Night back to back, and then they hadfootage of how they were made, talks with Richard Lester and the other producers.
"I really loved Hard Day's Night, so I'm watching this over and over, I loved the songs, and I loved the outtakes.
"Then, the next morning, my phone rings, and a voice says (doing a great Ringo imitation), 'Hi, this is Ringo Starr, would you join my band?' I say, 'Sure,' and hung up.
"So, the phone rings again, and the voice says, 'Hello? This is Ringo Starr, I'm calling from Monaco, I really want you to be in my band.' I say, 'OK, OK, I need your number so I can call you back.'
"He gives me this weird phone number. I call the operator, and she says, 'Yeah, this is from Monaco.'
"So, I call this number, and it's Ringo Starr, and he personally asks me to be in his band with John Entwistle, Mark Farner, Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals, Billy Preston, and his son Zakk on drums. That was the band, so it was kind of surreal, and I was the lead guitar player.
"Ringo had left out a lot of his songs from the setlist. So I went to him, and said, 'You know, I'm a real fan of yours, so if I came I'd want to hear you sing, I Wanna Be Your Man, I want to hear you sing, Boys - that song changed the world for every drummer. Every drummer in every band at that time got to sing, Boys, because you weren't that great of a singer, but you're a singing drummer, and everybody loves you.' So, he threw them back into the set.
"To lead him off on those songs every night, and to play those solos - it was really kind of amazing.
"You know, I was kind of lobbying to get more money, and the promoter said to me, 'When this is over, you will have said, and you'll always say that you would have done it for nothing.' and I say that to you now, I would have done it for nothing. To be on the road with these guys for ten months.
"The stories we told each other about how we all got shafted by the labels, managers, the crooks out there.
"We'd set down and John Entwistle would say, 'You got screwed, man!' There's be a four million pound story, and then Ringo would say, 'Brian Epstein sold us down the river! He went to New York City to do a deal for The Beatles' mercy, and he said no split but 90/10. And, then he turned around and took the 10% for The Beatles, that's how silly Brian Epstein was!'
"But there we were, all together, playing, each of us doing dour or five of our hit songs! I got to play Boris The Spider every night with John Entwistle, and My Wife, and a couple other songs, and all the great songs I got to play of Ringo's, doing Get Back with Billy Preston on the organ. It was really amazing!"
Getting back to Every Song Tells a Story, I ask Bachman what was next for him and his crack band of Winnipeg's finest:
Randy Bachman: "Now we're getting ready to do a symphonic gig this October, where we're being backed by symphonies doing my music, almost like this show, but with symphonic arrangements - different tempos, and some different reincarnations of the songs. So the same guys are fitting into that template, as well. I'm having a great time reinventing and reinvigorating my hit songs. That one's being called, Bachman Symphonic Overdrive!
"It's really something to go back to your hometown where this DVD was shot, where it's full of family and friends, radio and press who have watched you growing up your whole life, and the musicians who inspired you, and then you inspired. We'll shoot this in December in Winnipeg, and that'll bout on DVD next year."Speaking of Winnipeg, I asked Randy what was happening in Canada that created a scene that spawned Neil Young, Burton Cummings, and Randy Bachman, some of rock's most enduring talents in a very short period of time:
Randy Bachman: "I think either an alien ship landed there in the '40s, a space ship that spawned a Neil Young, a Burton Cummings, a Randy Bachman. Or, there's something in the snow! Not the water!"
|Bachman with Fred Gretsch|
Randy Bachman: "Well, the first guitar I got, of course, I got a little Harmony for thirty or forty bucks from the Sears catalog, just a little F-hole Harmony to learn chords, and stuff.
"And then I saw a guy play in town, in Winnipeg. His name was Lenny Breau, and he was an incredible guitar player. He was a year older than me, and had just moved to town. He had been playing professionally since he was ten, in his family's band.
"His family was a traveling band, they had a Cadillac that pulled a Jetstream trailer behind them. When I met him he was sixteen, and he had been playing since he was six!
"He played all the Chet Atkins, merle Travis finger style guitar on a G Brand Gretsch.Then I saw Elvis on TV, and I realized that Scotty Moore plays the same guitar as this guy Lenny Breau. So, the first guitar I wanted was an orange 6120 Gretsch. I saved my money - washing cars, mowing lawns, baby sitting, delivering newspapers, until I got the $400 to buy that Gretsch.
"That Gretsch layer on Shakin' All Over (1964), and the same guitar played on Takin' Care Of Business. And I played it on a lot of records in between. But those were the two big hits I played it on.
"Then, in 1976, that guitar was stolen from a studio in Toronto, Phase One Studios, where I was recording a BTO album. And on my search to find this stolen guitar - because I had worked so hard to get it, when I took that guitar on the road, I took a chain and two padlocks.
"I would take that guitar every night, and put it next to the toilet, and put the chain through the guitar case handle, around the guitar twice, and around the toilet, then lock it with two padlocks. If anyone wanted to steal it, they couldn't open up the case, because the chain went around the case twice, and it was chained to the toilet. They'd have to tear the toilet out of the floor, and they'd have a gigantic flood!
"So, I give the guitar to a roadie for ten minutes. From the studio to put into the van. Then he leaves it in a Holiday Inn for 10 minutes, it gets stolen, and I never see it again.
"I go on a quest to get this Gretsch back. I call the Ontario police, I call the mounties, I call the border patrol, I give everybody the description and the serial number of the guitar, yet I never get it back. But I have all these guys calling me, and saying, 'Well, we didn't get your orange Gretsch, but we got a green one traded in.'
"No one wanted Gretsch guitars because they're unreliable, and the bridges fall off because they weren't pegged - they just sat on the arched top, so you had to put on your own sticky tape under there, or a lot of guys put little finishing screws into the top of the bridge, but nobody really wanted Gretsch then, so I'd end up buying them for nostalgia's sake. I end up having six, then twelve, then twenty. It became my mid-life crisis on the road.
"Everybody heard I was looking for this Gretsch, but they wouldn't bring me my Gretsch, they'd bring me any old Gretsch, and it'd be a hundred or two hundred bucks. They weren't a lot of money at the time, so I just bought them. Find the guitar that doesn't exist, and buy it.
"Then I became called a Gretsch expert. I had them all, I had hundreds of them hanging on the walls of my basement - as one of my kids would grow up, leave the house and go to college, or get married, wow- another room! I'd take their bedroom and turn it into a shrine, hang 50 Gretsch guitars on the walls, and on stands.
"Then one day I got a call from Fred Gretsch.
"This is like in the nineties, and he said, 'I got the name back to Gretsch Guitars, because it had been owned by Baldwin for some time. I always had the Gretsch drums name, but now I can make Gretsch Guitars again, but I don't have any templates, they were destroyed in a fire. You've got the ultimate Gretsch collection, can I copy your guitars?'
"He came to my house with a guy from Pete's Music in Minneapolis, and they looked at all my guitars and they were blown away. I had 350 Gretsch guitars. He asked if they could take two or three at a time, get them calibrated, calculated, and calipered, and we'll make the new Gretsch's from your collection.
"I said, 'Yeah, I won't charge you for this, but what I want is prototype #1 for each guitar when you make it, and I want to compare it to mine, and if there's any corrections, you can make the corrections, blah, blah, blah.... So, I ended up with all the prototypes. Then about ten years go by, and Fred calls me up again. He says, 'How are you doing with the Gretsch collection?'
"I said that I had added to it, and there were now 385. Fred says, 'Wow! You know, Fender has this museum, Rickenbacker has a museum, Framus, Hofner, they all have museums in their home towns. You own the Gretsch museum. Can I buy your collection?'
"By then, I had so much hassle from my wife to sell this collection, which I never used! You know, 350 guitars - you can't play them all! I had them all in cases, carefully labeled, it's like a library of beautiful books that you never read. You're too busy reading the Rolling Stone, or the latest guitar magazine. So now is the time to sell them.
"I sold Fred Gretsch the entire collection - this was about five or six years ago. How many guys can sell their mid-life crisis? I don't know, but I sold mine, and made money doing it. I actually just got word that he has donated that collection to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville. It's being documented now, and shipped there. They're doing little placards for everything. I'm going to go there and narrate a DVD documentary called, The Randy Bachman Gretsch Guitar Collection.
"So that's my connection with Fred Gretsch! This weird obsession of mine became an incredible investment. I couldn't afford the old Les Pauls, and Fender Stratocasters. I've got a '59 Les Paul, my American Woman Les Paul that's probably worth a million bucks today, and my '54 Strat, I've got them, I've got a '52 Tele. But they're not something I'd collect like Joe Bonamassa, who's got a bunch of '59s, and Billy Gibbons, who has about twenty '59s. I was insane in my own world, but it did pay off quite incredibly!"
|Photo by Zoltan Katona|
Randy Bachman: "Yeah, I got inducted into the Country Musicians Hall Of Fame last January, so I went down there thrilled, and Peter Frampton was inducted, Duane Eddy, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Kenny Wayne Shepherd came down to sit in for Stevie, Billy Gibbons was there, Neil Young was there because his pedal steel player, Ben Keith had died, and Neil was there speaking for him.
"I've known Neil since we were teenagers. When I met Lenny Breau in Winnipeg, I met Neil at about the same time.
"So we're there, and Neil says to me, 'What have you been doing lately?' I said, 'I don't know, I just got an offer from True North Records, which is a really great label in Toronto, for a worldwide deal to do a new album.'
"And Neil looks me dead in the eye, and he said, ''If you're gonna do a new album, don't do the same old shit and call it a new album.'
"He said, 'Don't do the same old thing, and say it's new. It's just more of the same stuff, you have to be fearless and you have to be ferocious. Reinvent yourself. Get different guitars, different amps, write different songs, get a new band, make a new Randy Bachman, and make me proud! Do something totally whack-o, out of your box, and off the rails.'
"So, consequently, I came back home, and I saw an incredible drummer playing in the pit of the orchestra at Tommy. I was sitting next to Pete Townshend - it was exactly a year ago last July. I'm sitting there next to Pete Townshend at Stratford, Ontario, and they were premiering the new version of Tommy there. It's all digital backdrops and screens, and everything.
"Townshend looks over at me, and says, 'That drummer is incredible, it sounds like Keith Moon!'
"We opened the program, and it said the drummer was Dale Brendon. I said, 'Pete, I think this drummer is a chick, I think it's Dale Anne Brendon.'
"After the show, we go backstage, and sure enough, it's Dale Anne Brendon, I've known her for about ten years. So, Pete meets her, and he thinks she's the new Keith Moon. I said to her later, 'When I met you ten years ago I wanted to approach you, but now I really want to do a project with you. I have one on the table, and I want to do a blues album, how about you and me, drums and guitar? I have some old Supro and Silvertone guitars and amps. I want to get an old retro sound like the '50s.' She says, 'I'm in!'
"So, I tell my manager, and he freaks out and says you can't do a White Stripes or a Black Keys, you'd be copying them, why don't you do a power trio? So I find a girl bass player who plays in a Toronto band called Ladies Of The Canyon, who I saw play at the Junos - it was like four chicks doing Crazy Horse.
"Blazing country rock guitars, long hair, flannel shirts, ripped jeans, really smokin'! I liked the bass player, her name is Anna Ruddick, so I called her up and invited her to dinner with my manager, and I come to find out she has a degree in standup bass from McGill University in Montreal. I invited the two girls together, they'd never met - we have dinner one night, I say here's ten demos I've written, and I want you to listen to them briefly.
"Kevin Shirley, who's one of the greatest producers now in the world, he's doing me a favor, taking some time out of his calendar - he's booked for the next two years, and he comes to Toronto for five days. We've got to record an album in five days, it's live off the floor.
"I get the band together, I play my demos once or twice, we do tow or three takes before I record live guitar, bass, and drums. I tell them that in the songs to hang tight, but when it's the solos and the outros, they can do all the Keith Moon, John Entwistle, John Bonham, Jack Bruce stuff they want on bass and drums, and they absolutely blow me away!
"I send an e-mail to Neil, who's canceling his gig in Tel Aviv, he's supposed to be doing a show there, but he's canceling.
"I said, 'Neil, I've done what you told me to do, I've done a new album, and reinvented myself with two girls.'
"He e-mails me back, 'I would like to be on this album.'
"So, he's going to be jointing us on one of the new songs, Frampton's playing a cut, I have Joe Bonamassa on a couple of cuts, I've got Scott Holliday of Rival Sons, who are really good friends, and I've got Jeff Healey, the great Canadian blues legend - his wife is letting me use some tracks that he and I cut at Massey Hall in Toronto before his death. I took some riffs he played and laid them into a new song of mine - it's amazing, it's just flipping amazing!
"The album is called Heavy Blues. Because that is what it is. when I first wanted to do a blues album, I was going to do like some Jimmy Reed, and things like that, but Kevin Shirley kept saying, 'It's already been done!' Every song I wanted to do, he'd say it had already been done.
"He said, 'Write a new one - take the old Jimmy Reed, and make it heavier, we're going to call this Heavy Blues.
"So it's almost like the music from the '60s, when it began being played heavier, and louder - it became heavy rock. I've taken these blues templates, like Bo Diddley, some Howlin' Wolf, re-did my own licks and riffs around them, and created some new songs around them.
"Kevin Shirley said to me, 'If I'm going to produce you, you have to promise me one thing. That you will do everything I say, you will not interfere, and you'll keep your mouth shut.'
I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'When I made a deal with Joe Bonamassa to work with him, I said you have to trust my instincts. That you are not the all to end all - I am the all to end all for you, and I can get stuff out of you.'
"So, when Joe Bonamassa said to Kevin, 'I'll trust you, I want you to produce me,' the first thing Kevin Shirley said was, 'Fire your band. Get a new band.'
"So, when I gave Kevin Shirley the go ahead to produce me, he got better vocals and guitar playing, and better sound out of me than I could ever have gotten out of myself."
It would appear that old dogs do learn new tricks, and that's what keeps them at the front of the pack.