Randy Bachman’s status as a rock and roll pioneer and legend is rock solid. He was a founding member of the Guess Who in the 1960s and Bachman Turner Overdrive in the 1970s, with hits like “American Woman,” “Takin’ Care of Business,” “These Eyes” and “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” under his belt, and is responsible for a load of melodic lead guitar riffs that inspired a generation of imitators to pick up a Gibson Les Paul guitar.
But scaling the heights of probably the most celebrated musician in Canadian history — who counts among his many accolades his membership in the Order of Canada and the Order of Manitoba, as well as being twice honored by the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and Canada’s Walk of Fame, and inductions into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame, the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Prairie Music Hall of Fame, plus the ASCAP Global Impact Award, and an honorary Doctorate in Music from Brandon University, to his credit — is no easy task. Still, if the genuine glee he exhibits playing the records that inspired him on his SiriusXM show “Vinyl Tap” is any indication, Bachman is as much a fan as any of us.
But more than his love of Elvis or Les Paul, or any of the other artists who inspired Bachman as a teenager to put down the violin and pick up the electric guitar, the legend is one of the biggest fans of the Beatles you’ll come across. He peppers his stories and with Beatles references, and easily takes a left turn into Fab Four lore whenever given the chance.
Of course, as a lead guitarist, Bachman says that from the minute he saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 – along with 70 million other fellow teenagers, and a large helping of future musicians, from Roger McGuinn to Tom Petty – it was the Gretsch-wielding George Harrison that he most closely identified with.
So it’s no surprise that Bachman’s new album – By George – By Bachman – is a tribute to the late Beatle, who would have celebrated his 75th birthday last month. What’s surprising, however, is how radically reworked some of Harrison’s most beloved songs are on the album. Then again, as a peerless songwriter and arranger as Bachman is, perhaps it should be no surprise at all.
Rock Cellar: I know you’re a huge George fan, and Beatle-obsessed. Talk to me a little bit about your love for George and where the impetus for By George – By Bachman came from. Because everybody does John and Paul tributes, but I think George is finally getting his due, and this sort of project seems to be another piece in that puzzle.
Randy Bachman: Well, way back when they did the Ed Sullivan Show, suddenly, instead of having the lead guitar person standing behind Elvis or Gene Vincent or whoever, the lead guitar player was standing up front. George Harrison was standing right up there with Lennon and McCartney, singing harmony.
The Beatles changed everything, because after that show even drummers wanted to sing!
So all my life I’ve sung George Harrison songs. But then I went to a John Lennon 75th birthday tribute in Liverpool a few years ago, and it was this amazing. I thought, ‘Well, when’s George 75th birthday?’ Because he was a bit younger than John and Paul. So I started thinking about redoing some of the songs of his that I really love, but approaching them as a songwriter; like giving them a different suit of clothes, rather than doing them the same.
I’d done an album with (The Guess Who’s) Burton Cummings a few years ago called Bachman Cumming’s Jukebox, where we took old songs we used to play and redid them. When we did “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You” — which George Harrison sang, but Lennon and McCartney wrote for him – we did it like Clapton’s acoustic version of “Layla,” as this very cool shuffle, and that became the most enduring song off the album. So I thought I’d try that with George’s songs, and it just kept going and going and going. And Beatles fans are going nuts over it, because they don’t know what the song is when they hear it until we start singing, because they’re so drastically changed.
Rock Cellar: You’ve written some songs that are as much part of our rock and roll DNA as George’s songs are in many ways, so as a songwriter, when you hear artists reinventing those songs — changing the arrangements changing the hooks — you must wrestle with the same thing that Beatle obsessives are wrestling with when they hear this album. As you said, until they hear the lyrics they’re not going to know which song it is. So I’m sure you’re getting both love and hate for this project, even though it’s an exciting way to approach George’s music.
Did you ever have any second thoughts though about totally reinventing the songs, especially because you are a songwriter and you’ve had this happen to you?
Randy Bachman: I had no second thoughts. What inspired me was hearing Junior Walker on the radio doing “These Eyes,” and Lenny Kravitz doing “American Woman.” At first I’d bury my face, going, “What? What are they doing to my songs?” But then you see 14-year-olds dancing to them, and you see 40 year old people singing along, and you go, “Oh, this is great. I’m going to get a check! This brought my song back on the radio.”
I mean, it’s hard to get back on the radio, and they brought my songs back with a new face and a new style. But honestly I have not had one negative response from what they call the Beatles mafia. They’re loving it! I played in New York recently, live on on the radio with Little Steven, and there were 800 people lined up around the block, at 6 in the morning, when it was still dark, to hear us. It was amazing. And then we played in Toronto in a little club in a basement, with 500 people jammed in.
We did five George Harrison songs, five Guess Who songs, five BTO songs, and then came back with five George songs, and the place was berserk. Our set list is songs that everybody knows every word to, and the audience was literally from from 18 to 75, singing and dancing with us. It was really amazing. It was a celebration of life, so to speak.
Rock Cellar: You talked about seeing George Harrison with The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, and fans of The Guess Who know you started out doing Beatles covers, performing on the CBC in Sgt. Pepper suits. As a fan who then became an artist in his own right, how significant of an inspiration was George to you, and how much of his influence did you carry with you throughout your career?
Randy Bachman: Well, he composed his solos. You can sing his solos. He composed them in his head, and then developed them, but you can sing them. That means people can remember them. A guitar teacher of mine told me early on, “You will never be the best guitar player in the world, but write good songs and they’ll last forever.” So that was my mission, since I was fifteen.
George’s solos are all composed. Clapton is a wild, phenomenal blues player. But if you listen to George play, I dunno, “And I Love Her,” that’s composed. So I tried to put both of those ideas into my solos. I compose them, so people can sing them, and then in the end I go a little Clapton-esque.
Rock Cellar: Are there moments on the new album where it’s a little more Clapton inspired than George? It sounds like you took your time making this album – it’s very composed – but it has lots of those bluesy, let-it-rip guitar moments, too.
Randy Bachman: I think it was more arranged. My big goal in doing this was really re-envisioning and re-imagining every song and making it stand on its own. And I didn’t want them bubble gummy. Everyone knows these songs, and I love them as much as any fan, and you can’t come up with better arrangements, maybe, so my things was how can we sing them differently and put a new salad dressing on them? You know, we’re eating the same thing, but it tastes different. It’s really not a guitar album with just sprinkles of George.
Rock Cellar: Talk to me a little bit about your “Vinyl Tap” show. I know you’re a fan, and that this is a passion project more than anything else, because any listener to your show will know you love music, as well as being a player and a songwriter and musician. So talk to me a little bit about how important music is to you, and was as a kid growing up, as an inspiration, and as a career path, and as a way forward in life. What do those old records you play, that you talk about and clearly love, do for you, and what have they done for you throughout your life?
Randy Bachman: Well, it’s kind of been my go-to, throughout my life. As a kid, you have all kinds of problems, you know? Growing up, first you the firstborn, you’re the king for a year-and-a-half, and then your brother’s born and then your other brother is born, and that is traumatic.
I started playing violin when I was five and a half, and that was like my go-to thing. I would love to go to my room and just play violin. Then, when I was like 14, I saw Elvis on TV. I put the violin down and never picked it back up again.
I started playing guitar, and that has been my go-to thing ever since. So music has always been in my life. I remember in grade one, when I started my school, my teacher asked, “Well, what do you want to be when you grow up?” And I said, “I’m a musician.” And she said, “Well, what do you want to do when you grow up?” And I ran home crying.
I told my mother I wasn’t going back, but she, of course, pointed out that I had twelve more years to go. She took me back to school and explained to the teacher that I was serious – that I really wanted to be a musician – and she said, “Okay.” She got it.
But I realized, “That’s it. I have no plan B. I have to stick to plan A, whether I was playing music in a symphony or guitar in any band in front of 30,000 people in front of a festival, sometimes getting paid a lot, and sometimes getting paid nothing. This is what I do. Nothing else.” Because if you have a plan B you’ll reach for it. But if you have no options, you just keep going. Like I said, that’s all I did. Some people just feel they were born to do this, and they do it no matter what they go through — bad times, good times, divorce, falling in love, falling out of love, going bankrupt, your label dropping you – when all that stuff happens, you just keep going.
Rock Cellar: And all because of the Beatles.
Randy Bachman: The world changed with them. Their music was so different, and the passion I felt about them was different. When I heard the Beatles, I ditched my Elvis pompadour and cut my hair like George. We all got nice suits with white shirts and ties. We didn’t do that with Chuck Berry.
The Beatles created a dress code, and A Hard Day’s Night was a template for not only what to do when you’re in a band, but for what the fans should do. It showed fans they should come to shows screaming their heads off, and go crazy. So while we were running around, making money and doing all the things we did, we did them the way we did because the Beatles taught us how to be in a band, and how to be a fan, too.