BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
When I first met him in 1978, Randy Bachman had seemingly committed career suicide not once but twice. Or so it seemed to his fans at the time. First he walked away from the Guess Who immediately after the band’s American Woman became the first song by a Canadian rock group to reach #1 in the United States. Then he left Bachman-Turner Overdrive (BTO) after that group climbed to the top of the American charts, this time with You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. And now, at age 34, Bachman was starting over again, as a solo artist. Why? “I’m trying to grow up,” said the burly musician. “I don’t wanna do Shaun Cassidy for ever.” (Cassidy was a teen-star pop singer of the mid-1970s whose appeal faded when he reached his 20s.)
For about a year after he left BTO, Bachman stopped performing altogether to live the life of a rock fan. “But a rich fan,” he smiled. “I’ve been flying all over the country going to concerts. It’s the first chance I’ve had to do it in 15 years.”
Bachman said he never realized how much hassle the average fan had to go through to see a rock artist performing in concert. He expected the long lineups for tickets, the crush of the crowds, and the parking problems that occurred when thousands of fans converged on the same location at once. But being frisked for liquor and drugs was something that came as a complete surprise to him. “I never knew you get searched at concerts,” he said. “It makes me humble to think that people go through all this to see us play.”
As a newly-minted solo artist, Bachman expected to surprise his old followers because his music now encompassed elements of jazz and balladry rarely heard during his hard-rocking years with the Guess Who and BTO. “I want to do exactly what Paul McCartney did,” he said. “I want to reach the point where I can play my new songs as well as medleys of the old stuff, and go out rocking.”
Why did he leave the Guess Who? “Different lifestyles,” he said. “I had converted to Mormonism and didn’t party or do drugs. They all did.” And his reason for leaving BTO? “Musical differences,” he said. “I wanted to try something new.”
Between the Guess Who and BTO, Bachman had put together a country-rock group, Brave Belt, with former Guess Who vocalist Chad Allen. It had some minor success in Canada but failed to make any impact in the United States. Bachman said he thought Brave Belt was three years ahead of its time. “Or two years after its time, depending on how you want to look at it. Music has a tendency to run in five-year cycles.”
The timing for the emergence of BTO, on the other hand, was just right. “When we came out with BTO, people were ready to start kicking again. They were getting tired of the sleep-rock put out by James Taylor and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.”
Bachman conceded that the timing might not be right for his post-BTO solo outing with an album of original autobiographical songs he called Survivor. He had briefly gone solo before, between the Guess Who and Brave Belt, with an album of guitar instrumentals, Axe, that the critics praised but was a flop with record buyers. “Maybe with Survivor I could miss too,” he said. “You can never be really sure when a cycle is going to change. There was a lot of soft rock going down last year, but that could be changing now.”
Regardless of how well the album was received, though, Bachman felt closer to it than to anything else he had recorded because it charted his musical odyssey from the little one-night stands in one-horse towns to the big shows in big stadiums with thousands of fans cheering and singing along. “This is my life and I’m proud of it,” he said, holding up a copy of the album to show me the lyrics printed on the sleeve.
“I needed a lot of inner confidence and people backing me up before I could do this album,” he said. “But I did it because it pleases me, and that’s the most important thing. If you try to do something just to please the critics, you end up pleasing nobody.”
I liked the album, which featured former Guess Who lead singer Burton Cummings on supporting vocals. I wrote in my review that it was “the classic rock musician’s retrospective; the saga of Bachman’s years in the music business told through a chronological sequence of songs evoking echoes of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.”
But not all the critics liked Survivor. Nor did the fans. The most common complaint was that Bachman simply didn’t have the voice to do justice to the softer material. Rolling Stone magazine said the album failed because it didn’t reflect the seamier side of rock ’n’ roll. But Bachman said it was never his intention to write about the drugs and payola and other scandals, because he had never been a part of them. “I wrote my side of the story, which is basically a clean, fun-loving approach to rock ’n’ roll,” he said when I caught up with him again, a year after the album’s release.
By that time, in 1979, Bachman had formed a new band, Ironhorse, with which he released two albums. A few years later, he reunited first with his old Guess Who bandmates and then with his old BTO buddies, who had struggled after he left. After that, Bachman worked as a nostalgia-act duo with Cummings. “This band has more hit records during sound check than most bands have during an entire show,” said Cummings. As a final musical venture, Bachman formed a duo with Fred Turner, his former singing partner in BTO. “Is this a new beginning or a final chapter?” asked Bachman in the liner notes for an album of original songs the duo released in 2010. “Only time will tell.”
In 2005, at age 61, the old rock ’n’ roll survivor reinvented himself as a broadcaster. Bachman became the host of CBC Radio’s Vinyl Tap, a weekly potpourri of recorded songs, live guitar riffs, road tales, and backstage gossip. It was intended initially to be a 10-week summer replacement for another music show – Finkleman’s 45s – that had run its course after 20 years. Vinyl Tap is still on the air today.
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2014
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