Why Randy Bachman Left as the Guess Who Began to Peak: Interview
If there's one main takeaway from Bachman, a new documentary about the legendary Canadian rock guitarist and singer Randy Bachman, it would be perseverance.
Outside of his major successes, first with the Guess Who during the ‘60s and then later with Bachman-Turner Overdrive in the ‘70s, Bachman also experienced his share of hurdles – whether clashes with his bandmates over artistic and personal reasons or the heavy toll of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle on his marriage and family. Still, Bachman always found a way to overcome those obstacles.
“Like LOL, laughing out loud, mine is FOF, fear of failure,” Bachman tells UCR. “People I had looked at who were successful – they’re not afraid to try something seemingly impossible. And when they fail, they don’t give up. They keep trying and trying.”
Directed by John Barnard, Bachman chronicles the guitarist’s life and music -- from his childhood in Winnipeg to the recording of his most recent album, By George by Bachman, a record of George Harrison songs. The movie includes interviews with family members and famous friends, including Neil Young, Alex Lifeson, Peter Frampton, Paul Shaffer, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and former Bachman-Turner Overdrive bassist and singer Fred Turner. Screened last year at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto, Bachman was just released on DVD and digital platforms.
Bachman, 75, admits he experienced a weird shock when he first saw the documentary with his son Tal and daughter Lorelei. “It’s like getting a bunch of strangers and showing them your family home movies,” he says. “There are some melancholy moments in there. What’s good about it, and what John did there, he didn’t just mention my home runs. He mentioned the strikeouts, as well. I think that’s important.”
He attributes his motivation and drive to when his dad tried to discourage him about pursuing a music career. “He kept saying, ‘Don’t do this for a living. Just do it for fun. You’ll never make a living and you’ll end up being a drunk in a bar,’” Bachman recalls. “Because everybody he knew who was a musician ended up being an alcoholic. I haven’t had a drink since I was 21. I never did drugs in my life. I never smoked in my life. I saw what drugs did to my friends. I didn’t like that. So, I always wanted to be in control. That was my propulsion through life.”
Watch the Trailer for 'Bachman'
Bachman traces his music career back to the early ‘60s, when Bachman was a member of the rock group Chad Allan and the Expressions, which later turned into the Guess Who.
They released “Shakin’ All Over” in 1965. "They put the name ‘Guess Who’ on it, because they wanted everyone to think we were an English band, not from Winnipeg,” Bachman recalls. Around the time keyboardist and singer Chad Allan was leaving the band, Bachman brought in singer and pianist Burton Cummings, but there was one hitch: Cummings was underage and unable to sign a performance contract without the consent of a parent.
So Bachman appealed to Cummings’ mother, who attended the same school as Bachman’s father. “She said, ‘I’ll let him join your band. I’ll sign the contract for him if you make me a promise: I want you to pick him up from every gig. I want you to stay with him. I want you to bring him home. I don’t want him getting involved in drinking, smoking, alcohol. You’ll be his big brother.’”
Bachman took Cummings under his wing. “I pick him up from every gig and I take him home," he notes. "After a while, I find out after dropping him off, he’s walking right through his yard, into a back lane, down the lane to his friends, who were having a pot party that night. This was way, way back. His mother asks me why didn’t I bring him home last night. ‘Are you kidding? I dropped him off five after 12. I was home in bed 20 after 12.’ ‘He didn’t come home until 4 in the morning, then he couldn't stand up. He was drunk.' We go on the road and that continues to happen. I had this looming promise that I made to his mother. So I become the narc on the road.”
Even with their age differences and conflicting personalities, Bachman and Cummings' professional relationship yielded a string of hits for the Guess Who, including “These Eyes,” “American Woman,” “No Time” and “Laughing.” “I’d have the hook, the line, the guitar riff,” Bachman says. “I even wrote 'These Eyes' on the piano. Because he was the lead singer, I would try to get his lyrics in there and get him to feel like he was part of the song. I needed a mouthpiece, and he was the guy in my band.”
Soon, it was like they were finishing each others sentences. “I’d play him a whole song of mine, he’d play me a song of his," Bachman recalls. "‘Let’s make mine the verse and make yours the chorus,’ and vice versa. So, we put our songs together by bringing each other’s songs that we had written or songs that we wanted to copy. I’d say, ‘Let’s copy this song and then let's change it so nobody would recognize what it is. That’s how we wrote: We would copy [John] Lennon and [Paul] McCartney, [Mick] Jagger and [Keith] Richards, Brian Wilson and Mike Love, [Burt] Bacharach and [Hal] David.”
Bachman became an anomaly at this time by abstaining from drugs and drink. “On my first tour with the Guess Who, when Burton Cummings was in the the band, it was with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention," he recalls. "Frank was absolutely straight. There were other guys [like] Ted Nugent and Paul Revere from Paul Revere and the Raiders: no smoke, no drugs, no drink. We were like an elite club.”
Listen to the Guess Who's 'American Woman'
Bachman's clean living was an advantage when it came to purchasing guitars. “I didn't take a per diem and go eat at a fancy restaurant,” he says. “I put my per diems in my pocket. I ended up with the largest Gretsch collection in the world – 385 Gretsches that I sold to Fred Gretsch for his Gretsch museum at four times for what I paid for. That was the greatest investment I’ve ever made. I bought those guitars one at a time for $200-$300, which I saved every week being on the road for months at a time and eating pretty much the slop that they give to the crew.”
Bachman's lifestyle, especially after converting to Mormonism, became a source of conflict with the other members of the Guess Who. According to Bachman, he handled the band’s business affairs because they didn’t have a manager at the time.
“After the gig, I would go actually sit with the promoter and get paid, and then you counted the money,” he explains. “There were no money transfers. I’d sit in my room at night and put [the money] into little bands, go to the bank the next morning and deposit them into this phantom bank account to pay our bills back home. So, I was constantly up in the morning, going to the bank when it opened, coming back, getting [the other band members] out of bed and out of hangovers and driving them to the next gig. When you do it 300 days a year, it kills you.”
By the late ‘60s, during the height of the Guess Who’s popularity, Bachman had gallbladder problems while on tour. He says the pain was "indescribable." The band’s road manager would take him to a hospital every night. “Literally, you’re sweating and in pain and you’re screaming," Bachman remembers. The doctors told him, "'We’ll have to give him some tests. Can you leave him in?’ [The road manager said,] ‘No, we got to drive to Philadelphia tomorrow.’ So, I’m on the road, and this is happening every night. Finally, I said to the band, ‘Look, we have a week off, I’ve got to home to our own doctor [in Winnipeg]. I can’t get a doctor on the road.”
Things came to a head in May 1970, when Bachman played his last show with the Guess Who at New York City’s Fillmore East. “We hit No. 1 with the American Woman album and single,” he says. “We’re suddenly headlining. I said, ‘Okay, guys, I need to go home for two weeks. I’m going to have an operation scheduled. They said, ‘Great, we’re glad you’re gone.’ I said, ‘Am I coming back?’ ‘No, we’re gonna keep going.’ So personality-wise, they were into the drug culture, I wasn’t. I was glad to leave, I was sad to leave. This was my life. I had run this band.”
The documentary also looks at Bachman’s life after the Guess Who – a period in which Bachman says he was ignored in the Winnipeg music community: “When I left the Guess Who, nobody would work with me because I had left the best band in the world, with the No. 1 album and single in the world," he recalls. "I recover a year later, my medical problem was over and I was itching to get going. Nobody would work with me; I was totally blackballed. So, I ended up producing myself from my knowledge of working with [producers] Phil Ramone and Jack Richardson.”
Brave Belt, Bachman’s next project, included former Guess Who keyboardist Chad Allan, drummer (and brother) Robbie Bachman and, later, bassist Fred Turner. But the group’s country-rock sound didn’t connect with audiences. So Brave Belt retooled as the harder rocking Bachman-Turner Overdrive, first with Bachman’s other brother Tim on guitar and then with Blair Thornton.
Bachman found his second wind. And as Bachman-Turner Overdrive notched hits like “Let It Ride,” “Takin’ Care of Business,” and “You Ain’t Seen Nothin Yet,” his decision to leave the Guess Who suddenly seemed like a footnote to his long history.