Randy Bachman

Even More Business (to take care of)
Even More Business (to take care of)

Of the legendary rock guitarists who also have admirable guitar collections, it’s hard to imagine anyone who’s been more busy gathering than Randy Bachman.

In the decade since his first interview, Bachman (he of Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive fame) has recorded numerous albums, marketed several recordings by his late friend and mentor, jazz guitarist Lenny Breau, and participated in a Guess Who reunion. Then there was the migration of the Bachman family to an island west of Vancouver (Bachman dubbed it “Canada’s Hawaii”), Bachman’s life story in book form (written with John Einarson), a tour with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, and last but not least, an appearance on “The Simpsons.”

In his first appearance in this magazine in ’92, Bachman was planning a solo album and a Bachman-Turner Overdrive 20th anniversary tour and CD boxed set. However, things worked out differently.

“Most musicians are the same,” the guitarist said. “Basically, you have plans, and you need a target for things you need to do, but that changes with the next phone call!

“I’d been reminiscing about my life, and had written a song called ‘Prairie Town,’ which mentioned growing up in Winnipeg… and Neil Young. I got a fax from Larry Cragg, who’s been Neil’s guitar tech for a long time, asking if I had any screw-on tips for Gretsch three-way switches. I have all kinds; gold, silver, and brass. So I sent him a couple of each, and just for fun, I put the lyrics to ‘Prairie Town’ in the envelope. Three days later, a fax came from Neil; he said he loved the lyrics, that it had really touched his heart, and that he’d like to be a part of it.

“Long story short, he invited me to his Broken Arrow Ranch in Redwood City, California,” Bachman continued. “I took my master tapes, which included a fast, ripping version, and a slow, ‘prairie summer afternoon’ version. He said ‘I’ll do ’em both;’ he had done ‘Tonight’s the Night’ in how many versions? It was absolutely magical, and we thought it would be great to have Joni Mitchell in the slow version, because she’s from Saskatoon, but she was unavailable. Neil and I both liked the Cowboy Junkies; they had done his song, ‘Powderfinger,’ so when I brought the tapes home, Margo Timmons came to my studio and sang on both, but her vocals didn’t fit on the fast version; it wasn’t quite right. I didn’t even think these songs would be singles, but having Neil and Margo gave ’em a certain ‘oomph.'”

Plans for filming a Young-inspired video in Winnipeg were scuttled due to a lack of cooperation by the weather. The videography was ultimately accomplished at Young’s ranch, where Young experienced a revelation concerning one of his Gretsch instruments.

“I pulled out one of my own Gretsches,” Bachman recounted. “And Neil said ‘I’ve got a Black Falcon that looks a lot like that.’ He got it out, and when I took it into the sunlight, it was actually a very dark green, like mine. He’d never seen it in the sunlight, which will show you the true color of a guitar. Neil said, ‘You mean it’s really a Green Falcon?’ Because of that, I called Fred Gretsch and had him make a couple of Black Falcons; I got prototype number one, and Neil got prototype number two.”

“Prairie Town” ended up on Bachman’s 1992 album Any Road. The other two members of the trio known as “Bachman” were Billy Rea “Crash” Chapman on drums, and Richard Cochrane on bass. The evolution of that song “…kind of took over the whole album, and gave it an identity beyond what I had hoped for,” Bachman said.

Other mid-’90s recordings included Merge, described by Bachman as a similar “prairie rock” album.

“I was writing songs, and I’d found a new voice where I was kind of talking, like Mark Knopfler or Bob Dylan, rather than singing in my ‘Taking Care of Business’ voice. It was much more comfortable. Lo and behold, I heard from Neil again, and we did ‘Made in Canada,’ which is on that album. My son, Tal, played drums. Neil and I also did a song for a Hank Marvin tribute album that Sting was going to put out on his Pangea label.”

Bob’s Garage Live was a ’96 live-broadcast acoustic performance on Bob Rivers’ radio show in Seattle, and later marketed as an album. Another album released in ’96 was The Randy Bachman Songbook, which featured new recordings of classic songs that the guitarist wrote or co-wrote, including many Guess Who and B.T.O. hits. Bachman stated that the Songbook album was inspired by his move to his new home.

“I had moved to this island, and had brought some old recording gear, and had gotten some new gear. Most engineers will tell you that the best way to set up a new studio, and try it out, is to play and record something you’ve already done and try to replicate the sounds. It’s like setting up a stereo system in a new home. So the way to test my new equipment was to re-record stuff I already knew how to get the sounds on.

“I’d also had a call from Penny Marshall; she wanted to use ‘Taking Care of Business’ in the movie Big, but couldn’t get anyone from the label that had the original version to return her calls. She already had the movie cut and edited, so she asked me to fly to L.A. and record it. I was going to do it, but she tested the movie in Iowa, and the audience could pick an ending. She previewed it there with ‘The Work Song,’ then called me and told me not to come down, because it worked with ‘The Work Song’ instead of ‘Taking Care of Business.’ But she told me to do myself a favor and re-record that song and some others, so I wouldn’t have to go through whatever company owned the original, nor would a movie director.”

Another extensive project has been the marketing of several recordings by Breau. As a teenager, Bachman took guitar lessons from Breau, whose family lived three blocks from Bachman’s. Breau taught Bachman an appreciation of guitar masters such as Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Les Paul, and others, and concentrated on teaching Bachman the importance of hand technique. Later, their paths would diverge, but Breau’s influence manifested itself in songs like “Undun,” “Blue Collar,” and “Lookin’ Out for #1.”

“I never had a chance to shake his hand and say thanks; I don’t have one photo or recording of us together,” Bachman lamented. “It was like hanging out with a guy, shooting hoops; you don’t know he’s gonna become a Michael Jordan, and Lenny went on to become a monster guitarist. I wanted to get some of his classic albums out on CD, and I inquired to RCA about them. They said the albums weren’t commercially viable, but agreed to lease them to me to market. But there was a merger, and my request stayed on the bottom of the pile, and one was above mine, and the Lenny Breau albums got leased to another company, after I’d been going around telling people I was going to release ’em.

“But other people got in touch with me, telling me they had some live recordings,” he continued. “Friends and family started to get me tapes, and suddenly I became a keeper and custodian of all this music, and I set up a royalty program for his children. The first release was a live recording of him and a bass player at Bourbon Street, a club in Toronto. I now have over 2,000 hours of his playing that have been given to me. Releasing them is my thank-you to Lenny.”

The Bourbon Street recording was released on Bachman’s own Guitarchives label in 1995. Subsequent releases included 1995’s Cabin Fever (recordings made by Breau, fittingly, in a cabin), 1997’s Chance Meeting (Breau and Tal Farlow), 1998’s Boy Wonder, and 2001’s Picken Cotton (Breau and Richard Cotton). The label has also released a two-disc set by Howard Roberts titled Dirty ‘N’ Funky (a reissue of Roberts’ first two albums), and a video titled The Genius of Lenny Breau. Bachman averred that the Roberts albums are his favorites because they were Breau’s favorites, and the release of two CDs of material by Thumbs Carlisle was also a possible future project for Guitarchives.

Bachman’s other label, Ranbach Music, has released not only the aforementioned book album, but also the two early-’70s albums by Brave Belt, a post-Guess Who band that evolved into Bachman-Turner Overdrive. The albums were marketed due to fan inquiries to his website, randybachman.com.

“It’s all part of ‘filling in the blanks’ for me and my fans,” said Bachman. “Some people want every step of the progression, whether it sold or didn’t.”

Another Ranbach release was 2001’s This Time Long Ago by the Guess Who. Named after one of the band’s early singles, the evolution of which was “…an amazing thing. On tour in the last few years – even the Guess Who reunion tours – somebody would almost always show up with either a Gretsch to show me, or some Lenny Breau tapes.

“I met one guy in Winnipeg who was working on sound; he introduced himself as Marvin Polanski, and when I said his name sounded familiar, he said ‘I was in your room in Grade 12.’ Then he said, ‘I also did the sound for the CBC when you did a television show in ’68, and I was so proud that I could do that – because you guys were like heroes to me – that I saved the tapes.’

“I said, ‘What!?’ CBC would erase the tape each week, or record over them. But he saved the audio. I asked him what was on the tapes, and he had no idea. He sent me this box of tapes; 71/2″ reels, 33/4 i.p.s. I put them on, and was so blown away, I was in tears. I called the rest of the guys in the Guess Who, telling them I now had a treasure trove box of tapes, with ‘Light My Fire,’ which we did with the Winnipeg Symphony, and other songs.”

Ultimately, those tapes and others were restored and marketed by Bachman as a two-disc set. This Time Long Ago includes two versions of “Light My Fire” as well as covers of “Summertime Blues” and “White Room.” The album also includes primeval versions of songs heard on early Guess Who albums, such as “6 A.M. or Nearer,” “Of a Dropping Pin,” and the first incarnation of “These Eyes.” There’s even a take of the morbid “Friends of Mine,” which appeared on the Guess Who’s Wheatfield Soul album; the track includes spoken-word commentary from singer/keyboard player Burton Cummings, and is akin to the Doors’ “The End.” Also included is a pre-Buffalo Springfield recording of Neil Young’s “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong.”

“This Time Long Ago” was the song the Guess Who lip-synched on “Upbeat,” a late-’60s syndicated television show, and Bachman has plans to release it on video.

“I’ve been in touch with David Spiro, the son of the producer of that show, and he’s given me those tapes. We have videos of us doing “This Time Long Ago,” and whatever else we did on “Upbeat,” and some of the CBC tapes, which we’re putting it together for the fans, and even for us; it’s important to have a document like that.”

In ’95, Bachman toured with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. The other stringed instrument players were guitarist Mark Farner (VG, July ’95, June ’98) and bassist John Entwistle (VG, October ’02).

“It was wonderful,” recalled Bachman. “For me to basically be George Harrison each night, playing the solo to ‘Boys’ or to start ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ was a dream come true. We all grew up wanting to be a Beatle; we all had that fantasy. To be able to play with all of these world-class musicians was an absolute treat. We were the best bar band in the world! We played songs that all bar bands play, but we were the guys who wrote and sang ’em!

“[Mark Farner] and I were like brothers; we were kinfolk,” Bachman said. “He’s a very spiritual guy, as am I. Every night, before we’d go onstage, the whole band would stand in a circle, hold hands, and say a prayer. We were grateful to be there; grateful to be alive and playing together. That really set the tone for what happened onstage. It was amazing; I can’t put it into words.”

Bachman talked with Entwistle about their respective guitar collections, including how they had both relinquished instruments to help pay taxes, Bachman recalled with a laugh.

“Something funny happened when we were rehearsing in Vancouver before the tour,” he said. “The Hard Rock Cafe opened, and they invited me over. So I had Entwistle come with me. We did ‘Shakin’ All Over,’ which had been the first hit for the Guess Who. And the Who did it on Live at Leeds; there had been some people who confused the Who and the Guess Who back then, and the Who would get asked to do ‘Shakin’ All Over,’ and everywhere we went, people asked us to play ‘My Generation!’ So for Entwistle and me to do ‘Shakin’ All Over’ to open the Hard Rock was a very cool moment in time.”

The end of the century saw the original lineup of the Guess Who reuniting again for an ambitious tour of Canada and the U.S. But the genesis of such a reunion could be traced back to the early history of the band.

“We were asked, by the Premier of Manitoba, to play four songs to close the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg in 1999. But in 1967, the Guess Who had played the Pan-American Games, in the mess tent, where the athletes dined! There’s a famous picture of us playing there, and no one’s paying any attention to us,” Bachman recounted with a laugh.

“But we were invited back 30 years later to basically do the same songs. We played at the closing ceremony in the arena, and there was a television audience of some 300 million people. And when we got offstage, I told Burton, ‘That was such a rush; I feel like I’m 35 again!’

“Then we decided to get some gigs the next summer. The one in Winnipeg sold out in an hour. Then Toronto sold out in half an hour. We went all over Canada, and it was a celebration that went over so well that we toured through 2001 in the U.S. and cut a live album that’s now out as a double CD.”

Asked to describe his relationship with Cummings, Bachman addressed it from a songwriter’s point of view.

“Well, there was the thing with Lennon and McCartney, and Jagger and Richards,” he reflected. “The moments together can be moments of greatness, and when you have moments of friction, you kind of go your own way and do something else. But there’s this full-circle thing that causes you to get back together after two, three, five years, and the magic is there, and it’s even stronger. There’s more mystique about it, because your fans want it, and deep down, you want it because you can only get this magic with certain people.

“The magic I had with Burton Cummings is the same magic of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, and Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton. Lennon and McCartney had it, and on and on. It’s a musician/brotherly thing; you don’t have to be blood-related. You just connect with some people, and you can’t explain it. When it’s on it’s fabulous; when it’s cold, we take a break from each other.

“You’re talking about putting two very strong-willed musical personalities together, and that can only work for a certain period of time. Then the forces kind of repel, then they get reenergized and attract again.”

Bachman also wanted to talk guitars, of course, and in addition to his collection of Gretsches, he’s also developed an affection for old Höfner instruments.

“I met a great Höfner collector named Gordon Giltrap, who’s an incredible fingerstyle player,” Bachman said. “He’s won the U.K. fingerstyle guitarist [contest] for the last 15 years. He had the ultimate Höfner collection, and I bought several of his, including a Golden, a Committee, and others. They’re beautiful guitars.”

He has also acquired some Danelectro and Silvertone instruments from the ’50s and ’60s. “I got them just because of the weird sound of the pickups. The new ones aren’t the same; they’re too clean. There’s something about using that old black Jimmy Page model; the weird buzz you get off the pickups. I have a black single-cut, and a copper double-cut from the late ’50s. I use ’em all the time for slide, or when I want to get a Los Lobos or Jimmy Reed kind of guitar sound. You can’t get it out of a new guitar, so I use ’em quite a bit in my studio.”

We also solicited Bachman’s perspective on the resurgence of Gretsch instruments in the ’90s, under the aegis of Fred Gretsch.

“In the old days, Gretsches were usually very beautiful, but playing-wise they were a challenge because the bridges would move around and the instruments were made inconsistently. Now, Gretsches are fabulous. They’re rock-solid, and the intonation is great.

“I’m doing a DVD shoot of my Gretsch collection soon,” he continued. “My collection totals about 335 instruments, and I’ll do a voiceover. I’m doing a shoot for a book, and I’ve got all of my Gretsch memorabilia lined up – the catalogs, the champagne glasses, and coffee mugs from the NAMM shows. I also made a deal with Fred Gretsch to make trading cards from the photos of my collection.”

Last but not least, we noted Bachman’s massive semi-autobiography, Randy Bachman: Takin’ Care of Business (McArthur & Company), written in third person by John Einarson, with plenty of first-person commentary and interjections by Bachman. One unique feature of the book is the inclusion of a Bachman character/caricature from the animated TV show, “The Simpsons,” on the front cover. Does it ultimately give a rock star a sense of accomplishment when they appear in an animated persona on that show?

“Yeah, that’s kind of an elite club,” he chuckled. “(Steven) Tyler, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, whoever else they’ve had for the Homer Simpson rock band, ya’ know? They were wonderful to me, and it was a big thrill to get the cartoon cel of me, drawn by Matt Groenig.”

And the list of rock stars who’ve parlayed their careers into multifaceted, business ventures in the decades since their songs were originally on the charts is an elite club, as well, and there shouldn’t be any debate as to whether Randy Bachman is a member of that “organization,” too.

Bachman at the “Every Song Tells A Story” concert in Vancouver, available on CD and DVD at randybachman.com. Photo: Wayne Hoecherl.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.