In Part 1 of our interview, Randy Bachman discussed his reunion with Bachman Turner Overdrive member Fred Turner, the new Bachman & Turner album and told the amazing story of how he got his first Les Paul. In Part 2, Bachman spins some more yarns, telling us about the night he first met Les Paul and how he became a character on The Simpsons.
We’ve been talking about some of the artists who inspired you and some of the riffs on this new album. But which guitarist first inspired you to pick up a guitar?
His name was Lenny Breau and he was 16 and I was 15. And I had played classical violin for 10 years and he, at that age, had been playing professionally since he was nine in his parents’ band that was a country-western, rockabilly band. And he played all Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Scotty Moore fingerstyle guitar. I’d seen Elvis on TV and wanted to play that way. I had no idea who Chet Atkins was but through Lenny Breau, Chet Atkins became my first mentor in a way, when I started playing guitar. When I learned “I Walk the Line” and learned to play that fingerstyle, Lenny Breau taught me to play an entire Chet Atkins album, then the next album and the next album. And any guitarist out there knows that if you get a Chet album, and I’m talking about the old ones from the late ’50s, early ’60s, on those albums he played Broadway standards, bluegrass, country music, rockabilly. When you learn a Chet Atkins album, you learn the gamut of guitar styles. And then you learn the next album and suddenly you hear someone playing that on a record by Elvis – you know, Scotty Moore or James Burton backing up Rick Nelson.
And so that was like my main influence and then Hank Marvin and the Shadows, just playing beautiful guitar lines, because growing up playing violin for 10 years all you play on violin is melody. So I was a real melody guy and I think that’s why I became a pretty good songwriter. I just go for a melody that’s easy and memorable and you can sing again the second time you hear the song. And then after that, everybody that came after that influenced everybody else. Obviously the big three: Beck and Page and Clapton… you know that kind of thing. And Hendrix, you know, and even Neil Young, who I grew up with in Winnipeg, is the very same thing. He’s an amazing player but when you hear him play you don’t hear technicality, you hear raw passion and emotion and that’s what he puts into his playing.
I think Peter Buck of R.E.M. once said about a certain solo: “It’s only one note but it’s the right note.”
Exactly, you play the right note in the right spot and holes, just like The Beatles’ guitar solos, they seem to have every solo – it’s the right thing that the song needed. And they are all very sing-able. I can sing you every Beatles guitar solo and you could probably sing it too. They were just very melodic, as if George Martin composed them or the guys in the band actually composed them as counter-melodies, because that’s what they were.
I think those Beatle solos are ingrained in the songwriting.
Right, well I mean a lot of guys say, “Well, I’m in the key of A. How many notes can I play? And what licks can I play? And I will put them all in so everyone thinks I’m great.” And there’s other guys that sit back and go, “Gee, here’s a space here, what can I put in there and you sing it. Lenny Breau taught me that also. Sing it first in your head, then you can play it, then learn to play it. Just tell your head to tell your fingers to play the notes. And when other people hear it, it will stay in their head. Don’t play anything that people can’t sing back to you.
Great advice. In addition to Lenny Breau, what guitarists had the greatest influence on you?
You can’t discount a guy like Mr. Chet Atkins. He played on a lot of Elvis’s stuff and a lot of the Everly Brothers’s stuff and people don’t even know all the things Chet Atkins played. He was amazing guy, a great guy. You know I was with the Guess Who and we signed with RCA and “American Woman” hit number one and were prancing around in RCA studios in New York, Chet Atkins comes up to me in the hall and says “I want to thank you ’cause when [people ask] who’s your favorite guitar player, you say me and Lenny Breau. And I’ve discovered Lenny Breau and I’m doing an album on Lenny Breau and it’s so great.” And I said, “You know, Mr. Atkins, it’s so great to meet you. You changed my life, learning to play like you. My big problem is, I then was hit on by every other guitar player in Winnipeg to give them guitar lessons. So, I gave away my records for them to learn and I went on the road and I never got my records back.” And he said, “Oh, interesting.” I went home the next month and every month for three years, two or three Chet Atkins albums came to my house. I never asked him for them. I mean 80 albums must have come to me in all different compilations. I didn’t even open them. I still have them sealed to this day. That’s a very precious memory of Chet Atkins and I have similar and great memories of Les Paul – his counterpart and a great guitar player.
I’d love to hear your memories of Les Paul.
O.K., so here’s my Les Paul story. Les Paul was on the radio with “How High the Moon” by Les Paul and Mary Ford and [there was this] similar, intriguing guitar. How can one person being playing that? All of a sudden Chet Atkins is playing with three or four fingers on each hand, but Les Paul was doing the overdubs and the tape recording. And so, you’re trying to play Les Paul and it’s very hard because a lot of stuff is sped up so it’s higher than you can go on a guitar neck. And then I hear that Les Paul and Mary Ford are playing in Winnipeg. So I’m about, I don’t know, a 16-year-old kid there and Lenny Breau says, “Come on, you got to see this guy.” And Lenny had to go out of town because he played in his parents’ country band that night. So I went on a bus to the end of Winnipeg to a nightclub called The Rancho Don Carlos, which is a beautiful, white thing like a hacienda and was a supper club. So I go to buy a ticket to get in and the guy says, “How old are you?” and I say, “I’m 16.” And he says, “Well, you can’t get in because we are serving liquor, it’s a supper club, and you can’t get in.” So I go outside and I’m sitting on the lawn, and I’m kind of sobbing, I’ve got tears in my eyes. I had saved my money and I told my parents I was going to my best friend’s house and I’ve snuck off to see Les Paul on the other side of town and I don’t know how I’m going to get home because the busses had stopped running. I’m like 12 miles from home in the dark in Winnipeg.
A Cadillac pulls up and out gets Les Paul. And he comes up and says, “Hi, kid. How are you doing?” And I go “fine” – wow, it’s Les Paul. And he’s hauling in guitars and amps and a set of drums; it was him and Mary Ford and his son was playing drums with him at the time. And he says, “What’s the matter?” I said, “I came all the way here from school to see you. You’re my idol, here’s your album. Could you sign it? I have a Chet Atkins album and yours. Would you sign this thing?” He says, “Well, sure. Why can’t you get in?” And I say, “Because of the drinking age.” And he says, “I’ll tell you what. Give me a minute.” So he goes in and he has a word with the club owner and he says, “This kid is with me. Let him stand in the kitchen; let him watch the show through doors.” Now with this being a supper club they had big swinging doors with big round glass windows that were probably a foot and a half around so you could see and not bash someone coming the other way. And waiters and waitresses walk back-and-forth with food and drinks and with these swinging doors swinging in and out. So I’m standing right on the edge of the hinges at the door and I’m watching pretty much the back of Les Paul and Mary Ford. They are both walking around with beautiful, white Les Pauls and the mics came right out of the guitar so they could walk all around to different tables at the nightclub and his son was on the back of the stage playing the drums. But, beside me are these tape recorders that are starting and stopping and he’s explaining to the crowd how he does these recordings with the “Les Paulverizer,” which is attached to the guitar and starts and stops the tape recorders. So all night long, I’m ducking these doors moving back and forth and watching him and he’s kind of looking out the window and he knows I’m a guitar player and I’m in love with him, he’s my idol kind of thing.
After encore happens he walks back stage and he hands me his guitar and says, “Here kid, hold this.” And he hands me this white guitar, which had on it a Bigsby and a goose neck built-in. I’m telling you, it had to weigh 25 pounds. He hands me this guitar and it almost falls to the floor. I’m standing there going, “This is like holding four cinder bricks.” It’s really, really, really, heavy. He takes off his jacket and wipes down the guitar and says, “Is there anything I can do for you?” And I say, “That was amazing, that was amazing.” I said, “Could you show me one run? I would like to learn one lick from you.” So he shows me this run, a chromatic run. It’s in “How High the Moon,”so it’sa cascading down run. And that’s it, I go home and practice and I can play “How High the Moon.” This is when I’m 16.
Fast-forward to ’87 where I’m, I don’t know 40-something. I’m with Bachman Turner Overdrive and we’re opening up for Van Helen. We’re playing in New York at Nassau Coliseum and Les Paul comes to the gig to hang with Eddie and Sammy Hagar, and I’m standing in the corner of the dressing room. He comes over and says hi. And I say, “Mr. Paul, I met you at the Rancho Don Carlos in Winnipeg in 1959 and he goes, “Hi kid. Do you remember that lick?” And I said, “You remember me?” And he says, “Of course I remember you. Here, play me the lick.” And I played him the lick and we hugged each other.
Fast-forward more years, and I’m touring with the Guess Who in 2000, and we get to New York and we go to the Iridium Club to see him. He’s on stage and says, “I hear a friend of mine is in the audience; Randy Bachman can you come up on stage?” And I go “What!?” So I go on stage and he says, “Do you still know that lick?” And he plays “How High the Moon” with his little band up there and I get to play the part he showed me. He says “O.K., kid, do one of yours.” And I do “Takin’ Care of Business,” with kind of a blues shuffle. And Les Paul plays “Takin’ Care of Business” with me. After the show, I go and get pictures taken with him. We give each other a hug and he says, “How would you like to come to my place tomorrow?” Just come over tomorrow and I’ll show you all my stuff. I’ve got tons of junk to show you. And I go, “Great.” The next morning I get up and it’s 9/11. The planes have crashed into the twin towers. New York is closed and I can’t go to Les Paul’s and I never get to see him again. A few years later, he passes away. That’s my Les Paul story.
Earlier, we were talking about you getting back together with Fred Turner. For me your career is really distinguished by a couple of pairings. Obviously, Turner is one and Burton Cummings is the other. How is the dynamic different when you’re working with those guys?
Well everything is different because every person is different. I mean the first great singer I had in a band was Burton Cummings. And then, when I started Bachman Turner Overdrive, I got Turner in there. And along side of that, I was great friends with Neil Young. I was very fortunate to have recorded with all of them and have done gigs with all of them and I’m friendly with them. These are three great voices in rock and roll, who happen to all be from Winnipeg. It wasn’t something I knew way back when. I cross paths with them every four of five years and we do a tour and record together. And maybe one day there will be a big Winnipeg [show] with me and Neil Young and Burton Cummings and Fred Turner all on the stage together and we’ll call the band Winnipeg. That would blow everyone away because, between us, there’s hundreds and hundreds of hit songs. Just amazing. So it shows the amazing thing that happened in Winnipeg in the ’60s with all of us kids with the same dream. We still have the same dream. Every time I see Neil Young I say, “I’m so glad you’re still out there rocking and rollin’” and he says, “Randy, I’m so glad you’re still out there. It’s what we’ve got to do. It’s what people want us to do. It’s what we were born to do. We are so lucky we knew so young what we were supposed to do on earth.”
I saw you play with the reunited Guess Who in ’01, and on that tour you guys were playing all the Guess Who chestnuts, but you did a lot of BTO songs, too. Are you planning to do the reverse on this tour?
Maybe. I might sneak in like “American Woman” on the back end of a song that’s called “Stayed Awake All Night.”
What do you think it is about this music? What is it that has kept these songs as anthems?
I think it’s like any hit song. It’s gotta have two or three, and no more than two or three familiar hooky elements. Three hooks. Which is basically, well one of your hooks should be your instrumental hook – either a piano or a bass or guitar beginning. I mean, look at all the great guitar players out there and you start with an instrument that would give you a hook so when you play the first bar you know what that is. Then you have to have a melodic chorus that everyone can sing along to. Even Bob Dylan, as great of a songwriter he is, a lot of his songs are obscure because there is just such a verbiage of collection of syllables and lyrics. But his hits are the ones you can sing. A chorus… “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind”; something, a repetitive thing that’s a hook line with lyrics and a melody that’s easy. So, growing up and wanting to write songs like Chuck Berry and The Beatles, you know, and Brian Wilson and everybody else. You buy their albums and you hear the songs that aren’t hits and they are very musical and very lyrical. And those are O.K. because they show a depth to an artist. But the ones that got on the radio appeal to the average man. The minute they hear your song they should be able to play it back to you and sing with those three hooks. If they can’t remember it, it’s not going to be a hit.
If only it was so easy to just do that all the time.
Yeah, well why don’t I do it all the time? Because you kinda get bored. You think, “This is so simple and easy and anyone can do it.” But when Turner sent me his songs and it had seven or eight and eleven chords and I said, “Fred, I’m going to do this one verse with one chord and then I’m going to do two more chords and a hook and you’re going to have to change some notes, well not change them but bend them so they will sound more bluesy and rock and roll.” And he said, “No, no, you can’t.” And I said, “Fred, you’ve got demo love. You love these demos that you did seven and 10 years ago. But with me as your producer and co-conspirator on this album, let me take this because it has to fit with what I’m doing.” And he said, “O.K. I trust you. Go for it.” And I did it and the album is great because it’s been simplified and simplified and simplified and I would get the word he’s got and say you don’t need to say this in this sentence because there are seven words that are twenty-eight syllables. Say it in six words. How can you say, “Running away from you one last time and I never want to see you again?” You can just say “Hey, I’m out of here, babe.” You know what I mean?
Tell me about you being made an officer in the Order of Canada. How did you get the news about that?
Well it was just like this morning and the phone rang. A guy said this is so and so from the government general’s office in Canada. “You’ve been nominated to be an officer in the Order of Canada. Will you accept the nomination?” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “You have to say you accept.” And I said, “Oh, O.K., I accept but what does that mean? No taxes for a year?” And he said “No, no, you’re just honored. It’s like being Sir Paul McCartney except we don’t use the title Sir in Canada.” But it’s an honor for your achievements around the world in music for decades and giving back to people and helping with kids and charities and all that. So I accepted it and it was quite an honor.
Well that’s a huge deal, but how does that compare to being on The Simpsons?
Um, very similar. (laughs) Not as pompous, obviously. It was on my fax machine, when I came home that said they wanted to use two of my songs on The Simpsons. So I call my office and go, “Wow, they want to use “Takin’ Care of Business” on The Simpsons? Who’s going to sing it?” And they said, “You. BTO comes to Springfield and plays a band show and Homer wants to take Bart there to see the show.” And I said, “You’re kidding, they’re going to cartoon me?” It was an absolute thrill to go down there and be in a room and see the artists and the guys that do the voices from The Simpsons and it’s absolutely amazing. But my son, Tal Bachman, called me ... and he said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I just did The Simpsons.” And he said “Dad, you finally made it!” So after many number ones and Billboard albums and singles and all kinds of other accolades and stuff, for him and a lot of other kids that was it.
Let me say one more thing. I love the Johnny A. guitar.
Great. What do you love about it?
Well, I was lucky enough to get one. I read about him and I called and got one. I actually did the David Letterman show and he came down to the show. And I played it on David Letterman and there are a lot of clips of me on you tube with David Letterman and I’m playing the Johnny A. guitar. What I like about it is that it has a 25-inch scale, so your chords take on a different ring. Your harmonics are slightly different and you kind of play it a bit different. And it’s just fabulous.
Photo Credit: Mike Hough