Behind the Four Wheel Drive

Canada is famous for many great things. Canadian bacon, ginger ale, professional ice hockey, all have their origins up North. The Canadian Mounties, Prime Minister Trudeau, SCTV and the late John Candy are icons for the rest of the world, or at least to the residents of that country further south, of what it means to be Canadian.

Canada is also renowned for its great Rock-n-Roll. The Guess Who? hit the American Billboard charts many times throughout their illustrious career. By 1970, even though the band was still a vital force in the music industry, lead guitarist Randy Bachman turned his attention to a new Rock outfit called Brave Belt, which featured keyboardist and vocalist Chad Allan, bass player and singer C.F.Turner, and brother Robin Bachman on drums. They played soft, Country-Rock. After completing only one album and only part of the second, Chad Allan left to be replaced by one more Bachman brother, guitarist Tim Bachman. By the time a third offering was ready to go, Brave Belt folded into a new mortality: Bachman Turner Overdrive.

BTO formed in 1972 and their first self-titled album was released in 1973. They enjoyed enormous success throughout the seventies, charting six times from 1974 until 1976, and remained an FM-radio staple with their biggest hits "Takin' Care of Business" and "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" continuously in rotation even today.

Throughout Rock history, there have always been personality conflicts, and various internal tensions that have lead to the demise of many successful bands. This dilemma increases when band members are related by blood. We all have had family members we have disagreed and fought with. In Rock-n-Roll, sibling rivalry occurs just like in the real world. Rock sibling rows aren't limited to any one country. In England, Ray and Dave Davies of The Kinks fight. America's Chris and Rich Robinson of The Black Crows famously don't get along. Unfortunately it continues on in the Bachman family with Randy and Robin, Tim Bachman thrown in the middle to make this the Canadian Rock-n-Roll feud.

While Prime Minister Trudeau might not have been a Gearhead, nevertheless, countless legions of faithful fanatics and devoted diehards willing to support the band are widespread in Canada. Throughout all of their ups and downs, rolling down some rocky roads and making some sharp hairpin turns along the way, Bachman Turner Overdrive's ride was and still is an enjoyable one. So now, let's lift up the hood and look into the inner gears of the four-wheel drive. I had the great pleasure of speaking with Robin Bachman, a true Rock legend.

MD: When BTO first formed in 1973 after the demise of Brave Belt, did it help that there was a member of the Guess Who? in the band, or did it serve as a hindrance to trying to live up to that level of success?

RB: Well, no. We weren't trying to live up to that measure of success.

MD: Were you trying to capture a more Hard Rock audience?

RB: Yeah, definitely.

MD: Your brother Randy was obviously close to Burton Cummings and other members of the Guess Who? Were you friends with members of the band as well?

RB: I grew up with them in our hometown. They'd use our basement or living room to rehearse in. When they were an upstart band and playing school dances, I'd go and watch them whenever I could.

MD: Tim Bachman was on the first two BTO albums and left to learn record production. Whatever happened to him and is he still doing it?

RB: Actually, he was basically asked to leave. He didn't leave to learn record production. He wasn't BTO caliber. He was out of tune on stage and couldn't play guitar very well. It was difficult to rely on him. I guess the band was conflicting with his whole life or something like that.

MD: In 1973, BTO played Max's Kansas City. Was the New York City crowd receptive to the band and what was your impression of the audience at the time?

RB: I just remember it being a really crowded, small club. It was very hip at the time to play there. We'd had some FM play. It didn't seem any more or less hip or important to me than any other club because the audience that came to see us was no different than the people who came to see us in Ohio, or any other place. It was just another gig. We always put one-hundred ten percent, or if we have any more - one-hundred twenty percent into our concerts. The only difference is that the shows are more influential if you have a guy there writing for the New York Times rather than the Dubuque Wheat Stalk in the audience. If important people read that review, it can change your life. Unless the president of Warner Bros records has a summer farm in Iowa and happens to cut through a Dubuque concert and says, " Hey, I didn't know these guys were on my label! Let's make 'em HUGE!" most gigs aren't going to do that for you. So playing for the people and the fans is always the same. We get no better reaction if you had a crowd of twenty-thousand people in Plains or twenty-thousand in San Diego. We always get the same reaction back.

MD: There are lots of rumors about the recording of "Taking Care of Business". Can you tell me the real story?

RB: Here's Randy's version of the story. We were encased in the studio, and the pizza guy delivers our pizza. He hears us recording the song and says, "Hey, that needs piano!" Randy asks him if he can play. He does, and he goes into the studio and does one take. We think that's cool, pay for the pizza, give him a tip and he leaves. Then Randy realizes that we have to pay this guy for the session! Randy and the president of Mercury Records sit down with the yellow pages and phone every pizza parlor in Seattle until 4 in the morning asking if they had a pizza delivered to Casement Studios by a guy who can play piano.

Here's the real story...

We're in the studio recording "Taking Care of Business". In the next studio is a guy working with Steve Miller. He hears the song as he's walking back and forth getting coffee. He sticks his head in and says, "That needs piano! A real boogie-woogie piano would sound cool." The he leaves. We're looking around for him, asking, "Where's that piano guy?" So Buzz Richmond, the engineer, tells us that he's working next door and he'll go get him. So he comes back, and asks us if we want piano on the song. He asks us how long the song is, and we tell him about five minutes. "Well," he says, "I only have six." He then picks up a pizza box, proceeds to write the chord progression on the cardboard box, puts it down on the piano, and plays it once. It sounds great. He then asks us to send him a check and he leaves us his card. The fellow's name is Norman Durkee. He's a musical director for Bette Midler and Barry Manilow. We credited him on the album.

We just did a album where we took live recordings that we mixed to sound like a studio album, replayed all the stuff and sang everything on there. I flew down to Seattle and contacted Norman and he played piano on this version of "Taking Care of Business" with the same workers, in the same studio where we originally recorded it in 1974. And, next door in the studio, at the same time, was Steve Miller! The studio manager was amazed. There's some synergy for ya - better story than the one about the pizza guy. I have to explain this to Norman because the Pizza Guy story is now famous legend and in Randy's book and DVD.

Here's some more of the truth. When Norman was starting out, he was doing the music and was the musical director for a stage show that was coming through Seattle at the Paramount, with an unknown, wonderful singer and actress named Bette Midler. They were rehearsing this Bob Dylan song called "I Shall Be Released". He starts playing, she starts singing the song, and all of a sudden she starts crying! He thinks to himself, "Oh fuck, I'm fired now." He stops playing, "I'm sorry Miss Midler, what's wrong?" And she says, "I've never heard emotion come out of a piano like that before! It's just making me so sad. Someone else is going to have to play for me onstage, because if you're playing for me, I'll be crying!" Norman replies, "Well, that may be good for the show!"

Two years later, she phones Norman and tells him, "I'm flying in with my piano player and the president of Atlantic Records. I need you to teach us "I Shall Be Released" on piano."

They fly in. She puts down her piano player, "Norman! Teach this fag how to play!" It was Barry Manilow.

Here's some more Norman Durkee-style trivia for ya. When I was in school doing physics and calculus, the guy next to me sharing the same slide rule was Ted Bundy. Now isn't that a better story than the Pizza Guy story? The truth is, both of those stories together are much better than the story about some guy saying " I think can play that" and leaving.

MD: Blair Thornton's made his debut appearance with the band on In Concert. Was the band nervous that his debut was televised?

RB: I know he was. We had full confidence in him. He was playing in a band just like ours in Vancouver that was playing high school dances and concerts at the provincial fair or in nightclubs. In fact, Tim was only in the band for seven or eight months. I don't think that he played the second album's material on stage. We started in May 1973 and Tim left in January '74.

MD: It's ironic that Randy formed BTO to get more of a hard rock sound...

RB: No, the first Brave Belt albums were very Country Rock. Everything changed when Fred joined the band. We had Fred Turner's heavy, rough voice.

MD: And he left after the '77 "Freeways" album - he departed to form more of a soft, more pop-sounding solo career.

RB: Well, that's because Randy is not really a Hard Rock guy. Fred Turner's got the voice. We evolved because of Mr. Turner and I was just grateful that I could find someone who I could smash drums behind.

MD: I was going through my old Circus magazines. In the August 31, 1978 issue, there was a letter to the editor from Blair that states, "He will not let us use Bachman Turner Overdrive and is trying to climb out of the hole Randy dragged us into, and I think that our next album will accomplish this feat. For three years the group has been forced to accept Randy's musical and personal ideals. Now that he's taken his egomania elsewhere, it's like a breath of fresh air." Is this a viewpoint that you still hold?

RB: Yes. Randy Bachmann has poisoned the industry against us so much by saying that he's the songwriter, singer and producer of BTO. They hear his music and they see him play, and he's awful. They then decide that if he's the main guy from BTO, then the band must really stink.

It's the Guess Who? element. They say that they need something to tack onto a cover for publicity. I say, why can't you just plug the band? Why does it matter what he did before? Plus, he quit that band and they had their biggest albums after he left! Why are we picking on this one guy? If he wants to live off the Guess Who? reputation, then he should have stayed with them. Now he's "Mr. Randy Bachman of BTO", so why didn't he stay with us? As logic would have it, people don't really listen. They only listen to what they want to hear.

MD: If you had the opportunity to go to a Guess Who? show today, would you go?

RB: No. Would you go to your ex-wife's birthday party? Would you get back together with her to make your Mum happy so that she could say at dinner, "Oh look, the family's together."? This is exactly the way we feel about Randy. He does us no good. He does us so much harm and that's that.

The problem we've had, is that when Randy does interviews, no one ever really does any fact checking. The biographer can go and check facts, and so can everyone else in the world. Randy Bachman says that he owns the names "Bachman Turner Overdrive" and "BTO and the Gears" since 1973. All you need to do is pay fifty bucks to do a trademark search and find the truth: registered September 1980. When you're writing a book, get your facts straight because basically you're just a tape recorder otherwise. The guy talks to you; you write it down. It's really stupid. Fred got pissed off and finally left in 1984. Randy dubbed Fred's voice on a reel-to-reel tape when BTO went on tour with Van Halen that year! We nearly lost three grand because some guy jumped off a balcony when people found that out. Randy just laughed. That's in his book. He told that story himself. Blair and I stand up to Randy, and he doesn't want to work with people who question him. Randy never showed me that he had any great leadership skills and he's not a square guy and he'll cheat and lie to you if he can, just to get what he wants.

MD: The two albums that followed Randy's departure were "Street Action" and "Rock-n-Roll Nights". I always thought these albums were underrated and really excellent. You had recruited Jim Clench, formerly of another Canadian band, April Wine. His vocals remind me of Ozzy at times. Both of those albums had a heavier approach. Were you aiming those albums at a younger and more Heavy Metal oriented audience?

RB: We were aiming at our old BTO audience! They might sound different, because Randy kept putting his pop stuff on us. When those two albums with Jim Clench came out, that was always the direction that we wanted to go in. If you look at the Blair Thornton, Robin Bachman and Fred Turner songs on the BTO albums, that's the same sound. That's why we consider Fred Turner our lead singer. A lead singer can sing any kind of song. Fred sang on, "Blue Collar" and "Not Fragile" and those two songs were written by Fred and are totally different.

MD: Randy returned to the band in 1984, Tim also...

RB: He didn't return to the band. Tim was approached by someone to see if he could get the band back together again. Why they approached him after he was through for over eight months, I have no idea. So when Randy wanted to get back together again, I said, "Okay, let's be even Stevens. Let's have a publishing company with the band. Let's all write the tunes. We'll all share equally and there won't be any more animosity." He said no, so I got up and left. Blair wasn't asked to rejoin because Randy knew that Blair wouldn't take any crap like Timmy would, because Timmy wanted to be in the band.

They went out and started to use the name BTO within a year, the same trademark that Randy sold to us! So Blair and I said, "Fuck this!" and sued him and we won. They had to pay us royalties.

I knew that the band was not going to make it because BTO as a band is not a great lyrical, "let's change the world" musical band. BTO is feeling - the feeling that comes from the drum and the bass. I am going to say that I am the feeling and the tempo in the group behind BTO.

You can do tons of guitar riffs over any Led Zeppelin song, and it will still sound like Zeppelin, because John Bonham is in there giving the song the whole groove and funk.

Anyway, so that's what happened. If Randy had been up front with us and honest with himself, things would have been different.

MD: I have a reunion from Saskatchewan's prison on tape with all original members from 1988 or '89.

RB: That concert wasn't a reunion. We'd been playing together for about a year and a half. It was done for Much Music up in Canada. When we got up there, we found out that our wonderful government tax dollars had paid $120,000 for a bunch of murderers to have Rock and Roll concert, and that made me ill. It was done for ratings or something. The prisoners made a plea, and lobbied the government for smokes, Coca-Cola and a Rock concert. And so, we're there playing for mass murderers, including a guy who had chopped up his mum with an axe! I'm thinkng, "Yeah, these guys might need entertainment, but why don't they have a TV? If they didn't have the forethought to think they might be caught doing their crime, then why should they deserve entertainment?"

MD: Johnny Cash used to play prisons, and as much as I loved him, these prisoners only deserve to pay for their crime by being castrated and burned at the stake, and they don't deserve anything.

RB: You don't have "Trial By Fire", do you? Even I don't have a copy of it. It's on the CMC label out of Denmark. We recorded it in 1996 and it took me until this year to finally get through to someone in the record company to get copies that I could sell on tour and on the website. All they sent me were 400 CDs and that was it! If you had it, I'd be really surprised. You'd hear a really different perspective if you listened to it. You'd know it's BTO, but you'd say to yourself, "Now that's a BTO record that I haven't heard!" We don't go for a sound; we just play what we play. We do a killer version of "House of the Rising Sun".

We were touring Scandinavia, and they're really big on May Day and the beginning of spring. A record company approached us and told us that they'd been watching us when we'd been touring Europe for the last five years. They told us that even though we still sound like BTO, that they noticed a change in flavor when we've been playing on stage. They wanted to give us a record deal for their series, "Latest and Greatest". They wanted us to redo our old classics and put on some new stuff, insisting that we record our version of that song as part of the deal. So we redid ten of the classics, and then the label was bought out by EMI.

MD: Is there any new BTO material to look forward to in the future?

RB: Yeah, there are quite a few independents that are interested in that album that I was talking about before, the one where we were using live tracks. We'll be handing them over to a record company and we will have control over there. We'll be able to give them new photos of the band and new liner notes so when people read it, they'll find out about BTO as it is now, rather than someone going through old newspapers or magazines, or going on the website and pulling off whatever they think they'd like to put in their article. So they'll be released. We might be calling them "BTO Retreads" or "BTO Overhaul". They're also interested in putting some new material on there, like 5 or 6 new tunes or maybe we will just do a separate CD of new stuff and do 2 releases of new materials and old materials.

MD: I know your current lineup consists of C.F. Turner on bass, Randy Murray on guitar, Blair Thornton on guitar and you on drums. Besides the album that's in the works, what are you doing musically these days?

RB: We're playing the old hits, doing concerts throughout North America- new stuff as well as the old. We're always writing and always jotting down ideas. Some of those you don't jot down, and some you remember so well that if someone asks what you've got kicking around inside your head, you can grab a guitar or sing a few notes, write the lyrics down and the rest of the band collaborates on it. It becomes a real group effort.

MD: Where do you see yourself musically in the future?

RB: I like the music that I play. It's a lot of fun. It still makes a lot of people happy. There are always new fans coming out to see us. I'd say more than two-thirds of our audience are new fans who have never seen the band before. They know who we are, whether they've heard our music in movies or TV shows, in commercials, at a friend's house or somewhere. The fan base keeps growing and growing. I get emails from 15 year olds that say, "I saw 'Joe Dirt' and Kid Rock had your music playing in his car." It's amazing now that they'll go and put BTO into a search engine, hit return and end up at "BTO Rocks", our website and check out the band and then go to a CD store and every CD store has a BTO bin in it. They buy the records and then they come to concert and ask you questions that you have no idea how to answer.

MD: BTO has rocked for over the last thirty years, and it looks like you will continue to rock for years to come. Thank you for letting me in on the truth about the new and the old BTO.

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