Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, singer/guitarist Randy Bachman was on quite a winning streak. As a member of the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Bachman had a hand in the creation of such classic rock staples as “American Woman,” “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” “Takin’ Care of Business,” and more. On his new album, Heavy Blues [True North], Bachman has gloriously reconnected with his hard rock side (as evidenced by such ass kickers as “Little Girl Lost,” “Wild Texas Ride,” and the title track), and is joined by an impressive list of special guests that includes Neil Young, Joe Bonamassa, Jeff Healey, and Peter Frampton. Bachman was more than happy to discuss his hard rock rebirth with Guitar Player, as well as his memories of penning a ’70s guitar classic.
How did Heavy Blues come together?
Geoff Kulawick, who is a friend of mine from Canada, had taken over True North Records, and was interested in signing me to a record deal if I would do something “new and exciting.” At the same time, I was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in January of 2014, and Neil Young was there, because his pedal-steel player, Ben Keith, was inducted as well. Ben had passed away, so Neil was there to accept for him. I told Neil I had a new record deal, and he said, “Great opportunity. Do yourself a favor: Don’t do the same old stuff. Get a new band, get different guitars, get a different producer. Do something scary that you’ve never done before or haven’t done in a while. Go into a strange room, challenge yourself, and see what happens.”
Then, I happened to see Tommy the musical, in Stratford, Ontario, and I was sitting with Pete Townshend. Pete said to me, “The drummer is amazing. The drummer plays like Keith Moon.” We went to meet the drummer, Dale Anne Brendon, after the show. I said, “Dale, I have a chance to do an album. Do you want to do an album with just you on drums and me on guitar? We’ll be like the White Stripes.” She said, “Great, I’m in.” When I told my manager and Geoff, they said, “Nah, we don’t want you to copy the White Stripes or the Black Keys. That’s already been done. Why don’t you just add a third member?” Well, BTO got inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame in March of 2014, and while we were there, we saw a band called Ladies of the Canyon. They had long, scraggly hair, ripped flannel shirts, ripped jeans, and they did this blazing country rock, like early Eagles or Crazy Horse. I thought the bass player, Anna Ruddick, was incredible. We had lunch the next day, and she showed up with a John Entwistle t-shirt. I said, “How old are you?” She said, “30.” I said, “You know who John Entwistle is?” She said, “Well, I studied bass composition and upright bass at McGill University in Montreal. We study all bass players, and Stanley Clarke, Victor Wooten, John Entwistle, and Jack Bruce were my favorites.” I said, “Well, I have a drummer who plays like Keith Moon. Do you want to come do a power trio jam album? You can be like John Entwistle or Jack Bruce, and Anne will be my John Bonham or Keith Moon. I’m writing some new blues songs.” She said, “Yes. Sounds incredible.”
Bachman with drummer Dale Anne Brendon (center) and bassist Anna Ruddick.
And you enlisted Kevin Shirley to produce.
He said, “I’ll do this, but I only have five days. If you’re going to let me produce you, you have to let me captain the ship. I don’t want any discussion. I want to tell you what to do and I want you to do it, because I’m going to win the argument anyway. So just let me win it, save a lot of time, and let’s get these tracks done.” He flew into Toronto, we all had dinner on Saturday night, we started Sunday, and we cut 12 tracks in the next four days. We had done them all live and got a great sound. I used all old guitars and old amps. And then Kevin called me and said, “I got my neighbor, Joe Bonamassa, to play a solo on a track.” I went, “Wow, what a great idea.” I emailed Neil Young, and he said he wanted to have a solo in there. I asked other friends of mine, and ended up with seven great soloists on the album. Each of them has a real showcase in each song, and they really did bring a bit of themselves. You can tell it’s really Neil, it’s really Peter Frampton. It’s the real guy doing his own thing.
The album has a big, heavy sound.
What really blew me away and made my life as a guitar player was the late ’60s power trios: Hendrix, Cream, and also the Who and Zeppelin, who were guitar, bass, and drums at the core. I wanted to honor that, but I didn’t want to do the standard Les Paul through a Marshall or a Strat through a Fender amp. I found a guy in Toronto who collects amps, and I bought these old Silvertone piggyback amps, where the bottom is open back with two ten-inch speakers, a head on top, and a great built-in tremolo. I used two of those, and I split the signals with a Roland Chorus—the one everybody calls the “Flying Saucer.” It doesn’t even have an adapter, just a direct AC plug-in. I didn’t use it for chorus, just to split my signal. It has a half-watt boost, so it distorts your guitar a little. I also used two National lunchbox amps—they have incredible distortion. I put all those in a glass room and threw up about six or eight microphones. I said to Kevin, “I only want to do one guitar track.” I wanted it to sound huge, like Pete Townshend. “Let’s just take one mic and pan it at eight o’clock, and then put the next mic at ten o’clock, the next at 12 o’clock, and spread it across the stereo spectrum.” So when I track, there are different tones as well as closeness or far-away-ness in the microphones giving my guitar a gigantic wall of sound.
What did you use for guitars?
The guitar I used on every single track I didn’t even know existed until I started searching the Internet and did some research. It was a Supro, called a Val-Trol. It’s a solidbody archtop—an enclosed archtop. It has two incredible Supro Valco pickups in it, and being built in 1959, the bridge pickup had a piezo in it or something like it, so you can mix that in. The guitar has one control—a volume control—and a three-way switch. That’s it. And the sound from it is big and fat. When I start “Livin’ on the Edge,” it’s gigantic, and it’s that one guitar. Another secret weapon we had was a bass like Fred Turner used to play in Bachman-Turner Overdrive, the single pickup Rickenbacker 4000 bass. There’s something magical about it. That one pickup—and where it’s placed—gives you the greatest bass sound for what I want in rock and roll. That changed the sound of BTO. And then, Rickenbacker started to make two pickup basses and they were never the same. When it was one pickup, it was somewhere about two-thirds of the way between the neck and the bridge, and there’s a harmonic resonance in the bass that is incredible.
Lastly, what do you remember about writing “Takin’ Care of Business”?
I was on stage, desperate. I had to sing the last set of a club gig because Fred had lost his voice. I had no songs to sing. I took a song I had previously written that I had pitched to the Guess Who and BTO—and they didn’t like it—called “White Collar Worker.” The lyrics were the same, but when I got to the hook, I sang, “White collar worker,” just like “Paperback Writer.” Everybody hated the song. On the way to the gig that night, I heard the DJ on the radio saying, “This is Daryl B on C-FUN Radio in Vancouver, we’re taking care of business.” I went, “Wow, what a great song title.” That night on stage, I threw away the “White collar worker” hook and substituted the words “Takin’ care of business.” I took out seven of the ten chords, made it a three-chord-song kind of thing, turned around to the band and said, “Follow me.” I made the song up on stage. We played it for 26 minutes that night! We recorded it two weeks later, and on that recording, I used my Gretsch 6120, and when I’m playing up high, doing all my Leslie West licks, you can hear the guitar going in and out of tune. Those 6120’s did not have a fixed bridge and if you banged the bridge with your hand, it went out of tune—the bridge actually moved. I said, “What the heck. This sounds very Keith Richards-y, very Howlin’ Wolf-y. I’ll just leave it the way it is. This song will never be a single. It’s just an album cut.” And if you listen to that whole song, it speeds up and slows down, but it’s a real party. We’re having a party in the studio. The piano player was a pizza delivery guy who came in and said, “I think I can play piano on this,” so I gave him one take, he played piano, and left. We didn’t even know who he was. We had to find him the next day and give him credit on the album. The whole song was just a trainwreck that came together to be a beautiful mess.