Randy Bachman remembers opening for Rocky and Bullwinkle
if you’ve listened to Randy Bachman’s CBC radio show Vinyl Tap, you’ll already know that the classic Canuck rocker is either friends, enemies, or former touring partners with pretty much anybody who ever made a record, in history, ever.
When the former BTO and Guess Who axeman came to Vancouver last week for a brisk promotional stop, the Straight had the great pleasure of sitting down with him to ask a few questions, and press for a few more details on the mindboggling array of names that appear in his new book, Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap Stories (Penguin). Not surprisingly, once he starts, you can’t get the guy to shut up. We could have sat there all day.
Georgia Straight: First things first; how serious was the fight you witnessed between Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry at the Seattle Pop Festival in 1969?
Randy Bachman: It was friendly at first and as they got more drunk, it got real dark, and real angry. These guys have guns. Canadians? We’re terrified in the States. Honestly. Everybody has guns, everyone’s taught hand-to-hand combat, they’re all drafted from Vietnam or some other war, at 18 they’re taught how to kill with their little finger, you know what I mean? It’s jungle warfare. We can fight with a hockey stick on the ice. That’s the only training we’ve had, you know?
GS: The Guess Who toured with the Kingsmen, of “Louie, Louie” infamy. What were those guys like?
RB: Phenomenal. We had the same manager, Paul Cantor, in New York, and he managed Dionne Warwick, who was on Scepter Records. It was two labels. Scepter and Wand, and the Kingsmen had “Louie Louie” on Wand Records. One was like a white label, and one was black. So we were there with Dionne Warwick, Chick Jackson, Maxine Brown, the Kingsmen, it was amazing. The songwriters who came and pitched the songs were Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson were, like, 18 years of age, they’d come and pitch a song. The Guess Who recorded a lot of their songs back then. It was an amazing time, and we got asked to do the Kingsmen “Louie, Louie” tour. The Kingsmen had their own bus. In our bus was Dion and the Belmonts, the original Belmonts, “Teenager in Love” and all that stuff, Barbara Mason, who had a song called “Are You Ready”. She was so young her mother came on tour with her. She was 15. Joining that tour on different dates were Sam the Sham, the Turtles, Eddie Hodges, “Gonna Knock on Your Door”, it was just phenomenal. But we stayed on the whole tour with the Kingsmen and got to be really good friends with them. They were really great guys. Norm Sundholm was leaving the band at that time. He’d had enough. And he started Sunn amps, which I then became a Sunn amp endorser and used that all through BTO. These stories go on and on and on.
GS: You played with Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs?
RB: Well, we played with them in Memphis. Sam the Sham was from Nashville, and he had that big hit with “Woolly Bully” and “Little Red Riding Hood”, so he’d come and play the little Farfisa organ, and a turban with the sparkle thing on it, dressed up like a genie out of a bottle. It was insane, but you did anything. It’s no different than Lady Gaga. You dress up. It’s like Halloween. His name was Sam Menudo, or something like that, and he was just a really great guy. Straight guy, just doing these crazy “Woolly Bully” songs.
GS: Speaking of which, you’re a Lady Gaga fan, correct?
RB: I really like Lady Gaga. She’s really fantastic. And people think she’s an overnight success, but I know of her last 10 year struggle, and having an album done and the label going under, and being dropped. She went every single year on the bus to this little writing space. Rain, snow, sleet, whatever, she showed up at 10 in the morning and wrote till five, and that’s how you get to be a writer. You write your ass off. You write 10 or 12 songs, you get one good one… She's really got breadth and depth as an artist. She proved her passion is music. Like Justin Bieber, I don’t begrudge the guy one bit. He’s a talented guy, like Justin Timberlake. He can act, he can, sing, he can dance, he can write, he can play 10 instruments. They deserve it.
GS: How about ? and the Mysterians. Ever play with those guys?
RB: We had an agent called Willard Alexander who just put us on all these shows. We played with the Buckinghams, with Question Mark, all the Midwest bands. We played a show where our opening act was Rocky and Bullwinkle. Guys wearing long underwear dyed brown, one with a leather cap on and goggles, and a guy with a papier mache moose head, and they just had a recording of Rocky and Bullwinkle, and they’d go on at the Iowa State fair and sell popcorn and get paid, and we were the opening act, or vice versa, and the closing act was a big band like Sammy Kaye and his band of Renown [sic], for the adults. I‘ve done a lot of bizarre shows. Rocky and Bullwinkle. Two guys who didn’t say a word.
GS: MC5? Stooges?
RB: Yeah, I did a lot of shows with the Stooges when Iggy would cut himself up. I called them brawl-rooms, in Michigan. He’d cut himself up with glass and he’d be writhing on the floor. Did a couple with the MC5 and “Kick Out the Jams” and the new word nobody had ever heard at the time, motherfucker. Nobody had ever heard that when they did that song. Loud. That was the first loud band. And the second was Blue Cheer, and we got to San Francisco and played with them. And Slade was another loud band. Some bands, they’d literally have six Marshall amps each on full. It was like standing in a cyclotron wind tunnel, the air movement from the speakers alone was amazing.
GS: Kim Fowley?
RB: He was kind of whacked. Crazy. But somehow had this thing for finding an artist and making the odd big blip on the musical screen. A lot of these guys were bent on a life of darkness and destruction.
GS: You say a few times in the book that you would meet people and discover they were very ordinary.
RB: To stand in line to get Brenda Lee’s autograph, before I was a player, at the Winnipeg Arena, and I looked to see that she actually had pimples, cause she was about 19. She had acne! And you go, “She’s really normal.” Or the Champs, “Tequila”, I’d seen them many times, and I got Chick Rios’ autograph, he was the sax player. To actually see sweat under his arms… cause you get this thing where you only see them on American Bandstand in Winnipeg on Saturday morning. That’s when you saw these guys in black and white. They’re just normal people, like you, they gotta practice every day, they gotta take out garbage, they have trouble balancing their bank account and parents saying you gotta get a real job, we all have the same thing.
GS: Little Richard isn’t normal. He recorded with you and in the book you talk about how he couldn’t play in A.
RB: No. Probably still can’t. It doesn’t matter.
GS: No, not at all. Is feel more important that technique?
RB: I think feel is everything. You look at the people that rip your heart out the most with their playing, and it’s somebody like Neil Young or BB King, who play on one note for an 80 bar solo. You know what I mean? I’ve seen Neil Young play, and he’s fabulous. He can play jazz, blues, classical, anything, but he chooses not to do that. He chooses to go and let that moment take him over.
GS: Neil Young is also not normal. And Crazy Horse is all feel.
RB: I love them. I love the rawness. I love the primal pounding that they did. I saw Neil Young in London last year, and spent three or four days with him, and I said, “So what are you doing tonight?” He said, "I’ve just switched Ben"—this is Ben Keith, his pedal steel player, before he died—"I just taught Ben three chords on a Telecaster. He’s playing rhythm guitar tonight.” I go, “What? I can play rhythm!” He goes, “No, you play too good, I want him to just play these chords,” and Ben Keith is in terror, cause normally—he played on “I Fall to Pieces”, he’s a great pedal steel player, and “Harvest Moon”, and everything—and Neil’s taught him three chords and said, “That’s all I want you to play.” And this show has this anticipatory, edgy thing that he creates, it was amazing.
GS: Did you ever meet Danny Whitten [Crazy Horse guitarist who died in 1972]?
RB: Yeah, I met all those guys in the ‘70s. Some of them were very introverted because they were into drugs, and you could pretty much see the self destruction going on, knowing that at any time this guy ain’t gonna be around that long. You could kinda feel that.
GS: In the book, you talk about jumping on the Festival Express train in Winnipeg. How on earth did you manage to stay sober in that environment?
RB: They came and went to that jam session over a couple of hours, but I stayed there. I was awake, and alert, and I had these red shoes that I bought in New York. This was right after I left the Guess Who, this was the summer of 1970, and they called me Super Red Shoes, and I had my green Fillmore East T-shirt. I just remember playing with them all night long. Janis Joplin would go and throw up, and pass out, and come back in just smelling terrible, and sing a couple more songs… I was always, like, immune in a way, and frightened. I saw what it did to my friends. I saw that it killed other people. I figured, “Why would I even want to do this?”
GS: Ever meet Gram Parsons?
RB: Yeah, in Vancouver. They played a festival on a mountain. It was the summertime, he staggered out of a helicopter in a beautiful nudie suit that was white with cactus all over it. It was, like, two in the afternoon. I figured, like, "How could a guy be smashed at two in the afternoon?" He was. I think it was on Grouse Mountain, it was some pop festival, late '60s, or something. I was here with the Guess Who and he came out and I saw him play, and I met Sneaky Pete, and all those guys. That was before Emmylou Harris.
GS: How were they?
RB: Sloppy, drunk, but really great. Amazing songs.
GS: You went from the Guess Who to a country rock band called Brave Belt, which inadvertently became BTO, correct?
RB: Chad Allen was doing a solo album, I helped produce it, it turned into Brave Belt. Neil Young got us the name, Brave Belt, he got us a deal with Warner Brothers, with Reprise, down in L.A. I did that for a couple of years, Chad Allen then left the band again. The guy’s allergic to success. And I found myself in L.A. playing the second album for Don Schmitzerle and Mo Ostin at Reprise, and Chad Allen calls and says, “I’m leaving the band.” I go, “Whaddya mean you’re leaving the band, it’s your band!” It’s like the Guess Who was his band. “I just don’t wanna go on the road.” 'Cause when you make it, it’s a commitment, and he didn’t want to go away. He didn’t like to travel. So I’m in L.A., I go in the next morning, the contract’s ready to sign, and I say, “I have something to tell you. Chad Allen’s leaving the band.” And they go, “Okay, do you have somebody to take his place?” I go, “Of course,” and they say, “What’s his name?” I say, “Fred Turner.” They put it in the contract. I go back to my room, I call Winnipeg, and I say to my brother Gary, “Find Fred Turner! I haven’t seen him in nine years, he’s in a band called the D-Drifters, they’re a polka band playing weddings and the Golden West in Regina. They’re a real party band—find Fred Turner!"
GS: I asked some friends if they had any questions for you. My pal Carl Spackler wants to know why BTO threatened to kick Thin Lizzy off a U.K. tour. Also, is it true that BTO would eat eight course meals before a performance?
RB: Well, first of all we didn’t have eight course meals. But we did love eating. We were the boys next door! They were drunk on-stage, they were smoking on-stage, they were chewing gum on-stage, they weren’t doing a good stage show. I loved Phil [Lynott]. He was like a cool Hendrix guy, half Italian, half black, tall, or Irish, whatever, and they were just too drunk. We were a headline band playing number one shows, all over the British Isles, playing sold out shows, and they were really messing up. We said smarten up or you’re off the tour. So they smartened up. A lot of bands would open for us. I remember Steven Tyler walking in to our dressing room. Aerosmith had one hit, “Dream On”, and I didn’t know who he was. I knew the song. So when they said can Aerosmith open around Boston, 'cause we were headlining, I said, “Sure.” So this guy walks into my dressing room, I didn’t know who he is, and he’s wearing these silk flowing pajamas like Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie, and he comes and starts talking to us. I say to Bruce Allen, “Who’s this guy? He thinks he’s Elvis, he walks into our room—throw him out!” So Bruce picks the guy up and throws him out. Then later I see him on-stage, he’s opening the show, he’s Steve Tyler from Aerosmith! To this day when I see him we joke about that. He says, “You’re the only guy who’s ever thrown me out of a dressing room!”