“I’m frankly stunned by the whole thing, to be honest,” says Randy Bachman about the success of his "Every Song Tells a Story" DVD, which is now seeing an international release after going double-platinum in his native Canada. (“What’s that, two dozen copies?” he jokes.) On "Every Song," the chief songwriter and guitarist behind chart-topping classic rock hits like The Guess Who’s “American Woman” and “These Eyes” and Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business” and “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” recounts the stories behind his most famous songs to an enthusiastic hometown audience in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “It’s the right time for it,” he continues. “People want to hear the stories behind these songs.”
Bachman, still quite spry at 71, sat down with FOX411 in New York recently to discuss how The Guess Who got their name, how “American Woman” was literally written in a flash onstage, and how almost getting beaten up on the streets of San Francisco led to yet another great song.
FOX411: A lot of people don’t realize you’ve written and performed a lot of #1 hits, so this DVD is a great way to let audiences know everything you’ve done in your career. And according to one of the tales you tell, you got the idea for Every Song Tells a Story from Ray Davies of The Kinks.
Randy Bachman: Yes. I was at a show called Storyteller about 12 or so years ago in London at the Drury Lane Theatre, which is where The Kinks started. Ray was doing an evening there, playing alongside another guy on guitar and telling stories about the songs he wrote. I was sitting next to Rupert Perry, who was the head of EMI Europe. Rupert says to me, “You want to meet Ray after the show?” I say, “Of course! That guy’s one of my favorite songwriters.” When I meet him I go, “What a great idea for a show! I loved it.” Ray looks at me and says, “You can do this show. You’ve got two bands. You’ve got more songs that people know than I have."
A period of time went by and I got my own radio show called Randy’s Vinyl Tap, which is on CBC Radio One on your computer and also on satellite radio on Sirius 159, and then I went out and did a Vinyl Tap tour. When we got to my hometown of Winnipeg last year, we recorded the show, and the Every Song Tells a Story DVD is the result. I’m moving on to new things now — I’m going to be playing with symphonies up in Canada, and then I have a blues album coming out in the spring — but if I got offered a full Every Song Tells a Story tour, I would drop everything and go do it.
FOX411: How you got the name The Guess Who is another great story. Wasn’t it the record label’s idea that using the name “Guess Who?” — with the question mark — on your “Shakin’ All Over” single would make the public think people like George Harrison was in the band but couldn’t use his real name?
Bachman: Oh yes. The Quality Records label people would be asked, “Who is The Guess Who?” and they’d say, “Well, it might be Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones and it might be Keith Moon of The Who, but they can’t put their names on the record. They were all at a party and jammed on this song, and they might get sued if they put their real names on it.”
We were mostly still in high school when “Shakin’ All Over” went to #1 in Canada [in 1965], and then Scepter Records picks it up and puts it out in the States, where it goes Top 25 in Billboard [it hit #22]. I was like, “Let’s quit school! This is our dream!” I’d been playing music since I was five and we had all been in bands since we were teenagers. We knew how to play anything and everything, but we needed to create our own music. Once Chad Allan left and Burton Cummings joined the band, we got on a great roll.
FOX411: When you first heard the name “The Guess Who,” what was your reaction to it?
Bachman: It was a totally stupid name, because people don’t know who it is. The first time you even heard just the name “The Who,” you thought, “What? That’s a crazy name.” But since then, there have been bands with names like Yes; the shorter the better. I mean, I didn’t like the name “The Beatles” when I first heard it. But when you hear the music, it all fits. After a while, you just accept it.
FOX411: And then you and Burton wrote your first hit together, “These Eyes,” which got to #5 in the States in 1969. How did that song come about?
Bachman: We went to a Joni Mitchell concert at The Fourth Dimension, a coffeehouse in Regina, Saskatchewan. I met two girls that night, a blonde and a brunette, one of whom I wanted to date — the brunette. I went to pick her up the next night, and she was late. I was early, sitting in a room with a piano, a couch, and a big potted plant. I sat at the piano and just went [sings the opening chords to “These Eyes”]. Not bad. I started to sing, “These arms, wanting to hold you.” I was waiting for her to come down, and I wanted to get it on with her; I mean, she was a hot chick! In fact, I later married her, and we had six kids.
I showed the song to Burton and he said, “Let’s move ‘These arms’ to the second line and start with, ‘These eyes cry every night for you,’ and then we’ll go into the other part, ‘These arms long to hold you again.’” We must have had it done in 12 or 15 minutes. It was the token ballad on our debut Wheatfield Soul ; everything else was psychedelic and blues and rock. RCA picked that song to be a single, but we didn’t want it to be a single because we didn’t want to be a ballad group like Gary Puckett & The Union Gap. Well, “These Eyes” sold a million copies, and suddenly we had everything we dreamed of — a song on the radio everywhere. And then it was just a matter of following it up and not being a one-hit wonder.
FOX411: You went to New York to do lunch with the head of RCA, Rocco Laginestra, who had a very specific followup request for you, right?
Bachman: Yes, he asked for another song just like “These Eyes.” He said [affects Italian/New Yorker accent], “I’ll make it real easy for youze guys: ‘Don’t come back to Noo Yawk until you write anudda song just like ‘Dese Eyes.’ Luncheon over.” And everybody left the luncheon right after that.
So I thought I would do a guitar beginning this time, since I did the piano opening for “These Eyes.” I took the minor chord from The Bee Gees’ “New York Mining Disaster 1941” and made it a major chord. Roy Orbison had a song called “Crying,” so we did “Laughing.” It was that simple: “I should laugh, but I cry.” When Burton and I had ideas, we just threw them out there. We knew if they didn’t work, and we knew if they did. This one did, but it stalled around 750,000 copies. Some DJ flipped it over and started playing the B-side, “Undun.” That went Top 10, and sold another half-million. We had a double A-side hit!
FOX411: Why did you spell it “Undun”?
Bachman: Just to be different. At first, I didn’t know if I was going to call it “She’s Come Undun” or just “Undun.” I was way ahead of the rap guys who spell things different phonetically. (laughs) But that was really cool: “U-n-d-u-n.” Some people I played it for said it was too jazzy and no one would play it, but when people flipped the single over, they said it was like the first time hearing “The Girl from Ipanema”— “It’s fresh, it’s new, it’s pop, it’s jazzy; our parents like a song that we like!” Just like The Beatles. When they did “Till There Was You” or “A Taste of Honey” — those were for the adults, so the parents would like what the kids bought. And then they might even buy the albums, while the kids would still get the singles like “Love Me Do.” They crossed the age barrier.
FOX411: Tell us about coming up with that classic “American Woman” riff while you were onstage.
Bachman: We had been in the States and almost got drafted because we had gotten our green cards. We escaped the draft board and went up to Canada to play a gig in Waterloo [in Ontario], and wound up playing at a curling rink where they had put plywood down on the ice for us. I broke a string, so the band had to take a break while I tried to find a replacement. I found one and was tuning my guitar when I started playing that riff. I called the band back onstage. They were scattered in the room, but we couldn’t find Burton; he was out in the parking lot. Once he got back up there with us, I told him, “Sing anything, so I can remember this riff!” He sang, “American woman, stay away from me” four times. The next night, I started the riff again from scratch, and he said, “I’ve written a few more lyrics: ‘I don’t need your war machines, I don’t need your ghetto scenes.’ ” He added more and more to it, and we recorded it a couple weeks later. At first, it was like a one-riff song. We thought it was really boring, so we added that stuff in the middle and I laid that solo on top with this languid, smooth 1959 Les Paul with a Bigsby, and it was magical. It still sounds good on the radio to this day. [“American Woman” reached #1 in Billboard in March 1970.]
FOX411: A lot of people don’t know it’s actually a protest song.
Bachman: No, they don’t realize it’s an anti-war song.
FOX411: And now you have all these great cover versions, like the one Lenny Kravitz did for "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" . In fact, back in early September, he played it on the season finale of "America’s Got Talent."
Bachman: Oh yeah? I didn’t know that. Wow. Well, if you Google “Lenny Kravitz, Prince, and New Year’s Eve,” you’ll find they did a 6-minute version of it [in 1999], with a horn section and everything.
FOX411: Cool. How do you feel when big-name stars like that cover your songs?
Bachman: As a songwriter, that’s the biggest tribute you can have. And you get paid for it too! It’s not like, “Gee, I made that door, and now it’s at the junkyard; I won’t ever get paid again.” And I just got word that “Takin’ Care of Business” is the theme for a new Mark Burnett reality show called On the Menu [on TNT].
FOX411: Not a bad second act that song has had over the years. Speaking of big hits, let’s talk about BTO’s #1 single from 1974, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” You originally wrote it only for your brother to hear, and you stuttered through it since he was a stutterer.
Bachman: It was basically a throwaway written for my brother Gary, yes.
FOX411: You guys had a game as kids called something like “Touch Me Last” —
Bachman: Yeah, it was “Touch You Last!” Well, we grew up in bunk beds. I’d be asleep, and his hand would come up: “Gotcha last!” And then I’d get him back. This would go on all night. So my big joke now is, when I’m on my deathbed, he’ll lean in and I’ll go, “Touch you last!” — and I’ll win! (laughs)
FOX411: That’s the ultimate game-ender. You were supposed to send him the song after you wrote it instead of having it end up on an album ["Not Fragile"], let alone reach the top of the charts [#1 in November 1974]. Were you able to send it to him before all that happened?
Bachman: I never sent him the track! It came out so fast, he first heard it on the radio. But he knew. He went to a therapist, and he stopped stuttering. And he’s the most successful real estate guy in Winnipeg to this day. Three years ago, The Stuttering Foundation named it the greatest stuttering song of all time. It’s actually helped a lot of people overcome it.
FOX411: That’s great. Last thing — tell me about “No Sugar Tonight,” the song you wrote after you almost got your ass kicked on the streets of San Francisco. That could have taken an ugly turn, but instead it turned into another idea for a great Guess Who song.
Bachman: I was over the bridge near Berkeley, and I was being accosted by three guys in a gang. A car comes down the street and makes a full stop. This woman gets out, and she’s on a full rampage. Two of the guys split, and one’s left standing there. She says to him, “You no-good bum! You’re not out looking for a job, you didn’t take out the garbage, you’re chasing after all these chicks in Berkeley, I know what you’re doing here! Get in the car!” He looks at me, shrugs, and gets in the car. She slams the door and says, “And when you get home, you ain’t getting no sugar tonight!” And there it was.
FOX411: Wow, so you were saved at the very last minute.
Bachman: (Nods) She saved me, yes. But that incident got me another song!
Mike Mettler is the former editor-in-chief and current music editor of Sound & Vision, and he interviews artists and producers about their love of music and high-resolution audio on his own site, Soundbard.com.