Randy Bachman on BTO’s Offhanded Smash ‘Not Fragile’ – Exclusive Interview
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Bachman-Turner Overdrive had been on a very respectable run, in the period leading up to the release of ‘Not Fragile.’ Their sophomore effort had gone to No. 4 on the Billboard album charts, spawning a No. 12 hit in ‘Takin’ Care of Business.’ Still, BTO’s Randy Bachman and his record-label head — someone who believed Bachman could replicate the chart-topping successes of his previous band, the Guess Who — were certain the new group had yet to peak.
They were right. That moment would arrive with 1974’s ‘Not Fragile,’ though it took more than the standard eight-song contribution from Bachman, BTO co-founder Fred Turner and a rebuilt lineup that now included second guitarist Blair Thornton. The album wasn’t complete, in fact, until a lightning-bolt moment of inspiration found Bachman including a throwaway demo he’d only worked up as an inside joke aimed at a sibling with a speech impediment.
Bachman joined Ultimate Classic Rock to talk about this oddhanded career-making moment for Bachman-Turner Overdrive …
What was the scene as you guys were heading into make the album?
Well, we had this feeling — because it happened with the Guess Who and, in the old days, it was that way — that your third album was the album. Because with any band, your first album, you’ve written it your whole life. Your first album in the life of that band, you’ve been jamming it or playing it or writing it for a year or two years or three years or five years. You’ve got all of this material, and that becomes your first album. Then some leftovers become your second album, because you’ve maybe got 20 or 30 original songs. And then you go on the road and you kind of mature and if you don’t have hits, you break up. But if you start to have hits, your label gets excited. The first album didn’t really have hits, but it went platinum and it stayed on the charts for a couple of years. It had really great album tracks or album-oriented radio — AOR FM tracks — and our label kept pushing us to get some singles.
Once we had the hit singles of ‘Let It Ride’ and ‘Takin’ Care Of Business,’ they knew that the third album, if we kept the momentum going and had some hit singles and had the great album tracks to back it, we had the radio play momentum. Because that’s what you needed in those days. There was no videos and there was no MTV, and things like that. It was all hard work on the road and all through radio airplay. We had this momentum going on radio where whatever we sent into the station, they would give it a listen and maybe give it a spin — and then people would know we had something new out.
Yes had come out with an album called ‘Fragile,’ and they had a world breaking up [on the cover], and Fred said, “Well, I want to call this album ‘Not Fragile’ and show that it’s not fragile.” And we’re playing really heavy stuff. Yes’ stuff is very fragile, because it’s all very intricate vocals and harmonies, and on our stuff, it was like four guys in the garage, playing — it was like ‘Wayne’s World’ — playing guitars and just rocking out. It’s anything but fragile. So he wrote the song ‘Not Fragile’ and out of that came ‘Roll On Down The Highway’ — and then the mistaken song that was never even supposed to be on the album, ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,’ comes out and becomes a No. 1 single, and so that was like the pinnacle and the peak of the BTO moment. You have ‘Not Fragile,’ the No. 1 album and ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,’ the No. 1 single about five years after the [Guess Who’s] ‘American Woman’ album and single were No. 1, so I had gone out and had the fortune again to find the pot of gold at the end of a different rainbow.
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How did ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet’ almost miss being on the album?
Well, it was a throwaway song. It was an instrumental that — with me as the producer, we’d always go in and just do an instrumental song, so I could see what the drums and bass and guitar sounded like, the heavy parts and light parts, moving around the mics with the engineer, getting different kick drum sound and getting different cymbal sounds, trying different cymbals and just trying to get a sound in general so we could lay all of the songs down. So, I had this throwaway work song. I had a brother who stuttered, so I stuttered over this song, and I was going to mix one version of it and send it to him.
So I sang it, the song that I made up on the spot, mixed it and I was going to send it to my brother who stuttered, and we put it aside. When the head of our label [Mercury Records’s Charlie Fach] came into hear this album that he thought was going to be the pinnacle album, we played it for him and he said, “Wow, ‘Sledgehammer’ is a great song, ‘Roll On Down The Highway’ is a great song, but I don’t hear a song to do any better than ‘Let It Ride’ or ‘Takin’ Care Of Business,” which had made it into the top three or five of the charts. And he said, “I want you to get a No. 1 record” and I said, “There’s nothing else. This is the album. It’s done. We have eight songs.”
Then the engineer said, “Play him the work track,” so we played him ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,’ which was the work track and he said, “I love it. Put it on the album the way it is!” So it was the first BTO album to have nine songs. It had the work track put on it with me stuttering on it, and it became a hit single. So, it was like a complete freak, weird thing to happen.
It’s interesting to hear you say that they heard the songs, even ‘Roll On Down The Highway,’ and still felt like they were missing that big single.
Well, Charlie Fach was an old-school record guy that, the minute he heard it, he’d want it to be like Dick Clark — either it jumps at you and screams, “I’m a hit record” or it doesn’t. He just said that he heard great album tracks, but he wanted us to get on Top 40 radio. We had gotten there with ‘Takin’ Care Of Business’ and ‘Let It Ride’ and he wanted another song like that. He just thought ‘Roll On Down The Highway’ was too much of a driving song and it might not get played on the radio.
But when he heard ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,’ with the little jangling guitars — if you play that whole album, there’s something about ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.’ There’s a lightness when the song starts, that lightness that the Fender guitar has. I played a Martin acoustic guitar and the Fender guitar and mixed it in, just to try to get the sound. I didn’t know what I was doing, to get this nice light sound, and then in comes the crashing heavy choruses — that’s what I was going for in those days. Because what else do you do with two guitars, bass and drums, except try them soft and try them loud, right? Loud and soft, that was the menu of the day. Everybody did that at the time. The song just kind of lifts itself off the vinyl and sounds good on the radio.
That was the thing, the intro of ‘Let It Ride,’ it’s the mix of the Fender Stratocaster guitar and the Martin acoustic that somehow gives it this wonderful thing that sounds great on radio — and if you could sound great in the first three or four seconds on the radio, they’re bound to play the next three minutes of it, and that’s kind of what Charlie Fach was looking for. He said, “The hook is infectious and what’s funny about it is that nobody can sing it. You’re stuttering different every single time” and I said “Well yeah, I’m copying my brother. It’s the way he talks!” There’s a few other things where I’d go, “Ba-ba-baby, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” but all of the other things was me emulating my brother, who when it came out and it was a hit, he stopped stuttering. He was so self-conscious about it that he stopped stuttering. So, it served a purpose — and that song was No. 1 in 22 countries.
How did you end up recording the album at Sound City in Van Nuys?
Well, we cut the first BTO album in Toronto with my engineer [Mark Smith]. Then we moved to Vancouver in the meantime, and the Vancouver studios were all booked solid and a new studio opened in Seattle called Kaye-Smith Studios — which was Danny Kaye, the actor, and Lester Smith, who owned a bunch of radio stations. They invited us down to record [the second album], so we went down to record. My engineer then had left Toronto and had gone to L.A. and was working out of Sound City. He said, “I want you to come and see the studio. It’s all the Neve boards and machines that you like, so come on down here.” So, we went down there and ended up working there with Mark Smith.
So, we went and did it at Sound City, which at the time was kind of at its peak and its heyday. It had all of this great gear, and it was falling apart. It was held together by duct tape, musicians’ dreams and engineers praying that things would still work. [Lindsey] Buckingham and [Stevie] Nicks were out there jamming and auditioning for Fleetwood Mac at the time. As a matter of fact, our tape operator got sick on the second day of me working at Sound City and the [studio assistant], his name was Richard Dashut — I called him “Tricky Dicky Dashut,” because he would fix the tape machines and set them up every day — I said to him, “This is your chance. Can you push record? You can be our tape operator and assist Mark Smith.” He said, “Sure!” So he assisted on that album — it’s his first album credit — and then he went onto produce the band that was rehearsing in the studio, who was Fleetwood Mac. He’s still their producer, and he produced all of their big albums to this day.
I thought we could have had a little bit more space when Dave Grohl did the ‘Sound City’ film. They just had a little flash of the BTO album. I would have loved if he would have talked to me. I could have told him some great stories about [Sound City’s] Joe [Gottfried], and me recording at the studio.
Were there any songs on the record that really evolved from where you started with them and became something totally different?
Well, no. In those days, we would really cut an album in a week. I would rehearse the band for two or three weeks. I had everything on paper and I had a stopwatch. I would cut and move the verses in my head and on paper and the band would rehearse them, so when we went in, we had everything done.
We weren’t one of these bands that took months and months in the studio. We went in and basically cut eight songs, [which] on vinyl in those days, was four [songs] a side, if they’re four and a half minutes long. You could only get 22 minutes on a side, so I basically knew that I was working with eight songs. So I’d have those eight songs and there’d be an extra song, like I said, a work song, that we wouldn’t get tired of. We’d do this jamming instrumental song to get our sounds, and then just go into the songs and basically do them two or three times live off the floor — do them in three days, go back and redo the vocals.
Because usually, you’d sing the first verse over and over and over, because you’re trying to get a good band track and maybe if the song needed it at that point, you’d write a second or third verse, because you’ve only ever had a first verse, because you’re just kind of dabbling in these songs — they’re brand new — and then do a pretty good guitar solo and then mix it. The last two days, you sit there and balance all of the tracks and you’re done. It was not rocket science.
It was planned work ethic where we’d rehearse the songs, I’d time it. It’s got to be under four and a half minutes, or it’s got to be under four minutes or if it’s going to be on the radio, you’ve got to find the edit and make it three and a half minutes. It was just pretty much [grabbing your] lunchbox and going to work and an assembly line kind of thing. It was new material, but pretty much everybody knew what they were going to do. I played rhythm and lead guitar, Fred sang and I sang and everybody did their parts and we had fun doing the overdubs and handclaps, and it was pretty much old school recording — setting up and playing live off of the floor. So, there was no real rocket science. There was no genius there. It was just a bunch of guys having fun.
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How much did the dynamic of things change with the addition of Blair [Thornton, who replaced Tim Bachman] to the lineup prior to the recording of ‘Not Fragile’?
Well, it changed a bit. He was more of a soloist, so I traded solos with him, whereas my brother Tim was more of a rhythm guitar player and backup singer, so that was kind of that. But that changed, because I would throw solos to Blair. I think I even gave a credit on there, saying that my solos are on the right and Blair is on the left, so if you have your headphones on the right way — I always put my solos on one side and Blair’s on the other, so people could tell, even though there is a difference in our playing. Mine was creamier and smoother, and his was more biting and more [Jimi] Hendrix.
Looking at the amount of albums that came out in those years, you guys kept a blistering pace of activity, putting out album after album.
Well, I know. Our record deal called for one album every 18 months and in the first 18 months, we had a No. 1 album, another one in the Top 20 and the first one was still in the Top 100. We had three albums in the top 100 in the first 18 months. So, they sped up their options — cecause I was not expecting to do another one right away. But Charlie Fach called and said, “Your album is doing great, but I want another one and I want you to write some hit singles. I know you can write singles, because you wrote them for the Guess Who, so come up with something that Top 40 radio’s going to like. You’ve got FM radio in your back pocket, okay? So now, I want some singles and you’ll get on AM radio and your concerts will get bigger and more people will know your name!”
So, out came ‘Let It Ride’ and ‘Takin’ Care Of Business,’ and then we’re rolling. Suddenly, like you said, in two years, out comes four albums. But it served its purpose and it was great, and we followed the momentum and we rolled with what we had to roll with. It kind of burned us out, by the time we got to the fifth album, which was ‘Head On’ and then ‘Freeways.’ We were like, “Wow.” We were on the road 300 days a year for three years, and in between those tours, we’d go in the studio. That’s how we cut an album in five or six days. We had no time.
We had families. Robbie [Bachman] and Blair were the young guys in the band. Fred and I were married with kids who didn’t even know who we were. Our first year on the road was like 330 dates, and then the second year was 300. So it was real [work with] hammer and saw and nails and wood. We were building a rock and roll machine, and we only knew one way to do it. There was no shortcuts. There was no MTV and we didn’t even sell merch in those days. We had t-shirts made and we felt guilty selling them to the fans, so we made them and gave them away. Then we found out that, oh, there’s another industry. It’s called “selling your merchandise.” We were just innocent guys, who just wanted to rock and roll.