Rock Legend Randy Bachman Of Bachman-Turner Overdrive and The Guess Who, Talks About Writing Their Classic Songs “Takin’ Care Of Business,” “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” and “American Woman”

Randy Bachman
Randy Bachman
(photo by Christie Goodwin)

Randy Bachman is one of the rare artists who has been a key member of two, important rock bands: Bachman-Turner Overdrive and the Guess Who. He first helped form the Guess Who in the mid-1960s, and wrote most of their hits with lead singer, Burton Cummings. Then in the early ‘70s, he formed Bachman-Turner Overdrive with co-lead singer, Fred Turner. Bachman (who is from Winnipeg, Canada) has long been known as one Canada’s top artists and songwriters.

Bachman has written or co-written many classic rock songs that remain popular to this day. For Bachman-Turner Overdrive (also known as BTO), he wrote the hits “Takin’ Care of Business,” “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” and “Hey You,” and he co-wrote “Let It Ride.” For the Guess Who, he co-wrote the hits “American Woman,” “These Eyes,” “No Time” and ‘Laughing,” and he wrote “No Sugar Tonight” and “Undun.”

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Randy Bachman, who tells how he co-wrote the Guess Who’s powerful, classic hit song, “American Woman.”

Two of these songs have probably had the greatest impact. “American Woman” was a number one hit, and it became known as a powerful, anti-war song during the Vietnam War era. It also was recorded by Lenny Kravitz in 1999 and became a hit again. “Takin’ Care of Business” is now perhaps Bachman’s most popular song, due to its extensive use in many commercials, movies and TV shows.

After the initial breakup of BTO in 1979, Bachman later reunited with both BTO and the Guess Who for concert tours. He has also released many solo albums, including his most recent album By George – By Bachman, which Bachman pays tribute to George Harrison by recording 11 of his songs, plus a new song called “Between Two Mountains.”

In addition, Bachman has also created a popular theatre show called Every Song Tells A Story, featuring Bachman performing live and unplugged with his band, and telling the stories behind the writing of his famous hits. He has released a DVD and CD version of this show.

Randy Bachman Interview

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Randy Bachman. He recalls his days with the Guess Who and writing with Burton Cummings. He also discusses his years with Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and writing his classic songs “Takin’ Care of Business” and “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.”

DK: With your new album By George – By Bachman, you pay tribute to George Harrison and the songs he wrote. Why did you decide to record an album of George’s songs?

Randy Bachman: Well, when the Beatles first came out, it was a life-changing experience—not just for me but for every band—because suddenly there wasn’t a frontman like Elvis, Gene Vincent or Rick Nelson with just back-up guys. Suddenly, there were three guys (John, Paul & George) up front singing, and even the drummer (Ringo) sang. So when a Beatles album came out, every drummer sang Ringo songs. You sang “Boys,” “I Wanna Be Your Man” and “Yellow Submarine.” And then I got into singing George Harrison’s songs. So I’ve been singing them all my life.

A couple years ago, I was invited to Liverpool (England) to John Lennon’s 75th birthday, and it was an unbelievable experience for a Beatles fan. And I was thinking…George is the younger Beatle…when is George’s 75th birthday? I found out it’s in February 2018.

Here’s a video of Randy Bachman performing BTO’s hit, “Takin’ Care
of Business.”

I started to mull it over, and I’d just got offered a new record deal. They said, “Just do something cool and different.” So I started playing around with George’s songs, and I thought nobody can undo George or the Beatles or the magic in the bottle. When (producer) George Martin uncorked the bottle, out came this lightning bolt and it was a Beatles song. Every song was very radical and changed the world.

Still, I would hear other artists record different and unique versions of Beatles songs. So I decided to record George’s songs, and try to [record these differently] and make these my own songs. I went through George’s songs and found which ones I can sing respectably, and try to put in different grooves. Take a major (chord) song like “Here Comes The Sun” and make it a minor chord, and see what happens. And put in some jazz chords. Or change “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth),” which has about 15 chords, into a 3-chord, face-crushing song like The Who’s “I Can See For Miles.” George’s songs are very easy to sing along to. So I just took every song and tried to give it a somewhat recognizable, different groove.

I also wrote a new song for the album: “Between Two Mountains.” That [title] is how I thought George Harrison must have felt going to every recording session with these two mountains: Mt. Lennon and Mt. McCartney, and thinking, “How can I shine?” Then I woke up in the middle of the night, and I just wrote those lyrics, and they seem to be very inspired by George. I felt a presence in the room that wasn’t my lyric. I was just given those lyrics. So if you listen to that closely, I think it really puts into words how George Harrison must have felt working with these two mountains.

DK: Back in the 1960s, how was the Guess Who formed, and how did you connect with Burton Cummings?

Bachman: I was in a band called Chad Allan and the Reflections, and we had a (cover) hit called “Shakin’ All Over.” We couldn’t use the name Reflections because another band had it, so the record label told us to get another name. We couldn’t find a name—they put out the record on a white label that said “Shakin’ All Over,” and underneath it, they put Guess Who. And that’s how we got our name.

The summer of ’65, we were asked to do the Kingsmen Louie Louie tour. (The Kingsmen  had their big hit, “Louie Louie”). At the time, we were the top band in Winnipeg. The next band under us was Burton Cummings & The Deverons. And the bands under that  were Neil Young & The Squires and Fred Turner & the Rockin’ Devils. Those four guys—Bachman, Cummings, Young and Turner—are still the guys making noise in the world today out of Winnipeg, Manitoba. So when we left that summer to go do the Kingsmen Louie Louie tour, it was amazing. But when we came back we’d lost our throne as the top band, to Burton Cummings & the Deverons. Then Chad Allan said, “I’m going back to university—I don’t like being on the road and nobody knows who I am. My name’s [no longer] the name of this band…people call us Guess Who and it’s stupid and I’m leaving.” So we had a chance to either break up, or go to the next band who had taken our space. So we said to Burton Cummings, “We’d like you to be the new lead singer in the Guess Who. And he said, “Great.” So that broke up the Deverons and Burton joined our band.

Here’s a video of Randy Bachman performing BTO’s hit, “You Ain’t See
Nothing Yet.”

DK: Can you talk about your songwriting for the Guess Who, and co-writing with Burton Cummings?

Bachman: As a songwriter, I had first written for Chad Allan…I would write for whoever was in the band. Then when Burton joined the Guess Who, I started to write for him, because when you’re writing songs, you have to please the lead singer because he’s singing the songs. You’ve got to find out his range, what he likes to do, and what he does best. So when I wrote with him, I would take him a bit of a song, and let him kind of inject his own personality into it, and we would complete the song. We both wrote music and lyrics [depending on the song]—we wrote in every configuration going.

We were basically emulating Lennon & McCartney, Bacharach & David and Brian Wilson. These were the great songwriters of that time. We would sit down and write a song like a Carole King song, or we’d write a song like (the Beach Boys’) “I Get Around.” We had a template to follow. And then we would stray from that template and move it around. When we changed it around, we then found some sort of originality in the change-around.

I’ve since given many lectures on how to write songs, and I’ve done this all my life. When a song goes to #1, I would write the follow-up song. I’d ask myself…What would Elton John or Lady Gaga follow up their big hit with? And I would write it. In doing that, I’ve copied a song that’s already a template; it’s already hit #1 and resonated with radio and millions of fans. And then I put that song into my vocabulary so to speak, with guitar licks I would pull up. When it came time to write for a project, we’d start writing a song, and we’d call it “Pretty Face” instead of “Poker Face.” And we’d just change a few words, updated it and we’ve written a song. And that’s how Burton and I wrote.

DK: In 1970, the Guess Who had their biggest hit with “American Woman.” How did you and the group write this song?

Bachman: In the ‘60s, we had toured the states many times, and [the U.S. government] tried to draft us. They were drafting everybody over 18. They pulled kids out of school, sending them to the jungle and fight in Vietnam. We almost got drafted.

When we came back to Canada, we were getting ready to play a gig and I broke a string while I was onstage alone. I was changing the string…I tuned up the guitar and started to play the riff. So I tuned up my guitar and start to play the riff (the classic guitar riff of “American Woman”) and I go, “Wow, this is a great riff.” I was standing up playing that riff, and I look out into the audience and I see our drummer (Garry Peterson) there. I call him onstage, and he started playing. Then I called the bass player (Jim Kale), and finally Burton comes up. He asks, “What is this?” And I say, “Just sing anything—sing something so I remember this riff.” And he sings, “American woman, stay away from me” four times. And I go “Wow, that’s a very powerful lyric.” It’s not like, “Hey baby I love you, can we rock out tonight.” It’s like, “Stay the hell away from me.” And when it was all done, Burton asked, “What did you think of it?” And I said, “Well, I think it’s great because it’s not the woman on the street [you’re singing to].” It’s the Statue of Liberty. To me, it’s that poster of Uncle Sam in the stars & stripes top hat, pointing a finger saying, “Uncle Sam Wants You.” And what do they want you for? They want you to learn to kill and go to a jungle and fight in Vietnam. And they don’t even know why they’re there…the government has made them go there.

Here’s the video of Lenny Kravitz hit version of The Guess Who song
“American Woman.”

So that’s kind of what “American Woman” was about. In a way, it was an anti-war song and a protest song, and radio [program directors] didn’t know it because they were told they couldn’t play any anti-war songs. There was an actual rule. They couldn’t play “1-2-3, what are we fighting for” by Country Joe and the Fish. They couldn’t play “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” and all those anti-war or peace songs. But “American Woman” went to #1 because they thought [we were singing about] a girl on the street. It became a #1 song, and when they finally realized it was an anti-war song, it was too late to stop playing it.

DK: You left the Guess Who at the height of their popularity, with “American Woman” on top of the charts. Why did you leave the group?

Bachman: It was over. I’d done nine years with them. They were into drugs…I wasn’t into drugs. It’s like by the time you get fired, you’re ready to quit. Or by the time you’re ready to quit, your boss is ready to fire you. That was kind of it.

DK: After you formed Bachman-Turner Overdrive, you had a big hit with “Takin’ Care of Business.” How did you write this song?

Bachman: When the Beatles’ song “Paperback Writer” came out in 1966, I thought Wow, what a great riff and what a great song. (He starts singing the high notes in the chorus). With the harmony all mixed in and intertwining with each other, it was just great. I wanted to write a song like that.

I’d spent a lot of time with the Guess Who in New York at Scepter Studios, and our engineer had to leave every night at 11 pm to get home. And then in the morning, he would take the 8:15 train back into the city. So I wanted to write a song about it. I called it “White Collar Worker,” because then (studio) engineers wore white collars. (He sings the verse: “You get up every morning from your alarm clock’s warning, take the 8:15 into the city”). And for the hook it went, “White Collar…Worker!” And it was just like “Paperback Writer” (laughs).

Then Burton Cummings said, “Oh, I’m ashamed of you (laughs). We can’t do this song…it’s blatantly “Paperback Writer.” And so I thought, “Well, I guess he’s right.” And everytime the Guess Who had a rehearsal and we would pitch songs for the next record, I’d bring out “White Collar Worker,” and it would get tossed away.

(Years later) BTO had moved to Vancouver and we were playing a club called The Image One. We were really working—it was six days a week, five sets a night. And after six days of screaming, Fred Turner, who was basically the lead singer in Bachman-Turner Overdrive, his voice was pretty ragged. He came to me before the last set of this Saturday night and said (hoarsely), “I can’t sing anymore…you’ve gotta sing the last set.” So I had to sing the last set, which meant doing a lot of instrumentals and a lot of goofing around. So this is a Saturday night in a rock & roll club, and guys are [yelling], “We Want To Rock!” And I turned around in desperation, and I said, “Let’s do ‘Oye Como Va’ the Santana song. I played a guitar solo and I was trying to kill as much time as I can. I looked at my watch, thinking “Please let it be 1 o’clock in the morning so we can stop playing.”

Here’s a video of The Guess Who performing their hit, “No Time.”

On the way to the gig that night, I heard DJ Darryl Burlingham, who’s a friend of ours in Winnipeg. He was called Darryl B on the radio here. And he said, “This is Darryl B on CFOX radio and we’re takin’ care of business.” And I thought…Takin’ Care of Business, that’s a great title for a song. I couldn’t write it down because I was driving, but I memorized it, and put it in this little shelf next to my heart that had “White Collar Worker” on it (laughs). And that night when I was onstage doing “Oye Como Va,” I was thinking, What can I do next? How can we rock out? When “Oye Como Va” was over, I turned to the rest of the band and said, “Play these three chords over and over and over. And when I get to the hook, help me.” I wasn’t sure what the hook was gonna be, how I was gonna fit (the phrase) Takin’ Care of Business into my song “White Collar Worker.” But I was very lucky. I picked three good chords that I played over and over and the song ended up being “Takin’ Care of Business.” We kept playing the song and the crowd started to sing, “Takin’ Care of Business.”

DK: “Takin’ Care of Business” has remained very popular and it’s been featured in many commercials, movies, and TV shows. Can you talk about how this song has become great for music licensing?

Bachman: Well, I’ve always said that I write music and perform it because I love it. But you can’t do something you love forever, and you should get paid for it. So way back when, I said, “Yes, if you want to use my song for a commercial or a product, if it’s a product I use or would buy, that would be fine. And how much money will you pay me?” And other bands said, “Oh, you’re selling out, it’s too commercial” and all that stuff. But suddenly in this day and age, every one of those bands is licensing their songs to be in commercials, because with all the other [music income sources], you get ripped off. I mean, we all hate the guy who invented Napster. So the only way to make money from a song is to license it for a commercial. And I’ve never drank or smoke, so I would say, “If this is a decent product…as long as it’s not cigarettes or alcohol.” So I’ve turned down [lucrative] offers from the big breweries. I would say no, and everyone said I was crazy.

But then six months later comes Office Depot, which is the absolute perfect marriage for “Takin’ Care of Business.” It’s the right product, it’s the right song. So I’ve had a 10-year run with them. About three years ago they renewed, and everyday around noon I would watch CNN and there’s my song. It’s been great—it pays for the gas in the car and the corn flakes for the kids. And I love it.

DK: BTO had another big hit with “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” Can you tell the story behind this song?

Bachman: Growing up in Winnipeg and being the oldest of four boys, I felt a responsibility when my parents went out and would say, “Look after these guys.” [I would] throw them around a little and do mischievous things like shoot bows and arrows in the house and things like that (laughs). I kind of felt an obligation to tease them a little. And I had a brother who stuttered. Later on, as we grew up and had a band called Brave Belt (that evolved into BTO), we decided one wintery day after a trip to Toronto in January and a trip to Vancouver, that we would move to Vancouver rather than Toronto. And my brother didn’t move. He managed the band, and he didn’t move with us at that time. It broke my heart and made me really angry, ‘cause I was here (in Vancouver) with like no manager.

Here’s a video of BTO performing their hit, “Let It Ride.”

Then after we had the hit songs “Let It Ride” and “Takin’ Care of Business,” we were cutting our third BTO album and I thought, I’m gonna play a trick on my brother like I used to do growing up. So I took this work song and I stuttered my way through it. And I was gonna scare my brother, that it was gonna be on the album. But the head of our label, Charlie Fach, flew into Seattle, as was the custom and listened to the album. He said, “It’s really a good album, but I don’t hear a song that’s more radio-friendly than ‘Let It Ride’ or ‘Takin’ Care of Business’.” And I said, “That’s it—we’re back on the road soon…we were doing like 300 days in a row. Then the engineer said, “Play him the work track.” And Charlie said, “You mean, there’s another song?” I said, “Yeah, it’s a work track…it’s a throwaway song. I’m stuttering in it, the guitar’s not even in tune, I’m doing cheap Van Morrison imitations, and it’s really terrible.” And he said, “I want to hear it.” So we played it, and he jumped out of his chair and said, “That’s a hit song. It’s a monster…it’s one of a kind.”  {Soon after] he released it and it went to number one in 18 countries.

DK: Thank you Randy for doing this interview. Is there anything else you’d like to mention, that we haven’t talked about yet?

Bachman: Well, I’ve been called one of Canada’s top songwriters. (But) no one has ever recorded a song of mine unless I did it first. I have a smash hit song for Lady Gaga, I have one for Tony Bennett, for Barbra Streisand, for Celine Dion and for Eric Clapton. (But) I can’t get to these guys. I’m sitting here with these wonderful songs burning a hole in my heart, and all I can do is keep putting out my own albums and hope somebody records a song.

My dream is for somebody to go on my Facebook and say, “Hey, this is Gaga, send me your song.” That would be a dream come true. I’ve got hit songs for these people. You can call me for a virgin (new) song which I have hundreds of them for different artists. That’s kind of like my dream. I don’t think I’m different from a lot of other guys. When I get up, I’m working on three songs all the time, and then I pitch them to artists.

I’m the eternal optimist…I never give up and I keep pitching the songs. What I’m saying is, just tell [artists] to go to my Facebook and ask me for a song, and they will be surprised.

Here’s the link to Randy Bachman’s site:

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima