Saturday, September 13, 2008

Album project: Bachman-Turner Overdrive

Brave Belt, Brave Belt II (1972): (Later titled Bachman-Turner-Bachman as Brave Belt.) In 1970, Randy Bachman was riding high as lead guitarist of The Guess Who, Canada's most successful rock group to that point. Several Guess Who albums had become best-sellers, and their "American Woman" topped the US singles charts. Bachman, though, was becoming increasingly uncomfortable within the band. A Mormon, Bachman abstained from alcohol and drugs, while his bandmates heartily participated in the lifestyle of rock superstars. Bachman left The Guess Who in July 1970, at the peak of the band's success.

Bachman then hooked up with original Guess Who vocalist Chad Allan to form Brave Belt. The first Brave Belt album was mostly acoustic, and had little success. For the followup, Bachman filled out the band's sound by recruiting his younger brother Robbie, still in high school, to play drums, and an old friend, Fred Turner, to play guitar and bass. This lineup recorded Brave Belt II. The new members' playing, and particularly Turner's vocals, gave the band a harder-rocking sound, one that Chad Allan didn't care for, and he left the group following the LP's completion. Another Bachman brother, Tim, came in as Allen's replacement.

Brave Belt II fared little better than its predecessor in the marketplace. Of the tracks, "Dunrobin's Gone" became a minor Canadian hit, and "Another Way Out" got some US album rock airplay in the wake of Bachman-Turner Overdrive's later success.

Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Bachman-Turner Overdrive (1973): With Tim Bachman now in the fold, and Fred Turner in charge of lead vocals, the group's sound became rougher, sort of a louder, heavier take on Creedence Clearwater Revival. Dropped by Reprise Records, they scraped up the funds to travel to Toronto for some recording sessions. The band felt they needed a new name to go with the new sound, and on their way back home to Winnipeg, they pulled in at a truck stop where they spotted the truckers' magazine Overdrive. The proverbial light bulb suddenly clicked on, and the fellows soon had a new name for their group.

They may have had a new name, but the group still lacked a recording deal. As the tapes from the Toronto sessions made the rounds of the recording industry, they were turned down time and again - according to Randy Bachman, 26 rejections in all. Rapidly running out of money, Randy was getting ready to suggest that the band throw in the towel when he heard from an old acquaintance, Charlie Fach, at Mercury Records. Fach had just returned from Europe when he spotted a tape with Bachman's name on it among the piles of correspondence that had built up on his desk while he was away. Fach liked what he heard, and soon arranged a recording deal for Bachman-Turner Overdrive with Mercury.

On that debut LP, the basic ingredients of the BTO formula were already in place: diesel-fueled guitar riffs, Randy Bachman's fiery lead work, and Fred Turner's gruff vocals, delivering lyrics often containing a touch of wit. The hard-charging "Gimme Your Money Please" was the best of this batch, with straight-ahead rockers like "Hold Back The Water", "Gandy Dancer", and "Don't Get Yourself In Trouble" hit like a journeyman boxer delivering one punch to the gut after another. Yet it would be the surprisingly jazzy "Blue Collar" that would give BTO the airplay breakthrough in the States they needed to get the ball rolling.

BTO cemented their rabble-rousing working-class image with their willingness to play anywhere, anytime, sometimes even for free. I recall one such free show at a St. Louis drive-in shortly after the release of the debut LP. In the six months following the release of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, the band played 136 dates in the US, opening for the likes of The Doobie Brothers, Joe Walsh, and Edgar Winter, and even including opening one night at The Whiskey in Los Angeles for soul man Edwin Starr. Through months of non-stop touring, BTO laid the foundation for bigger paydays to come.

Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Bachman-Turner Overdrive II (1973): The second Bachman-Turner Overdrive LP finds their meat-and-potatoes approach honed by months of touring, while the band diversifies its sound by having the other group members take some vocals. "I never considered myself a singer", Fred Turner said. "I got hung with it." Thus the album opens with Tim Bachman singing lead on the riff-happy "Blown". From there, BTO II tightens up the formula of the first LP, with sledgehammer stompers like "Stonegates", "Give It Time" and "I Don't Have To Hide" setting the tone and providing the perfect soundtrack for cruisin' the strip and keg parties in the woods. With a couple of twists, BTO took their sound into the Top 40. The Doobies-inspired "Let It Ride" climbed to #23, followed by the even-bigger hit "Takin' Care Of Business". Randy Bachman sings lead on this track, with its infectious chorus and tongue-in-cheek descriptions of the musician's life. Supported by continuous touring, BTO II established the blue-collar rockers as superstars.

Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Not Fragile (1974): Not Fragile, the band's biggest seller, extends the BTO approach about as far as possible. Tim Bachman leaves the group; his replacement, Blair Thornton, gave BTO two guitarists capable of lead work as well as strengthening the band' songwriting capabilities.

BTO hit the jackpot with "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet", with Randy Bachman's stuttering vocals and riffs strongly suggesting the influence of The Who. Bachman had originally sung the song as a joke for his brother Gary, with no intention of releasing it as a single. It was only after Charlie Fach told Bachman that the album's other tracks lacked commercial appeal that Randy suggested that he had another song, but it wasn't a serious effort. When Fach heard the tune, though, he insisted that "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" was destined to become a hit. The song was released as a single, and became BTO's only Number One hit. Within a four-year period, Randy Bachman had completed quite a journey, from topping the charts with The Guess Who, to almost quitting the music business in frustration, to riding high once again with Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

"Roll On Down The Highway", another standard Fred Turner bear-growl performance, followed "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" into the singles charts. Blair Thornton contributed the instrumental "Free Wheelin'", and Randy Bachman's "Rock Is My Life, And This Is My Song" provided more witty commentary on the music business. Closer listening to Not Fragile, though, shows the formula was getting some miles on it. A good mechanic would have suggested that the rig was in need of a tune-up, but BTO kept rollin' down the highway.

Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Gold (2005): The successor to Not Fragile, Four Wheel Drive, showed signs of serious wear. Mercury Records pressured the band for a quick followup, and the pressures of the grind showed up in the music, a repeat of the tried-and-true BTO formula. Turner said, "Four Wheel Drive was the beginning of us being tired, physically, emotionally, musically, being whipped out and starting to repeat things". The single, "Hey You", stalled at #21, and sales fell well short of the standard established by the previous two LP's. The band's fortunes never recovered.

The band slowly wound down over the rest of the 70's. Tensions mounted as Randy Bachman from time to time would try to diversify the group's sound with ideas such as adding horns, but the rest of the group wanted to stick with the old formula. The frustrated Bachman left the group in 1977 to record a solo album. Replaced by journeyman Jim Clench, BTO ground out a couple of more albums before going into hiatus in 1980.

Over the years, Randy Bachman has recorded a number of solo albums, increasingly pursuing his interest in jazz guitar. He has also participated in a couple of Guess Who reunion projects. Bachman agreed to do a BTO reunion in 1988, staying on with the reunited group until 1992. He was replaced by Randy Murray. That lineup of Rob Bachman, Turner, Thornton, and Murray has continued on as Bachman-Turner Overdrive to this day, playing hole-in-the-wall bars, county fairs, and any other venues that would have them. Roll on down the highway.

Tal Bachman, Tal Bachman (1999): Randy Bachman's son Tal scored a big hit with "She's So High" from his debut LP. Tal records in a lighter, more singer-songwriter oriented style, and the disc contains a couple of other strong tracks, most notably "Strong Enough". Pleasant listening, with some good hooks, but a bit lacking in gravity.

In recent years, Tal Bachman, who holds a degree in political science, has become better known in Canada as a political commentator on TV and radio. He also split from his family's Mormon faith, and discussed his experiences on a PBS documentary, The Mormons.