Bachman Turner Overdrive: The Band That Laughs Last…

THE BACHMAN-Turner Overdrive had just arrived backstage at the San Antonio Municipal Auditorium when the door to their dressing room burst open and seven extremely pissed off members of REO Speedwagon poured in like they were storming the Alamo. Bruce Allen, BTO’s manager, was more or less expecting them.

“You guys are really big time now, aren’t you!” snapped Speedwagon’s shaggy blonde lead vocalist viciously, confronting Bruce just inside the dressing room door, hands on hips, a flat gold Les Paul strapped around his neck. The delegation clustered behind him in a tight little knot resembling the formation a herd of wild musk ox assume instinctively when attacked by wolves. Next to Bachman-Turner Overdrive, REO Speedwagon looked like a high school band. All seven started giving Bruce shit simultaneously and it sounded like a classroom scene off a Cheech and Chong album.

“Hey, maaannnn…”

Obviously, REO Speedwagon had just gotten THE WORD. BTO and REO were touring through Texas together, hitting a string of seven dates, and for the past couple of gigs, Bruce Allen contended, REO Speedwagon had consciously conspired to mimic Bachman-Turner’s set and steal the show. They structured their energy almost identically, and the night before in Corpus Christi, REO played for an entire hour. Bachman-Turner Overdrive, as headliners, played only an hour and twenty minutes, and they were afraid a whole hour of REO Speedwagon was too much. “You’ve gotta be really careful with guitar bands,” Bruce Allen declared in his voice of experience. He gave orders that REO Speedwagon could only play for 35 minutes, and they could only use four lights on either side of the stage, and (Ouch!) only two spotlights.

Ironically less than a year ago, these same bands had toured together, only then REO Speedwagon had been the feature attraction with Bachman-Turner second-billed. REO had dictated how long BTO could play, and how many spotlights BTO could use. Now, the tables turned, there was a note of bitter frustration underscoring anything anyone from REO Speedwagon had to say.

While Bruce hassled at the door, Randy and Rob, the Bachman brothers, and Blair Thornton, their new second guitarist, milled around in the rear of the dressing room barely managing to suppress their laughter, pretending to be interested in the Mexican food which had been set out on a table. They played the music, Bruce handled the business. This was business.

Bassman C.F. Turner was the only member of the group who felt compelled to explain anything to REO. Holding a hunk of greasy beef in one hand and a Coke in the other, Fred wandered casually over towards the door.

“My belief in the matter,” he interjected with typical Canadian aplomb, speaking so softly everybody had to stop shouting and pay attention, “is that it’s just bad booking. Lousy programming,” he concluded. Much of the problem was that the two bands sounded so alike. BTO had wanted to tour with Wet Willie just to avoid such a conflict, but their price skyrocketed when Keep On Smilin’ hit the charts. Against his better judgment Bruce let the promoter talk him into using REO Speedwagon because they drew well in the area.

“Hey, man” shouted somebody from REO Speedwagon in shocked, righteous indignation, “we didn’t change our whole set just to sound like you guys.”

“I think you did,” Bruce Allen countered quickly.

The commotion started up all over again. All seven Speedwagoneers tried to argue the point.

“Shit! We’ve been playing this same set for two years.”

“Yeah. A long time before we ever played with you guys.”

“Listen,” Fred Turner reasoned, pointing at REO’s piano player with a fistful of roasted beef as, once again, the noise subsided to hear him out. “If it wasn’t for your keyboards, we’d sound like the same two groups.”

“I didn’t think you guys would turn into such assholes,” Speedwagon’s main mouth insulted, getting personal.

“I could turn into an even bigger asshole,” Bruce threatened and REO caught the implication. With a few muttered epithets they beat a hasty retreat.

“We could’ve kicked you off our tour two years ago,” someone shouted from the hallway.

The door slammed shut and the dressing room settled into an uneasy silence. Nobody in BTO especially enjoys flexing their muscles. They remember what it was like being second-billed. They remembered all too well, having endured other people’s shit for over a year, knowing sooner or later they’d be in a position of control.

“It’s survival,” Bruce explained. “Emerson, Lake, and Palmer kicked us off their tour and we had contracts and everything. That didn’t matter. No 24-hour notice. No nothing. They just said, ‘Get lost. You’re too good.’ We were on our way to the gig when the promoter called. ‘You guys are off the show.’ The equipment had already left. Poco did the same thing. I could do that to them,” Bruce continued, gesturing towards the door as REO Speedwagon’s opening number reverberated through the old brick cow palace. “What are they complaining about? At least they’re still getting paid.”

“The thing is,” concluded Randy Bachman, “they’ve been hurt emotionally. It’s emotion for them, but for us, it’s just business.”

“Hell!” Bruce Allen chuckled grimly. “We just paid them the supreme compliment.”

BACHMAN-TURNER Overdrive began in 1971 as Brave Belt, a country-rock unit which Randy Bachman – ex- of the Guess Who – formed with C.F. Turner, then playing clubs dates in Canada, and Robbie Bachman, Randy’s youngest brother. Brave Belt released two Warner Brothers albums which went nowhere, so Randy decided to change direction. They would try hard rock.

“I have enough experience in this business,” Randy matter of factly explains today, “to know that if you’re trying something, you can do it, and do it, and do it, and do it, and just keep knocking your head against a wall. We just changed direction and people liked it. If nobody liked the BTO album, I might’ve tried something else.”

It almost came down to that. Warner Brothers didn’t buy the new sound and Randy went looking for another record company. “Took it to most of the labels in Canada,” he relates. “Never even heard a pass. They never even called me to say no. I just never heard from them again. Then I tried all the U.S. labels and got refused from them.

“We were going nowhere but downhill. I ended up supporting the group. I ended up paying for the album, which was over $30,000. With the salaries I was paying and the album costs, I was into the group for just a shade over $90,000.

“I was getting worried. We weren’t getting any work in Winnipeg ’cause we kinda got bad-mouthed there, black-balled, whatever you wanna call it, being the home town of the Guess Who. We couldn’t even get arrested in Winnipeg. So we went to see a man who apparently has the west coast of Canada sewed up. He books every club, one-nighter, every high school, every outside show that comes into town in the province of British Columbia. That’s Bruce Allen.

“I went into his office. I’d heard a lot of bad things about Bruce Allen: how he was a crook, and he was ruthless, and a rip-off, and just a bad guy to do business with. I said ‘Bruce, I’m really desperate. I wanna move the group out here and I need work. I know you run this area and I’ve heard a lot of bad things about you, but I’m willing to give it a go.’

“Bruce says ‘That makes us even, ’cause I’ve heard some really dandy things about you.’ That’s when I was getting a lot of bad press from the Guess Who.

“I said, ‘Well, are we gonna judge each other on our meeting here and our value to each other?’ He said ‘Yes’ and that was it. We stood up, shook hands, and we’ve been working together ever since. And we still work on that handshake. We don’t have any contract or anything.

“Bruce got us work in Vancouver for a solid six, seven, eight, maybe ten weeks,” Randy continued. “We’d have clubs one week and then we’d have a week with one-nighters and in that week off I’d fly to L.A. and I’d go to four or five labels shopping the master. I’d leave them a copy. You know, there must be over 200 tape copies of that first BTO album sitting in guys’ offices. At like $15 a copy. Twenty bucks a set plus hourly time I’d pay for studios because I had to book out the whole studio for $80 an hour to make me copies, so some of those copies cost me fifty, sixty dollars each. There’s hundreds of those albums around.

“Finally, the deal clicked with Mercury. I ran into an acquaintance of mine, Charlie Fach, who worked for Mercury. He heard half of ‘Gimme Your Money Please’ and called me up. I could still hear ‘Gimme Your Money Please’ in the background. He said ‘You know, if the rest of the album is like this, you got a deal.’ I said ‘It’s all like that, Charlie. It’s all like that.'”

Mercury signed Bachman-Turner Overdrive in May of 1973 and released BTO 1 a month later. It has remained on the charts since then, presently between ten and fifteen thousand unit sales away from going gold. BTO 2 went gold in May of 1974, five months after it was released, and has since been certified platinum. Their third album, Not Fragile, shipped gold this August and Mercury anticipates that it will join BTO 2 in the Top Ten of the LP Charts by the time this article is in print.

Now with the addition of Blair Thornton at second guitar people connected with the band predict even greater success. Blair replaced Timmy Bachman, another brother, last March, when Timmy ran into some personal problems. “When I met my wife,” Randy explains, “I was a musician and she knew what kind of life we were gonna have. The same with Fred Turner. When he met his wife, he was a musician, so when they got together, she knew what kind of life they were gonna have. But Tim was planning to get married and he was in school. His wife was expecting nine-to-fiveism or suburbanism. He just left school and came with us. Just like that. Bang! We’re married, I’m leaving. There were difficult situations arising at both ends and Tim left to get that end of his life together.

“We had been aware of Blair ever since we moved to Vancouver. He came to see us all the time. Usually, when a new group comes into town you’re everybody’s rivals ’cause you’re playing their clubs, and their one-nighters. Except for Blair. He kept coming to see us, sitting around talking. We asked him to jam one night and he got up on stage and he really played well, and he’s a really easy guy to get along with. So when it came time for a replacement, I think Blair was the only choice. We needed somebody who was local. We needed somebody who was a good musician, and somebody who would fit in with our band. Blair fit in really well.”

While Tim played mostly rhythm Blair handles rhythm and occasional lead guitar as well. That has added an interesting new dimension to BTO. “Tim wasn’t as loose as Blair,” Randy explains. “Tim was almost afraid to play in my presence. I would go somewhere our equipment was setting up and as I was walking in I’d hear this phenomenal guitar. It would be Tim playing, but the minute he saw me, he’d play worse. He wouldn’t stand up to me. But Blair isn’t afraid to stand up to me.

“He did a really good job on Not Fragile. It was his first time in a studio, and I, in a studio, am kind of a first take artist. Our group does mostly first takes. It’s basically all done live. If I do a guitar overdub, I would basically do it on the first take. But when I got to a stump point where I couldn’t do it on the first take, I’d say to Blair ‘Go in and try a solo,’ and he’d go in and do it and get it all first takes. On several songs, I didn’t even play any lead guitar. I wanted to give Blair a chance, and when I did, he really grabbed it.”

The whole thing fell together so quickly and so smoothly it frankly astonished everyone concerned. “It’s amazing, actually,” confessed Fred Turner, “how quickly Blair’s taken to the group and the group has taken to him, because it usually takes a long time, when you make a member change in a group, for that group to jell back together again. But with Blair, it was almost an instantaneous thing.”

Blair had been with Bachman-Turner for six months when the group made its swing through Texas, the last area in the U.S. where BTO had not performed. For the most part they played to smallish crowds of not more than 3,000.

Beginning in El Paso, they hit Amarillo, Odessa, Dallas, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Austin and Houston in quick succession. Odessa, where the audience fell only 216 people short of setting a new house record, remained a high point in the group’s mind. “In a little town like Odessa,” Randy related, somewhat incredulously, “where there’s only 50,000 people in the whole city, we drew 6,900 people. And they knew everything we did. They were up there screaming, hollering for requests. They knew all the album cuts, all the words, all the lyrics – everything.”

“Texas reminds me of the Midwest when we first started working there,” Fred Turner remarks. “This is the way it all started when we began touring a year ago June. We just went in and started playing in a lot of places and pushed, and pushed, and pushed. Now the Midwest is one of the strongest areas for us.”

Robbie Bachman agrees: “Everyplace is the same, only later. Like Texas is the same reaction we got in St. Louis last year, and the Midwest last year, and Chicago and Detroit maybe nine months ago, but we’re getting it now. Next year, we’ll get the same reaction we get in Chicago in Texas.”

Business-like Bruce Allen is also pleased. “I feel that it did the group a lot of good coming in the way we did,” he explains, “rather than coming in the way we had been offered – on big Astrodome shows, or stadium shows where the Allmans or Deep Purple or someone like that would be selling all the tickets. At least this time the radio spots said ‘Bachman-Turner, Bachman-Turner’ instead of ‘Deep Purple, Deep Purple.’ Plus, the kids are coming to see us, so at least we have some kind of a base. When they leave they’ll be talking about us. So we only had three thousand people. Those 3,000 people will tell 3,000 more, and the next time through we’ll sell out. That’s how we’ve done most areas.”

Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s tremendous success has taken a lot of people by surprise. First, it was REO Speedwagon. Three nights after San Antonio in Chicago it was Brownsville Station. A hockey rink with a capacity of 9,000 had sold out in three days. The show would be video-taped for Europe and the King Biscuit Flower Hour was recording the concert for broadcast. But the evening was a giant hassle. It rained and the dirt parking lot looked like Cambodia during monsoon season. In addition, construction crews working in the area had cut a power line and the show was late getting started. The concrete hockey rink wasn’t ventilated too well, either, and the heat inside was unbearable.

Last year when they toured together, BTO had been second-billed to Brownsville Station. This year, things were different. Robbie and Blair were hanging around their hotel room when Randy walked in and clued everybody in on what was coming down.

“Bruce is going cuckoo,” Randy snickered. “Brownsville’s manager is on the phone. They want all the lights. Bruce says ‘Sorry, you can’t have all the lights.'”

“Here we go again,” groaned Blair.

Randy continued, “‘You’re big,’ says Brownsville’s manager. ‘You don’t need to do that to us.’ Bruce says ‘You know why we’re big? That’s why we’re big.'”

“What is this crap?” cries Robbie. “They did it to us.”

“Ain’t it wonderful how this always happens?” Blair laughed.

“Everybody does it to everybody else,” Randy offered.

“They do it to us,” added Robbie, “so now they’re below us and we’re doing it to them. An eye for an eye.”

“A light for a light,” Randy joked. “The promoter got on the phone and he says ‘If Brownsville doesn’t get the lights they want, they’re not going on.’ Bruce tells him ‘Well, give them anything they want, and if we don’t have a different light set-up than them, we’re not going on and the crowd’s gonna rip your place down.'”

Just then Bruce Allen walked into the room, half-laughing and half-fuming. “Every night,” he mutters. “Every night.”

“So?” asks Randy.

“So they’re not using the lights,” Bruce replies. “The guy says ‘You’re a prick!’ Every night, I get called a prick. One day, I’m gonna start believing it.”

© Jim EspositoZoo World, 24 October 1974

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