Randy Bachman can speak for hours at a time recounting sprawling and captivating stories on his CBC Radio show Vinyl Tap, which is in stark contrast with his latest fascination, “The Quiet Beatle”, George Harrison. Despite their difference in personas, Randy Bachman always felt a special affinity for Harrison, as George Harrison made it possible for a guitar player to not only be stuck playing lead, but also to step in front of the microphone from time to time.
On his new album By George-By Bachman, the Canadian rock legend tackles sacred material by reinventing classic Beatles songs in his own way. Rather than a straight “Bachman-Harrison Overdrive” blend of sounds, Bachman stretches his boundaries in these covers by incorporating rhythms from the Gypsy Kings, George Martin styled studio tricks, and even acid-jazz guitar playing.
In anticipation of his March 3rd concert at the National Arts Centre, Apt613 reached Bachman in New York City to discuss the influence of The Beatles, his approach to covering other artists, and a phone call with George Harrison that he will always remember.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Apt613: On March 2nd you’ll be releasing your 16th solo album, By George-By Bachman. One day later you’ll be playing the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. I’m sure many guitarists influenced and shaped the musician you became, what attracted you the most to record a George Harrison cover album?
Randy Bachman: Well, for me everything started when I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. Before that performance, every kid was happy to play backup while a guy who looked like Elvis sang upfront. But then The Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show, and all three guys were up front playing and singing, so it was quite a different visual from our Elvis bands, and even the drummer sang! Every drummer wanted to sing Ringo songs, and every guitar player like myself wanted to sing the George songs; so all my life I’ve grown up singing George Harrison songs.
Then three years ago I got invited to play in Liverpool for John Lennon’s 75th birthday party and it was truly phenomenal. So after I came back home I wondered when George’s 75th birthday would be, and when I saw it was 2018, I thought I would do a George Harrison album for that year.
I had previously recorded a covers album with my old Guess Who buddy Burton Cummings, but we really stuck to the original material. The only exception was my cover of “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You”, George’s song on A Hard Day’s Night, where we turned it into an acoustic shuffle, like Clapton’s acoustic “Layla”, and everyone says it’s their favourite on the album. So when I started thinking about this George Harrison album, I decided to re-invent his songs as one songwriter-guitarist to another, and do his songs in a different style, like the way Lenny Kravitz did “American Woman” and Jr. Walker did “These Eyes”. Where George went fast, I did it slow. If it was a shuffle, I did it in a faster Chicago shuffle. If it was a minor key, I did it in a major key, and vice versa. The plan was to take George Harrison’s body of work and put a different set of clothes on it.
What was your inspiration for “Between Two Mountains”, the new song you wrote for the album?
On “Between Two Mountains” I wrote about the way I think George must have felt growing up between the mountains of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. I ended up writing it about 3-4 times, and I was never satisfied with it. The lyrics kept coming up as very fourteen-year-old bubblegum words; I think at one point they went, “How do I stand tall / Between mountains like John and Paul”.
Then one night I jolted out of bed at 3:00 AM and had a weird feeling like there was something in the room. So I opened my eyes and realized nobody was there, but I still felt a presence. I just couldn’t shake that feeling, and so I went into a room with my guitars and started to write these lyrics that ended up becoming “Between Two Mountains”. It really didn’t feel like I was writing the song, it felt like I was being given these lyrics. They were coming through me, I would never write this kind of a song. I sent it out to my band and they wrote me back saying they were in tears listening to it, that it’s the most spiritual song I could have written about George and The Beatles and how everyone on their road of life feels like they’re between two mountains of good and evil and have to walk the path in order to live a happy life.
Which of the George Harrison songs proved to be the most challenging to rearrange into a “Randy Bachman style”, and were there any songs that you wish you could have covered but didn’t make the cut?
They were all a challenge because I didn’t want them to resemble the original at all until I sang. On the album I take “Something” and I change it into a shuffle, like a Robin Trower song. To change up “Taxman” was really tough, but I took that first “bangggg” from “A Hard Day’s Night” and tagged it with the chorus of the song and turned it into a fast Chicago shuffle. Also, I sprinkled little George Harrison “Easter eggs” throughout the album that are fun to find for big Beatles fans, like I took George’s guitar line from “And I Love Her” and put it in the middle of “Between Two Mountains”.
We couldn’t do “My Sweet Lord”, because that’s impossible, it’s like trying to rewrite the Lord’s Prayer. But we took that main guitar lick from “My Sweet Lord” and mixed it in with “Don’t Bother Me”.
I’m excited to hear “I Need You”, that’s one of the most underrated Beatles songs.
It’s a little bit blue-collar like my BTO stuff, but it also combines acid-jazz with an incredible drum loop, and I’m singing in the style of Earth Wind & Fire. It’s the most unexpected take you would ever think of a George Harrison song.
“I Need You” on the album is like Led Zeppelin. It’s a mixture of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham with AC/DC guitar chords. For the outro we went to a classic Beatles trick of playing backwards, like the end of “Rain” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”. The whole album reimagines George’s songs, like “If I Needed Someone” might be the coolest song I’ve ever done. It’s a little bit blue-collar like my BTO stuff, but it also combines acid-jazz with an incredible drum loop, and I’m singing in the style of Earth Wind & Fire. It’s the most unexpected take you would ever think of a George Harrison song. When you hear these different arrangements of the classic songs it’s like eating a great piece of cake but with a different icing on top.
Did you ever get the chance to meet George Harrison when you toured in Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band?
Well we once played Radio City Music Hall the day after a big meeting took place with all the Apple people, so Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and Yoko Ono were all together in New York. George happened to be at the show and we were all praying that he was going to come on stage with us, but he never did.
But my main story with George Harrison goes back to 1970 after I left The Guess Who. I was looking for some work, and our press agent knew The Beatles’ press guy. He told me that The Beatles broke up, and that George might be looking for a new guitar player, so I should give him a call. And so I phoned the U.K, phone number he gave me, and I told George who I was, and he said, “I just saw you on Top of the Pops doing “American Woman”, it’s a great song. Your guitar playing reminds me of my buddy Eric’s”.
He totally caught me, I mean that guitar solo is stolen right from Eric Clapton and Cream. I told George that I was calling from Winnipeg, and he asked, “is that where Winnie the Pooh is from?”. He actually seemed more interested in discussing Winnie the Pooh than music. He told me he was starting a band, but that his friend and best guitar player in the world, Eric Clapton, had already joined. So my connection with George was a short 3-4 minute phone call, but it’s one that I’ll always remember.
For your Ottawa show, a lot of fans will probably want to hear those BTO and Guess Who hits, but there might be a group of Beatles fanatics who mainly want to hear George Harrison songs. How do you strike the right balance between testing out the new material and playing the songs you’re best known for?
It’s going to be a special sit-down show, and I’ll start with some stories about how I wrote The Guess Who hits. I’ll do five or six of those, like “No Sugar Tonight” and “American Woman”, and then I’ll tell some BTO stories and we’ll play the BTO hits. Then I’ll talk about how going to Liverpool for John Lennon’s 75th birthday celebration inspired me to record a George Harrison covers album, and we’ll jump into some George songs.
It’s a real pleasure to have my son Tal on the road with me in my band. He looks and sounds just like me from two decades ago, and he’ll probably play his song “She’s So High” every night. On the album I doubled my vocals the way The Beatles did, but in the live show my son sings with me and he becomes my double-track because we have the same diction and voice.
We’ll have Tal Bachman songs, along with Guess Who, BTO, and George Harrison hits, so this show is going to find a way to please everybody. I really think that everyone will be able to sing every word of every song I play onstage… except when I play “O Canada” they’ll mess it up because the words keep changing!
Randy Bachman plays the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall on Saturday, March 3 at 8:00pm. Tickets start at $33.50 and can be purchased online, by phone at 1-888-991-2787, or in-person at the NAC Box Office. $15 Live Rush tickets are available to anyone between the ages of 13 and 29.