Graded on a Curve: Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Not Fragile

I may or may not have once described that inimitable Bachman-Turner Overdrive sound as meat and potatoes rock, minus the meat. And I may or may not have once called them Bachman-Turner Overweight. But if I did so, I was joking. I love BTO. They remain, no doubt about it, Manitoba, Canada’s finest ever contribution to the un-fine arts. The music critic Robert Christgau, a fan as am I, once summoned up the band’s lead-footed lumberjack charm with the words, “Clomp on.”

BTO were about as subtle as a blow to the head; imagine a Canadian Bad Company. They playfully entitled their 1974 LP Not Fragile as a retort Yes’ LP Fragile, because they felt their music could be “dropped and kicked” without suffering any damage. Hard rock doesn’t come any harder than this; when they call a song “Sledgehammer,” they’re not pussyfooting around like that English fop Peter Gabriel.

No, this is blue-collar rock, and to paraphrase Lynyrd Skynyrd, all you effete pencil pushers are advised to stay out of BTO’s way, especially when C. Fred Turner’s doing the singing. Compared to his gruff, no-nonsense vocals, Randy Bachman may as well be Mariah Carey.

It’s a pity that BTO is perhaps best remembered as the band that brought us “Takin’ Care of Business,” because while nobody in the band strikes me as a Mensa candidate, “Takin’ Care of Business” is too dumb for words. Me, I’d sooner remember them for such great songs as “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” “Roll on Down the Highway,” and “Let It Ride,” to name just a few of the band’s keepers.

Not Fragile’s title track is a midnight creeper, and could easily pass for a Spinal Tap song, and I mean that as a compliment. The only thing cooler than Turner’s singing, “Comin’ to you cross country/ Hoping boogie’s still allowed/ You ask do we play heavy music/ Well, are thunderheads just another cloud, And we do/ Not fragile, straight at you” is the way R. Bachman intones the words, “Not fragile” behind him. The guitar solo is pretty cool too.

As for “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” it’s a bona fide stutter rock classic right up there with the Who’s “My Generation,” David Bowie’s “Changes,” and Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets.” And it’s a great pop confection along the lines of the aforementioned songs to boot. Meanwhile, “Roll on Down the Highway” is on helluva rocker, on which Turner barks out the lyrics while guitarists Randy Bachman and new addition Blair Thornton swap leads.

As for the instrumental “Free Wheelin’” the guitar is pure Blue Oyster Cult, even if early pressings of Not Fragile listed it as “Dedicated to Duane,” as in Duane Allman. Meanwhile, “Sledgehammer” opens with some titanic power chords and features the vocals of both Randy Bachman and Turner, the latter of whom delivers up some therapeutic primal screaming.

Unfortunately, “Second Hand” lives up to its name, while “Givin’ It All Away” has sheer sonic propulsion going for it, but not much else. As for “Rock Is My Life, and This Is My Song” it’s an ironically laid-back number about the “hurried up life” of your average rock star. As is the case with “Takin’ Care of Business,” this baby boasts some pretty dumb lyrics along the lines of, “When we come into a new town/ Everybody’s there/ When we play our music/ Hands are in the air.”

Randy Bachman also informs us that his guitar is his only friend, and lets us know, in all humility, that, “I’m not trying to come on like Hollywood/ But Hollywood is what I am.” Really? The burly Canuck in the plaid shirt had about as much chance of making it in Bollywood as he did in Hollywood, although he might have found himself a role in the epic 1983 SCTV-spinoff film, Strange Brew.

Say what you will about the boys from Manitoba, and mock them if you want, but BTO has sold almost 30 million albums worldwide. Which means, if they had good management, that they’re laughing right back at you. They may have had all the finesse of an ice-skating moose, but they sure did produce some foot-stomping tunes. Clomp on!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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