Graded on a Curve: Bachman-Turner Overdrive,
Best of B.T.O. (So Far)

Celebrating BTO’s Robbie Bachman on his 68th birthday.Ed.

I always wanted to be a speed-eating, eighteen-wheeling, gearjamming truck-driving man. A long haul, chicken-lights-blazing, hammer-down cowboy with a fat load and nothing to lose on the look-see for plain wrappers, Tijuana taxis, local yokels, and everything in between. Alas, my vision’s on a par with that of Jose Feliciano, and I can’t see Jack Shit without a pair of corrective lenses approximately the thickness of that of the Hubble Space Telescope. Give me weed, whites, and wine, and show me a sign, and I will run over that sign, and flatten a couple of Volkswagens for good measure. I’m pretty much deaf to boot, which is why I make such an excellent music critic.

But hey, if you can’t be a real trucker, you can always listen to trucker music, and when it comes to trucker music ain’t nobody on the road can beat Bachman Turner Overdrive. True, nobody took BTO seriously; I certainly didn’t take BTO seriously, and I actually kind of liked ‘em. But the cold hard fact is that their bland looks, complete lack of charisma, and zero hipness factor conspired against them, as did their weak good-to-bad song ratio. Over the course of a long and busy career they were able to fill but a single-LP greatest hits, and just barely at that. Indeed, it’s hardly a credit to their post-1976 output that 1976’s Best of BTO (So Far) is a stronger LP by far than 1986’s BTO’s Greatest.

A brief history: Randy Bachman was a member of Winnipeg, Manitoba’s Guess Who, left to form Brave Belt, and took on C.F. Fred Turner as a vocalist at the suggestion of fellow Canadian Neil Young. The big-voiced Turner led the struggling band in a harder rocking direction, but they remained at a loss to find a record label, being rejected 26 times. This was actually more times than I was rejected by girls I asked to the senior prom.

Then fate intervened in the form of a Mercury exec whose idea of clearing the pile of demos on his desk upon returning from a trip consisted of sweeping said demos en masse into his trashcan. One demo missed, and when the exec picked it up, he saw Bachman’s name and remembered telling him he’d be happy to listen to a demo should Bachman ever put one together. This is what is called takin’ care of business in the record business.

The executive liked what he heard, but didn’t like the name Brave Belt. The band line-up was Bachman heavy—three of its four members were Bachmans—which is why yours truly, a Mercury employee at the time, suggested calling the band Bachman Turner Overweight. Inexplicably, this suggestion was rejected. Instead the band chose to go the Crosby, Stills & Nash route, tacking on the Overdrive after seeing a trucker’s magazine by that name at an Ontario truck stop. Members included Randy Bachman on guitar, electric guitar, and vocals; C.F. Turner on bass and vocals; Robbie Bachman on drums and percussion; and Tim Bachman on guitar, rhythm guitar, vocals, and background vocals.

Unusual for rock’n’roll, Randy Bachman was a clean liver, and prohibited drug and alcohol use, as well as premarital sex amongst his underlings. Indeed, band members weren’t even allowed to look at girls through those x-ray specs. Tim Bachman’s inability to abide by Randy’s straightedge strictures allegedly led to his departure from BTO following the release of Bachman-Turner Overdrive II, and he was replaced by Blair Thornton. As for the rest of the group, they lived in a constant delirium of craven cupidity, and their idea of a thrilling post-show evening involved finding a bed with magic fingers, and watching Wonder Woman with a lasciviousness bordering on sheer lunacy.

Best of BTO (So Far) included tracks from the band’s first five studio LPs, including Not Fragile—a No. 1 hit in both the U.S. and Canada, with a title that was a clever play on Yes’ Fragile. It’s hard to imagine a less fragile sound than BTO’s; Turner possessed a voice like a steamroller, while the band’s guitars, at their hardest, could chisel stone. More bludgeon than scalpel, BTO’s no-frills, blue-collar brutalisms managed to make the likes of Grand Funk Railroad, another blue-collar outfit, sound both genteel and effete. Whatever else you may say about BTO, there was nothing subtle about them.

Except there was, and the weakest links on Best of BTO (So Far) are those songs, such as “Lookin’ Out for #1,” in which Randy Bachman chose to highlight his jazzy side. “Looking Out for #1” features smooth jazz chords, quiet shuffling drums, and Bachman’s almost whispered vocals, and the results are both unspeakable and out-of-place on BTO’s greatest hits, if only because they sound nothing whatsoever like Bachman-Turner Overdrive, right down to the jazzbo guitar solos, which bring to mind latter-day Steely Dan.

The same goes, inexplicably, for “Blue Collar,” a mid-tempo and syncopated slice of ersatz jazz fusion that’s about as blue collar as Oscar Wilde. The fact that I once operated a jackhammer makes me nine times more blue collar than this tune, which features lots of jazzbo guitar vamping, and percussion that could just as well be by Santana. And to make matters worse, at 6:13 “Blue Collar” is the longest song on Best of BTO (So Far) by a Canadian kilometer.

“Take It Like a Man” may not be the most original song ever written, but what it lacks in uniqueness it makes up for in sheer sonic propulsion, badass guitars, and Turner’s atomic bomb of a voice. And, most interestingly, the presence of Little Richard, who plays the bejesus out of the 88s, especially towards song’s end. Like the best of BTO’s tunes this one mimics the roar of a big-wheeler roaring down the interstate, and features a great guitar solo to boot. How the puritanical Randy Bachman wound up playing alongside the flamer who infamously said, “The only thing I like better than a big penis is a bigger penis” I’ll never know, but Turner’s cry of “Take it, Richard!” makes me glad they did.

“Hey You” boasts some softer guitars and the softer vocals of Randy Bachman, as well as a nice melody and some cool “Sha na na na’s.” Throw in a guitar solo that’s on the mellow side, a brief bass-drum throwdown, and a taste of Bachman’s trademark stutter, and what you have is a song almost as pop as “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” Like “Take It Like a Man” it may not be the most original tune ever written, but it’s indisputably catchy, and would sound good on your car radio as you’re traversing the desolate Manitoba prairie on your way to Winnipeg, to do whatever it is people do in Winnipeg. Listen to BTO, I guess.

“Gimme Your Money Please” is a hard-charging, guitar-heavy tune, sung by Turner, about the dangers of life in the big city, and it’s a pleasant surprise in so far as this one never got any radio play, at least not in my part of Canada, namely Pennsylvania. The guitars are all over the place, and the final solo is an exquisite, string-bending piece of work, while Turner punches out the chorus (like with his fists) and manhandles the oddly phrased verse that goes, “And I saw that he’d been liquored/And he staggered up to, you know, he staggered up to his feet/And he said, ‘Boy, you’d better move real slow/And gimme your money please.”

“You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” is a stutter rock masterpiece and, along with “Roll on Down the Highway,” BTO’s finest hour. More pop than any of BTO’s other hits, it boasts a great assortment of opening guitars and the bravura performance of Randy Bachman, which consists of some cool interjections (“You need educatin’/You got to go to school”) and that great speech defect of a chorus: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet/B-b-b-baby you just ain’t seen n-n-nothin’ yet/Here’s something you’re never going to forget/B-b-b-baby you ain’t seen n-n-nothin’ yet.” Throw in some jangly guitars that are less hard rock than power pop—except for the big power chords during the chorus—and what you have is a timeless song that everybody has a moral obligation to love, no matter their feelings about BTO in general.

“Let It Ride” is a hard-rock powerhouse that opens in mellow mode, then rides roughshod over your precious little ears. C.F. Turner literally beats up the lyrics with his voice, the guitars bash away nonstop, Robbie Bachman plays a battering drum solo over which Turner shouts and the guitars pulverize random objects, and once again BTO gives us a song that sounds more than anything else like a runaway truck descending brakeless down a steep grade towards a cliff face of unforgiving granite.

Trucker anthem “Roll on Down the Highway” is classic BTO, and a roughshod, kickass, example of sheer rock brutalism. The guitars churn through a brief opening, then Turner’s gruff vocals—which are nothing less than a force of nature—and some loaded-for-bear guitars take over until the chorus (“Let it roll down the highway/Let it roll down the highway, roll”), which boasts some natty power chords of its own. “The time’s real short, you know the distance is long,” shouts Turner, “I’d rather have a jet but it’s not in the song,” after which we are treated to one long and fantastic guitar solo. After that it’s all over but the shouting, in the form of Turner repeating, in a voice capable of raising Lazarus, “Let it roll down the highway” while those cool guitars continue to bang out one mucho catchy riff.

I don’t know why I’m closing with “Takin’ Care of Business,” since it’s far from my favorite BTO song and everybody who survived the seventies is good and sick of it (many of them from the first listen). Those opening guitars and that piano—which are the only part of the song I like—are permanently embedded in everybody’s collective unconscious, as are Randy Bachman’s voice and the exceedingly dumb lyrics, which basically rub us normal Joes’ noses in the fact that we have to get up in the morning and slave away at thankless jobs while lucky Randy is “self-employed” and loves “to work at nothing all day.”

Okay, so I also like the guitar solo that follows the first chorus, but the second verse is the acme of “Sure, pal,” as Bachman makes becoming a rock star sound as simple as buying a secondhand guitar and falling in “with the right bunch of fellows.” “Takin’ Care of Business” has probably done as much damage to BTO’s reputation as its Anne Murray-level hipness factor, and is a cautionary tale par excellence. Be careful of your hits, because they just might end you doing you more damage than your duds.

As I mentioned previously, the quality of the band’s post-1976 output fell off precipitously, to the extent that their 1986 greatest hits package only features two half-decent songs (“Freeway and “Down Down”) not on Best of BTO (So Far). And the 1986 LP includes the abysmal “Jamaica,” “Can We All Come Together,” and “Rock’n’Roll Nights.” Still, BTO left us with a small body of great songs that are worth crowing about, and that will make any human being want to be a long-haul trucker. And who doesn’t want to be a long-haul trucker? Riding the edge of those double yellow lines, popping white crosses, and spending your nights with rest stop hookers: if nothing else, it sure beats being in BTO—after a while, even Wonder Woman must have gotten old.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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