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Contrary to popular belief, the fire of BTO did not rise from the ashes of The Guess Who, at least not directly. After taking a hiatus from Canada’s greatest supergroup of the time, Randy Bachman released his first solo venture, 1970’s AXE.
Despite it’s less than enthusiastic response, he still officially announced his departure from The Guess Who and by the beginning of 1971 had formed Brave Belt with younger brother Robbie on drums, former bandmate with The Expressions Chad Allan and longtime friend C F (Fred) Turner on bass. The band was signed by Reprise Records in April and released their self-titled debut a month later. Despite spawning two singles “Crazy Arms, Crazy Eyes” and “Rock & Roll Band”, the record didn’t exactly set the world on fire. BRAVE BELT II was released in the winter that same year. Again two singles came from it, “Never Comin’ Home” and “Dunrobin’s Gone”. Even though this effort was also met with mixed response, the sound Brave Belt incorporated would become integral ingredients in the formation of Bachman Turner Overdrive.
Problems with management about the direction Brave Belt was going had begun to surface by mid 1972 and the tour in support of the second album was cancelled half-way through. Bachman and company nonetheless continued to play Canada coast to coast independently. The band by this time had also already replaced Allan with Randy and Robbie’s brother Tim, who’d dropped out of college to join the group. Had there been such a thing as an online university like Kaplan University at the time, perhaps he would have been able to still get a degree while with the band, but since distance-learning didn’t exist and the concept of an online university was still a long ways off, I think even Tim’s parents would agree he made the right choice.
After sending a demo tape to Mercury Records, the newly renamed band was signed by Charley Fach and released BACHMAN TURNER OVERDRIVE on May 1, 1973. The hard-driving sound of “Give Me Your Money Please” mixed with the blues overtones of tracks like “Blue Collar” made it a hit. “BTO II” was released later that year. “Let It Ride” was the first single and gave a hint of things to come and the monster “Takin’ Care of Business” followed. The song actually stemmed from an old song Randy tried to record with The Guess Who as “White Collar Worker”. Other hits included “Welcome Home” and the lead-off track “Blown”. Tim left the group following the subsequent tour to be replaced by Blair Thornton.
August ’74 saw what would turn out to be the band’s biggest seller in NOT FRAGILE, backed by more monster hits in “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” and “Roll On Down The Highway”. The band’s versatility was demonstrated once again with the Randy-penned and sung tune “Rock Is My Life And This Is My Song”. The next year produced FOUR WHEEL DRIVE. The title track written by Thornton, “Hey You” and “Quick Change Artist” were released as singles and along with other tracks like “Don’t Let The Blues Get You Down” and rowdy “She’s A Devil” helped solidify BTO’s place as one of Canada’s biggest groups. The reception given the band by the American audiences further helped silence Randy’s critics as to his ability to produce hits outside The Guess Who.
The group cut HEAD ON later that year which featured the hits “Looking Out For #1” and “Gimme Your Money Please”. Repeated airplay and constant touring had by this time made BTO synonomous with quality, no-frills rock & roll in practically all corners of the globe. The band released JAPAN TOUR LIVE in 1977. Although criticized as simply being one of many live records to be cut that year in front of a rock-starved Japanese crowd, was a fine indication of the brand of entertainment the group delivered live, and in fact was one of the first live albums taped in Japan. The compilation BEST OF BTO … SO FAR followed that same year.
Next up was FREEWAYS, released by the end of ’77. “Shotgun Rider” and “Life Goes On” were released as singles, but it seemed as though something was missing. Problems with the direction the music was going again plagued the group and led to Randy Bachman leaving the band. Legal issues ensued which continue to this day, leading to Thornton, Turner and Robin Bachman securing the rights to the name ‘BTO’ and using that name instead of the elongated band name. With Jim Clench of April Wine fame coming in on bass, Turner switched to rhythm guitar. 1978 had STREET ACTION hit the stores and the single “Down The Road” on the airwaves, but poor direction from the record label meant no one listened or bought it. They released ROCK AND ROLL NIGHTS on Mercury Records the next year. Although two singles were released, the reception given “Heartaches” and Jim Vallance’s “Jamaica” spelled the temporary shelving of one of Canada’s finest names in rock.
The band reformed with Randy for ’84’s self-titled release. Along with Turner, the album also featured Billy Chapman on piano and Randy’s Guess Who buddy Gary Peterson on drums. Randy also recruited wife Denise McCann for backing vocals. Though it was met with critical reviews, the album failed to produce any singles or much of a renewed interest in the band, despite the tight writing and skilled musicianship the name BTO was synonymous with in such tracks as “Toledo”, “City’s Still Growin'” and the lead track “For The Weekend”. Randy Bachman left again shortly after the album’s release and Turner disbanded the group, with all members taking some time for other projects.
The label execs released GREATEST HITS LIVE two years later and BTO’S GREATEST in the spring of ’87. They re-grouped in ’91 with the lineup of Robin Bachman, Turner, Thornton and new guitarist Randy Murray, and hit the tour circuit as if the band never missed a beat. “Randy Murray doesn’t fill anyone’s shoes,” Robin Bachman said. “He brings his own.” What many consider the essential BTO collection, a double disc set called ANTHOLOGY came out in 1993. DRIVE ON, another best-of compilation was next up a year later.
BTO again hit the stores in 1998 with TRIAL BY FIRE, available only in Europe. Consisting of Turner, Bachman, Thornton and Murray, the disc interestingly consisted mostly of classic BTO brought up to date with Murray on vocals, including “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” and “Hey You”. But also noteable are the four new songs, including the title-track. Also on the record is a killer version of the Delta blues classic The Animals made famous “House of the Rising Sun”. The origins of the recording began a couple years earlier at an outdoor show in Sturgess, SD for the Hell’s Angels. Recanting the story of how they came to record the song, Bachman said they actually played the song on a semi-regular basis years earlier. “But one night while playing the same festival as Burdon he didn’t play the song and we were told if we wanted to go home that night … we would. People yelled out ‘Do House, Do House’ and now they think it’s ours!”
A mid 70’s concert was released in 1998 in the King Biscuit Flower Hour series, two years prior to another ‘best of’ compilation, this one in CBS’ Millenium series. Though it’s the line-up featuring Randy Bachman that most people equate to as ‘BTO’, the band’s current line-up is actually their longest standing. Other than the brief blip in the band’s history where Garry Peterson was behind the drums, Robin Bachman’s been keeping the beat from Day One and admits to not fully realizing what it is that makes up a song sometimes. “It’s like a guy that’s helping someone build a house, you’re on the framing crew and aren’t there for the final touches,” he joked.
“We’re a rock and roll band. Make no mistake about it,” Bachman said, but adds jokingly, “I think we’ve got a little more of a funkier feel than other white guys. I mean, we only play four chords. The only agenda that this band has ever had is to go out and play our music the best we can,” he said.
The band continued throughout the 2000s part time on the road, getting together long enough to play the summer outdoor festival circuit. They also spent their time recording material that never found its way past the downloads link on their website. In 2010 the lure of a fast reunion buck was too great to resist, and Turner hooked up with Randy Bachman for a series of warm up dates in Manitoba that spring, which led to a full-blown European and North American tour. Randy’s brother Robin and longtime guitarist Blair Thornton refused to sign on to the tour, so it was completed without them.