Randy Bachman has been in the music business for more than 50 years, first as a member of the Guess Who, then Bachman–Turner Overdrive, followed by a solo career.
Over the course of that time he’s been behind some of the biggest hit songs of his day, such as “These Eyes,” “No Time,” “Let It Ride,” “No Sugar Tonight,” “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” “Takin’ Care of Business” and, of course, “American Woman.”
Bachman is currently on his Vinyl Tap Tour: Every Song Tells a Story, sharing the stories behind 15 of his biggest songs. We asked if he would write a letter to young Canadian artists explaining how, exactly, to write a hit song.
Here’s what he had to say. Apparently it involves a lot of stealing.
Dear up-and-coming musicians,
When I was learning guitar, a great guy named Lenny Breau said to me, “You’re a good guitar player, but you’ll never be great. The great ones always burn out, and there will always be a younger, faster player, but here’s the trick: Write good songs.”
But how do you do that?
I started studying the greats, like Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Bacharach and David, Brian Wilson, Hall & Oates, Motown; the people who were writing the great pop hits of the day. You don’t want to study failures. If you’re going to write a book, you’re going to copy John Grisham, and if you want theatrical, you copy Stephen Sondheim. Basically, you copy and steal from the best.
You will start to notice how they write songs. For example, there are often repetitions of familiar phrases; lyrics that you get from everyday conversations that people will be familiar with. Something like “Takin’ Care of Business” or “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” that kind of thing. You take those and build them into the refrains of songs.
What I would do was when someone hit number one, I would write their followup song. When Petula Clark hit number one with “Downtown,” I would write another song called “Uptown.” Of course, I never got the actual song to her, it was only practice. I would pattern it after this three minutes and 10 seconds of magic, whether it was the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love,” Eric Clapton’s “Crossroads,” Jimi Hendrix doing “Purple Haze,” or anything. Copy that song then write them their followup.
What you want to do is make that song your own, which requires a couple of steps. When I first start working as a producer with Trooper, I told them to get their 10 favourite songs and write them down. Then I told them to take one song and write new lyrics to it. Next, change the chords to match those new lyrics, then change some of your melody lines to fit those new chords. At the end of the process, they came back with a pretty good song. They started with the Who’s “My Generation” and ended up with either “We’re Here for a Good Time (Not a Long Time)” or “Raise a Little Hell,” something like that.
That’s what Chuck Berry did. He used to take these country western songs, take those lyrics and put it over an R&B sound, or he’d get an R&B song and put his own country lyrics over it, and all of a sudden he’s a great storyteller. He’s talking about “Maybellene” and “Johnny B. Good,” and he’s telling these incredible stories all over a three-chord blues format.
Sometimes the song you end up with is nowhere near the one you copied, which is the trick. It’s like saying, “Here is some flour, sugar, water and chocolate, now make something.” Somebody will make a pancake, somebody will make a cupcake and somebody will make a doughnut. They will all taste different, but it’s all the same ingredients. It all depends on proportions. If you’re a lyricist, you put in heavier lyrics and lighter music, and if you put in lighter lyrics, you balance that with heavier music.
The key thing though is to put your own twist on it because you’re going to get sick of your friends saying that it sounds like Lady Gaga or John Lennon, so once you change it enough and they all say, “Wow, this is amazing. Did you write it?” You’ll say, “I think so.” The thing is you stole it from so many places, it’s become your own.
Do this long enough and open your mind and eventually a song just comes to you. Some angel says, “This poor guy has been trying to write songs for two years, it’s time to give him one,” and out of the blue somebody says two words and you get this whole song that falls in your lap.
Embrace it, write it down, play it for someone and when they say, “This is amazing. Did you write it?” You’ll say, “I think so.”