Categories: Interviews

The Guess Who’s running back thru the hits

Thank you, Lenny Kravitz.

If it weren’t for the nostalgic rocker, original members of The Guess Who may have never enjoyed such a resurgence, a welcome reunion, a major North American tour this summer with Joe Cocker, a PBS concert film that will air in August and a movement to get them inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Lead singer Burton Cummings, paired with guitarist Randy Bachman as The Guess Who for the first time since 1970, can’t believe their good fortunes.

“This is all amazing,” he said recently. “We’re all over our 50s. We never thought this kind of resurgence would happen again. A lot of it has to do with Lenny. His version of ‘American Woman’ refocused so much attention on the band, and then we did the Pan Am Games in our hometown here in Winnipeg. That’s really where the seed was planted for all of this. It’s been remarkable.”

To say the least.

Kravitz’s distinctive cover of “American Woman,” The Guess Who’s lone U.S. No. 1, was used in the 1999 film “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.” Not only has it been one of the biggest hits of Kravitz’s career, it earned him a Grammy Award for best male rock vocal performance.

It snowballed from there for Canada’s best-known and most-beloved band. Cummings and Bachman teamed with Garry Peterson (drums), Donnie McDougall (guitar) and Bill Wallace (bass) to perform at the closing ceremonies of the Pan Am Games.

“If it had not been for the Pan Am Games in the summer of ’99, I don’t think any of this would be happening,” Cummings said. “We got together for just four songs that night, and it was such a special thing for everyone here in Winnipeg and for people from 22 countries and it was being beamed back by satellite; a lot of people saw us that night. Millions and millions. Then last year’s summer tour of Canada was unbelievable. We were playing huge hockey arenas and they were packed. The roofs about came off every night.”

That tour was captured on the platinum-selling album, “Running Back Thru Canada,” released Dec. 5 on Vik/BMG in Canada. The double-disc set includes such classic-rock staples as “These Eyes,” “Laughing,” “No Time,” “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature” and “Share the Land.”

It doesn’t end there. “American Woman” was named the all-time best Canadian rock song in a JAM! Music survey; last fall, a group of diehard fans started an online petition (www.petitiononline.com/tfh1/petition.html) demanding that The Guess Who be considered for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (the petition has more than 7,000 signatures – Their rightful argument: Hey, if the Lovin’ Spoonful can get in, why not The Guess Who?!); the group recently was awarded a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame; last month, band members were given honorary doctor of music degrees from Brandon University; fans can catch the group June 13 on the syndicated radio show Rockline, and a day later, The Guess Who will kick off the Radio & Records music convention in Los Angeles.

“Because of the live album being out and having done so well, we’ve also been talking about a box set,” Cummings said. “Of course, RCA is not the greatest place to be for your body of work; it’s a staff of youngbloods. They spend most of their time repackaging Elvis – the same 200 Elvis songs keep coming out in different packages. There will now definitely be a box set at some point, and it’ll probably be four discs and 100 cuts, because we did do 16 albums for RCA, from ’68 to ’75.

“And Randy and I are working on new stuff. Probably after this big tour, we’ll go in and cut an album of new songs. We’re finding that we can write again like we did before, because Randy and I are both kind of good at writing half-finished stuff and giving them to each other, and nine times out of 10, the other guy knows where to take it. That hasn’t disappeared either.”

Lest Guess Who fans forget, Cummings and Bachman reteamed briefly in the late 1980s as the Bachman-Cummings Band.

“In 1987, we did a tour of the states,” Cummings said. “We were doing Guess Who stuff and BTO stuff and also some of my solo stuff. That was a pretty good band, but it never continued. We kind of fell by the wayside; we didn’t talk to each other for a long time.

“This time around, as The Guess Who again, this has been very friendly. We’re all middle-aged now. All the baggage, whatever baggage there was around, has disappeared. In a lot of cases, when bands reunite, it’s kind of lame because one or two guys have died, or in many cases, people haven’t remained in music, and so when they pick up their instruments, they don’t have the chops. In our case, all of us have stayed in music all this time. We’ve all been playing, just not together.

“This isn’t lame by any sense of the imagination. We’re all better players than we’ve ever been, so it’s really quite valid. And our continued popularity is a testimonial to the songs. We wrote some pretty good songs, and there’s quite a body of work there.”

As for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cummings says he and the others would show up in Cleveland with bells on – if it ever happens.

“That’s pretty prestigious,” he said, “because there have been a lot of artists over the years that have surfaced out of Canada, like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and Blood, Sweat & Tears. When you come down to it, we were probably the first autonomous rock band out of Canada. There were Canadians that surfaced before us, like Paul Anka, but we were probably the first ones that had an identity musically that had any kind of staying power.”

That staying power continues today. Just check your local classic-rock station: “American Woman” is played several times a day, and it figured prominently in the Oscar-winning films “American Beauty” and “Almost Famous.”

Cummings, who penned the lyrics, balks at any suggestions that the Vietnam War-era song was anti-American.

“It was never really written as a message,” he said. “It was jammed onstage one night, and there happened to be a kid bootlegging the show. Later, we got the tape from this kid; it was like 1968 or early ’69. Cassette machines were a fairly new invention, the little portable ones with condenser mikes. We saw this kid bootlegging the show, and I mouthed to the road manager, ‘Get that tape.’ We ended up listening to it and recording it almost verbatim the way it came out.

“The irony to that is, had that kid not been bootlegging that show that night, the record never would have happened because it was just a jam. It was totally made up onstage. All those lyrics were a stream of consciousness at the moment. It was never a premeditated message so much as it was something that just happened at the moment.

“Vietnam was a bit of a factor, but it was never meant to be political. I didn’t sit down and concoct lyrics to be political; it was more that we had been touring the states on the strength of ‘These Eyes,’ ‘Laughing’ and ‘Undun,’ and when we came back from Canada, the girls didn’t seem to grow up as fast as the girls in the states. What came out of my mouth was ‘American woman, stay away from me,’ but if I recall, I was thinking along the lines of ‘Canadian woman, I prefer you,’ but what came out of my mouth was ‘American woman, stay away from me.’ People read a lot of political inference into it.”

Many people, in fact, assume the “American woman” he refers to is the Statue of Liberty.

“I’ve heard that a lot and have read it in reviews,” Cummings said, “but I guess when it came out in 1970, Vietnam was at a particular point of escalation. The timing was right, and it worked hand in hand with the song. That song changed things for us. We had had hit records before, but none of them was as big as that. It took us to a whole other level.”

THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “My mother bought me a 78 of Elvis’ ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Don’t Be Cruel.’ I still have it. I’m sure it’s worth something. I’m 53 now, but I was getting interested in rock ‘n’ roll before 45s came along. I’m old enough to remember when Elvis hit; I remember seeing him on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ and ‘The Steve Allen Show.’ We had just gotten television; it was brand-new in Canada.”

THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “I remember seeing Fats Domino at the old Winnipeg Auditorium, and that was a fantastic show. But before that, it might’ve been one of those Cavalcade of Stars that came through, from Dick Clark.”

THE MOST OVERLOOKED GUESS WHO SONG?: “Definitely a song called ‘Dreams,’ from our very last album, called ‘Power in the Music.’ It was written by Domenic Troiano and myself; it’s one of the best Guess Who things of all time. It has a great set of lyrics, which I wrote very long, flowery about different snippets of things I had dreamed during the years. It had a great melody and a tremendous vocal, some wonderful guitar playing. Just one of those magical moments. I don’t know if it ever was a single or not, because certainly by that time we weren’t getting much support at an FM level. I’m going to call a lot of attention to that one when we put the box set together.”

THE GUESS WHO ON THE WEB: The domain name www.theguesswho.com is under construction, so keep your eye out for it. Other fan sites – The Guess Who Page, Steiss’s The Guess Who Site, Salt Spring Music.

BWF (before we forget): The Guess Who album discography – “Shakin’ All Over” (Quality, 1965); “Hey Ho (What You Do to Me)” (1965); “It’s Time” (1966); “The Guess Who” (1968); “Wheatfield Soul” (RCA, 1968); “Canned Wheat” (1969); “American Woman” (1970); “Share the Land” (1970); “So Long, Bannatyne” (1971); “The Guess Who Play the Guess Who” (1971); “Rockin’ ” (1972); “The Guess Who Live at the Paramount” (1972); “Wild One” (1972); “#10” (1973); “Artificial Paradise” (1973); “Road Food” (1974); “Flavours” (1975); “Power in the Music” (1975); “The Way They Were” (1976); “Together Again” (1984); “Track Record: The Guess Who Collection” (1988); “Lonely One” (Intersound, 1995); “Liberty” (1995); “The Guess Who: Ultimate Collection” (RCA, 1997); “The Spirit Lives On” (J-Bird, 1998); “Running Back Thru Canada” (Vik/BMG, 2001).

Gerry Galipault @https://twitter.com/Pauseandplay

Gerry Galipault debuted Pause & Play online in October 1997. Since then, it has become the definitive place for CD-release dates — with a worldwide audience.

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