|Tom Hull's Old Rock Critic Writings|
BTO Is No Big Deal
About the only time critics have much good to say about Bachman-Turner Overdrive is in reviewing Guess Who albums. Which is all right -- BTO doesn't really have much to say to critics and, for that matter, there really isn't much critics can do about BTO.
It is not simply that BTO records sell millions no matter how much critics might badmouth them -- BTO sidesteps the whole critical process. The album covers, smattered with concert pics, suggest a touring band that cuts at public presence needing no critical intervention. BTO delivers reliable product to a specific audience, and they do a pretty good job of it. Randy Bachman himself once described the band as a surrogate for Creedence Clearwater and Led Zeppelin. He saw a gap in the marketplace and, shrewd entrepreneur that he is, staked out a piece of it.
The result is no big deal. I like it. Not Fragile in fact was my favorite album last year, but that, too, doesn't mean much. They have hit on a formula even simpler than their mentors': gobs of bass, lots of volume, it fills the room, sounds great on the radio, and only mildly tedious on record. The new album, Four Wheel Drive, is more of the same, actually not quite as solid and enjoyable as BTO II or Not Fragile. "Hey You" is a surefire single with an odd twist and the rest does its level best to keep pace, even "Lowland Fling," a song so off-the-wall it rates simply as an atrocity.
BTO lyrics are no big deal either. Mostly you don't pay much attention to them, an honorable rock and roll tradition, and when you do sometimes they're not too bad, pretty nice even, an added bonus. Like "Rock Is My Life" off Not Fragile, for instance, a personal credo which celebrates their audience in a way "artistic" pretensions can never quite permit, emitting a sense of humility so rare in rock today that the Dictators can affect one merely by bathing in their arrogance.
Actually, this is the nicest thing about BTO: their attitude, their lack of pretension -- straight, clean living, hard working rock 'n' roll stars, not above having a good time. They have achieved considerable maturity in their work with no compromise to sophistication; even their much vaunted plagiarism is so honest it almost comes off as tribute.
This lack of pretension is perhaps the hardest of all from critics to take, for whom the only thing more contemptible than the crassness of Randy Bachman bragging about his gate in Fargo is Fargo itself. BTO may be no big deal, but their audience is something else: they demand respect and understanding. BTO comes as close to doing that as any band I can think of, and that's what they should do.
It is not likely that Randy Bachman would ever wind up working a factory stretch, but that he would see it as an alter fate is significant. It is the fate suffered by so many BTO appeal to. That the band and their audience can share in some vision that they'd love to work at nothing all day, is a bond no criticism can reproach. Music finally revolves not around chord changes and progressions but the lives, work, and hopes of those who participate in it. To ignore that is one's own impoverishment.
Bachman-Turner Overdrive is the most elementary force in music today. They have found and refined that point which rock starts out from, that point it always comes back to. It is a music of survival and strength; they do it with decency, taste, and respect. God bless 'em.