It was 1974 and Canadian hard rock outfit Bachman-Turner Overdrive were enjoying their first taste of success with the twin punch hits of “Takin’ Care Of Business” and “Let It Ride.” That’s when the quartet entered the studio to record their third album, the one that was supposed to take them to the next level, and that album, Not Fragile did just that, producing two more hits and to this day is widely regarded as their best overall effort.
BTO’s brand of meat ‘n’ potatoes, blue collar rock stood in direct opposition of some of the artsy prog rock that was at the height of its popularity at the time—indeed, the title Not Fragile is said to be the answer to Yes’ Fragile. They played up the part to perfection, naming “Overdrive” after a trucker magazine, dressed in regular street garb devoid of sequins, platform shoes and open shirts. With lyrics anybody older than three can understand. That compliment sounds a bit backhanded, but BTO at their best executed the game plan to near perfection, and when they did, they were a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. Never were they executing as well as they were on Not Fragile.
I’m not saying every song on here is a winner (truthfully, very few albums are that good), but there’s plenty to justify keeping the 8-track player cranked up in the Firebird or testing the limits of those big wooden cabinet speakers with the 25 pound magnets in the living room. That projecting, gravelly vocal of bass player C.F. “Fred” Turner was perfectly matched to the monster guitar riffs, and helped to make a road anthem like “Roll On Down Down Of Highway” a perfect slice of diesel-powered hard rock. He also contributed the straight-at-ya, bottom-heavy title track, the best deep cut on here.
The unlikeliest success story of the album grew out of a joke Randy Bachman tried to play on his stuttering brother. Taped during the Not Fragile and not intended for anything but some sibling ribbing, the label head listened to it and immediately thought “winner,” insisting it go on the album as-is. An embarrassed Bachman braced himself for the destruction of the band. Instead, he landed a #1 hit in 21 countries and BTO’s only million selling single. You know that song as “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.”
Bachman’s fingerprints are everywhere. As producer, primary songwriter and co-lead vocal, his contributions were important, but none were more crucial as his guitar work. Revisiting this album after decades away and with the ear-opening magic of remastering, it becomes easier to appreciate what a versatile, powerful and, yes, tasteful guitarist this Canadian icon of crushing riffs really is, and on a record that isn’t known for subtleties. For all the exhibition of prototypical of rock leads like on “Highway” or “Sledgehammer,” you can find graceful, jazzy picking on the goofy “Rock Is My Life, And This Is My Song,” and Allman Brothers-like bluesy leads on the Duane Allman tribute “Free Wheelin’.” That song, the lone instrumental, was contributed by the just-arrived second lead guitarist Blair Thornton, who prior to this was in a band that included the father of famed Vancouver jazz vocalist Heidi McCurdy. As the drummer (and composer of “Highway”), Randy’s brother Rob wasn’t flashy like that more famous Canadian drummer, but his no-nonsense, powerhouse approach suited the music just right.
When it’s all said and done, Not Fragile is an artifact of its time, but in coming back to this album, it also reminds me of what made that period such a good time for rock music. Back then, hard rock was still rooted in the blues, and BTO, following closely in the footsteps of ZZ Top and early Led Zeppelin, held tightly to that connection between the two related forms of music. In just three years, Randy Bachman would leave the band and BTO was for all intents finished at that point. But this double lead guitar with no keyboards band left behind some of the best music of that style because it was lively, unpretentious and with Randy Bachman at his peak and in full command.
The Audio Fidelity Remaster of Not Fragile was released on October 18.