If you’re a fan of the band America – the trio behind such classic rock warhorses as, well, “A Horse with No Name” along with “Sister Golden Hair,” “Ventura Highway,” “Tin Man,” “Lonely People,” “Sandman,” “I Need You,” and “You Can Do Magic,” you have one organization to thank: The United States Air Force.
Singer/guitarists Dewey Bunnell, Gerry Beckley, and Dan Peek met in late ‘60s London, England. That’s where their active duty military fathers were stationed, and all three attended the same high school. After stints with other groups, the teens were inspired by the acoustic music of the day (and especially Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) to form their own act.
Combining a brand of jukebox, the name of a defunct band, and their own yearning for the home country, they decided to call the group “America.” Barely out of their teens, their first single was a No. 1 hit in Bunnell’s country psychedelic “A Horse with No Name.” Which in a neat circle, replaced Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” for the slot in 1972. Even as many people assumed that Young was the voice on “Horse!”
The 50-year journey of America is told in music journalist Jude Warne’s America the Band: An Authorized Biography (288 pp., $24.95, Rowman & Littlefield).
The book’s genesis began when Warne interviewed Beckley for his 2016 solo album Carousel. As the only tome about the group out there was Peek’s memoir, she approached the band’s management about doing a full-on biography. After about year of contact and finding a publisher, everyone agreed to terms. It also gave Warne access to the band’s archives and many, many hours of new interviews with Beckley and Bunnell (Peek left the band in 1977 and passed away In 2011).
“I could tell that they [Bunnell and Beckley] wanted to get their story down the way that it happened in their recollections, and we were all motivated to get it right in terms of the facts,” Warne says.
While Warne was somewhat familiar with the music, it wasn’t until she was working on her 2015 New York University master’s thesis (which compared the literature of Sherwood Anderson to Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town album) that she really discovered America. She admits it was an “anxious” period while deciding about her future.
“Mom played their Greatest Hits record for me, and I had found the sonic experience I was looking for. To me, they reminded me of the Beatles, that positivity. And that made me want to go into the deep cuts,” she says.
In the book, Warne discusses America’s as a “Logo Band.” A group – like Chicago, REO Speedwagon, Yes, Grand Funk Railroad, Foreigner, or the Doobie Brothers – where the average person might have trouble coming up with actual band member’s name, but certainly knows the logo and the hits.
“At the height of their career, there’s an interview I quote in the book where the members are frustrated that people might not know them as individuals. But the music was so recognizable and successful,” Warne says. She puts it down to the fact that the band avoided any controversy or tales of wild rock and roll behavior that would get their names out there. Also, there was no “lead singer” (though the trio did use extra musicians for live concerts and recordings).
America – like most other classic rock bands – are still finding new fans among Millennials and Gen Z, who have unprecedented access to music and videos of classic rock-era bands via Spotify or YouTube. Which can have an even greater influence than a parents’ record (or CD) collection.
“Everything is digitized and you can get it at the touch of a button. So the music is history, but a tangible piece of history,” Warne offers. “And they can view it as art rather as nostalgia with [no] memories attached to it.”
After severe drug and alcohol problems led him to leave America, Dan Peek became a born again Christian and then mostly a Christian music artist. America as a duo has lasted far longer than America as a trio, even if the hits dried up by the early ‘80s. Still, the current band (pre-COVID, of course) regularly plays around 100 shows a year to packed audiences and sometimes puts out new music.
Despite being offered insane money for a trio reunion tour or album at the behest of record companies and promoters, Bunnell and Beckley chose to remain a duo. Even after Peek himself warmed a bit to the idea.
"Gerry and I just felt...well, Dan never pursued it [a reunion] either. We were all resigned to our respective paths after he left. But, of course, the finality of his death quashed any idea," Bunnell told this writer in 2013. "But I don't have any terrible regret about it. We bring Dan to life every single night we're onstage, his contributions."
For her part, Warne recognizes that the key parts of the band’s catalog were recorded with the original lineup, but understands the mindset.
“[Gerry and Dewey] went through a rough patch after Dan left, and they had to rebuild and re-prove themselves to maintain their longevity. They remade the band,” she offers. “But [a reunion] always seemed semi-open to me.”
Her own “Desert Island Disc” for America is third studio effort, Hat Trick. “It’s my favorite album of theirs and one of my favorites of all time. It’s unique in that it has more of a concept sound to me, and the last album they produced on their own before they got to work with [Beatles producer] George Martin,” she says. “The ‘Hat Trick’ suite sounds like the Beatles to me, and ‘Green Monkey’ is a great rock and roll song.”
With this book, a new single CD anthology, box set, collection of rarities, and a fully booked tour schedule, America was hoping to celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2020 in grand style. But like every other band, the coronavirus put a squash on any live shows. Nevertheless, Warne is happy that the story of America is out finally there.
“The timing is just…I’m sure everyone has a version of that with things that were cancelled or put on hold, so not being on tour wasn’t part of the plan,” she says. “My book had just been sent to the printer’s in March when this all started. So I was glad it was even able to come out!”
For more on Jude Warne, visit JudeWarne.com
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