America is an Anglo-American folk rock band, originally comprised of members Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, and Dan Peek. The three members were barely past their teenage years when they became an overnight musical sensation in 1972; they reached a peak in popularity in the early to mid 1970s and early 1980s. Among the band's best known songs are "A Horse With No Name", "Sister Golden Hair" (both of which reached Number One), "Ventura Highway", and "Tin Man".
Although their music was frequently derided by critics, from a commercial standpoint the band's singles and albums were exceptionally successful. They were popular enough to attract the services of famed Beatles'
producer George Martin for a run of seven albums. The band survived the loss of one of its original members near the peak of its success only to see Beckley and Bunnell return the act to the top of charts as a duo with "You Can Do Magic" in 1982. Consistently touring for well over three decades, America still maintains a strong following and performs over 100 shows per year. On January 16, 2007, America released Here & Now, the band's first major label studio album in over twenty years.
Sons of American fathers and British mothers, their fathers being military personnel stationed at the West Ruislip USAF base in London, all three attended London Central High in Bushey, Hertfordshire in the mid-sixties where they met while playing in two different bands.
Peek left for the United States for an abortive attempt at college in 1969. Upon his return to the UK the following year, the three hooked up and began to collaborate on making music. Starting out with borrowed acoustic guitars, they developed a sound which incorporated three-part vocal harmony in the vein of contemporary folk-rock acts like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Eventually the trio dubbed themselves America, honoring the name of the homeland they had hardly ever seen during their many travels around the world. They played their first gigs in pubs and clubs in the London area, including some highlights at the Roundhouse, where Pink Floyd had been playing at the beginning of their own career.
Their first LP was recorded at Trident Studios in London and produced by Ian Samwell, best known as Cliff Richard's lead guitarist and the writer of his 1958 breakthrough hit, "Move It". Jeff Dexter, Ian's roommate and a fixture in the London music scene, helped produce the album and became the trio's manager. Although the trio initially envisioned recording the album along the lines of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Samwell steered them toward perfecting their acoustic style instead.
The album, simply titled America, was initially released in 1971 to only moderate success. Samwell and Dexter subsequently brought the trio to Morgan Studios to record several additional songs. One of them was a piece written by Bunnell called "Desert Song." Highly impressed with its potential, Samwell persuaded him to retitle it "A Horse With No Name". The song became a major worldwide hit in early 1972. America's debut album was re-released with the hit song newly added, and quickly went platinum. The album spawned a second major chart hit with Beckley's "I Need You". Other fan favorites from the album included "Sandman", "Riverside" and "Three Roses".
Flush with success from their initial offering, the trio decided to dump Samwell and Dexter, and relocate to Los Angeles, California, home to such popular contemporary acts as The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. Plans to record a follow-up album were delayed somewhat both by the move and an injury to Peek's arm. Deciding not to replace Samwell, the group opted to produce the album by themselves. The trio began their move away from a purely acoustic approach to a more rock-oriented sound with the help of Hal Blaine on drums and Joe Osborn on bass. Peek began to play lead electric guitar on more tracks.
America's second album, appropriately titled Homecoming, was released in November 1972. The group struck gold yet again with the Top Ten hit, "Ventura Highway", penned by Bunnell and best remembered for a unique acoustic guitar riff added late in the recording process by Beckley. Follow-up singles, including Peek's "Don't Cross the River" and Beckley's "Only In Your Heart", were somewhat less successful, but not enough to deny the group a Grammy Award for Best New Artist of 1972.
The group's output became increasingly ambitious. Their third offering, Hat Trick, was released in October 1973 after several months of recording at the Record Plant Studios in Los Angeles. Again self-produced, the album featured strings, harmonicas, an eight-minute title track, and tap dancing. Beckley, Bunnell, and Peek were once again joined by Blaine on drums, while Osborn was replaced by David Dickey on bass. Although the album's title hinted at the trio's commercial ambitions, the album was not as successful as Homecoming, featuring only one minor hit single, "Muskrat Love". "Muskrat," penned by Texas folk singer Willis Alan Ramsey, would later become famous as a Top Ten hit by The Captain and Tennille in 1976.
After the disappointing commercial performance of Hat Trick, America opted to produce their next album with outside help. They were able to secure the services of perhaps the most legendary producer of the rock era, George Martin, who played a major role in shaping the sound of The Beatles during the mid- to late-1960s. As America had developed a reputation for lengthy studio sessions, Martin agreed on the condition that the group record its next album in the UK. As it turned out, Beckley, Bunnell, and Peek were so intent on impressing Martin that they came to the studio with their tracks well rehearsed, and the album was cut within a few weeks in early 1974.
The resulting album, Holiday, was released in June 1974. (By this time the group had consciously begun naming their albums with titles starting with the letter "H".) Under Martin's guidance, the album's sound marked a sharp break from America's first three efforts, as he embellished the trademark America sound of acoustic guitars and vocals with an abundance of strings and brass.
The trio soon found themselves in the Top Ten once again with the first single from Holiday, the Bunnell-penned "Tin Man", featuring cryptic lyrics set to a Wizard of Oz theme. Peek's inspirational "Lonely People" followed "Tin Man" into the Top Ten in early 1975.
Martin agreed to work with the trio again for their follow-up LP, Hearts, recorded in Sausalito, California, and released in March 1975. America scored its second chart topping hit with Beckley's "Sister Golden Hair" in mid-1975, a song which featured a memorable guitar riff admittedly inspired by George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." The follow-up single, Beckley's ballad "Daisy Jane", also nicked the Top Twenty later in 1975. Peek's reggae-influenced "Woman Tonight" was a third and final hit from the album.
Warner Bros. released a compilation of America's best-known tracks in December 1975, History: America's Greatest Hits, which itself soon went platinum. Martin, who produced the album, got the opportunity to remix tracks culled from the group's first three albums recorded prior to his stint as producer.
In early 1976, the group recorded its sixth studio album at Caribou Ranch near Nederland, Colorado, lending the album's title, Hideaway. Martin was again at the helm. Released in April 1976, the LP was not quite as successful as Holiday or Hearts, although it did spawn two hit singles. "Today's The Day", a Top Forty hit written by Peek, was actually inspired by the tendency of his dog to run away. "Amber Cascades" featured Bunnell's trademark opaque but evocative lyrics and unusual chord arrangements, and made a brief appearance on the charts in mid-1976.
Martin and the trio headed to Hawaii in late 1976 to work on the group's seventh studio album. The album was recorded in a beach house on the island of Kauai. The album, entitled Harbor, ultimately continued the trend of declining fortunes for the group. It was their first album which failed go either platinum or gold, and for the first time, the group was unable to muster a hit single.
Shortly after Harbor was released in February 1977, Dan Peek left the band. Peek recently had renewed his Christian faith after years of unhappy experimentation with drugs and a fast lifestyle, and had begun to seek a different artistic direction than Beckley or Bunnell. Peek went on to sign with Pat Boone's Lamb & Lion Records, and issued his first solo album, All Things Are Possible, in 1978. The album, produced by Chris Christian, proved successful, and Peek found a niche as a pioneering artist in the emerging Christian pop music genre. The title track even entered the Billboard pop charts in the fall of 1979, peaking at Number 79.
Meanwhile, Beckley and Bunnell decided to soldier on as America. They wrapped up their contract with Warner Bros. by releasing their first concert LP, Live, in October 1977. Recorded at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, the performance featured a backing orchestra conducted by Elmer Bernstein. The concert was recorded shortly after Peek left the group, making it America's first release as a duo. The album spent a brief sojourn on the pop charts.
After more than two years without new studio material, in March 1979 Beckley and Bunnell rolled out the group's new look with a cover of The Mamas & The Papas classic song, "California Dreamin"', part of the soundtrack for the movie "California Dreaming." Although the movie was a commercial flop and the soundtrack was issued on an obscure label called American Int'l, the single nonetheless made it as high as Number 56 on the charts.
America's first studio album without Peek, Silent Letter, was released in June 1979 on their new label, Capitol Records. The album, once again produced by Martin, was recorded in Montserrat in the West Indies by the members of the live band, which by then had grown to include Beckley, Bunnell, bassist David Dickey, longtime drummer Willie Leacox, new lead guitarist Michael Woods, Jim Calire on keyboards and sax, and Tom Walsh on percussion. The album featured a more edgy sound than their previous material, and the group began to utilize songs from other songwriters as they sought out a winning commercial approach. Bunnell observed that Silent Letter's first single, the power-pop oriented "Only Game In Town", was prompted by the Fleetwood Mac sound then in vogue on FM radio. "Game" was unable to break into the pop charts, however, although two subsequent Beckley singles, "All My Life" and "All Around", did made inroads on the adult charts. The album itself rose no higher than Number 110 on the charts, leading a befuddled Bunnell to sarcastically dub the album Silent Record.
America continued to evolve as the 1980s began. For their next album, Alibi, released in August 1980, Beckley and Bunnell sought fresh blood in the form of producers Matthew McCauley and Fred Mollin. They also reached out to key players from the West Coast music scene, such as The Eagles' Timothy B. Schmit, Leland Sklar and Steve Lukather, to help smooth their sound. Alibi eschewed the strings and brass of the typical Martin project in favor of a more tightly-crafted pop-rock approach. It also became the third studio album in a row without a hit single in the United States, although Beckley's "Survival" reached the top of the charts in Italy. The album's sales were less than stellar, peaking at Number 142.
America's next album, View From the Ground, released in July 1982, finally succeeded in bringing Beckley and Bunnell back to commercial success. The album, recorded under the working title Two Car Garage, featured a number of songs produced by the duo themselves. As with Alibi, Beckley and Bunnell brought in a number of talented musicians, including The Beach Boys' Carl Wilson, Toto's Jeff Porcaro, Christopher Cross and Dean Parks. But it was former Argent frontman Russ Ballard who made the biggest impact on the group's fortunes. Ballard produced and played most of the instruments on a song he crafted especially for the band, called "You Can Do Magic". The song rose quickly through the pop charts, and reached as high as Number Eight on the Billboard pop singles chart for a number of weeks in October 1982, the band's first major hit in seven years. Following "Magic" was the single "Right Before Your Eyes" an homage to silent movie stars better known to listeners as "Rudolph Valentino" due to its memorable refrain. Penned by Ian Thomas (brother of comedian Dave Thomas of Strange Brew fame), and produced by Bobby Colomby, the single barely missed the Top Forty in early 1983. Although View From the Ground failed to achieve gold sales, it reached as high as Number 41 on the album charts, a significant improvement over the previous few releases.
Having tasted success with Ballard, Beckley and Bunnell decided to have the former Argent star produce their next album, Your Move, in its entirety. In the end, Ballard wound up writing most of the songs and performing most of the instruments in addition to his production duties. For the most part Beckley and Bunnell were singers on an album that Ballard had crafted for them, although they did contribute some material of their own. On one track, Bunnell decided to rewrite Ballard's lyrics, and the hit song "The Border" was the result. Set to the backing of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the saxophone work of Raphael Ravenscroft, the single reached Number 33 on the charts in August 1983. "The Border" was far more successful on the adult contemporary charts, where it reached Number Four (even besting "You Can Do Magic"). A second single, Ballard's "Cast The Spirit", failed to chart. The album itself, released in June 1983, was reasonably successful at Number 81, but something of a disappointment when compared to its predecessor.
America's work was also featured on several soundtracks during this period. Beckley and Bunnell contributed several tracks to The Last Unicorn soundtrack in 1982. The soundtrack became popular in Germany, and the group frequently plays its title track when touring in that country. America also recorded "Love Comes Without Warning" for the 1984 Steve Martin comedy, The Lonely Guy.
Dan Peek emerged from several years of musical obscurity in May 1984, releasing his second solo Christian album, Doer of The Word, on Home Sweet Home Records. Once again produced by Chris Christian, the album's title track featured Beckley on backing vocals. Peek would issue two more solo albums over the next few years, including Electro Voice (1986) and Crossover (1987).
Meanwhile, America opted for a decidedly different direction from its previous offerings for its twelfth studio album, Perspective, released in September 1984. Ballard was out, and synthesizers and drum machines were in. Several different producers, including Richie Zito, Matthew McCauley, and Richard James Burgess, helped create an electronic pop sound that was very much in step with the '80s, but drastically at odds with America's acoustic trademark. "Special Girl", the album's first single, was culled from outside songwriters and failed to make the charts. The next single, "Can't Fall Asleep to a Lullaby", was co-penned by Bunnell, Journey's Steve Perry, Robert Haimer, and Bill Mumy, the latter of Lost In Space fame. Although neither track broke out on pop radio, both did achieve minor success on the adult contemporary charts. The album itself was unable to climb higher than Number 185 during a brief three-week stint on the charts in October 1984.
Their commercial momentum by now spent, Beckley and Bunnell ended their Capitol contract with In Concert, released in July 1985. The concert was recorded at the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara, California, on June 1, 1985. In Concert became the first America album to miss the charts entirely.
Beckley and Bunnell spent the latter half of the 1980s focusing on their live show, which they performed well over 100 times a year around the world. While America remained a hot ticket on the touring circuit, they were unable to land a recording contract in the years after they left the Capitol label.
By the early 1990s, the rise of the compact disc led to the reissuing of many popular albums from the rock era, providing many popular acts like America with a revived niche in the record industry. In 1991, America was able to offer four brand new tracks as part of a collection issued by Rhino Records called Encore: More Greatest Hits, which was designed to complement the group's original 1975 retrospective. Standout tracks included the Bunnell-Haimer-Mumy collaboration "Nothing's So Far Away (As Yesterday)" and Beckley's "On Target".
America's resurgence caught the eye of Chip Davis of American Gramaphone Records, who signed the group to his label. In May 1994, America released its first new studio album in a decade with Hourglass. Produced primarily by Beckley and Bunnell, with help from Hank Linderman and Steve Levine, the album featured an eclectic group of songs. "Young Moon", a rare joint songwriting effort from Bunnell and Beckley, was a sleek effort, combining Beckley's love ballad formula with Bunnell's visual imagery. In contrast, "Greenhouse" featured a rough, rocking sound performed by the live band. Re-recordings of "You Can Do Magic" and "Everyone I Meet Is From California" were also included. In the end, despite garnering generally positive reviews, the album failed to catch on commercially.
In 1995, while in between America projects, Beckley delivered his long-anticipated debut solo album. Entitlted Van Go Gan, the album experimented with various styles and sounds. Beckley also revisited some early America material, including a remake of "I Need You". "Now Sue" was inspired by the track "Till The Sun Comes Up Again" (from the Homecoming album) when played backwards. Comedian Phil Hartman (who in his earlier career as a graphic artist had designed the "America" logo, as well as many other bands of the 70s) was featured as the uproarious voice of a televangelist preacher on "Playing God". Although it received exceptionally warm reviews, the album was only available as an expensive Japanese import.
Dan Peek, who had remained largely silent since Crossover, made a modest resurgence in the mid-1990s through his trio of collaborations with Brian Gentry and Ken Marvin of the Nashville-based group, PEACE.
America fans were also treated to a newly-released concert album in 1995. Released by King Biscuit's record label, the concert was actually taken from a 1982 installment of the King Biscuit Flower Hour radio show. Known as In Concert (not to be confused with the 1985 Capitol release of the same name), King Biscuit experienced modest success with the album.
This success wound up leading to a new record deal with King Biscuit's subsidiary label, Oxygen Records. After rumors that Steely Dan producer Gary Katz would produce the project came and went, the album eventually reached the stores in September 1998. The new album, entitled Human Nature after the name of Beckley's home recording studio, was accompanied by a modest commercial blitz. The first single, Beckley's "From A Moving Train," featured a strongly acoustic style. The track received considerable airplay and moderate success in adult contemporary formats. Reports claimed that the song was a major success in the pop charts in Spain. A second attempt at a single in "Wednesday Morning" was somewhat less successful. Although the album had a number of strong tracks, in the end it failed to garner the sales that Oxygen was expecting, and America was once again without a record deal.
The next few years saw the group's catalog expand with a number of side projects, reissues of older albums on CD, and several major retrospective releases. In July 2000, Rhino released Highway: 30 Years Of America, a three-CD box set which included 64 remastered tracks spanning the group's career. Included were a handful of alternative mixes and demos such as an early take of a stripped-down "Ventura Highway." A year later, in August 2001, Rhino released a trimmed-down single disc compilation, The Complete Greatest Hits, which assembled all of the group's 17 charting Billboard singles for the first time. The disc also included two newly-recorded songs, "World Of Light" and "Paradise." The album represented another milestone for the group. Peaking at Number 152 on the Billboard album charts in October 2001, The Complete Greatest Hits was America's first charting album since Perspective in 1984.
On the solo front, in February 2000 Beckley released Go Man Go, an album remixing a number of tracks from Van Go Gan. The original Van Go Gan album finally saw its initial domestic release that July with bonus tracks. June saw the roll-out of another Beckley side project, Like A Brother, recorded with Robert Lamm of Chicago and the late Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys under the name Beckley-Lamm-Wilson. Dan Peek resurfaced in 1999 with a new website and his first solo release in many years, Bodden Town.
America had a somewhat unusual return to prominence in 2001 with the smash success of Janet Jackson's single "Someone to Call My Lover." Jackson's track wove the famous "Ventura Highway" guitar riff into a song which rose to Number Three on the Billboard pop charts, and introduced one of America's most recognizable melodies to a whole new generation.
America fans were treated to new material in late 2002. In October, the group released its first Christmas album, Holiday Harmony. Produced by Andrew Gold, the album received positive reviews for its imaginative weaving of elements of classic America tunes into familiar holiday standards. Included were three new tracks, including a Bunnell-penned ode to "Ventura Highway" called "Christmas In California," featuring Beckley on lead vocals.
One month later, in November 2002, America released a live album, The Grand Cayman Concert. Recorded the previous April in the Cayman Islands, the concert featured just Beckley and Bunnell on acoustic guitars, a throwback to the earliest days of their career. Included were their most familiar songs along with a few rarities, such as "Wind Wave" and "Pigeon Song."
After this spurt of new material, the band retreated from the music studio, as Beckley and Bunnell focused their energy on their consistently full and lucrative touring schedule. America occasionally offered new DVDs, such as a re-release of their 1979 concert film, Live In Central Park, a 2004 concert at the Sydney Opera House, and a 2005 show at the Ventura Concert Theater joined with Stephen Bishop and Andrew Gold directed by Sheldon Osmond. Also in 2005, America appeared on the PBS concert series SoundStage with long-time friend Christopher Cross.
In April 2006, after a handful of solo concerts, Beckley released his second solo album of all-new material, the well-received Horizontal Fall.
After over two decades operating in the shadows of the music industry, the dream of a full-scale commercial comeback still seemed far-fetched for America as the year 2006 opened. Although the group remained very much active and popular in the nostalgia concert circuit and had occasionally issued new material on minor labels, their offerings were largely ignored by the wider commercial music industry and record-buying public.
However, a fateful connection would provide a sudden and unexpected change in fortune for the group. During the mid-2000s, Beckley struck up a correspondence with Adam Schlesinger of the indie-rock group Fountains of Wayne. Beckley had been a fan of the 2003 Fountains of Wayne album Welcome Interstate Managers, and Schlesinger turned out to be a fan of America's work. The exchange of songs between the two led them to record a few tracks together. The recordings came to the attention of SonyBMG's new Burgundy Records label, which was impressed both by the quality of the material and by the possibility of pairing America with other indie artists. The label signed America to record a new album with Schlesinger and his musical partner, James Iha, formerly of The Smashing Pumpkins, at the production helm. Entitled Here and Now, it would be America's first major-label studio album since Perspective in 1984.
The recording sessions at Stratosphere Sound in New York City, which ran through July, attracted a number of notable guest musicians, including Ryan Adams, Ben Kweller, along with members from the groups Nada Surf and My Morning Jacket. Seasoned veterans Stephen Bishop and Rusty Young lended helping hands as well.
In an effort to aim the album toward both younger and older audiences, the label decided to bundle the new album with a second disc comprising live performances of every track from History: America's Greatest Hits, previously recorded at XM Radio as part of XM's Then Again...Live series. In the run-up to the album's scheduled release on January 16, 2007, America attracted a publicity buzz unseen since the early 1980s. In addition, early positive reviews of the album suggested a possible critical reappraisal of the group's work and legacy and the possibility that 1970s soft-rock could become "cool" and "hip" with a newer generation of musicians and fans.
Ever since Dan Peek left the group in May 1977, speculation has abounded as to whether he could or would return to the fold. The split was certainly amicable. On Peek's 1978 solo debut album, All Things Are Possible, Beckley and Bunnell sang back-up vocals on the track "Love Was Just Another Word." According to Bunnell, at around that time Peek even joined the group onstage to perform a few songs during a concert at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. On Peek's 1984 follow-up album, Doer Of The Word, Beckley provided prominent backing vocals on the title track. In November 1999, credible rumors began to spread that unreleased demo recordings from the early 1980s featuring Beckley and Bunnell collaborating with Peek would be released on CD sometime in early 2000. No such recordings have been released to date.
The questions about a possible reunion of the original trio began not long after Peek left the group. When asked about the prospects for a reunion in the early 1980s, Beckley and Bunnell stated that they were happy for Peek in that he had found a new life and a new direction, but that it was unlikely there would be a reunion. "All things are possible, like [Dan] says," Beckley told radio host Lew Irwin in 1982, but "it just doesn't seem in the cards." Within a few years, however, Peek had begun to publicly entertain just such thoughts. "Like they said and like I said, all things are possible," Peek told interviewer Steve Orchard in 1985. "I really have my fingers crossed. I would love to get back together [with them] and do some things."
In 2000, Peek began posting a number of weekly "episodes" to his website relating to his experiences prior to and during his years in America. Peek raised a few eyebrows both for his candid discussion of his experiences with drugs and religion and for his observations of Beckley and Bunnell. Eventually, Peek compiled the material into a book entitled An American Band, which was released in late 2004.
Gerry and Dewey have never created a project that paid tribute to their favorite songs and songwriters, until now, that is. Back Pages (2011) is a rich, joyous collection of a dozen glimmering interpretations. The songlist stretches back in time to the ‘60s British Invasion (The Zombies “Time of The Season” ) right up to right now ( “A Road Song”, a brand new song by Fountains of Wayne.) Along the way, America offers new renditions of new standards by Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson, Jimmy Webb, and more.
In many ways, America’s journey in music, still very much in progress, reflects the story of a whole nation of listeners for whom the tunes on Back Pages continue to matter. This delightful album offers a fresh take on timeless songs and proves that, for all of their own rich history, America still has the ability to surprise and enchant us.