America Revisited - Part 1
by John Corbett
From A Small Car To The Big Time: The Beginning to 1972
Many people remember America the group as the youthful acoustic trio that sang "A Horse With No Name" over a quarter century ago. Others remember them as the group which made songs like "Tin Man" and "Sister Golden Hair" under famed producer George Martin. Younger fans recall them as the soft-pop duo who recorded "You Can Do Magic" and "The Border." While this is all true, there is much more to the story. Over the twenty-eight years of their existence, America has released fourteen full-length studio albums, nearly 200 songs -- 17 of which were charting hits in the United States -- two greatest hits collections, and at least four live albums. When they haven't been recording music, they have taken their sound to concerts in far-flung corners of the globe, converting multitudes of fans along the way. Human Nature, their latest album, is just the latest chapter in this long history of musical excellence.
The trio which would ultimately become known as America first met in Central High School in Watford, England, north of London, during the late 1960s. Each of the three, Gerry Beckley, Lee "Dewey" Bunnell, and Dan Peek, were sons of U.S. Air Force personnel serving abroad, and all three had moved around a great deal during their youth. "Sometimes I'm envious of people in the Midwest who live next door to their grandfather and know the same people all their lives," Dewey later mused. "We moved eighteen times in sixteen years. But it wasn't all bad. The thing I like about it was if I did something stupid, if I blew it in school, I told myself I wouldn't make the same mistake the next year in Omaha or wherever we'd be."
All three of them spent their early years constantly on the move. Dewey spent some time in California, Gerry in Virginia, and Dan in the Midwest, although they were constantly being uprooted as their fathers found themselves moved from state to state, country to country. Soon, their paths crossed in what Dan fondly recalls as "a little oasis of America" -- Central High School. "The whole vibe of the thing," explained Dan in a 1985 interview with America fan Steve Orchard, "was [that] the kids were trying to recreate your basic high school from the U.S." Rock magazine described the scene even further: "You can even get an American-style class ring when you graduate -- the guys are pretty sardonic about theirs."
Even though they weren't in America, the mystique of the States had its effect on the trio, although in differing degrees. "Both Dewey and Gerry's mothers were English," recalled Dan, "and they'd both been there for quite a while longer than I had, so by the time I got there I think they were really craving the America that they missed. There were some people -- I think I was probably one of them -- [who] tried to get a little more into the English culture and dress a little more English."
A 1972 article from Rock magazine goes a long way in explaining how the three gained such a nostalgic view of America in a time of turbulent social upheaval back home:
Gerry, Dan and Dewey -- even their names have that certain touch of basic American freshness and unspoiled simplicity about them. According to Dewey, the atmosphere of Central High was so insular a slice of xeroxed American reality, that it was simple for them to retain the instincts and accents of their homeland an ocean away. But -- oddity of oddities -- they grew up American these past six years, barely touched by the seething tides of culturalpolitico conflict with all its attendant heaviness and turmoil. It's left them with some innocence abroad...
Both Gerry and Dan had been involved in music since well before high school. Gerry had already taught piano and guitar by the age of fifteen. Dan had been playing the piano since age seven, and the guitar by age twelve, having picked up the latter while living in Pakistan. He and his older brother Tom formed a band; the two were successful enough to even land a record offer with a small label in Texas. But fate stepped in: "We had to say no as we were moving again well before the recording date. I thought then I'd missed opportunity's knock." But Dan wasn't to be deterred. As he later put it, "My heart was set on becoming a famous Rock Singer."
Once in Central High, Gerry and Dan both joined music groups. At one point, Dan's group won a battle of the bands contest. It wasn't enough to save the band, however, and when it broke up, Gerry invited Dan to join his. Dan is fond of his memories with Gerry's group, known as Daze. "We had a real good camaraderie and got along well and enjoyed the same kinds of music . . . [It] was the foundation of our music later."
In 1969, Dan graduated from Central High and decided to go back to the United States to attend college. He enrolled at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, as an English and Business major. Meanwhile, Dewey had taken Dan's place in Daze, but it turned out to be a short-lived arrangement. According to Dan, Gerry and Dewey split "under not altogether happy circumstances" and lost contact with one another.
By the summer of 1970, Dan had left Old Dominion and returned to England. He found that Dewey had gotten into the London acting scene. The two got jobs together in a snack bar as fry-cook and dishwasher. They began to hang out again, and Dan's eyes were opened. "[Dewey] grabbed the guitar one day, and he played me some songs he'd been writing, and I was just amazed because they were really nice . . . I wasn't even really aware that Dewey was a musician. I knew he played the guitar a little bit, but here he sat down and played me bits and pieces of what ultimately ended up being songs like 'Riverside' and 'Three Roses'. And I was pretty impressed."
Meanwhile, only Gerry had fully devoted himself to music, although that choice was not automatic. As Gerry explained a few years later:
I almost went to art school; I was interested in art and I was going to be an architect, because music seemed such an unlikely business to succeed in, as far as, at least, the commercial aspect. I mean, the professional aspect of art could be exploited -- I saw my sister become a successful interior designer, and so that seemed like something I could succeed in...
I did seriously consider prolonging my agony with musical training, but somehow I think I got a copy of the Harrow School of Music exam -- the final exams -- just for me to see what you needed to know. The problem was just the thought of getting into school for another four years. If I'd learned all that, I would have lost a lot of youth -- and that's what kind of helped us out, when we all started recording, and we were only seventeen or eighteen. If I'd been twenty-one or twenty-two, a classical music genius, it would have all been over for the development of the group.
Gerry decided to stay the musical course, and played with a band called Swallow The Buffalo when he wasn't busy earning his pay at a warehouse. Dan had found the time to renew contact with Gerry as well, playing in some demo sessions together, and soon he began the task of patching up the friendship between Dewey and Gerry. "It just seemed like a natural thing for the three of us, really the only guys that I knew of who were doing music from the old school."
At around this time, Dan had an experience which would loom large in later years. "By the time I reached the age of nineteen I was so completely frustrated with trying to make it in the music business that I got on my knees and made a bargain with God. I told Him that if He would make me successful and famous in music that I would use that as a platform to tell people about God." Perhaps the prayer worked. Only a miracle could explain the amazingly rapid rise of this obscure trio over the course of the next couple years. Years later, he described for Steve Orchard the atmosphere from which America arose in 1970:
We all got together at one point at a friend's house and sat around the kitchen table and arranged a song called "Children"... That was the beginning, really, of America. At that point, we literally ended up using a borrowed acoustic guitar -- we didn't have any acoustic guitars, in fact they'd sold most of our gear, period -- and we were hurting for a place to rehearse. Our folks I guess were kind of fed up with us -- we'd been out of high school long enough. They probably thought we all should have landed a good job by then and be off on our own careers, and here we were kinda hanging around the house.
So they kinda booted us all out, and we ended up at one point rehearsing in Dewey's car. If you know anything about English cars, they're quite small. So it was really cramped quarters, but I think it was probably good in that we could hear each other singing pretty well. So we worked extremely hard on arranging the songs we'd been writing and continuing to write. One thing led to another. We met a guy who knew some guys and knew how to pull a few strings and, eventually, by the grace of God, we ended up with a recording contract with Warner Bros.
That "guy" was Ian Samwell, best known for his work as lead guitarist and songwriter for Cliff Richard & The Shadows during the late 1950s. By 1970, Ian was working for Warner Bros. Records in London as a talent scout, having already made a name for himself in signing up such acts as Rod Stewart & The Faces and singer Linda Lewis. One day a man named Dave Hauson came into his office, saying he had a group Ian ought to hear, called Swallow The Buffalo. Ian himself describes what happened next in an October, 1998, interview:
[Dave] said, 'Look, they're up at the Roundhouse Studios right now. Can you come?' And it's only about a mile and a half or something. So I said, 'OK, I'll come up and listen.' When I got there, they had equipment problems, so instead of actually playing me something, they played me a tape. And in the middle of the tape was this guitar solo. So I said, 'Well, who played the guitar solo?' And they said, 'Oh, well it's this friend of ours, his name is Gerry Beckley.' And I said, 'Well, I wish you luck with your group. I don't really think they're anything that I would be interested in at this moment. But I'd love to meet the guitarist.' And then he started to tell me that Gerry was already in a group with a couple of friends. I said, 'Well have them come up to my office and we'll talk about it.'
Well, I invited them up to the office, and we talked about it, and they explained who they were and what they were doing. I said, Well, come on over to the house and play me some songs and things. I had a house which I shared with Jeff Dexter and Linda Lewis. It was a big house, so we had a music room and enough space to rehearse.
What I wanted them to do was get some experience playing around the clubs. And Jeff Dexter was the ideal man to do that, and he agreed to get them some shows, and out of that, he became their manager.
Jeff Dexter was a highly influential player in the British music scene in those days, acting both as a disc jockey and event organizer, who had shared living quarters with Ian after the latter's divorce. Dewey would later call him something of a "ringleader" in arranging and hosting shows. Ian explained how Jeff got the trio exposure through his own influence in the London scene:
At that point there really weren't many "big" clubs, but there certainly were clubs and pubs and things that you could play in, and Jeff Dexter knew everybody, and everybody knew Jeff, because he was a very identifiable character.
One day, according to legend, while sitting in a cafeteria mulling over what they should call themselves, the three spotted an "Americana" jukebox. The theme struck an instant chord with the trio, as it reminded them of their own longings to return to their homeland, longings which often came out in the music they played. They decided that they would call themselves America.
While the newly-christened America began to refine their act, Ian went to bat for them at Warner Bros, eventually arranging for them to cut a few demos. Gerry noted that "we went to the studio all red-faced and embarrassed with our guitars and these songs we'd written. When it was all over, we figured that was it, we were awful. But then they invited us back." Ian later observed:
It took about a year from the time that I first picked up on Gerry's guitar solo to the time we actually got them signed. Warner Bros. were a little bit reluctant; I don't think they got it. You know, they just didn't see it, and so in the end I said, 'Well, look, I'll produce it if you sign them,' and at that point they said fine.
America was not the first group Ian had produced, having worked with various acts from the London scene during the sixties before tiring of producing. To this day, he largely stays away from producing bands. "I still very rarely produce anything," he pointed out in the interview. "I have to actually totally believe in it, think I'm the right person for it. I'm not a 'gun for hire,' put it that way."
In paving the way for the first America album, Ian and the group had set about recording demo tracks and fine-tuning their sound. Ian describes the progress of the demo sessions:
We had already planned out what we were going to do. We had already recorded rough sketches in a very small demo studio called Central Sound, which is on Denmark Street in the center of London, and it is also known as Tin Pan Alley. So everybody in music would be there at one time or another... In the process of doing that I made all the amendments and alterations and things that you do in terms of pre-production.
Those amendments and alterations were critical in preserving the simple, acoustic sound which had enchanted London audiences for a broader record-buying public. According to Ian, America initially had different ideas when they came to Central Sound:
Their idea at the time was to do something more like Sgt. Pepper. They were very creative. They had tons of ideas. I said, It's not a good thing for you to be doing this. You won't be able to support it on stage. I love what you're doing just the way it is. We'll enhance it a little bit with the odd thing here and there, and of course the sound quality will be good. But if you start bringing in piccolo trumpets and anything else that George Martin might have done for Sgt. Pepper, then you're just not going to be able to live up to it on stage. And in any case, you're magic the way it is. Eventually they all agreed to that. I think they were a bit disappointed at the time.
Ian, Jeff, and America put the finishing touches on their album at Trident Studios in London in April 1971. "I chose Trident for a reason," Ian recalled with a certain amount of pride. "I thought it was the best studio in town. I chose Ken Scott to be the engineer because he was the best engineer, certainly for that project. And I chose Apple studios to master the album. The very next year, Music Week, which is the British equivalent of Billboard, voted Trident the best studio, Ken Scott the best engineer, and Apple the best cutting facility. So I think I got straight A's on that."
Largely acoustical in nature, the album was sparing in its use of electric guitars or drums. But when they were used, they were effective, as in the driving "Sandman". Even within the context of acoustic rock, America demonstrated their ability to try different musical styles. "Rainy Day" in its use of the steel guitar has a distinctly country flavor, and "Pigeon Song" is strikingly straightforward folk music. "Riverside" and "Three Roses" both had an energetic feel, despite being simple acoustic songs accompanied by vocal harmony. Both remain popular songs in the America playlist a quarter-century later. "Here", while at times a soft, dreamy tune, was centerpieced by perhaps the most remarkable acoustic jam in recorded history.
America drew quite a bit of notice for its unique acoustic style. Gerry later reflected on how that sound came about:
We kind of switched to acoustic music... at the end of the '60s. We all played in rock-and-roll bands and so I think our style was basically kind of an electric style that was played on an acoustic guitar rather than the other way around. I think that it has been a signature of our sound.
Alone, these aspects would not have made the album into a standard for '70s music, but Dewey, Dan, and Gerry added their own unique stamp which would become their trademark -- fine harmony. Each song featured easygoing, tight vocal harmonies which rivaled each synchronized lick of their guitars. "Children" best exemplifies this unity by at one point substituting the strums of their guitars for each of their voices, three strums moving from left to right when listened to in stereo.
Harmony was not the only distinguishing aspect of the album. The title, America, was fitting indeed, considering that open space, long distances, deserts, and railroads were themes which permeated the album from start to finish. The very feel of the album sounded like something straight out of the American West, not the Midlands of England.
To kick off promotion of the album, Gerry's composition "I Need You" was released as the first single. The simple lyrics and lovestruck theme establish the track as one of Gerry's earliest songs. "I Need You" was the beginning of Gerry's role as the main ballad-writer of the group. "He writes a lot more from the heart, love songs," Dewey reflected later, "because he's had a lot more love experiences and highs and lows in personal relationships."
Originally written for the guitar, "I Need You" wound up being recorded as a piano-led ballad. As Gerry later explained to Performing Songwriter magazine:
I remember my Dad had this cheesy, sort of dining room organ, and I worked out part of the song on that as well. It was obviously a really simplistic shot, that song. If you're fortunate enough to capture that kind of stuff at that age, I think that's one of the qualities that might show through. On the other hand, some of my earliest songs were unbelievably pretentious rubbish.
Even before the album was released, their star was already on the rise in the London scene, thanks to the efforts of Jeff Dexter and his tireless promoting. On one occasion they appeared as a second-banana to the rock group Family, but seemed to steal the show with their fresh, clean approach to music-making. The concert program, taking a poke at the group's humorously presumptuous name with one pun after another, reads:
Please don't tell anyone, but we hear it from usually reliable sources that America is about to conquer Britain and eventually win over the rest of the world.
Already, America's invasion has taken place here very quietly. Severe brain-washing has been carried out. We can reveal that this took place first of all in the unlikely area of Hampstead, in the very British-sounding Country Club.
The initial converts may have been few, but they included those with the connections in high places. Whisper it to no one, but even the mighty British Broadcasting Corporation may not be immune. A certain producer who would be unable to deny allegations that his name is Bob Harris was spotted at the very first of these meetings by invaders of our shores. It has not gone unnoticed that no less than four occasions (the last of them only this week) this same Bob Harris has allowed no less than 50 per cent of his "Sounds of The Seventies" programme to be taken over entirely by America.
Nor is this [all]. At other venues around the capital, certain persons who look not at all like the average American patriot, have been seen in the vicinity of such places as the notorious Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, and have been heard to mutter in undeniably English accents something approximating to "America -- really good . . . they really know how to do it right . . . must see them again."
The way [things] are going, there is a severe danger that the whole of Britain will become fans of America, which can only lead to the election of President Nixon as Prime Minister at the next General Election (there are current signs that he may be abandoning the dollar for the pound to help create goodwill on this side of the ocean). [Historical note: President Nixon abandoned the gold standard in August 1971.]
Do we Britishers want neon strip lighting on the Houses of Parliament? We can issue warnings, and tell you the facts. We can tell you the [names] of the three men who have been based here for a year with the express purpose of making America popular. They are Dan Peek (20) from Florida, Gerry Beckley (18) from Texas, and Dewey Bunnell (19) who was born in Yorkshire but defected to the States early in his youth. Using musical instruments as a front, and posing as 'musicians,' these three are not content to win over the good people of London only. They plan to unleash an LP record with the intent of spreading [their] work throughout the country.
That LP record was eventually released later in 1971, but while the clubs and record execs in London were in awe, the record-buying public wasn't. The album, simply titled America, failed to set any sales records or even make much of a wave for that matter. But the trio's reputation grew. Thanks to the efforts of Jeff Dexter, they began to appear with high-profile acts such as Elton John, Pink Floyd, and the Who. They even wound up as the warm-up act for Cat Stevens on a European tour. In September 1971, they were featured on the first edition of BBC2's music show, "Old Grey Whistle Test."
During this period, the three got a house in a rural area near where they had gone to school in Watford. Melody Maker described the place where Dan, Dewey, and Gerry resided while awaiting the Big Break: "Dirt Pit Manor is all that you would expect from a place formerly used as a cowman's house on the edge of a farm. There are the usual four walls, made of wood, the odd window, a room or two and a loo that doesn't flush unless you climb on the toilet seat and depress the mechanism manually from above. It's situated in a very rural spot in the Watford direction and rather difficult to find unless you have a good map or a guide. It's a bit smelly, very cold when the weather is unkind, and not really the kind of property classy estate agents are keen to deal with. It's also the home of America -- the group that is -- who prefer this rather frugal existence to the hazards of town living in London."
America's first album had been warmly received, but it wasn't the success they had been hoping for. "I Need You" had come across well, but, as Gerry remembered, "Everyone got sick of it." Ian Samwell went even further in his criticism:
I wasn't satisfied with "I Need You" at all. I wasn't satsfied with they way that we had recorded it. I did think that it was the best song on the album as a potential single. But I really didn't think it was strong enough for the first single. And I kept on about that, saying, Well, do you have anything else at all? And so Dewey played me "A Horse With No Name," a I just fell in love with it immediately. Of course it wasn't called "A Horse With No Name" at that point, it was called "Desert Song," but the name of it was obviously "A Horse With No Name," so I asked him to change it and he did.
In search of that elusive first single, Ian and the trio went to Morgan Studios in London and recorded several additional tracks. "We had demoed four new songs and we couldn't decide which one to release as a single," Dewey later said. "We left it to the record company to decide." One of them, Dan's "Everyone I Meet Is From California," picked up the theme where the debut album left off. Tom Peek tells the story of how the idea for the song came about:
"Dan, Dewey, and I took a trip to Stonehenge. It was before they fenced it in. We were sitting on those ancient rocks, listening to a group of young American tourists. We were well immersed in British culture by this time, and the loud, brash American kids were all talking at once. Saying things like 'I'm from L.A., and I'm from Long Beach'. I turned to Dewey and Dan and said, 'Everyone I meet is from California!'"
Featuring an uptempo acoustic rhythm guitar, the song's lyrics openly reflected upon themes only hinted to on the eleven tracks of the LP. Lyrics like "California, you're such a strange romancer / Come and see me when the world has set you free" seemed to predict a return to their homeland in the near future. The record company passed on the song as a single; it wound up as the B-side to another California-oriented track made during those Morgan Studio sessions, "A Horse With No Name."
"A Horse With No Name," like most of the other compositions from this period, was penned by Dewey Bunnell. As the trio was consumed with their longings for returning to their homeland, it would only be natural that the more nature-oriented Dewey would take the creative lead in songwriting at this point. As a result, his evocative musings about his own past in California became synonymous with the whole group, and ultimately influenced their decision to relocate there. A 1978 article depicts how "A Horse With No Name" came about in this atmosphere:
Dewey Bunnell is the quiet, unassuming, intense one of the group. He has a strong open face, coal-black piercing eyes, shoulder-length hair and a thick beard, so much a part of him, personifying his love of the outdoors and all things wild. He feels at home in the desert and is always off scouting for snakes, lizards, and other reptiles.
Dewey had lived in California during his early teenage years: "My parents moved to San Jose and then to Vandenberg Air Force Base up by Lompoc, [near] Santa Maria. It was near the desert because it was a remote underground base, kind of a semi-secretive missile test-site. I was in the seventh grade and my brother and I would go for hikes in the desert from ten in the morning till six in the evening and scare our mother to death, coming home with baby rattlesnakes and stuff."
"Horse With No Name" was written by Dewey when he was eighteen. The song was a kind of abstract summation of everything he was missing about the States. He explained: "I really do like the desert a lot and 'Horse With No Name' was written while I was sitting in a room in England on a grey drizzly day -- those last few years we were there it seemed like the sun never came out!" There is a visionary feeling to the song also: "It was at first just the two-dimensional version brought into the desert, and then the last verse has something to do with an ecological thing. The actual horse didn't have much to do with it; it was representative of freedom or something, because it had no name and it just ran away at the end!"
"Originally, the song was called 'Desert Song,'" noted Dewey, "but we weren't allowed to use that name because of the old musical with the same name . . . We more or less forgot about it for a while, and when it started to sell it was a big surprise. We went to Holland [in January 1972] and came back to discover it was in the charts."
Before it became clear that "A Horse With No Name" would become a major international hit song, America was already looking toward putting together their next album. Chris Charlesworth of Melody Maker explained their thinking at this stage: "Their next album will attempt to get away from the basic 11 songs idea. Production will be more advanced than the simple production of the first album, and the songs may well be linked together throughout the record." Slowly but surely, America wanted to refine their sound in the way that they had originally intended for the first album. Perhaps they felt at the time that a simple acoustic record wasn't good enough. Or maybe they were just tired of playing with basic instrumentation. Dan later observed that "When I hear [America] now, I think it is better than when we made it. You just get sick of it during the time you are recording it."
Ian and the trio went back to Tin Pan Alley to begin the demo recordings for the new album in early 1972. Already, songs such as "Ventura Highway" and "Don't Cross The River" were taking shape. The latter began to appear in live shows, along with another new composition, "Submarine Ladies." Ian Samwell was getting ready to produce the second album, which was nearly complete in its rough form, when "A Horse With No Name" unexpectedly took off. The project was placed on hold.
"A Horse With No Name" was becoming one of the surprise hits of 1972 in the UK, but soon it began to make waves on the other side of the Atlantic. Before work on the new album could continue, Dexter began to feel the time was right for an American tour. Melody Maker continued: "Before they start work on the album, America are to visit their home country for a six week tour of clubs on both coasts. Already there has been some reaction to the group following the import of copies of the album. In Washington the album stopped the local radio station charts for some time."
It was becoming apparent that America had not only found its breakthrough hit -- they had come up with an international smash success. By the early months of 1972, "A Horse With No Name" was climbing to the very top of the UK charts, taking the industry by complete surprise. In the United States, the single was faring just as well with heavy airplay. By March 25, "A Horse With No Name" had done the unbelievable -- it was the Number One single on the Billboard charts in the U.S. Riding on the single's coattails, America topped the U.S. album charts as well, partly thanks to insistence by record company executives that "A Horse With No Name" had to be inserted on Side One of the album. To this day, the original eleven-track LP issued in 1971 brings in a decent price with collectors.
As with every seeming overnight success, America was the talk of the town. Rock magazine wrote (with heavy contemporary slang):
Hot. Hot . . . HOT . . . HOT!!! These boys are hot, lemme tell you that -- they're hot for sure. Fuckin' incredible -- and outa nowhere, too . . . Yeah, yeah that's right, they're only boys. Like Dewey, you know, Dewey Bunnell, the one who does lead vocal on "Horse With No Name." Well, he's only twenty. And Gerry Beckley, the fair-haired kid with the apple-pie face and circular steel rims, he's nineteen -- can you dig that? -- nineteen . . . As for Dan Peek, he's twenty-one, the old man of the group. Sure, so anyway, like I was telling you before, these boys are the hottest damned thing in England. No shit -- they even knocked that milkman thing off the number one spot over there, and now their record's breakin' like wildfire in the States. It's happening everywhere! . . . [Historical note: "That milkman thing" was comedian Benny Hill's contemporary UK hit, "Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West)."]
Jeff Dexter had his hands full in molding this trio of red-faced teenagers into an act which could successfully tour the demanding American market. "We were only a three-piece acoustic thing," Dewey remembered. "We traveled real light. We each had one guitar and we just had three mics, and that was it. Frankly, we weren't all that professional."
America could have begun their first North American tour in packed arenas, but they started off in a lunchroom in Ontario, Canada, instead. Mark Plummer of Melody Maker explains Dexter's strategy at the time: "The stateside tour opened up in Canada, away from the people that should have seen the band, and away from the people who were going to buy their records. They played obscure clubs across the border, during the afternoon when possible, so that they could become completely acclimatised before the real slog began.
"Dexter also had confidence in the band. He chose not to put them on a 'biggies' tour as bottom on the bill, playing ten thousand seaters. Instead, they toured all the little clubs; the Bitter End in New York and the Troubador in Los Angeles. The little clubs where people could see them close-up, and where America would feel happier being able to see people's faces. It also ensured that people were going to hear their music rather than just sense it over a million watt PA. . ."
Soon, America had crossed the border. Rock magazine was there to describe their first gig in the United States, at the Bitter End in New York City:
Opening night at the Bitter End proves to be a great test of poise. The guys had the quiet jitters on their way to the sound-check earlier in the evening, wistfully hoping that the people weren't expecting too much from them . . . .
"This is kinda crazy," says Dan upon hearing about their upcoming date with CBS news, "maybe they should just let us play our music."
The guys go on before a nearly full house on a snowy night, and they are so nervous that they never do manage to sing at top volume. Nevertheless, they do a very pleasant set and charm almost everyone with the kind of loose on-stage banter that would do a David Crosby proud . . . But the boys are too smart to fool themselves, and begin to berate one another like quarreling brothers as soon as they are safely backstage, the trauma of their New York debut behind them.
If the boys are disappointed with themselves, almost everyone else around them is bursting with ecstasy. Cameras are popping and telegrams are coming, and a very heavy Warner Exec has come down in person to pump their hands and pose for photos.
"Forget about gold on this one," he tells them excitedly in regard to their album, "we're going for platinum on this one -- PLAT-IN-UM!!"
"That's really great, sir," says Gerry with respectful sincerity. "Thanks a lot."
The "boys" had to do some adjusting to being back in the United States. Two nights later outside the same venue, Rock continued:
Outside the Bitter End, long lines stretch in two directions waiting for the second show. Dan and Gerry are standing at the Dugout Bar next door, looking disconsolate and lost.
"What's wrong? Are you cats unhappy about the performance?"
"No," says Dan, glancing glumly at the bartender, "that guy zapped us 'cause we don't have any proof."
Gerry looks out the window at the mob of America fans jamming the sidewalk, and slowly shakes his head in amazement at the vigilance of American publicans.
"I sure do wish we could get a drink," he says.
Initial reviews of America were gushing...
[These] dudes really play some pretty fine acoustic music with lotsa twelve-string and some real lush 'n tasty steel, and the amazing thing is that it doesn't sound phony or over-produced. And then there's their harmonies -- Jesus, they're downright gorgeous.
As with any hot new phenomenon, the critics began to take it upon themselves to act as the leveling force bringing the America phenomenon down a rung or two. Many began to chirp that America's sound was too similar to the recent Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young fad, with Dewey's performance on "A Horse With No Name" being strongly derivative of Neil Young in particular, especially since Young's "Heart Of Gold" had been on the top of the charts the week before "Horse" peaked. It was the inauspicious beginning of a long-standing Cold War between the critics and America. The CSN&Y controversy even seeped into an otherwise positive review in the March 11, 1972, issue of Billboard magazine:
Warner Brothers has certainly been bullish on America, but, happily enough, the act itself lives up to the enthusiasm.
Their resemblance to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young has been duly noted, but while Dewey Bunnell's writing and vocal style are focused on the work of Neil Young, Bunnell's partners succeeded in offsetting this by presenting Bunnell's tunes in a mellower context. Moreover, their collective style draws from sources as diverse as the Bee Gees ("I Need You") and Thunderclap Newman.
So many critics had begun to pigeonhole America as a fly-by-night rip-off of CSN&Y that Gerry was compelled to defend his bandmates against such charges. "All of our musical landmarks came before CSN&Y," explained Gerry. "I remember buying their album and getting off, but nothing's really excited me since the Beatles and the Beach Boys." In another interview, Gerry was more to the point: "It's true our first recordings were like them, but it wasn't intentional to sound like them. Acoustic guitar backing with American voices singing three part harmony is bound to sound like them."
In 1973, Dewey reflected on the controversy: "I was aware that I sounded like Neil Young on 'Horse With No Name,' but I never put anything on. In fact, now I try to use a different voice so that I won't be branded as a rip-off. It's such a drag, though, to have to not sound like someone when you can't help it in the first place. A voice is a voice, right?"
Rock magazine looked at the whole issue from a different light, and any America fan can tell you from hindsight that they were dead on:
As for that similarity rap, well you gotta remember that they're just kids, and they'll be the first to tell you that they've listened to and been influenced by everybody . . .
These are the kind of guys who have a real chance of staying together for a few years -- and you know what that means these days . . .
You gotta realize that they're only beginning to grow . . .
As the spring wore into summer, America's first tour in the States was proving to be a smashing success. Even the Neil Young controversy wound up helping the tour. In reference to Young's hit song, America promoters posted signs saying "They'll make your little Heart of Gold rush." All the publicity surrounding "A Horse With No Name" provided fertile ground for a second attempt to launch "I Need You" as a hit single, and this time it worked marvelously. By July, it, too, had entered the Top Ten charts, staying there for a full month, and peaking at #9. The American tour slowly made its way west, wrapping up with SRO performances at the famous Whiskey A-Go-Go in Los Angeles. "We drew people to the Whiskey that hadn't been there since 1965," proudly remembered Gerry years later.