America Revisited - Part 2
by John Corbett
"We Sort Of Bolted": 1972 to 1974
After such an enormous success with their first album, America began making plans for a follow-up. They wanted to do some touring in Japan, and record the long-delayed second album in southern France. While in Spain, though, Dan fell down a poorly-lit stairway and put his arm through a window. The tour had to be canceled for the time being.
While Dan was recuperating, the three began to ponder the freedom that instant success had provided them and considered more and more the possibility of working in California, perhaps even moving there, which led to tensions between them and Dexter. At about this time, Dewey came across Elliott Roberts in London. Dewey later explained:
You can imagine at our ages -- 18, 19, and 20 -- we didn't know the business from anything. We were just writing and singing and just enjoying this whole thing. The first album did very well, and we were suddenly being approached by David Geffen and Elliott Roberts. We thought this was terrific and we were very much in awe of their artist roster. They had Crosby, Stills & Nash, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell -- of course -- and the Eagles were just beginning. And Elliott came over and he played us some demo tapes of the Eagles and pretty well swept us off our feet. We were anxious to get back to the U.S., anyway -- we'd been living in England for so long -- and we sort of bolted. There was nothing formalized. We didn't really have a managerial contract with Jeff or any of that, but we certainly hurt some feelings. We realized that in retrospect that it wasn't a very professional thing to do. But we did. We jumped ship and ran over to sunny L.A. and hooked up with David Geffen and his operation. Jeff and Ian Samwell, who co-produced the first album, flew out to L.A. and we had a big meeting with Geffen and they hashed out the details and Geffen made a settlement with them, and that was it.The move was a surprise to Ian Samwell, who recounts how he reacted to the news that the trio was moving on without him:
I was already in Los Angeles, producing an album for Claudia Lanier, who was one of the Ikettes... I got a call from Moe Ostin, who said, I don't know if you know or not, but your boys are in town, and they want to meet with you up at David Geffen's house. And I went up there, and that's when they said, Well, we've decided to come back here and we're not going to be working with Jeff anymore, and actually, we're not going to be working with you either.
I was shocked, but my initial reaction was, I hope you're going to take care of Jeff. He put his entire heart and soul into what he did. He's that kind of a guy, and he really worked his buns off for them. But I have to say when something that big happens to you that fast, that you need good, strong representation in the country that it's happening [in]... In America, to have the David Geffen-Elliott Roberts team looking after you, especially when it's what Warner Bros. really prefers... was a very tough step to take, but they did it.
Despite their professional break, America continues to remain on warm personal terms with Ian Samwell over a quarter-century later.
By late 1972, America was freed up to make the move to California and take advantage of the creative freedoms that it permitted. Just as they said they would, the trio began to construct a much more elaborate sound than just the acoustic harmonizing which brought them to fame. In Los Angeles, America had the opportunity to utilize some of the finest musicians anywhere. For their new album, they selected two-thirds of what was then known as "the rhythm section of the music industry" -- bassist Joe Osborn and drummer Hal Blaine (the third member of this legendary trio, keyboardist Larry Knechtel, wasn't involved with America). Blaine was the most sought-after sessionist in the land, having provided percussion for artists such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Herb Alpert, even the Monkees. Osborn (whose name was misspelled on the Homecoming liner notes), a bassist with so much talent that Bob Dylan unsuccessfully tried to woo him to his group, had impressive credentials as well, having provided the bass for such memorable acts as the Mama's & the Papa's, Fifth Dimension, Simon & Garfunkel, and an unknown duo (at the time he joined them) known as the Carpenters.
With so much support from their new management and musicians, America felt comfortable with tackling the production of the new album themselves. They called it Homecoming, which made all the sense in the world given the circumstances. For such a young and relatively inexperienced group (it had only been two years since they were playing borrowed guitars in the back of Dewey's car), the production qualities of the new album were outstanding. This was a direct result of their tendency to try to make the perfect recording, sometimes making a dozen or more takes before they got just the right sound. This earned them a reputation for taking forever to finish an album, despite the fact that they had come to the studio with songs ready to record from the Ian Samwell pre- production sessions. But this was an offshoot of their desire to focus on strong albums, not just hit singles. This would prove to be the key to their longevity. As Gerry had said earlier in 1972:
The most important thing for us now is to get the album finished, and make it successful, because it looks like it is going to be an album that everybody is going to have. It's funny because everybody in the states seemed to get to know the single ["A Horse With No Name"] pretty quickly. It was good that the single didn't overcrowd the album. What we were shooting for was the album.
And Homecoming was a direct hit. Within weeks of its release in November 1972, it had rocketed into the Top Ten album charts and went gold. Homecoming was a success, but on America's own terms. Unlike its predecessor, which was almost entirely acoustic, Homecoming employed a full-band sound, with the trademark acoustic riffs being joined by electric guitars, keyboards, and more active bass and drum parts. Not quite Sgt. Pepper yet, but certainly a more advanced feel than America. This new, fiery electric sound was most evident in "Cornwall Blank," which Rolling Stone compared to a Grateful Dead song. Other songs, while less animated, were even more complex. "Head & Heart," America's first cover song (written originally by John Martyn), featured a moody organ in addition to lead vocals from all three. The song was another result of the influence of Ian Samwell and Jeff Dexter on the group, as Ian later explained:
The house [that Ian and Jeff lived in] was kind of like open house to any musician that wanted to come. Cat Stevens used to come, Mark Bolan used to come, Al Kooper... Oh, a who's who of rock and roll people. John Martyn used to sleep on a matress in the music room.
Also on the album, "To Each His Own" was Gerry's autobiographical song describing the heartache of living life constantly on the move. Completing the California feel of this album, "Everyone I Meet Is From California" was repackaged as "California Revisited," given a sound strongly derivative of the Beach Boys, and included on the LP. To this day, Homecoming is often considered America's finest album.
The first single from Homecoming was the classic "Ventura Highway," and within a month it was in the U.S. Top Ten, proving that America was more than a passing fluke. Like "A Horse With No Name," "Ventura Highway" was written by Dewey, who was still seen as the most influential writer and singer in the group. It, too, was written in England during a period of longing for California. Remembers Dewey:We never lived in L.A. around Ventura at all, but I do remember that, from being a kid driving down the road. It was the total feeling of California. And what I was recalling was probably a flat tire we had in the car when I was in the fifth or sixth grade. I think the car stopped by the side of the road and that was the only sign -- Ventura Highway. And then when I was in England for six years and I thought about being in California, that's what I remembered, those childhood images!
The word "Ventura" had a double meaning for Dewey, who places as much value on the sounds of lyrics as well as their meaning -- it also had that ring of adventure.
"Ventura Highway" immediately became a hit with America's fans, and to this day it remains a cornerstone of America's live show, as well as Dewey's favorite. The fantastical lyrical imagery featuring "alligator lizards in the air," however, was just the sort of material on which salivating critics pounced. Dan conceded that critics might be right to a point but added, "We don't always try to make sense with our songs. Instead, we all contribute in an effort to rhyme, and what happens, happens." Gerry has said that what has always been first and foremost in America's music was the music, not the lyrics: "You can have a hit song that's an instrumental, but you can never have a hit poem."
Yet the most memorable feature of "Ventura Highway" wasn't the lyrics or the harmony vocals. It was The Hook -- that amazing acoustic guitar riff which is instantly recognizable to virtually anyone who heard music in the 1970s. Dewey reveals how it came about in a 1998 interview with Performing Songwriter:
That's a classic example of what Gerry -- who I think actually came up with it -- can do to a song. I had written the chorus and the verse and the lyric, but that [riff] really became the hook.
In March 1973, the second single from Homecoming, "Don't Cross The River," peaked at number 35 on the U.S. charts. Written by Dan, the song showcased Peek's evolution into the message lyricist of the group. It also demonstrated the banjo work of America's photographer, the esteemed Henry Diltz, who had also worked with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Doors, and Buffalo Springfield. Along with his art director partner Gary Burden, the two were ubiquitous in the 1970s music scene. Their distinctive style was evident on Homecoming's colorful gatefold cover, as it would be on later America albums throughout the decade.
That same month, America's miraculous rise to stardom was officially recognized when they were given the Best New Artist award for 1972, nosing out such heavyweight competition as the Eagles, Loggins and Messina, John Prine and Harry Chapin.
Two months later, the third and final single from the album, Gerry's "Only In Your Heart," crept up into the charts. Just as Dewey had established himself as the poet, and Dan as the moralist, this song reinforced Gerry's romantic songwriting style. This piano-driven ballad featured some of Gerry's technological wizardry as well, with the song culminating in a series of backward guitar riffs and synthesizer licks.
In concert, America continued to be a big attraction, especially with all their new hits crowding the charts. Outside of their music, their laid-back appearance drew sizable comment, such as this review from the University of Maryland in March 1973:
It's the whole mystique. Tattered jeans, ratty tennis shoes, raggedy hair and an old T-shirt worn three days straight, all covering undisputed musical talent. And the whole business slinking on stage before thousands of panting fans.
That stereotypical image has become commonplace in folk-rock music nowadays, but nowhere is it more evident than in the latest of the young-genius supergroups, America. The whole idea that, "I'm just one of you: I'm not an Air Force brat overflowing with musical talent that made a super-selling album in England about America."
The photo caption joked that "it seemed like America would rather be playing Frisbee someplace else."
Around that same time, Billboard made a similar, although more provocative observation about their appeal:
Probably the best way to understand the instant and universal youth appeal of America is to think of them as the Kingston Trio of the '70s. Where the Kingston Trio wore striped, button-down shirts and cut their hair neatly, America lives up to current social patterns by looking as if they just wandered in from the neighborhood hamburger drive-in to sing their latest gold single. Where the Kingston Trio make corny jokes about drinking and sex, America is just as corny about dope and sex. Down-playing their top 40 success, they introduced "Don't Cross The River If You Can't Swim The Tide" as "The Vomit Song," and said it was about swallowing massive amounts of joints and pills to escape a customs shakedown at the Canadian border.
In concert, America was moving away from the three-man acoustic set which brought them so much attention the year before. They brought in a bassist, Dave Caty, and a drummer, Dave Atwood. Dan began to utilize the electric guitar more frequently. While the group continued to play much of the set in acoustic mode, they began to add a rougher, more electric feel to their shows toward the end. Even songs like "I Need You" and "A Horse With No Name" were given a lively edge. The University of Maryland review pinpointed the beginnings of what would become America's distinctive live show:
The whole thing came much more together during the electric set -- which is probably, from the look of sheer happiness on the band's part; the direction their further work will be going.
Other music critics were a harder sell on the new America sound, as can be gleaned from this March 1973 Billboard review:
America ought to stick to what they do superlatively, the acoustic ballads, and not try so hard to convince us they're heavy dudes.
Another developing tradition in America's live shows was the use of plants on stage. According to one reviewer, the foliage on stage was not just a nicety -- it was part of their contract. Throughout the seventies, critics would take pot shots at America's plants whenever they weren't taking jabs at their songs.
Critics seemed to delight in another development with regard to America -- after "Ventura Highway," their next two singles failed to break into the Top Ten. "Don't Cross The River" barely made the Top 40; "Only In Your Heart" was unable to rise above number 62. In their eyes, the America phenomenon was running its course. This teenage trio may not have been a one-hit wonder, but perhaps they were a fluke after all. America wasn't particularly concerned, as was evident from their confident attitude regarding their next album. "We're not predicting," said Gerry, "but if this album does as well as the others, then it'll be the proverbial hat trick."
By May of 1973, the trio were back in the studio, intensively recording and producing their next album, which they optimistically dubbed Hat Trick. For over a month, they spent long hours at the Record Plant studio in Los Angeles, trying to perfect their sound. Utilizing pretty much the same musicians, with the exception of bassist Joe Osborn, who had been replaced by David Dickey, America set out to record a sonic masterpiece, full of lush instrumentation, overlapping songs, and an epic title track. Dewey once called it a "self-indulgent" project -- and considered the results to be one of his favorite albums. Unusual sounds abound on this album, from bubbles and tapping feet to ringing bells and shivering violins. Perhaps the trio worked a bit too hard on the project. Gerry remembered:
Hat Trick . . . took us months to do and it was the last thing, I swore, that I would produce, either myself or in conjunction with the guys. Hat Trick got into some lengthy songs, some eight-minute songs and sixteen-hour mixes straight, and I started to think "Oh! My ears!" . . . getting into these critical micro-waves of a fader, that kind of thing -- that was enough for me!
Even a cursory listening of Hat Trick will testify to the painstaking work that went into making the album. Dewey's "Wind Wave" has different lyrics superimposed upon one another -- not unlike rolling waves. That track dissolves nicely into the moody piano of Gerry's "She's Gonna Let You Down," which features string and keyboard arrangements by Jim Ed Norman. "Rainbow Song" is something of a lyrical reverse of the first album. Now Dewey was reflecting back upon "the purple ghost of England in wintertime, who I used to know." The song then moves into an uptempo beat, utilizing saxophone help from Tom Scott. The future Doobie Brother Chet McCracken can be heard on congas on that track. "Submarine Ladies" features a soothing harmonica solo by assistant engineer Lee Keifer, and an outstanding vocal by Gerry, who holds one high note for nearly twenty seconds. Henry Diltz once again provided the banjo for that track. "Green Monkey" is the one all-out rocker on the album, featuring the guitar work of Joe Walsh of the James Gang, and future member of the Eagles. "Molten Love" repeats the bubble motif first heard on "Submarine Ladies."
The title track was the artistic centerpiece of the album. Clocking in at over eight minutes, it was a combination of songs written by all three members. Starting off as a simple piano-based melody by Dan, it crosses a piano bridge and some tap dancing into an all-out production by Gerry, segues into a repetitive series of abstract lyrics by Dewey, and then glides into the home stretch, an upbeat tune by Gerry which hints strongly at future George Martin arrangements on Holiday. Joining the trio on vocals on this track was one of their idols, Beach Boy Carl Wilson. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration spanning over two decades.
The first and only charting single released from Hat Trick was Austin folk singer Willis Allen Ramsey's "Muskrat Love," the only cover song on the album. It had a slow, keyboard-driven sound, and while it certainly had potential to be a hit (The Captain & Tennille rode it to the Top Ten three years later), it came at a time when perhaps what America needed was a breakout hit to keep the interest going. The single was able to chart no higher than number 67 in September 1973, and two other singles, "Rainbow Song" and "Green Monkey," missed the charts entirely. Largely due to this, Hat Trick itself only reached 28 on the album charts, and failed to attain a gold record certification -- the only such lapse among their first seven albums.