America Revisited - Part 5
by John Corbett
"We Were Drying Up A Little Bit": 1982 to 1985
In early 1982, Gerry and Dewey went back to the studio to start recording Two Car Garage. Working at the Amigo Studios in Hollywood, Gerry and Dewey set out to produce their own material for the first time since Hat Trick nearly a decade earlier. Garnering help from friends Carl Wilson, Christopher Cross, Timothy B. Schmit, Dean Parks, Jeff Porcaro, and Steve Lukather in addition to Willie Leacox, Michael Woods, and the band's new bassist, Brad Palmer, Gerry and Dewey wrote and produced such classic tracks as "Never Be Lonely," "Inspector Mills" (with fine orchestral arrangements by Alibi co-producer Matt McCauley), and "Even The Score." On "Love On The Vine," Dewey initiated a long-running songwriting partnership with old friends Bill Mumy and Robert Haimer, aka Art and Artie Barnes of the bizarre novelty group Barnes & Barnes. Bill Mumy was best known as little Will Robinson from the 1960s TV show "Lost In Space," but in recent years he and lifelong friend Haimer were making a name for themselves as Barnes & Barnes in the Dr. Demento crowd with their cult-classic single, "Fish Heads," and their innovative videos. Dewey and Mumy also co-wrote "You Girl."
Only a portion of the album had been completed, and still Dewey and Gerry were without a song they felt could be a breakout hit. They decided to contact the highly-regarded musician, producer, and songwriter, Russ Ballard, formerly of the '70s band Argent. Ballard had been behind a healthy record of hits, including "Liar" for Three Dog Night, and "Winning" for Santana, and had written "I Don't Believe In Miracles," which had appeared on Alibi. Gerry and Dewey felt perhaps his input could help. In 1998, Dewey described to Steve Orchard how this came about:
Frankly, we were drying up a little bit. It was hard to write and produce a new album every year of quality... We approached [Ballard] -- our office did -- and asked him to write some songs specifically for our style. We hadn't had success for the last few albums. We changed producers, we changed record labels. The only thing we couldn't change was Gerry and I, but we decided to try some outside material.
Ballard wrote two songs for the album, "Jody" and "You Can Do Magic." While "Jody" was a nice, straightforward pop song, it was "You Can Do Magic" which swept Dewey and Gerry off their feet when they first heard it. "As soon as we heard the demo, we all agreed, 'Hey, this is great. This is us,'" Dewey said. "We all were unanimous in our feelings that that should be a hit; let's record that one. There was no hesitation."
Ballard not only wrote both songs; he wound up producing them as well at the Abbey Road Studios in London, the same studio where George Martin produced the Beatles' classic hits during the 1960s. On top of all that, Ballard played all the instruments and sang backup vocals for Gerry and Dewey. They couldn't have asked for more help than that.
To round off the album, Dewey and Gerry solicited the services of another producer, Bobby Colomby, who had helped form Blood, Sweat & Tears in the late 1960s and had since gone on to gain a solid reputation as a producer and a record company executive who worked with acts ranging from Kenny Loggins to Earth, Wind & Fire. Colomby found two songs for America, "Desperate Love" and a charming Ian Thomas cut called "Right Before Your Eyes." For these recording sessions, held at the Capitol Studios in Hollywood, a complete band of studio musicians was recruited to back Dewey and Gerry, including Jai Winding, Jeff and Mike Porcaro, Alvin Taylor (Eric Burdon Band, Bob Welch), Chris Coté, Rick Neigher, and Michael Mirage.
In July 1982, the album, which was now called View From The Ground, was released, along with the first single, Ballard's "You Can Do Magic." The song gradually gained airplay and toward the end of August had cracked Billboard's Top 40 chart, the first America single to do so in over six years. In order to make the song MTV friendly, a music video was produced. There wasn't much to the video, just the band performing the song and a few images of shuffling playing cards. Later, Dewey conceded that they could have done a lot better in that department:
We were still very iffy about videos... We missed the boat on videos, is what happened. We just didn't see where they were applicable. Of course now we're eating our words... I just never really jelled with the idea of videos.
Along with the video came an appearance on the King Biscuit Flower Hour radio show in September. By this point, "You Can Do Magic" was receiving substantial airplay and turning into a major hit. In September, Gerry was asked by Lew Irwin to comment on the increasing success of the single. After years of commercial disappointments, Gerry was somewhat wary of predicting anything spectacular:
It's kind of familiar, yet unfamiliar. I remember the feeling, in watching the charts and stuff. I better renew my subscription to Billboard... I'm really grateful [for the success of "You Can Do Magic"], and apprehensive, too, because I've seen records rocket up to the 20s and rocket back down again. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed.
The song performed past everyone's wildest expectations. On October 5, 1982, "You Can Do Magic" peaked at Number Eight on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and remained in that spot for an additional four weeks. For the first time in seven years, America was in the Top Ten. Dewey and Gerry had finally proven their viability -- to some even their very existence -- as a duo. As Dewey recalled, success was sweet:
We really savored that one. The early hits seemed to come so easy, and we took them for granted to a degree. It seemed like each project had a hit on it... I remember we had a little "Top Ten Again" party. We were all thrilled. It blew some new life into the whole operation.
Thanks to the success of "You Can Do Magic," the parent album View From The Ground sold far better than its predecessor, Alibi. The album failed to garner a gold record, and it barely missed the Top 40 album charts, rising as high as number 41 in late October, but the album was a consistent seller, remaining on the charts for six months. "You Can Do Magic" improved America's fortunes overseas as well. In November 1982, the single charted at number 59 in the UK, America's first hit single there since "Ventura Highway" a decade before. The song did even better in Australia, peaking at number 15.
Riding on the coattails of "You Can Do Magic," "Right Before Your Eyes" was released as the second single from View From The Ground. Despite ample airplay, it was unable to peak higher than number 45 in January 1983. "Right Before Your Eyes" was something of a deceiving title for the charming ballad, since the most distinctive refrain in the tune dealt with silent film stars Rudolph Valentino and Greta Garbo, who represented the fame and glamor that the shy admirer in the song wished he had to woo his dream girl. Gerry concedes that "Rudolph Valentino" probably would have been a more appropriate name.
With their return to the public eye, America's shows began to receive more attention in the press. For example, America's late February 1983 concert in New York City was reviewed in the March 12 issue of Billboard magazine:
It was doubtlessly a sign of the city's cultural pluralism that throngs of quietly attired, medium-young couples flocked to Radio City to hear a band whose sound is conservative even by soft-rock standards. The lukewarm reception granted opening artist Robert Kraft may have been because the artist wasn't up to par that evening, but it's likely that even the middle class cynicism of his "metro-pop" lyrics sounded hard-edged to America's fans.
Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnel [sic] have not lost their power to deliver the mellowest harmonies this side of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, backed by tight, well-executed, studio quality rock. Even when they moved left of center with some calculated riffing, the band maintained the non-threatening stance that has made it a favorite with gentle-rockers.
America handled crowd-pleasing hits like "Ventura Highway," "I Need You" and "Tin Man" with finesse, adding songs from later LPs and closing with a bring-'em-to-their-feet "Horse With No Name." No Mudd Club, no CBGB, but definitely what this audience wanted -- and got.
After the successes of "You Can Do Magic" and View From The Ground had run their course by early 1983, Gerry and Dewey were faced with the question of which route to take to capitalize on their regained commercial momentum. They opted to record their next album with the help of the man who had brought them back to the top, Russ Ballard.
Once again, they headed out to London to record with Ballard at the Abbey Road Studios. As in his View From The Ground sessions, Ballard performed virtually all the instruments, from keyboards and guitars to percussion and backing vocals. On top of this, Ballard wrote seven of the eleven songs on the LP, which was named Your Move, as well as producing the entire album.
Ballard was careful in crafting songs that had the America touch of fine harmony, clean instrumentals, and exquisite production. "My Kinda Woman" started the album with an upbeat, playful song. The lavishly-orchestrated "She's A Runaway" featured guest vocals by Stephen Bishop, who had scored big in the late `70s with hits like "On And On" and "Save It For A Rainy Day". Songs like "Honey," "Tonight Is For Dreamers," and "Don't Let Me Be Lonely" were more love-oriented ballads than Dewey or Gerry were accustomed to writing, but they still had the right feel.
Dewey and Gerry did write some of the material on the album. Gerry's "Someday Woman," co-written with Bill Mumy and Robert Haimer, was something of a return to their acoustic sound. Dewey's "My Dear" was a diversion from their more accessible harmonies and lyrics toward a darker, more abstract atmosphere. Still, the fact remained that Dewey and Gerry were not holding the creative reigns on the material being produced. Dewey later looked back at how Your Move came together:
After the success with Russ on "You Can Do Magic," we virtually handed ourselves to him. This was in a period when we really had relegated control almost exclusively to other people. I really felt at that stage that all I was doing was [being] a singer in my own band, and it was somebody else pulling the strings. My writing fell down to minimal. I think I wrote one song on that, "My Dear." Well, I co-wrote "The Border" with Russ, but it was essentially Russ's song going in, and I just helped it with some lyrics and stuff. It was Russ's project, at least equal to our commitment, if not more...
It's a real bittersweet period in our career in that I think it's a good album, but our involvement was less than I would like.
Your Move was released in June 1983, as was its first single, the Ballard-Bunnell collaboration, "The Border." Originally written by Russ Ballard, Dewey took the unusual step of rewriting the lyrics to the song. The evocative, flow-of-consciousness images of "burning bridges" and "footprints in the sand" harked back to the memorable lines of the old days. They provided a stark contrast to the love-themed songs written by Ballard and other outside artists which made up the bulk of America's albums by this point.
"The Border" was further livened by the effective use of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which helped accentuate the energy of the track, plus a stellar saxophone solo by studio legend Raphael Ravenscroft, best known for his work on Gerry Rafferty's 1978 hit, "Baker Street." "The Border" did reasonably well on the charts -- thanks partly to its music video -- peaking at number 33 pop in August 1983. Coming on the heels of "You Can Do Magic," its performance was somewhat underwhelming. On the Adult charts, however, it was an altogether different story. The song climbed as high as number 4, even outpacing the performance of "You Can Do Magic," which had peaked at number 5 the year before.
The second single, Ballard's "Cast The Spirit," a rough-edged rocker with searing guitars and vigorous vocals, was unable to make commercial headway, and effectively killed America's commercial momentum. Without an additional hit single, the parent album, Your Move, was unable to move past number 81 on the Billboard charts, and after three months it was off the survey.
After Your Move, Dewey and Gerry wanted to move away from Russ Ballard-dominated projects and back into ensemble recordings with some of the finest studio musicians available. Their next assignment came early in 1984, when they were asked to perform "Love Comes Without Warning" for the "Lonely Guy" soundtrack. The track was co-written by John Bettis, who has written songs for artists ranging from the Carpenters to Steve Perry, and Jerry Goldsmith, the reputed soundtrack artist who had provided music for movies such as "Alien," "Twilight Zone," and "Poltergeist." Producing the track was Matt McCauley, who had previously contributed to Alibi and View From The Ground. Unlike the Ballard recordings, "Love Comes Without Warning" introduced a new, electronic pop style in addition to their traditional recipe of guitars, piano, and harmony vocals. The guitar solo even blended elements of the blooming power ballad genre in vogue at the time. Dewey explained how this sound came about:
Gerry has always been kind of on the cutting edge of technology and the trends of the day. He always updates his studio, and he's always on top of the latest stuff. At that point... technology was booming in the music business. We were getting into digital recording, and you could cut and paste and move stuff around a lot more. There was was more and more [sampling]. Gerry wanted to use all that stuff, and I really got swept along with that tide... Most people would just like to hear the acoustic guitars and the harmony voices and the nice melody -- and essentially that's the backbone of any song -- but we needed to experiment with those things, and Gerry certainly needed that avenue.
By 1984, the technology and rhythm of New Wave and dance music had hit the mainstream. Acts such as Madonna, the Eurythmics, the Pointer Sisters, and the Cars were proving that the new sound was becoming a major force in pop music. For their next album, Perspective, Gerry and Dewey decided to further explore this synthetic musical direction. As "executive producers" of the project, they oversaw three separate producers and a host of some of the best studio talent around. Matt McCauley returned to produce songs like "Can't Fall Asleep To A Lullaby," which was written by Dewey, Bill Mumy, Robert Haimer, and Journey frontman Steve Perry. Perry also contributed background vocals to that track, which in addition sported a spirited sax solo by Phil Kenzie, noted for his work with Al Stewart and others in the late '70s. "Lady With A Bluebird" was another result of the Bunnell-Mumy-Haimer team, featuring an inviting reggae sound and layered synthesizer patches. Other musicians involved were Nathan East (a noted bassist who has been involved with Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, and the jazz combo Fourplay), guitarist Dean Parks (whose resumé included Carole King, Steely Dan, and Glen Campbell), and the seemingly ubiquitous percussionist Paulinho da Costa.
Richie Zito was brought in to produce tracks including "See How The Love Goes," "Special Girl," and "Cinderella." Zito, who had previously worked with Neil Sedaka, Art Garfunkel, and Elton John, was by 1984 involved with pop acts like Berlin, Tina Turner, and Irene Cara. He brought those dance pop sensibilities with him to Perspective. "See How The Love Goes," which was of all things a Pointer Sisters cover, contained his own guitar work, along with pulsating drum machines and striking keyboard riffs. "Special Girl" and "Cinderella" had similar ingredients but were somewhat more tame, with the latter featuring a guest vocal by Timothy B. Schmit.
Richard James Burgess (who had previously worked with Spandau Ballet and Adam Ant) produced the two remaining songs on the album, the appealing "We Got All Night," and Gerry's "5th Avenue," which used dense synthesizers to accentuate the reflective mood of the song. Providing some help were Burgess himself on drum programming, and Paul Jackson, Jr., a highly regarded studio guitarist.
Perspective was wrapped up in the summer of 1984 and released that October. Its initial single was "Special Girl," a song that Dewey had mixed feelings about:
"Special Girl" was far from one of my favorite songs on that record, I couldn't understand it. The man behind that, though, was convinced, and he was an exec at Capitol, and he produced it, and he was sure. And when you have a guy who's with the company, looking you right in the eye and says, "This is gonna be a hit, I guarantee," and you haven't had any success the last couple years, you're inclined to go, "Well, maybe I don't hear right anymore, let's give it a shot." We've done that more than once, too.
Dewey's misgivings turned out to be right on target, as "Special Girl" never charted in the Billboard Hot 100 singles list, "bubbling under" at number 106 (although it did climb as high as number 15 in the adult chart). A second single was offered, "Can't Fall Asleep To A Lullaby," but it, too, failed to pick up. This failure was a bit more confusing to Dewey:
["Can't Fall Asleep To A Lullaby"] was another song that I thought had potential. Either the timing was wrong, or the production was wrong, or something, but the song itself I think is still solid. Steve [Perry] and I then went ahead and tried to get Tina Turner to do it. I don't think it was gutsy enough for her, but we thought she could have done a good job on it.
Without any hit songs, a lack of serious promotion, and an electronic pop sound which was at odds with America's established acoustic image, Perspective was unable to gain momentum in the charts. The album peaked at number 185 in November 1984, and was off the charts in a mere three weeks.
Also released in 1984 was Steve Perry's debut solo album, Street Talk. While Dewey wasn't directly involved with the production of the album, his close collaboration with Perry resulted in a big thank you in the liner notes to Dewey "Stevie Baby" Bunnell. When Perry's first single, "Oh, Sherrie," reached the Top Ten in May 1984, Dewey was even invited to make a cameo appearance in the song's video.
While America's fortunes were waning, Dan Peek was making a comeback as a Christian solo artist. Six years after the release of All Things Are Possible, having relocated from Los Angeles to Missouri, Dan returned in May 1984 with his sophomore effort, Doer Of The Word. Once again produced by Chris Christian, Dan put out a masterpiece, possibly his best solo work. The title track definitely had the feel of some of America's classic songs of the 1970s, with updated production for the `80s. Gerry even provided backing vocals on that cut. While all the songs still had a Christian undercurrent, they experimented with new production techniques and synthesizers and provided something of a counterpoint to the America sound as it had developed under Dewey and Gerry. Among the standout songs on the album included "Holy Spirit," "Everything," and "Thank You Lord." Dan was excited to be back in business with a strong album, as he confided to Steve Orchard in 1985:
I was extremely happy with the record... Just the whole technology of recording has improved so much even since I left America; [look at] the quality of the sounds that are going on records these days. On Doer Of The Word we really captured some high-quality sounds and the songs were good. I'm just very, very happy with this latest record.