America Revisited - Part 6
by John Corbett
A Working Band: 1985 to 1991
While Dan was having success with Doer Of The Word and working out a new recording contract, America's contract with Capitol was coming to an end. After five studio albums under that label, Dewey and Gerry set out to record a live set to close out their deal in 1985. On June 1, 1985, America recorded a performance at the cozy Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara, California. Included in that show were their big Warner hits (except for Dan's songs, which still were not played in concert), plus some of their best Capitol tracks, including "Survival," "You Can Do Magic," "Never Be Lonely," "The Border," and "Can't Fall Asleep To A Lullaby." Unfortunately, the resulting live album, produced by Matt McCauley was pared down to a mere ten tracks, and left off such songs as "Sandman," "Never Be Lonely," "Can't Fall Asleep To A Lullaby," and "Old Man Took." The production and performance were both excellent, perhaps the best-sounding live album America has offered to date -- with an incredible electric version of "A Horse With No Name" -- and it was a shame that more songs didn't make the cut. As it was, it became a way for Capitol to cash in on America's Warner legacy, and the Warner songs from that recording have been recycled on various compilations by Capitol in the years since.
The live album, which was called In Concert, was released in August 1985. It was a fitting way to end the Capitol contract, because without a new one, America would have to return to the live show as a primary focus of activity until they could get a new deal, as had been the case after the Warner deal had closed in 1977. This would not be a particularly difficult move for Dewey and Gerry, as they had never stopped touring since America was formed fifteen years before. The liner notes of In Concert, written by Dewey, demonstrate to what extent they had become seasoned performers outside of making hit records:
This is a real record. By that I mean it is an account of what we do. Putting our show on the road for some 15 years now has never ceased to amaze me, and this recording of a show done on the 1st of June 1985, in Santa Barbara, California is but an example of what could be heard any night in any city.
As it turned out, In Concert became the first America album to completely miss the Billboard charts altogether. The band had lost its commercial momentum and was virtually invisible to all but their best fans. In a way, In Concert demonstrated how far the synthetic sound of Perspective had veered from the acoustic sound that they had perfected in concert and fans had come to expect. Dewey looked back at what they had learned from their Capitol years:
It was an important growing period for us. It was only by doing those kinds of things [such as using a synthetic pop sound and a reliance on outside material] that we could look back and see where we went right and where we went wrong.
As America focused on touring, Dan was back in the recording studio following up Doer Of The Word. His self-produced 1986 release, Electro Voice, featured the catchy title track and a remade version of his America hit, "Lonely People." Not only was the song updated with '80s production techniques and an additional instrumental after what had been the end of the song -- it was also retailored for his Christian audience. The line "ride that highway in the sky" became "give your heart to Jesus Christ." In a way, the lyrics weren't that much of a stretch. Dan had always been a message writer, and "Lonely People" was merely converted from a secular to a religious song of hope. He took to the road to support Electro Voice during the summer of 1986, bringing along his younger brother David on guitar and vocals. During the tour, Dan performed classic America songs such as "Lonely People," "Today's The Day," and "Don't Cross The River," along with his own solo material. He was even known to perform some of Dewey and Gerry's best-known material as well, such as "Ventura Highway," "A Horse With No Name," and "I Need You." It was as if there were two competing versions of America making the touring rounds.
At this point, there were some who felt that those two could merge back into one again. By the mid-1980s, Dan was seriously considering the possibility of rejoining America. In a very candid interview with Steve Orchard in 1985, Dan was very much to the point:
I would love to [record with Dewey and Gerry again]. There's been some time to sit back and in retrospect and say, "Hey, those were some of the greatest years of my life." And the fact that things haven't been as successful since that time for them or for me as they could have been, I don't suppose, if we had stayed together. Even all of that aside, just the fact that I really miss playing with Dewey and Gerry musically, and making music with them, writing things and arranging and the whole recording process. It would be terrific to get back together, in fact that's something I really think about an awful lot these days, something that I didn't think about for probably four or five years... Like they said and like I said, all things are possible. I really have my fingers crossed. I would love to get back together and do some things. A lot of people realize that it was three guys and after one guy leaves, they should have either gotten somebody that looked kind of like me and let 'em replace me, or maybe just split up... Maybe it would be a good idea for us to get back together.
In 1982, Lew Irwin had asked Gerry about whether or not he thought Dan would rejoin the group. Gerry had his own views:
I don't think so. All things are possible, like [Dan] says. But to be honest, it hasn't even been entertained as an idea. Dewey and I have decided to carry this thing on. And the pact that Dan has taken has, as far as we're concerned, saved his life, and it's just the greatest thing for him. But I just don't think... in a sense that's kind of going back... I don't think that having Dan back would be any better than replacing him. It just doesn't seem in the cards... I have a feeling that it might be a little hard for Dan to come and see a show. We've come through St. Louis two or three times now, and his dad's always been there and everybody else, and Dan hasn't quite made it or just been kind of heading out of town or into town.
In 1987, Dan released his fourth solo record, Crossover. Like Dan's previous `80s material, it was heavily laden with synthesizers and electric guitars. The album had some fine material on it, including rockers like "The Night" and a cover of Brian Wilson's "I Know There's An Answer". Unfortunately, the album didn't capture much of an audience and disappeared. Dan made a comeback briefly in 1989 as a contributing artist with Ken Marvin and Brian Gentry on their limited distribution Christian release, Light Of The World. After that, he seemed to vanish from the music scene. Dewey hadn't kept in close contact with Dan over the years, but knew at least this much in 1989:
We got a card saying, "We relocated to the Cayman Islands, and it's very difficult to get a phone in, and [it'll] be months before our furniture gets here, but let it be known that we're down here now on the island" kind of thing.
Meanwhile, America kept up its frenetic touring schedule. On July 4, 1985, just a month after the Santa Barbara recording, America appeared on a nationally televised Independence Day celebration to raise funds for restoring the Statue of Liberty, along with Three Dog Night, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Beach Boys, Jimmy Page, Julio Iglesias, the Bellamy Brothers, and others. Over the next few years, Dewey, Gerry, and the band continued to travel around the United States and the world, and continued to perform in front of large, enthusiastic audiences.
Just because America was currently without a record deal didn't mean the group had been forgotten. On October 13, 1986, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), belatedly awarded two America albums with platinum-record status for sales of over a million copies each: America (the debut album from 1971), and History/America's Greatest Hits. The following year, 1987, saw the release of both of those albums on the fledgling compact disc format along with the In Concert album off Capitol.
In 1989, five years after Perspective had been released, fans were still showing up at America concerts in droves. Dewey remarked at how pleased he was with the continued interest in America's live shows:
It still amazes me that we do have that strong following, and I'm very thankful that it's there because that's really the bulk of our careers right now -- getting out in front of the people live. We really consider ourselves a working band.
As the years wore on, and a new generation of fans came to appreciate America, Dewey and Gerry decided to reintroduce Dan Peek's hits back into the concert playlists. Starting in 1988, "Lonely People" was performed live, and in the following year "Don't Cross The River" and "Woman Tonight" returned to the set as well, with bassist Brad Palmer handling all the Peek vocals. In 1992, Dewey explained why these songs were chosen, and not a hit like "Today's The Day":
We do virtually that whole album History/America's Greatest Hits], because that album still does move, and to a certain generation, that might be all they're aware of, ...because it's made its way into their families' collections...
Until a new America album could be worked out, Dewey and Gerry had to be content with participating in side projects. Both were featured in Bill Mumy and Robert Haimer's novelty project, Barnes & Barnes, which issued the retrospective Zabagabee in 1988. By this point, Dewey had moved to Marin County, California, north of San Francisco, and so was somewhat removed from the L.A. music scene. Gerry, on the other hand, still lived in Southern California, and kept himself immersed in various side projects. In 1987, he provided vocals for Dan Peek's onetime producer, Chris Christian, on his excellent song, "Day Like Today." In 1990, Gerry lent assistance to the "Simpsons Sing The Blues" album based on the popular television cartoon series, as well as vocals for the California Project, a collection of artists covering classic Beach Boys songs. That year, Gerry also teamed up with Andrew Gold and Timothy B. Schmit as Baldwin And The Whiffles in singing doo-wop songs for the "Cry Baby" movie soundtrack.
Without a recording contract, Gerry and Dewey had little reason to write much in the way of new America songs. Still, every now and then, a new song would creep into the playlists, such as "Greenhouse" in 1986 and "Hell's On Fire" in 1989. Occasionally, audiences were even told that such songs were to be released on upcoming albums, but nothing ever materialized. It was only a matter of time before America would land some sort of a deal, although after their experience at Capitol, Dewey and Gerry were wary of signing away all of their creativity for the sake of a recording contract. In 1989, Dewey explained where the group was at at that point:
I think we really need to put out a new album of new material, a studio album... Unfortunately at this stage we're having difficulty getting an album deal that satisfies both sides. We've got a few things in the works, but we really need a commitment that involves real faith in us and our choice of material, and our direction as opposed to a deal where it's just a lot of outside material and they won't guarantee maybe a video budget or something like that. We've got to have all the clauses pounded out.
In 1990, America did release one new song in Italy, "Last Two To Dance," as a result of their long-term popularity there. Dewey later commented:
It was a song written by an Italian artist and performed at the San Remo Song Festival on the Italian Riviera. We then wrote English lyrics of our own to the existing melody, called it "Last Two To Dance," and performed it at the festival. There were several acts doing the same thing with other Italian artists that year.