The name America has a resonance around the world that few others have. Depending on where you are, it can inspire love or hatred for the greatest national superpower of the late 20th century. But for many millions of people across the globe, it also means great music. Superstars come and go, but the music that America has created during the past quarter century -- and continues to create -- has endured. Whether first heard on a fuzzy radio station in Istanbul, an eight-track player in Flagstaff, or at a live performance in a concert hall in Beijing, songs like "A Horse With No Name", "Ventura Highway", and "I Need You" evoke passionate memories for so many people in so many countries that it seems pointless to count. Perhaps what makes America so endearing is that at the outset, they, too, were dreamers of a faraway place, a vision they never lost even after settling in the promised land.
The group that would become known as America first played together in Central High School in Watford, England, north of London, in 1968. The group, known as Daze, consisted of Gerry Beckley, Lee "Dewey" Bunnell, and Dan Peek, along with two others. Beckley, Bunnell, and Peek were all sons of U.S. Air Force personnel serving abroad, and all three had moved around a great deal during their youth. Dewey later recalled:
"Sometimes I'm envious of people in the Midwest who live next door to their grandfather and know the same people all their lives. 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."
A contemporary article in Rock magazine picks up the story:
The three guys spent their early years growing up in the States. Dewey in California, Gerry in Virginia, and Dan in Missouri and Virginia. All of their dads were in the service, and through some neat trick of [coincidence] and fate were posted to England about five or six years ago. In London there's a school for dependents of American servicemen -- it's called Central High, believe it or not, and you can even get an American-style class ring when you graduate -- the guys are pretty sardonic about theirs. Yeah, right, that's where the three of them met and started pickin' together: good ole London Central High.
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 cultural politico conflict with all its attendant heaviness and turmoil. It's left them with some innocence abroad...
When the trio graduated, their first instinct was to go their own separate ways. Dan decided to return to Norfolk, Virginia, where he attended Old Dominion University as an English and Business major. Dewey stayed in England, attending acting school. Only Gerry 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 joined a band called Swallow The Buffalo. Meanwhile, fate began to play its hand yet again in the trio's fortunes. Dan gave up on college and returned to England to reconnect with Dewey and Gerry. He and Dewey worked at a snack bar as fry-cook and dishwasher while Gerry made his cash at a warehouse. In their spare time, the three would gather together to jam and make music. One day, while sitting in a cafeteria mulling over what they should call themselves, they 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 America was just getting off the ground, Gerry continued to perform with Swallow The Buffalo. It was through this group that Jeff Dexter first took notice of Gerry's abilities. Soon, Dexter got acquainted with the nascent America and became their manager. He brought them to Warner Bros. Records in London and arranged 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."
America wound up with a contract and instructions to put together material for an album. They were sent off to a farmhouse somewhere on the Dorset Coast of England, and instantly started a tradition of goofing off, riding horses, and playing around before finally getting down to business and making great music. Produced by Dexter's roommate, Ian Samwell, America put the finishing touches on their album at Trident Studios in London in April 1971. 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" were tracks which created strong images of campfires and traveling without a care, and their uplifting energy played into it. 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.
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. A simple, straightforward love song, "I Need You" is supposedly the first song that he ever wrote, a claim which is entirely believable aside from that fact that Gerry himself has made this claim. Lyrics such as "I need you / Like the flower needs the rain" do seem to sound like something straight out of a dreamy teenager's love letters, which perhaps explains its lasting appeal for so many. This 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."
Even before the album was released, their star was already on the rise in the London scene. They toured as second-banana to the rock group Family, but seemed to steal the show with their fresh, clean approach to music-making. A concert program from the tour, 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, logically titled America, failed to set any sales records or even make much of a wave for that matter. But the trio's reputation grew. They began to appear with high-profile acts such as Cat Stevens and Elton John, and in September they were featured on the first edition of BBC2's music show, "Old Grey Whistle Test". Yes, the BBC wasn't immune after all.
Still, America needed the big break. "I Need You" had come across well, but, as Gerry remembered, "Everyone got sick of it." The trio went to Morgan Studios in London and recorded four more tracks to see what could become of it. One of them, "Everyone I Meet Is From California", could have been the theme song for the album had it been included. Featuring an uptempo acoustic rhythm guitar, its lyrics openly reflected upon themes only hinted at 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. Perhaps because of its overly straightforward approach, this fine Dan Peek tune was left off the America album, winding up as the B-side to another track made during the 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 1979 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, 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!"
The song was released in the UK with "Everyone I Meet is From California" on the flip side, and soon it was apparent that America had found its breakthrough hit. 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. On the other side of the Atlantic, in the United States, the single was also faring well with heavy airplay. It was a development which was to bode well for the future of the group. On 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. To top it off, America had topped the U.S. album charts as well, and soon "A Horse With No Name" was 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! . . .
America began their first North American tour in a lunchroom in Ontario, Canada, but as the spring wore on, more and more people began to turn out. Of an early concert date on that first tour, Rock observes:
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 continues:
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.
Enough critics began 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 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.
After such a smashing success with their first album, America began making plans for a follow-up. They wanted to do some touring in Japan, and record the next album in France. While in Spain, though, Dan Peek fell down a poorly-lit stairway and injured his arm. The tour had to be cancelled for the time being. Meanwhile, Dexter and the group were having disagreements over future arrangements, and the two parted company. Now under the management of Elliott Roberts, they relocated their home base to Southern California, and proceeded to produce their own recordings for the follow-up album at the Record Plant in Los Angeles.
Released in November 1972, the new album was named Homecoming, as they were back in their homeland. It entered the charts in early December and peaked at number nine, eventually going gold. The album represented a significant evolution in America's sound. Unlike America, Homecoming employed a full-band sound, with the trademark acoustic riffs being joined by electric guitars, keyboards, and more active bass and drum parts. "Moon Song" exemplified this sonic revision, combining a lengthy acoustic instrumental in the spirit of their previous album with the added infusion of spirited bass and drum lines. Dan Peek's electric guitar lit up tracks like "Cornwall Blank", which Rolling Stone compared to a Grateful Dead song. Gerry's growing use of keyboards is evident in the moody "Head & Heart" and "To Each His Own", an autobiographical song about cutting one's roots, which occurred quite often to Dewey, Dan, and Gerry as perennial Air Force brats. "California Revisited" was America's ode to the style of their musical heroes, the Beach Boys. The song was essentially the original "Everyone I Meet Is From California" reworked for their new surroundings on the California coast.
Now that they were in Los Angeles, America had the opportunity to utilitze some of the finest musicians anywhere. Hal Blaine and Joe Osborn made up two-thirds of what was then known as "the rhythm section of the music industry" (the other third being keyboardist Larry Knechtel). Blaine, a drummer, was the most sought-after sessionist in the land, having provided percussion for artists such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, and even the Monkees. Osborn (whose name is misspelled on the Homecoming liner notes), a bassist with so much talent that Bob Dylan unsuccessfully tried to get him to join his group, had impressive credentials as well, having provided the bass for such memorable artists as the Mamas & Papas, Fifth Dimension, Simon & Garfunkel, and an unknown duo (at the time he joined them) known as the Carpenters. (Check out Joe Osborn's home page to see a list of further artists he has helped out, including England Dan & John Ford Coley, the Partridge Family, and Kenny Rogers. Note: His page is inaccurate, so far as I know, that he had anything to do with "Tin Man" or "Lonely People".) Blaine and Osborn rounded out America's new West Coast sound and helped Homecoming become one of the group's most highly regarded albums over two decades later.
Homecoming immediately spawned a memorable hit, "Ventura Highway", which climbed to number eight in December 1972. It was inspired by a flat tire Bunnell had while driving down the highway around Ventura or Oxnard, California. With playful, free-flowing lyrics like "alligator lizards in the air", the song became an anthem for freeway drivers around the country, as well as a concert favorite.
Still, critics tore into the second album. They noted that while "Ventura Highway" was indeed catchy, the album was largely forgettable. Rolling Stone noted that, other than "Ventura Highway" and "Head & Heart" (America's first cover), the other songs were pretty boring. Others said that America's lyrics were "shitty" and "naive". Dan Peek conceded that they 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."
In March 1973, the second single from Homecoming, "Don't Cross The River", peaked at number 35. The song featured a sparkling banjo performance by the band's photographer, the esteemed Henry Diltz. Diltz (which Rhino Records proclaims to be their "Fave Photographer"), had extensive experience shooting such performers as 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. (To see other examples of Diltz's prolific work, check out his website.)
The continuing success of America forced critics to reluctantly concede that the group was more than just a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young rip-off. Still, critics were prone to comparisons of some sort. The March 31, 1973, Billboard notes:
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 made 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.
The article detailed their show at the Los Angeles Music Center Pavillion, noting that halfway through they went harder-edged and electric in their style. Selling the innovation to rock critics was difficult, as they still saw the group through the "Horse With No Name" lense:
America ought to stick to what they do superlatively, the acoustic ballads, and not try so hard to convince us they're heavy dudes.
In the same month, America won the Best New Artist award for 1972, beating out such heavyweight competition as the Eagles, Loggins and Messina, John Prine and Harry Chapin.
While America was in its "Summer '73" tour, one more track from Homecoming entered the charts, with "Only In Your Heart" peaking at number 62 in May.
Many critics noted (some with glee) that America's more recent releases, "Don't Cross The River" and "Only In Your Heart", had not done as well as "Ventura Highway" or "A Horse With No Name". They began writing America off as a fluke success based on a fluke, rip-off hit. Still, the trio remained optimistic. "We're not predicting," noted Beckley, "but if this album does as well as the others, then it'll be the proverbial hat trick."
What Beckley was referring to was their upcoming third album, which they accordingly named Hat Trick. Recorded from May to July of 1973, it was released that October. It featured pretty much the same production and personnel lineup as Homecoming, with America again doing the producing, Hal Blaine on drums, and Henry Diltz with another great banjo outing on "Submarine Ladies". Joe Osborn was replaced on bass by David Dickey, who had been introduced to the group in 1972 by Bill Mumy, the former star of "Lost In Space" who had Dickey in his own rock group. Guests on the album included Carl Wilson of the beloved Beach Boys on the epic "Hat Trick" plus James Gang frontman and future Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh on "Green Monkey".
While the album was their most elaborate to date, featuring synthesizers, tap dancing, bubbles, harmonicas and songs which flowed from one to the next, Hat Trick unfortunately didn't quite live up to its billing. The album peaked at number 28, and failed to go gold. The one charting single was their cover of "Muskrat Love", which went no higher than number 67 in September.
Originally, America had been popular on both sides of the Atlantic, but as time wore on, their star faded in the UK even faster than in the US. While America had topped the UK charts along with the hit single, "A Horse With No Name", and Homecoming had been moderately successful at number 21, "Ventura Highway" was only a minor hit and Hat Trick failed to rise above number 41. The group would briefly reappear only once more on the British charts during the 1970s with History - America's Greatest Hits, which peaked at #60 in February 1976.
After the relative commercial failure of Hat Trick, America was indeed faced with the prospect of obscurity. They reached out to former Beatles producer George Martin, and he agreed to help them. Interestingly, America would be the only band that Martin would work long term with after the Beatles.
In April 1974, America began recording their new album at Air Studios in London, England. The group revamped its sound under the guidance of Martin. Willie Leacox, a bandmate of David Dickey and Bill Mumy, was brought in on drums, while Martin himself worked out the grand orchestral arrangements which he was known for. The result was a sound fuller than anything America had come up with before. "Another Try" was considered by Beckley to be a shining example of the collaboration with Martin, with a plush backing orchestra giving the song a mellow, symphonic mood perfect for the advent of FM radio. "Hollywood" employed sounds of the city in the background with a repetitive, trance-like acoustic guitar track, giving the song a mysterious air. "Mad Dog" took a story about drunkenness and turned it jovial to the tune of a carnival-like backing brass band. "What Does It Matter" is an eccentric song with vocals recorded in mono to replicate the old-fashioned theme of the track. In fact, the lines, "Look the lady's got a photograph, silver-framed and velvet-backed," formed the theme of the album cover design, once again conceived by Gary Burden.
The new album, titled Holiday in keeping with the "H" theme, entered the charts in July and quickly rose to number three on the charts. America had made its comeback. In November, the song "Tin Man" hit number four and became a radio favorite. With nonsensical yet beautifully poetic lyrics like "and Cause never was the reason for the evening or the tropic of Sir Gallahad," and "Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn't, didn't already have," the song incorporated a soothing harmony and a memorable piano riff by Beckley, and wound up being their standard opening song at concerts.
The second single released, "Lonely People", became another Top Ten hit, reaching number five in March 1975. The song, a sort of hopeful melody dedicated to the down and out, became Dan Peek's only Top Ten hit, replete with elegant harmonica and piano arrangements.
By now, America had become an established act, with great and consistent drawing capacity. Billboard's review of a May 9, 1975, show at the Felt Forum in New York gives a vivid picture of the typical America concert of the time:
It was as if the phrase 'captive audience' was coined for America. From the moment they stepped onto the stage the crowd did nothing but cheer. The May 9 show opened with a clean, crisp rendition of "Tin Man" and the group displayed the feature for which they are best known, fine harmony. They continued the momentum with highlights such as "Don't Cross The River," "Company," and a mighty version of "Ventura Highway." They have a total sound, strong vocals and strong instrumentals.
This material is a departure from the easy listening one expects from America. Dan Peek mans an electric guitar and the group transforms into a rock group. The pleasant harmonies of Dewey Bunnell and Jerry Beckley [sic] remain, enhancing the driving electric force. The crowd kept cheering throughout the entire 70-minute set. America, then, returned for an exciting encore of "Sandman." After a standing ovation, they returned again to play a second encore, "Horse With No Name," the tune that brought the group to fame. After some 23 songs, the audience was still eager and continued to applaud for 10 minutes. This show proves that America is a safe bet for continued success.
In January, when "Lonely People" was climbing up the charts, America and George Martin went to San Francisco to record their second album together. The only change from Holiday was the addition of David Dickey on bass, who had also done the job on Hat Trick. In keeping with the "H" theme, the new album was called Hearts, possibly in reference to San Francisco being the home of the Summer of Love.
The first single released from Hearts, "Sister Golden Hair", became a smash success. Beckley's piece contained a memorable guitar intro, and a great driving beat from Willie Leacox on drums perfectly accented to the combined slide guitar and harmony vocals. Lyrics like, "Will you meet me in the middle, will you meet me in the air," were playing on every FM radio station, and the song shot to number one on June 14.
The success of "Sister Golden Hair" helped propel Hearts to number four in the album charts, and became their fourth gold album (inclduing the platinum America). Martin's fingerprints were all over the tracks, such as "The Story Of A Teenager", but the outstanding album track certainly has to be "Seasons", with its plush orchestration adding a full atmosphere to the song.
The second release off the album, "Daisy Jane", also fared well, but its number twenty chart peak was somewhat disappointing. The Beckley composition is about a man who had left his lady, Daisy Jane, only to find out that he really loved her after all. This song, Beckley's finest love song since "I Need You", became a concert favorite.
In November 1975, Warner Brothers released History - America's Greatest Hits, a retrospective which covered America's chart hits plus "Sandman". The pre-Martin tracks on the compilation were remixed by the ex-Beatles producer, with results such as the addition of a fiddle on "Don't Cross The River". The album itself was a huge success, and it peaked at number three on the album charts. To this day it remains a big seller, and in 1987 it was certified quadruple platinum.
The album's success sparked a third, minor hit from Hearts, "Woman Tonight", which reached number 44 in January 1976. The song, written by Peek, featured vocals by all three, and included trendy, if not tacky, production flourishes.
Early in 1976, the time came to record a follow-up album in the wake of the success of the America compilation. Martin and America went on location to the Caribou Ranch near Nederland, Colorado, for the task, which led to the name Hideaway for the finished album. It was released in the spring, and by May was climbing up toward an eventual peak at number eleven.
The album was yet another showcase for Martin's diverse production capabilities, with the two-part instrumental title track and "Watership Down" being full of strings, keyboards, woodwinds and brass. "Lovely Night", in contrast, was a "reggae extrapolation", as described by an America tour program.
The first single from Hideaway was "Today's The Day", Peek's song of hope and optimism (not unlike "Lonely People"). The song was only able to climb up to number 23 in July. Next came the single of "Amber Cascades", a soft and gentle piece by Bunnell, peaking at an underwhelming number 75 in September.
Upon the success of Hideaway, Martin and America agreed on yet another collaboration. They travelled to Kauai and began work on another album. Along with Dickey and Leacox, Jimmy Calire was added for saxophone ("Slow Down"), and Tom Walsh for extra percussion. Guitarist Larry Carlton helped out with the sitar in "Political Poachers", a politically cynical song from the post-Watergate era from a notoriously apolitical group (unlike their supposed mentors, CSN&Y, with their broodings in "Ohio").
The recording phase for the new album, entitled Harbor (in reference to Pearl Harbor), was a lot of fun for everyone. George Martin noted that he had to constantly keep an eye on the trio in order to keep them focused on their work. Often times, they would be riding buggies or flying in helicopters, then saunter into the studio to work on tracks.
Harbor was not a smashing success, although it did peak at number 21 on the Billboard charts in March 1977. Attempts at hit singles, like the sprightly "God Of The Sun", failed. Still, America was able to pull in crowds. Billboard once again reported about another successful concert at Nassau Coliseum in New York on April 20, 1977:
America made an SRO visit to suburban New York on April 20. For this 75-minute performance, the three nearly interchangeable lead singers, Garry Beckley [sic], Dewey Bunnell and Dan Peek, shared the stage with a basic rock band and a small forest of potted plants.
The band moved rapidly through its material, performing nearly 20 songs, beginning with some of its better known oldies like "Muskrat Love" and "Ventura Highway," then moving to new selections from the Harbor LP and back to the hits, closing on "Horse With No Name."
And rock it did, very well indeed, bringing the audience to its feet, where it remained for a long time, bouncing along and clapping. Such an outpouring of emotion helps any performer along, and it certainly seemed to drive America to new heights, making a pleasant and exciting performance.
After five years of continued success, America was no longer considered the "Horse With No Name" group or the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young rip-offs. Still, they endured criticism over their lyrics. Dewey Bunnell had learned to turn a blind eye to detractors: "Sure, sometimes there's a trite lyric, but no triter than a hell of a lot of quote 'well-respected bands' unquote. Lyrically, there's some real jive in a lot of the heavy bands' stuff."
Rolling Stone in 1977 asked George Martin about why America was still the pet peeve of the critics. "I guess they're too nice," said Martin. "They don't have any sort of outrageous scenes--kicking people around and destroying hotels. And they tend, because of that, to get underrated. They do have a tremendous following; I guess it's a large group of hard-core Americans who like something that isn't too rocky--which is what they fit into."
By the time Harbor came out, America's future was unclear. Both Dewey Bunnell and Dan Peek were considering solo projects, and Gerry Beckley was considering a collaboration with Van Dyke Parks.
Just a few weeks after America's performance at the Nassau Coliseum, Dan Peek quit America. Dewey Bunnell recalls, "It was the excesses of the time. He wasn't bearing up to the stress. He ultimately left, by mutual agreement, because he had become a born-again Christian. I would not take anything away from Dan. He was a great friend and a great musician." At the time he observed, "We're sorry to see him go; it's like the end of a musical era for us... But it's a new challenge for each of us."
As a Christian solo artist, Peek signed up with Lamb & Lion Records, and cut an album called All Things Are Possible in late 1978. Among the session players on the album were Chris Christian, Hal Blaine, Michael Omartian, and Steve Porcaro. Beckley and Bunnell provided some help with background vocals on the track "Love Was Just Another Word", the last song on which the trio sang together. The title track was actually a moderate pop hit, peaking at number 78 in October 1979. Peek carved out a moderately successful niche for himself in Christian music, following up All Things Are Possible with three additional albums in the mid-1980s. The superb Doer Of The Word from 1984 was also produced by Chris Christian and featured a delightful backing vocal performance by Gerry Beckley on the outstanding title track. 1986's Electrovoice found Peek producing his own material. Reminiscent of America's Alibi, the record was divided into "This Side" and "That Side". Another reminder of Peek's America roots was a reworked version of "Lonely People" in which the rather vague line "ride that highway in the sky" was replaced with the much more direct "give your heart to Jesus Christ". The following year, Peek produced one last solo album, Crossover, which included guest work by Ken Marvin and Brian Gentry. By 1994, the duo had formed a soft rock outfit called Peace, and recruited Peek to produce their album, Stronger Than You Know. Peek was initimately involved, not only producing but co-writing a couple songs as well as singing backup vocals and playing the harmonica. Three years later, he officially joined the group, writing and singing the lead on eight of the thirteen songs on their new eponymous album.
Meanwhile, America struggled to get along as a duo. Just two months after Peek's departure, on July 24, America recorded a live album at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. George Martin arranged for a backing orchestra conducted by Elmer Bernstein, which came out in full colors on the closing track, "Horse With No Name". Without Dan Peek's lead guitar and on-stage presence, Bunnell and Beckley seemed somewhat awkward in the recording, but held their own nonetheless. Taking the place of Peek's guitar work were Tom Walsh on percussion, and Jimmy Calire on saxophone, both of whom added various sound effects to the songs to spruce them up. Not long after the Greek Theater concert, Michael Woods (or "Wood-z", previously America's equipment manager) filled the badly-needed lead guitar slot, and by the early 1980s, Brad Palmer had replaced David Dickey as the band's bassist. Calire and Walsh went their own ways. This reconstructed live lineup still remains intact as of 1997. The Greek Theater recording was eventually released in late 1977 as Live, but was only able to peak at number 129 on the charts in early 1978.