Preview: America, with its distinctive sound, started across the pond
"I think when you're called America, the Fourth of July is one of your more in-demand gigs," laughs Gerry Beckley, who co-fronts the band playing the Regatta festivities outside Rivers Casino today.
The band name along with the sunny folk-rock vibe suggested that America was born and bred somewhere in Southern California, but the reality was about 5,000 miles away.
"It's confusing, because we started in England, both of us are half-English, but we are American citizens and we've been based here in the States since the '70s. But right from the start, when we came over here it said, 'Direct from England: America.' So, talk about mixed signals."
America formed in 1970 with three members whose American fathers were married to their British mothers, amazingly enough, and assigned to an Air Force base in London. In this new post-Beatles era, the country's diverse music scene was divided among the stalwart British Invasion bands (Stones, Kinks, Who), progressive-rock bands a la Pink Floyd, hard blues-rockers in the Led Zeppelin vein and folk-based acts from Fairport Convention to Nick Drake.
America, attuned with the latter, was enamored with the Laurel Canyon sound rising from Los Angeles.
"It came of age right at that era, so it was not a secret that we discovered on FM radio or something," Mr. Beckley says. "From '69 on, there was a California sound with CSN. It had kind of come out of the Doors, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield. Come '69, you added James Taylor and Joni [Mitchell], and it kind of bolstered the sound and the theme. Those aren't real LA people, but that era is what was sparking at the time. Most of those people, like ourselves, were immigrants, like most Californians themselves."
America released its debut album in December 1971 and went to No. 1 on the singles charts in early 1972 with a bonus track written and sung by Dewey Bunnell, "A Horse With No Name," that many people mistook for Neil Young. In fact, it replaced his only No. 1 solo hit, "Heart of Gold," at the top of the chart.
Four decades later, the song, with its surreal, arguably nonsensical lyrics, remains a classic-rock staple and a daily fascination for fans who approach them at America concerts.
"It was banned in some places," Mr. Beckley says. "A lot of people thought it was Neil. Neil's dad called and said, 'I heard your new song.' The whole thing was wrapped in an interesting package.
"The reality was, because I know the whole process of the song, Dewey and his brother used to kick around in the desert, being based on obscure Air Force bases and stuff. That's really what it was all about. They put together this surreal journey using the horse as the vehicle, but because of the analogies and everything, we got all kinds of drug references. But I think it is deep. My favorite quote is from Randy Newman who said, 'It's about a guy who thinks he's taken acid.' "
As it turned out, America had a lot more than "A Horse With No Name." Mr. Beckley's love song "I Need You," sweetly sung in a Graham Nash style, became the album's second hit, going to No. 9. The band's follow-up album, "Homecoming," came with the breezy hits "Ventura Highway" and "Don't Cross the River," sung by America's third member, Dan Peek, who left the group in 1977 to become a contemporary Christian artist. He died last year.
America continued its run of hits in the mid-'70s, working with former Beatles producer George Martin on five albums, which included such songs as "Tin Man," "Sister Golden Hair" and "Lonely People." As the '70s rolled on, the group's popularity began to fade, although America did make a final trip into the Top 10 in 1982 with "You Can Do Magic."
Despite being able to assemble a greatest hits album and concert set adored by fans, it was common for critics to dismiss America as a wussie soft-rock group too derivative of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The first Rolling Stone Record Guide was brutal, giving every America studio album one star out of five.
Of the detractors, Mr. Beckley says, "We have a pretty clear way of looking at this thing and that is that right from the start, if your first album and single go to No. 1 around the world, it's really hard to question any of that. We've had an incredible success and incredible fans for decades and decades. For us to take maybe one piece of the puzzle and say, 'OK, maybe all the great critics weren't on board,' is maybe the wrong way to approach it. It's such a rarity to get all the troika. You get a guy like Bono who manages to do incredible work, get the critical acclaim and also manages to save the world in the gaps. Those are very rare circumstances."
With time, the perspective of America has matured with the music. There's plenty of love for the group in the folk-rock revival scene populated by such bands as Midlake and Fleet Foxes.
"It's an honor, because the feeling's mutual. I listen constantly. It's not a chore. It's not like, 'I have to stay on top of what's going on,' " he says mockingly. "I enjoy well-done stuff. I get great pleasure out of that. I was just at a Midlake session. They were out with Jason Lytle [of Grandaddy] and he was doing my song 'I Need You' backed up by them. Now, they've been to a few of our shows. What has now come full circle as 'beard rock' -- with Fleet Foxes and all of that stuff -- it's as close to that [British folk-rock] genre as you're going to find."
America's last album of original material, 2007's "Here and Now," found the duo working with producers Adam Schlesinger (of Fountains of Wayne) and James Iha (of Smashing Pumpkins) on what sounded like a vintage America album.
"I've been such a fan of Adam and James. Adam is one of my favorite writers," Mr. Beckley says. "And when they came on board and said, 'We're doing the next America album,' it was a great thing to see how many people were left on the boat. It was not supposed to be a 'duets' project. So then the challenge became, when you had people like Ryan Adams saying 'I'm coming over' and Ben Kweller and My Morning Jacket, to integrate them into the album. I think they did a fantastic job."
America followed that with "Back Pages," covering classics by Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, Simon & Garfunkel and the Beach Boys, while mixing in songs by Fountains of Wayne, New Radicals and Gin Blossoms. Mr. Beckley has also released a solo album, "Unfortunate Casino," co-produced with his son, Matt, who toured as guitarist for Katy Perry and has produced Low and Retribution Gospel Choir as well as doing engineering on pop projects like Ke$ha and Britney Spears. "He works with Dr. Luke and Benny Blanco," his dad says, "so he's got one foot in this pinnacle of pop. Matthew has incredible ears."
With new albums by classic acts becoming a hard sell, America's biggest exposure these days clearly is through its approximately 100 shows a year, which, of course, are loaded with hits, including that first one about the horse. He swears his partner hasn't tired of it.
"There was a brief period where we took it out of the set for about two weeks, and the place went crazy," Mr. Beckley says. "But by that point, we thought we were above all of that -- by then we'd had five or six more hits. But of course we were completely wrong. You know, that's the agreement. That's the deal. These people, if you are that fortunate, will bless you with immense amounts of success. And I think your side of the bargain is to go back and see these people and perform for them. You see it every night on their faces. And we very often go out and sing, , and we hear about how this music changed their life, how it saved their life. It's really hard to not be moved by that."
First Published July 4, 2012 12:00 am