America Starts to Rediscover Itself
There’s an interesting piece of stage patter that America – Dan Peek, Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley – used to include on its first concert tour. It’s a story of the group’s initial brush with recognition. The three had just checked into a hotel when an excited bellboy carrying an autograph book shrieked, “The Americans! Which one is Jay?”
Six hit singles, one gold and three platinum albums later, the incident is not so much amusing as it is ironic. America, in spite of consistent commercial success, remains largely a faceless entity. “It’s image has always been the biggest problem we’ve ever had,” said John Hartmann, whose Hartmann/Goodman management firm handles the group. “People still haven’t accepted the fact that America is three guys, three people” Dewey, Dan and Gerry. They wrote the songs, they recorded the records, they went out and worked the road to make it. This isn’t the Archies. It’s nothing mythical.”
While America may very well change that transparent visage with “Hearts,” its fifth and most fully realized album, a quick look at the band’s four-year history shows a personality repeatedly clouded by setbacks.
Sunken into a living room couch in Beckley’s Beverly Hills home, 23-year-old Bunnell called America’s first three years a matter of “three steps forward, two steps back.” The group’s other two members – also present – agreed. “Looking back now,” said Peek, 23, “we’ve spent most of our career in a frantic confusion. Up until recently, it’s been a horrendous experience. We were taken from being three secure high school garage-rockers to scrambled gold record sellers in a matter of days. None of us really expected or even wanted success that soon.”
The band began innocently enough. The signer-songwriting sons of military fathers stationed in England, Dewey, Dan and Gerry put together a small repertoire of tunes in between odd jobs of dishwashing and being short-order cooks. They auditioned for Warner Brothers producer Ian Samwell, who signed them to the label in ’71 and produced its debut album. He even introduced the trio to his roommate, London underground figure Jeff Dexter, who became America’s first manager.
Unprepared for success, within six month, the band had stumbled onto a No. 1 record with its first single – the Neil Young soundalike “Horse With No Name.” “It caught us all totally unprepared,” admitted Peek, “especially Jeff Dexter. As an amateur manager, he had absolutely no idea how to handle our future.” The group secretly met in London with Elliott Roberts, then a partner with David Geffen in the management of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joni Mitchell and the Eagles, among others. Just as America’s second hit single, “I Need You” was breaking, Geffen and Roberts had them flown to the States to make the management switch official. In retrospect, Peek puts it a different way. “We deserted one sinking ship and got on another.”
Beckley elaborated: “When we came to the States to be managed by them, it came at a period when David and Elliott could have really done a lot for us. After six months of working with them, the situation had changed greatly. They tried to maintain a stable of far too many acts. Geffen broke away to run Asylum Records and Elliott couldn’t handle all the work by himself.
“You can’t ask Elliott to cut the time he spends with Neil or Joni. So our management became a job for the underlings in the organization. And here we had come all the way from London expecting to be directed by the guys whose names were on the door. Instead, we went through the Manager-of-the-Month-Club.”
In the meantime, America’s ties to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (Bunnell’s Neil Youngish whine, the interplay of three acoustic guitars and their common management) had resulted in a severe identity crisis. By the release of its self-produced second LP, “Homecoming,” the media had already written the group off as a “pre-pubescent CSNY.” Nevertheless, the album provided two more hits, “Ventura Highway” and “Don’t Cross the River.”
America retaliated against its critics with a self-consciously progressive third album, “Hat Trick.” We decided that we were going to use strings, do some interesting arranging and generally stretch out,” said Peek. The album flopped. Even today, it is the only America release that isn’t a gold or platinum record. “It’s worth the mysterious blank spots about our fireplaces,” grinned Bunnell, “just to hear ourselves being non-commercial.”
In the end, though, it taught them a valuable lesson about exactly what sells America albums: singles. “I’m sure we’ll get back around to long songs, extended solos and so forth,” said Peek, “but for now, we just want to keep the trio going. It’s no real compromise. Whatever we put out, it’ll be our music and we’ll be proud of it.”
And what about the persistent criticism of the group’s artistic disposability? “Hey listen,” Beckley argued, “artistic depth is the hardest thing to achieve and still be commercial. The people who get the most credit for creativity don’t sell any records. What’s the point of making records if you aren’t interested in appealing to a mass audience? You might as well sit on your porch and play to the stars.”
Peek: “I think it’s great to be making music that doesn’t take 20 listenings to appreciate. I’m personally fed up with records so involved that they demand your complete and total concentration. Besides, isn’t pleasing people a valid art form?”
It took the collaboration of former Beatles producer-arranger George Martin on the album “Holliday” and the tide-turning hit-single “Tin Man” to rescue America from a downhill slide. John Hartmann takes a little credit, too. “The album came out,” he said, “went to number 50 on the charts and began to fall. My heart stopped. I got enraged and called Joe Smith (president of Warner Brothers Records) to find out what was going on. He politely told me we were bombing. The Souther-Hillman-Furay band – three people no one had every heard of – was roaring up the charts and America was bombing? Joe Smith told me not to pay any attention to chart figures, that they were a hype. I said, ‘Then get us a hype.’ We turned it around, broke ‘Tin Man’ and eventually even ‘Lonely People.'”
Gerry Beckley remembered the band being “very nervous” over its first studio work with George Martin. “He’s one of the few real geniuses in music today. There’s no way around that fact. We were in awe of him in the beginning. When we decided to get a new producer, we never even thought of George. You tend to isolate him from your usual list of producers. It’s like . . . you don’t invite the King of England to your party, even though you’d love for him to be there. We heard he was in Los Angeles, got together with him and asked if he would produce us. He surprised us all and said yes.
“We’re a well-rehearsed band. No producer will ever had to tell us what to play and where to play it. George Martin is much more of a consultant and arranger for us than a producer.”
The winning America-Martin combination continues through “Hearts,” the trio’s first release under its young and ambitious new managers Hartmann and Harlan Goodman. “We’re working hard at broadening the America audience now,” said Hartmann. Under their new direction, the band has already completed its first film score, for Universal’s “The Story of a Teen-ager” (“It’s a sort of teen ‘Midnight Cowboy,'” cracked Beckley. “Ratso Rizzo Goes for Burgers.”) “We’re going for a more middle-of-the-road audience,” explained Harlan Goodman. “We’re doing the Smothers Brothers Show rather than In Concert and a Bob Hope Special rather than the Midnight Special or Cher Show. Ultimately, we’ll do a special of our own.”
And who knows? Maybe the day will come when Peek, Bunnell and Beckley will become household names and faces as easily identifiable as their records. “I sure hope it’s soon,” pined Bunnell. “People still think of us as 15-year-old Neil Young imitators. It’s too bad that your initial image stays with you for so long.”
Courtesy of the L.A. Times – Cameron Crowe – May 18, 1975