With an impressive caliber of success that has now spanned five decades, there are very few musical alliances that have fashioned together such a broad catalog of memorable songs as the perennial favorite classic-rock group America.
With the band making its way to Saginaw for an appearance at the historic Temple Theatre as part of its 50th Anniversary Tour on Friday, April 8th at 7:30 PM, recently I enjoyed the rare opportunity to sit down for an interview with guitarist, vocalist, and co-songwriter Dewey Bunnell, who along with founding members Gerry Beckley and the late Dan Peek, cultivated a unique niche in popular music when they quickly harmonized their way to the top of the charts on the strength of their signature song, A Horse with No Name, creating a long string of hits that quickly followed throughout the 1970s & ‘80s, including their best-known tunes I Need You, Ventura Highway, Tin Man, Lonely People and Sister Golden Hair.
Apart from the strength of their melodic material and signature vocal harmonies, the group’s stature extends well-beyond the surface perceptions of their greatest hits, largely because their sound is continuously evolving as America’s journey has found them exploring a wide variety of musical terrain. The combination of Beckley’s strong melodic pop rock sensibilities and Bunnell’s use of folk-jazz elements, slinky Latin-leaning rhythms, and impressionistic lyrical imagery contrasted like a perfectly mixed cocktail with Peek’s harder edged country-rock leanings and highly personal lyrics.
With six-certified gold and/or platinum albums, their 1st Greatest Hits collection History hitting four-plus million in sales, their overall catalog has always encompassed an ambitious artistic pallet that displays a flawless blend of divergent styles and genres as wide-open as the country they adopted their name from.
Fifty years of such sustained and significant success is not without its pitfalls. By the late-70s, inter-band conflicts combined with an exhausting touring and recording schedule exacted its toll on the group, with Peek departing from the fold and later passing, it is a testament to their resilience and passion that Bunnell & Beckley have continued to inventively forge forward both in the studio and as a live performing band.
As we began our interview, I realized that to fully understand where the group is at now, one needs to start at the beginning, when they first met as American teenage expatriates attending high school together in London, England.
As our conversation continued for well over 30 minutes, I also found Dewey Bunnell to be sharp, thoughtful, remarkably candid, and incredibly personable: indeed, he is the only star of this caliber I have had the privilege to interview who was an inquisitive about me as I was of him - asking me about The REVIEW, talking about the Great Lakes of Michigan, where he and his family have a cottage on the Wisconsin side that they reside at four to five months of the year, and throughout our conversation revealing that he is as deeply a historian and fan of popular music as he is a participant within it.
REVIEW: Seeing as this is your 50th Anniversary Tour, lets go back to the beginning when the band first formed. Back in 1970 you’re all living in London and everyone in the band are sons of fathers in the Air Force who are stationed there. So how did you exactly meet and when did you realize that you shared something distinctive musically?
Bunnell: As kids we all came from different places and were somewhat nomadic, coming from military families. It was like an American high school that we attended over there in England, which also had some civilian kids enrolled, and we basically met in this high school environment, but shared common denominators because we all played guitars and were musicians to some degree.
We didn’t come up through school from elementary grades like most kids did, but dropped into each other’s lives in our Junior & Senior years of high school and shared similar interests.
Gerry had a band already going when I got there that played cover songs. I remember vividly that he played the bass guitar in that band when I first introduced myself to him. Dan came a little later and had also started a band and was more of a heavy rock guy who played great lead guitar. Then Dan and I interchanged into that core band and played weekend gigs. We didn’t get paid for anything and our friendship cemented from that.
Writing our own material was the real key to discovering that what we shared was special. After we graduated in June of 1969, we realized that we all had written songs. Dan went off to college for a year in the United States and Gerry and me were back in England working basic manual labor jobs in our spare time. We realized this was not much of a future, so started arranging music we had written to see what we could do with it. Then we made a few contacts and started playing out.
We got into the deep end a little bit because we had these songs and met this guy named Dave Howson, who managed this club called Middle Earth and later formed a label called Middle Earth Records. Next we met this influential guy named Jeff Dexter who started getting gigs for us in these little weird places. He was a very plugged-in guy within the whole London scene and was campier at the Roundhouse in London and also introduced Hendrix at the Isle of Wright Festival.
He put us on the bill with some pretty big acts. We did a 30-minute opener once for Pink Floyd and also opened for Elton John and also opened for The Who at the Roundhouse and couldn’t believe we were on the same stage.
REVIEW: When you look back over the vast expanse of your career, what do you feel are the strongest qualities that each member of AMERICA brought to the table in terms of shaping the sound of the band musically and also in terms of songwriting? Can you tell me how the creative process works for you?
Bunnell: We began as a trio like the ‘Three Musketeers’ and always wrote our own songs. Each of us would bring their new song to the table and the three of us would hash it over and start arranging it, maybe change something here-and-there, and sculpt the song together that way.
Dan left the band in the late ‘70s and Gerry and I went on as a duo and I would say we’ve collaborated together much more over the past decade. On a couple of albums like Human Nature and Hourglass you will hear more collaboration on the songs. We have our own writing styles and try to be economists in that area, but always collaborate when recording or playing our parts, adding bits and pieces. In that sense, at the end of the day, recording a new song is always a collaborative effort.
REVIEW: After your first album came out and started rising to the top of the charts with your hit single ‘A Horse with No Name’, how much were you influenced by bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young? I recall at that time how critics were comparing any band that played acoustic music and shared strong vocal harmonies to CSNY. Hell, Rolling Stone Magazine even compared Led Zeppelin III to CSNY because it contained a lot of acoustic songs.
Bunnell: We certainly emulated that sound. We were three guys on stools with acoustic guitars singing harmonies, so I don’t deny the influence or coincidence. We all were influenced by those harmonies of The Beach Boys and The Beatles before them, as well as those early Byrds albums.
As kids we listened to The Everly Brothers and all compared notes. The common thread we shared was strong harmonic singing and all our songs were written with that in mind both subconsciously and consciously. None of us wanted to be front man singers. But what we did do was feature vocal harmonies on the bridge of the song as well as the chorus.
When our debut album was released late in 1971, by early 1972 we had three hits on that record - Horse with No Name, Sandman, and I Need You and things were moving so fast that we couldn’t wait to write another song.
At the time that album came out we were three guys living together in a little shack in north London and doing little shows in England and Holland and a month later we were off on a little boat with Jeff Dexter taking care of us and on the road paying our dues.
REVIEW: Your follow-up album, ‘Homecoming’, yielded more hits such as ‘Ventura Highway’. The band also signed with David Geffen in 1973 and then left him shortly after. What was that experience like and why did you leave him?
Bunnell: After our first album went to number one we were immediately courted by Elliot Roberts & David Geffen. We met at Warner Brothers’ office and even though there were a lot of executives and powerful people in London, we were still Americans and chomping at the bit to get back to the United States.
Elliot managed Joni Mitchell and David was working with Jackson Browne and we got this call. Geffen was on the phone and it was in the middle of the night or early morning, because he hadn’t taken into account the time zone difference.
He offered to manage us and we jumped on it. We’d been around in New York and that whetted our appetite to back to the U.S., so the three of us took that offer. Actually, it was somewhat unceremonious the way we just upped out of town. David put us up at his house in Los Angeles and Roberts/Geffen has just started in their office, so people were coming and going all the time. We signed a few papers, and bam we were on our way.
We made our 2nd and 3rd album under Geffen/Roberts and performed at a couple of huge tours they threw together. We won the Grammy for Best Artist and had a number one album and were the new kids on the block.
The only problem with playing those big tours Geffen & Roberts had organized is that we had no drummer or bass player, so had to get a rhythm section. We hired the famous ‘Wrecking Crew’ rhythm crew of Hal Blaine on drums and Joe Osborn on bass to play on our 2nd and 3rd album; and in retrospect I don’t think we were ready, frankly, to dive into the deep end of the pool at that juncture.
Geffen & Roberts had several other managers under their umbrella at Lookout Management, because it was too much for them to handle on their own. I remember Irving Azoff came in with Joe Walsh and two of the managers at Lookout were John Hartmann and Harlan Goodman, who decided to break away from Geffen/Roberts and form their own agency.
We decided to go with them. They had signed David Crosby & Graham Nash and also Poco. That was right around the time that we met George Martin and he started producing us.
REVIEW: Your third album, ‘Hat Trick’, was self-produced and yielded the hit ‘Muskrat Love’, but after that you enlisted The Beatle’s famed producer George Martin to produce your fourth album, “Holiday’, which yielded a huge crop of hits like ‘Tin Man’ and ‘Lonely People’ in 1974 & ’75. Other than The Beatles, yours is the only band that George Martin really devoted himself to producing the work for over a consecutive five-year period from 1974-79. What was it like working with him and what did you take away from the experience?
Bunnell: We really locked in and he became a good friend and a great mentor because we appreciated his British sense-of-humor, so flew back to London and recorded Holiday and went on to have a lot of success with George.
He was from a different generation and would tell us about how primitive the art of recording was back in the day. He started out doing a lot of comedy albums before working with The Beatles and was a trained musician who played coronet and harpsicord. He brought everything about our music together and stabilized it and provided a working environment at that point of time that was more conducive to where we needed to go. We were too scattered and needed to be disciplined a bit.
Producing an album involves much more than commenting on whether you like the take or not; there was a lot going on with traditional records in those days, plus George brought Geoff Emerick with him too, who was The Beatles recording engineer, so we just let the two of them take over that department, which gave us time to write the songs and focus on that.
REVIEW: What do you think is the biggest challenge for an artist to evolve their music, as opposed to repeating themselves? There’s that old adage that you spend a lifetime creating your first album, and then have a year or two to make your second; so do you and Gerry try to evolve the sound of the band or are you pretty much locked into a sound that you’ve spent your life defining?
Bunnell: That is so true! (laughter). I can honestly say the songwriting is the same task now as it was when we started: to sit down and come up with a melody and lyrics and produce something special. That part doesn’t change.
By 1975 and 1976 and 1977 all the popular bands and contemporary artists were consciously trying to tweak their sound with a token Reggae song, or grabbing a disco beat to set the melody to. We did do cover songs and got other writers involved when our own material wasn’t getting any traction, but the core effort was to do what we did from the beginning - to write a song that means something to people.
I don’t write nearly as much as I used to because I’m one of those people that needs a deadline. But as life gets more complicated and the record company wants a new album of material every year, because of our early success we never had a lot of backlog material in the early years.
We were motivated and inspired every day to write, but that changed as the decades went on. You can’t keep that momentum and pace when you’ve got life going on. The live show is the closest thing to instant creative satisfaction and why I’m so grateful to still be doing this. That’s a huge element of this two-prong thing called music - you have to physically execute this thing by going to the live shows and performing.
REVIEW: Unfortunately the pandemic shut down your 50th Anniversary Tour prematurely back in early 2020, so what did you guys end up doing during the lockdowns?
Bunnell: It changed the whole trajectory. I think we can all agree, whatever your walk of life, that nobody thought this thing would be this long and that it would only last a month, or a couple of months. But we went for 16-months without a show. Last year in 2021 we finally logged 39 shows and so far this year we’ve done 7 shows. We had to postpone a couple because our guitar player got COVID; but I’m so glad we’ve still got the same guys with us and now we basically play two or three shows in a weekend and go home.
During the lockdowns we all lived our separate lives. Gerry and his wife live in Australia for half the year, and my wife and I are based here in Southern California, but we do have a cabin in Wisconsin on Lake Superior where we usually stay for five months a year.
Because the band was all isolated we texted a lot and Gerry and I got involved in this 50th Anniversary Box Set and a live album we recorded before the lockdown at the London Palladium that involved an eight-camera shoot.
One thing we did do with the aid of our archivist Jeff Larsen, is dig into old recordings that we had totally forgotten about. One thing we discovered was this live concert we recorded in 1975 at the Hollywood Bowl with George Martin conducting an orchestra for that show that just blew us away. They were left in the can and totally forgotten, so during the lockdown we’ve been able to unearth a lot of cool stuff that hopefully we can get released next year.
REVIEW: When you look over the expanse of your career, what are the three top most memorable moments - highlights that kind of stand out in your museum of memories that you will always savor?
Bunnell: Wow - talk about putting me on the spot! I guess it would be the things the band did over those 7 or 8 years with George Martin if I could condense that into one giant memory.
Second would be some of the great tours we shared with people we love and respect, like Brian Wilson and Chicago and all the classic rock bands we shared stages with over the years.
I remember one show at the Washington Monument in the 1980s around the 4th of July and Ringo Starr was on that show along with The Beach Boys and Three Dog Night. That day was a pretty far out day. I remember we toured with Joe Cocker one summer and he was such a dear, sweet man - we had a blast on that tour.
Popular music has such a fantastic history and I’m a student of it all and where it came from and the fantastic cultural impact it has carried. Our lives wouldn’t be the same without it; and to my mind when people say music isn’t important, as far as I’m concerned, if it affected your life - it’s important.
America will be performing their ‘50th Anniversary Tour’ at Saginaw’s Temple Theatre on Friday, April 8th at 7:30 PM. Doors open at 6:30 PM. Tickets are still available by following this link.
16th November, 2023