AMERICA talk to James Johnson
AMERICA’S HOME in the country is hardly luxurious. Down in bleakest Herts countryside Gerry Beckley, Dan Peek and Dewey Bunnell choose to live in a dilapidated old farm labourer’s cottage just outside a village of the type normally described as sleepy.
Last week it was dead. A thin drizzle of snow fell into thick, mucky country mud and the distant drone of a hedge-cutter was the only sound to break the deep, pervading silence.
Inside the house it was different. After a mini-tour of Holland and a quickly arranged appearance on Top Of The Pops, America were taking a day off. In a tiny, dark room lit only by an electric fire the group were taking the opportunity to play some rough old tapes recorded long before they thought of making hit records.
“In fact, the success of our single took us completely by surprise,” remarked Dewey. “After our album the record company wanted us to put down some new tracks. We laid down four and just forgot about them. When we got back from Holland we were amazed to find the ‘Horse With No Name’ single in the charts.”
“It’s a maxi-single,” he continued. “Two of the tracks are new, while ‘Sandtracks’ comes off the album. None of them were specifically written for the charts.
“If you’re a singles group you tend to tailor your stuff for the charts. Like, if you look at most of the Top Thirty hits there seems to be a formula behind each one.
“But for us, the single is really a taste of the album. I think that’s more a complete work of what we are.”
The fact that the three American ex-patriots all live together is not surprising. They first met at school and became close friends long before they ever thought of forming a group. Each had a similar background of American serviceman’s families and a history of moving around the world.
On leaving school they followed separate musical paths, playing in different electric groups before they met again and found they had some ideas in common.
“It all happened one night when we got together over a crate of beer and a couple of acoustic guitars,” said Dewey. “Everything that night fell into place. I suppose you could say the candle was lit. Straight off we arranged the song ‘Children’ which later appeared in the album.”
Up until then, each had been writing songs on their own and so the newly formed America had a stockpile of material to work on. After arranging the numbers there followed a spell of going round record companies playing to anybody who’d listen, a corny but effective method since it led to a record contract and signing with their manager, DJ Jeff Dexter.
Almost straight off they landed a string of important gigs, including appearances with Elton John and the Who at the Roundhouse, with the Faces and Who at the Oval, and on a Cat Stevens tour.
Said Gerry, “At that stage we missed going through the really bad club circuit but we seem to be starting that now. I guess the circle is full. Eventually you go through everything.
“I think there’s a feeling in the business that if you don’t go through two years of slogging through the clubs you don’t get hardened as a musician. But all of us have spent our lives hustling around and moving from place to place so we’ve already covered the physical aspect of it.
“And let’s face it, the only way fresh music comes on the scene is if it happens the way it happened with us. If we’d spent years playing clubs the music would hardly be fresh.”
In the early days of their career they were dogged by comparisons with Crosby, Stills and Nash. The knocks hurt at first but the group have learnt to live with them. Now their standard reply to such criticisms is a half-smiled, “Crosby, Stills and Nash sound like us.”
Why though, I asked, has there been such a concentration on acoustic music so far?
“At first we just couldn’t afford any electric instruments,” replied Dan. “Now it seems to come naturally. We write and arrange acoustically and whenever we try it any other way it just doesn’t seem to fit.”
“But we’re not really a totally acoustic group anyway,” said Dewey. “We use bass and it’s beginning to happen with electric piano. Really I don’t see why there should be such a distinction between acoustic and electric groups anyway. They’re both intertwined. We would all like America just to be known as a group — period.
“At present we’re trying to expand the live show a bit,” he continued. “We’ve been trying to find a drummer but none of the people we’ve tried so far have really worked out. It’s nothing to do with their talent or ability but just the fact that if somebody doesn’t knit there’s just no way it will go.
“And already it would be difficult for another musician to come in and be one quarter of the group. We’ve been playing together now for a year and a half and to add somebody new would be difficult. It would be like adopting a new brother.
“One of the things flowing through all of us is a similarity in background and lifestyle and it shows in the writing and the music. It’s very important to the group. It might be unfair for a new person to come in who hasn’t been to school with us — who hasn’t been through the same changes and phases.”
But in spite of the closeness of the group as personalities they find it impossible to write any songs together. Each number on both the album and the single is credited to just one member of the group.
“The first album comprised songs we had stocked up before we got together so there wasn’t much chance of collaborating on those anyway,” said Dan. “But on the occasions we’ve tried to write together the concept involved has just been too much. We seem to work best by one of us bringing a song to the others which is then arranged between the three of us. Any changes are made with the writer’s approval.”
At present most of the group’s thoughts are concentrated on a tour of the States arranged for February. Although they are all of American nationality they’ve spent little time in the States in the last few years. As a musical quantity they are almost unknown.
“It’s going to be weird,” thought Dewey. “I suppose we go to sleep each night thinking about it. We don’t know what to expect but we’re not expecting very much.”
Are they not afraid that they will suffer comparisons over there with Crosby, Stills and Nash all over again?
“Yeah, it could be that we will go through the same thing that happened with the British people,” replied Gerry. “But lately I’ve been consoled with the thought that the acoustic thing in the States has reached such a point — that there’s been such a high turnover of acoustic groups, that nobody will think of it. I’m sure we won’t be the first three-piece acoustic group over there since the big boys.
“Whatever happens I think we’ll always base ourselves in Britain. We started here, we live here and a lot of the music business is consolidated here.
“Britain feels as much like home as anywhere else. When we’re in the States I’m sure I’ll get homesick for London.”
© James Johnson, New Musical Express, 22 January 1972