America: What This Band Needs Is a Hat Trick

LOS ANGELES – To the crowd at the Hollywood Bowl, America could do – and did – no wrong. But to America, the concert was a qualitative embarrassment.

“It was the worst show of the tour,” said Gerry Beckley the next morning. “It was just like Carnegie Hall last tour. We were nervous and full of anticipation; we’d been building up to the show for a long time.”

The upper decks of the bowl were covered with tarpaulin as America played to some 10,000 people. They’d been drawing large audiences all during their “Summer ’73” tour, moving up from the 3000-seat halls of the previous tour. They did hits from their two platinum albums along with a preview of their new one, Hat Trick. “We’re not predicting,” said Beckley, “but if this album does as well as the others, then it’ll be the proverbial hat trick.”

Though Beckley said the tour was generally well-received, Hollywood Bowl raised some questions: Will America – “hat trick” aside – get another hit single after several uneventful releases this year? Were they just lucky to begin with, being in the right place with the right sound at the right time two years ago? Whatever the answers, they seem a far cry from last tour’s dates in San Diego, L.A. and Hawaii, where they performed well and were greeted by enthusiastic fans during and after the shows. At least, then, they seemed to be moving away from remarks about their similarity to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and assuming an identity of their own.

“I was aware that I sounded like Neil Young on ‘Horse With No Name’, but I never put anything on,” said Dewey Bunnell. “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?”

Maybe, but because of the stigma attached to them, Dan Peek, 22, Gerry Beckley, 21, and Bunnell, 22, were the subjects of endless speculation about the real reason for their nearly instantaneous success. In Boston, an advertisement for their first US tour last year, made it painfully obvious: “America/ ‘Horse With No Name’ – They’ll make your little Heart of Gold rush.”

There also were comparisons to CSN&Y. After their first album, America took a mysteriously long leave of absence between the first and second tours – not unlike Crosby, Stills and Nash. When they performed, it was first-half acoustic, second-half electric, a la CSN&Y. And then they agreed to a management deal with David Geffen and Elliot Roberts, co-managers of…Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

But Beckley says America never patterned themselves after CSN&Y. “All of our musical landmarks came before CSN&Y,” he says. “I remember buying their album and getting off, but nothing’s really excited me since the Beatles and the Beach Boys.”

All three Americans are sons of military dads stationed in England. Beckley went into music right after high school, while Dan went to college and Dewey’ tried acting. Beckley soon left his band – called Follow the Buffalo – and began playing with Dan and Dewey, who’d left school for music, working fry-cook and dishwasher jobs for sustenance. They put together a set of tunes and went to Warner Bros., where they auditioned for their future producer, Ian Samwell. Warners signed them, and America met Jeff Dexter, a London underground figure and Samwell’s roommate. Dexter would be their manager.

A first album was released in Britain and didn’t do exceptionally well. Warners decided to release a single, ‘I Need You’. But as release time drew near, Gerry said, “Everyone got sick of it.” They cut four new songs, including ‘Horse With No Name’. It hit Number One, and America began doing radio and TV shots.

“We thought things couldn’t be any better,” Dewey remembered. “Little did we know.”

Warner Bros. released the album, now including the single, in the US. The group went off for a promotional club tour, ending up with a four-day stay at the Whisky in Los Angeles. “It was really bizarre,” said Dan. “There were super-long lines everywhere. We drew people to the Whisky that hadn’t been there since 1965.”

Back in England, America made plans for a second album to be cut in a chateau in the South of France. A few months passed, and a tour extending into Japan was mapped out. But a mishap befell Dan.

Walking down an unlit staircase in Spain, he stumbled and put his arm through a window, cutting it seriously. Everything ground to a halt; the tour was dropped. Suddenly, the situation was getting out of hand. According to Dan, manager Dexter had not offered any plans for the future. America was entertaining notions of making a permanent move to California, and wanted at least six weeks to do the album there and work in the US. “Jeff had different ideas,” said Dan, “and that and other considerations led to our eventual break with him.”

Soon enough, Dewey met Elliot Roberts at Warner Bros. in London, at about the time the Eagles were assembling.

“He immediately struck me as a fine and honest person,” said Dewey. “He was also surprisingly interested in us, so I let him know, on some basic levels, about the panic we were going through.” It soon became apparent that the interest was mutual, and America flew to the States to begin talks with Geffen and Roberts, whose only hurdle was to extricate the group from their contract with Dexter.

“In the end,” Dan said, “it was up to Jeff, and the choice was his whether or not to take us to court. But he was just a little pea with absolutely no pull and no money up against a big conglomerate corporation. We just bought him off for services rendered and everything went rosy.”

Dexter tells his side of the story so painfully one feels like a villain asking him to elaborate. “They vanished overnight. There was no breakdown of communication. Geffen sent them a ticket and flew them over when I thought they were rehearsing for an album here in England. I got a call from a friend in California who asked, ‘What were America doing in the Whisky last night?’ I told him they hadn’t been; they were rehearsing in England. But within two hours I had nine calls, all asking the same question. An agency rang me to see if someone was joking, because Geffen was asking for the date sheet for their American tour.

“I flew over the next day and they said, ‘We can’t talk to you, talk to our lawyer.’ I told them I could give them more personal attention than Geffen. Even if he was big, I could have given them more time. I was broken-hearted. I love those guys to death. If you think three people are really close friends and you’ve made it work for them – can you imagine?”

“I have a certain amount of peace of mind now,” said Dewey, “but for the most part, it’s been scrambled eggs for the past two years. I hardly have time to sit down and reflect on what I did the day before or evaluate myself.”

The same holds true for the other members, but when they do rest, it’s usually in their middle-class Hollywood apartments. Dan and Dewey have their wives to consider, but Gerry, still single, is contemplating a move to Colorado.

America are aware that many listeners consider their compositions both “shitty and naive,” and according to Dan, they may be right to a point. “We don’t always try to make sense with our songs,” he explained. “Instead, we all contribute in an effort to rhyme, and what happens, happens.”

As David Geffen likes to say: “The boys are just starting…give them a few albums and a few years.” But Geffen seems to have invested in a future that in some respects appears questionable. The success of Hat Trick and the next tour should be some indication of where the group is headed.

© David RensinRolling Stone, 8 November 1973

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