LONDON’S SPEAKEASY club shares a bond with New York’s Max’s Kansas City in that they are both music business hangouts. But where the sickly red lighting of Max’s appears conducive to nothing so much as watching and being watched, the grey darkness of the Speak is directed towards the protection of privacy. Every night, top British musicians, producers and writers go to the Speak. They wrap themselves in its shroud of anonymity and quietly eat filet mignon and drink deep red wine.
One night, an American journalist wandered into the Speak for the first time. He sat at a table in the small side dining room and studied the menu until the shadow of a large figure blocked what little light he had.
“Pardon me sir,” the maitre’d began, “but this table is reserved for the Americans.”
“I’m an American,” the bearded and shaded writer protested.
“No, the Americans,” the waiter insisted.
Convinced that argument was futile, the scribe moved to a smaller table and watched quietly as the vacated chairs were filled by five laughing smiling people. He recognized Joni Mitchell immediately; he realized that the older man with her was George Martin, once the only man the Beatles allowed behind their production board. Then he understood what the cryptic remark about Americans had meant. The other three young men were America – Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, and Dan Peek – and as far as many subjects of the Queen were concerned they were the Americans. They were the three members of a band who had found their beginnings in that very city, and then gone on to worldwide popularity.
America had returned to London to record their fourth album. It is the irony of America that after a smash debut disc recorded in England, the boys had returned to the USA where two succeeding albums cut in California sold poorly. It seemed they just couldn’t make a winner in their homeland. For their most recent effort, therefore, America re-surfaced in the country that gave them their hard-hitting start, and just as a vacation can save a marriage, refresh a waning romance or spark a new one, so Holiday (on Warner Brothers Records) has sparked America. With the help of a legendary British producer and a new Anglophile tone to their sound, the group’s new LP is a creative renewal that incorporates the past while opening up new areas of musical exploration.
Air Force alliance
The story of the formation of America reads like a romantic movie plot. Dan Peek, Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley were all the children of American military career men. They had each followed their Air Force fathers around the world, and met each other by chance when all the families were based in England. At an American school outside of London, they began making music together. The foreigners called themselves America, began playing London clubs, and were quickly signed by Warners. Their first single appeared on the charts at the same time as Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’, and America’s sound was so uncannily similar many people thought ‘A Horse With No Name’ was recorded by Mr. Young.
When the truth was discovered, America had made a name for themselves, and both their single and the debut album, America, met with incredible commercial success. The band moved to California, finally, making their home in the native country they had hardly seen. In November 1972, their second album, appropriately titled Homecoming, was released. They began to expand their musical vocabulary as their popularity increased by leaps and bounds.
Until that point, America had never gone on the road. Beginning in January, 1973, therefore, they toured for three months. The tour was a success, and America once again took leave of the public sphere to plan their most ambitious album yet, Hat Trick. The album’s scheduled release date tangled with a small problem, though, the vinyl crisis, and America went out on the road for the Hat Trick tour in front of audiences who’d never heard the record. Speaking on the phone from his manager’s office in Los Angeles, Dan Peek remembered that tour and its repercussions on the band. “We did two tours based around Hat Trick, which hadn’t been released. It came out much later than we planned. After that, we were pretty rubbed out with touring so we just stayed home and made music. We got loads and loads of songs in the can, preparing for the fourth album, recording on 4-tracks at home. We gave a lot of thought to what musical direction we should take.”
Old pro at the helm
On their second and third albums, America had produced themselves, but this tiem around, Dan explained, “we were thinking about finding a producer. That led us on a circuitous route to London.” Having spent so much time preparing material for the album, they wanted it done quickly and well to put a stop to the declining sales of their latest efforts, so an outside producer was the logical answer.
“Gerry had been in England,” Dan recalled, “and we’d talked about using George Martin as our producer. He’s such a hot arranger, thinking about all the stuff he’s done. There were several other people we wanted to use, but that idea sort of flashed and George was available. Gerry had a house outside of London where we knew we could rehearse.”
They met with George Martin in Los Angeles, at the offices of America’s managers, Geffen-Roberts. “The first thing he did was take his shirt, sweater and shoes off,” Dan remembered with a laugh. “He said it was too hot in L.A. He put everyone at ease, and we just got along well from the first second. He has a very musical mind, and as we began working we bounced ideas off of him quite a bit, with things like vocal arrangements and guitar parts. It was an amazing experience working for a mind-producer.”
It was also a fresh change for the band to return to the country where they’d started, and the entire album began to take on the aspect of a fantasy vacation. Like many vacations Americans take in far-off lands, theirs was a short one. The album was recorded in seventeen days at London’s Air Studios, and they decided to call the new work Holiday, because that single word captured the experience of those seventeen days better than any other.
The album opens with ‘Miniature’, a minute-long instrumental that Gerry improvised on the piano one day in the studio. Martin heard it, liked it, orchestrated it and recorded it as the introduction to the album. It leads into the kind of song America was first known for, a soft cut with layers of well arranged guitars. ‘Tin Man’ was written by Dewey when the three young men were together in L.A. “I don’t know what it has to do with Oz and the Tin Man,” Dan said when asked about the lyrics.
‘Another Try’ is a soft, Bee-Gees type number with simple verses and orchestrated choruses. “It was written when we were all together in the L.A. apartment,” Dan recalled. “I guess you could call it social comment, though it is personal too.” It’s followed by a song written by Dan, ‘Lonely People’, which begins:
This is for all the lonely people
Who think that life has passed them by…
“I was thinking about what it would be like to wake up and not know anybody,” Dan explained softly.
‘Glad To See You’ speaks for itself lyrically, and has a very soft, subtle, ‘Yellow Submarine’ orchestration about it with the sound of muffled french horns and string quartets alternating around a piano-defined melody line. The side closes with ‘Mad Dog’, a cut strongly reminiscent of Paul McCartney’s final songs for the Beatles and first solo songs. Though the melody is totally different, the song recalls ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ without resurrecting the music-hall, comic atmosphere the Beatles used on that track. Once again, the orchestration is impeccable, sounding like the songs could not exist without it, blending in perfectly, never becoming obtrusive. “I think that song sums up the insanity level of life in Hollywood or life in this business, or just life in this wiped-out culture,” Dan explained.
Tune for tinseltown
Side two opens with traffic noises slowly melting into the sound of oceans. ‘Hollywood’ is a paean to tinseltown, laying bare its “golden quandary” while celebrating its excitement and glamour. The arrangement is kept totally free of excess, only adding a bit of electric lead as the cut fades into the sounds of a busy cocktail lounge.
‘Baby It’s Up To You’ is, according to Dan, “the back to 1965 hit of the album.” It has a Merseyside flavor, but the distinctive mark of America, pointing out that the band/producer relationship worked both ways. “‘You’ was a slightly personal thing about some one who was very hard to get along with,”
Dan continued. Musically, it shows Martin’s influence in its Beatlesque instrumental breaks. Anglophiles will rejoice over the revival of Martin’s sound, and this track shows it, easily and tastefully calling to mind ‘Baby You’re A Rich Man’ by the simple addition of one instrumental sound.
‘Old Man Took’ returns to the basic America form of single voice over guitar. It is, again, heavily orchestrated, but not detrimentally. “‘What Does It Matter’ is another back to the roots sixties tune,” Dan said, opening, in fact, with the spoken words, “Great hits of the sixties.”
The album closes with ‘In The Country’, “a summertime, Beach Boys influenced little freakout,” Dan explained. “I was home in Missouri and it was summer and really hot and I thought, Gee, it’s really great to be out in the country. That sort of wrapped it up.” As Holiday fades out with a sixties punk guitar riff, it’s easy to see why America rose to fame so rapidly, and held it so long. It is a tasteful, well-produced album that neither mocks, nor attempts to hide its influences, and the inclusion of George Martin makes the depth of America’s English roots a bit more apparent.
Perhaps it was simply time for America to pay tribute to those roots. That would explain the choice of Martin as producer and the trip to England, where, not only did they spend part of their wonder years, but they heard music that affected them deeply. People will no doubt point up the fact that the obvious influences on the band’s work have now grown to include middle-period Beatles albums. Their first album was recorded in England. The second concerned itself with returning to the States. Now, America have returned, for the moment, to England. It shows in the music they’ve made that geographical location is not a meaningless factor for the group.
After the recording sessions were over, Dan was amazed at how little time it had all taken. “We planned to record in a short amount of time,” he laughed, “but that was ridiculous!” The ease with which the recording was made was a welcome treat for the band even if it did freak them for a while. During the late spring they toured Europe for the first time in years, seeing old friends in the audiences and playing in places they’d known in less successful times. Then Gerry, Dewey and Dan flew back to California, taking some time off before Holiday appeared on the record racks. The return to England was inspiring and fun, from the days in the studio to the nights in the Speak, but as Dan explained, “We’re on the road out of the U.S. for six months a year. It’s good to be back.”
© Michael Gross, Circus, October 1974