Mystical and enchanting, “A Horse With No Name” launched the harmonious pop/rock sound of America that took the music world by storm in the early 1970s.
America’s three members — Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell and Dan Peck— were barely past their teenage years when the “Horse” went to No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart in 1972 and propelled their self-titled debut album to multi-platinum sales. The unlikely trio emerged as an overnight musical sensation.
With their airy harmonies and soothing acoustic guitars, America would go on to enjoy tremendous chart success with a string of superbly crafted hits — ”Ventura Highway,” “Tin Man,” “Sister Golden Hair” (another No. 1 hit) “I Need You,” “Lonely People,” “Sandman,” “Daisy Jane,” to name but a few.
Forty years down the road America remains a mainstay on the domestic and international concert circuit, performing upwards of 100 shows a year.
Over that span the group has explored a wide variety of musical terrain.
In recent years they’ve drawn inspiration from younger generations, while still holding on to their timeless and melodic pop sound. America appears with singer-songwriter Karla Bonoff at the Longwood Gardens concert venue on Saturday, Sept. 11 at 8 p.m.
“We have a second and third generation that turns up for our concerts, which is fantastic,” said Beckley in a phone conversation from his home outside of Los Angeles. “You see these young kids mouthing the words for virtually the whole show. Some of it is from classic rock radio, but more so I think it is the music their parents played around the house that they got to know from a very young age.”
Sons of American fathers and British mothers (Beckley and Bunnell), the three band members were Air Force “brats,” growing up on the U.S.A.F. base west of London. Starting out with borrowed acoustic guitars, they developed a style which incorporated three-part vocal harmony with the style of contemporary folk-rock acts, much like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
“I’ve been playing in bands since I was ten,” recalled Beckley, 58. “As kids Dewey and I would pick apart our favorite songs. We were fairly deep students of music. Music is our passion, and if you’re fortunate like we’ve been, it remains your passion as you grow older.”
While the band was performing in a London club in 1970, a local DJ spotted them and lined up an audition with Warner Brothers’ London record division and America released its debut album in 1971. It was met with moderate success. Then Bunnell penned a song with an evocative lyrical landscape that was initially tagged the “Desert Song.”
After several club performances and a television show, the song was re-titled “A Horse with No Name.” Striking a chord with its style (reminiscent of Neil Young) and dreamy lyrics, the song was a massive hit, selling over one million copies. In an ironic footnote, the “Horse” knocked off Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”, also an acoustic number, as the No. 1 song on the Billboard charts.
Many folks felt there was a double or triple meaning to its lyrics. So was there?
“For a while Dewey grew up at Vandenberg Air Force base and he and his brother spent a lot of time in the desert around there,” said Beckley. “When he wrote that song it was a fairly straight ahead description of the sights and sounds of the desert. There was nothing cryptic about it. The horse was basically just a vehicle to get into the desert. The rest of the song is his love of various eco-systems — the desert being one. There’s a slight environmental message with the line, ‘Under the cities lies a heart made of ground/but the humans will give no love.’
“That was pretty much the whole gist of it. He wrote it in England in the rain: ‘It’s good to be out of the rain.’”
America’s debut album was re-released with the “Horse” newly added and quickly scored multi-platinum status. Along the way the pop/rock troubadours appeared at the fabled Royal Festival and toured the world opening from Pink Floyd and Cat Stevens to The Who and Elton John.
The group won the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1972 and began working with George Martin, the legendary sound engineer who played a major role in shaping the sound of the Beatles. America’s songs displayed a flawless blend of Beckley’s melodic pop rock, Bunnell’s use of folk-jazz elements, slinky Latin-leaning rhythms and impressionistic lyric imagery that contrasted well with Dan Peek’s more traditional country-rock leanings and highly personal lyrics.
But by 1977, co-founder Dan Peek, tiring of the rock lifestyle, quit the group to pursue a solo career as a Christian pop artist. Backed by songs from noted tunesmith Russ Ballard, the group continued as a duo, scoring a hit in 1982 with Ballard’s “You Can Do Magic,” but never quite regained their foothold on the upper tier of pop music.
Will there ever be a reunion with Peck?
“That’s not going to happen,” noted Beckley, emphatically. “That’s like remarrying the wife you divorced after all those years. Dewey and I have been a duet for 33 years, so we don’t think that would be a constructive move.”
The band is now being recognized by a new generation of artists. Janet Jackson used the “Ventura Highway” riff in her 2002 hit single “Someone to Call My Lover.” They also collaborated with the Smashing Pumpkins’ guitarist James Iha and Fountains of Wayne frontman Adam Schlesinger on their Here and Now album released in 2007, its first major-label studio since 1984.
In the midst of their 40th-year anniversary of music making, America’s live performances deliver sparkling renditions of many of the group’s enduring hits, as well as Beckley and Brunnell revisiting their roots as writers and artists. The concerts also spotlight songs reflecting a few of their song-writing inspirations as well as showcasing their first album, America.
A very special acoustic set features standards such as “I Need You” and “Three Roses” as well as some never-before-performed deep cuts.
“I find writing new songs as challenging as ever,” Beckley related. “It comes from seeing an inspiration, plus I read a lot and take notes when we’re touring. It’s not just this spark. I’m always sketching out ideas all the time, and now I feed it into an I-phone. Times change but the process has remained pretty much the same.”
America’s extraordinary four-decade musical legacy of consummately crafted songs and their sun-kissed southern California sound continues to evolve with a special nod to that anonymous horse they first rode into pop/rock music history.