Top Fifty 18: America – s/t, 1971

[Originally posted April 2012]

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America’s eponymous debut album seemed curious in being launched on the back of their seminal hit single A Horse With No Name and yet this didn’t appear on it. The reality is that this isn’t the exact chronology of that release where it came out initially in 1971 to apparently only moderate success, but after recording some additional material, including the then Desert Song – latter renamed AHWNN after going down well in live performance – it was re-released in 1972 with the song included and went to number 1 in the United States.

That didn’t make any difference to me. I already had the first release as I bought it soon after radio play of A Horse… here in England, where the three main band members lived, but obviously before the re-release. It became an instant favourite and a song filling then and full now of poignant memories encompassing falling in love – I probably should just leave it there as a finite romantic observation – but also all of the other paraphernalia attached to growing up in the early 70s.

The three core members of Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell and Dan Peek were living at an American Air Force base in West Ruislip. London – attending London Central High School – and I felt I had an affinity with them, also an American living in England, though this was on my own having initially resided with my family in Suffolk where my father, a civilian, worked for the military, and I too attended an English school, a secondary modern. But the comparisons begin to stretch even further from there: I listened to great music; America made it. Alas, our allotted placements on the musical map.

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America’s map was plotted on the geography of west coast harmony a la Crosby, Stills and Nash, but it is a definable enough terrain. Beckley and Bunnell have distinctive vocals, and indeed continued as the band after Dan Peek left in 1977 [and he passed away recently in 2011], and their songwriting and acoustic guitar playing are idiosyncratic within this expansive genre.

That characteristic acoustic guitar sound is immediately made on opener Riverside – dual rhythm and solo lead and the tight harmonies also begin. Second Sandman introduces more electric guitar in a fuzzed lead and heavy base, but it is the acoustic guitar lead that again dominates until the ending electrification joins in. Both are beautifully sung, and Sandman, a Bunnell composition, engages in mildly esoteric storytelling – popular at the time – with the ‘surprise’ question Oh, I almost forgot to ask/Did you hear of my enlistment? before a closing repeat of the chorus,

Cause I understand
You’ve been running from the man
That goes by the name of the Sandman
He flies the sky
Like an eagle in the eye of a hurricane that’s abandoned

so the mystery deepens, if we really care beyond the beauty of the melody.  Third Three Roses is my favourite, and once more it is the acoustic strumming that signals their sound, Peek providing a memorable bass line. There are congas and other percussion, but no drums. Fourth Children introduces pedal steel, and the luxurious harmonies are the most notably west coast, with the lyrics as naff as the time would demand: Come on children get your heads back together as well as And you know we can make it because you know we’re alive. Far out. A Horse With No Name is the fifth track on the re-release, and as I have a cd copy I feel I can comment: it is again the simplest of acoustic strumming, and a melody line that is almost monosyllabic over a driving beat up to the memorable chorus. What carries it there, of course, are the obtuse but mesmerising lyrics, the la la, la la la la harmonising providing a hiatus for reflection on what has been intoned by the ungrammatical storytelling, there ain’t no one for to give you no pain: fuck double negatives if it scans. The transformation of the desert to sea, the significance of nine days, the release of the horse, the exhausted naming that ends up observing things, and humans that are loveless – it is a wondrous landscape of meaningless words creating meaning if we just listen and absorb.

There follows more acoustic-driven harmony and peacefulness. It is pretty, but pretty gorgeous at that. Penultimate track Donkey’s Jaw is almost wholly instrumental until children are again invoked in closing lyrics – does it take the children to make a better land? – and we all nod sagely and compassionately in concord, hoping that ours will fulfil the dream – it didn’t, nor us more importantly, but we know that only so well by now – and the album ends on the Pigeon Song which I have always liked and sung aloud for the sinister nonsense of its hillbilly nihilism,

Well I had me a pigeon
By the name of Fred
But I done shot him
In the head

Had me a railroad
Down on the ridge
But I done blowed up
The bridge

Had me a dog
He was my best friend
But to him
I done put an end

Had me a farm
Sittin’ pretty on the hill
But if you look
It ain’t there still

I don’t know why I done it
Honest it ain’t like me
But I ain’t sad now I done it
‘Cause a baby boy has got to be free

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