By Steve Houk
Whether it was sitting in the back seat as a teenager listening to their songs on FM radio with the windows down and your hair flying in the wind, or hanging with your best friend in your bedroom singing along to their landmark Greatest Hits album “History,” the band America is as much a part of many of us who grew up in the 70’s as bellbottoms, a Stingray bicycle or Wacky Packages were.
It’s hard to think of another band whose songs are so familiar to our generation, so engrained in us, that hearing them even today still makes us feel a whole range of emotions, like happiness, youthfulness, familiarity, as well as just digging on some really good music. Bands like The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith or for us in Connecticut, any one of a number of Southern rock bands, were also part of our burgeoning rock fibre back then, but America’s beautifully written, evocative, easily-sung-along-to music — come on, if you’re my age, you can hum at least five of their tunes right now — remains a coveted time capsule of our youth. And hey, the songs still sound great all these years later.
And for the sixty-something guys in America, it feels incredible, and even a bit surreal, that it’s actually lasted all these years, that they’re still going strong, introducing their classic music to new generations, as well as the fact that people like me are still so drawn to their songs decades later.
“It’s very bizarre,” said Dewey Bunnell, America’s co-founder along with Gerry Beckley and former member, the late Dan Peek. “We’ve obviously accepted and lived each and every one of those years, but when you add ’em up and look back, it’s pretty amazing. We’ve said it over and over that we didn’t really expect to be around this long, at least musically and professionally. But it’s been good to us and we’re more than grateful for it. We really enjoy it that much more as each year has gone on.”
America burst onto the music scene in 1971, when their first major hit “Horse With No Name” caused a reissue of their debut album to go platinum. Things began to happen fast and furious for this new band right out of the chute, which can be a blessing, and a curse.
“We were always kind of the new kids on the block,” said Bunnell, “because we came out of the shoot with a number one record, and that can hobble you. We didn’t think it hobbled us at the time, but in retrospect, it opened alot of doors but also created this sort of ‘they didn’t pay their dues’ thing. In ’72-’73, David Geffen took us on and he already had a stable of very seasoned veterans, The Eagles were coming up and we were rubbing shoulders with them in the office constantly, and Neil Young was in there and Joni Mitchell and all the people we looked up to at that time. We always felt kinda like, sorry we had a hit.”
America continued on a stratospheric track through the 70’s, even partnering with Beatles producer George Martin for another string of hits. Little known fact: the late comedian Phil Hartman did the cover art for several of their albums when he was working as a graphic artist. But just as America’s star was shooting skyward, the band took a big hit when co-founder Peek abruptly announced he was leaving the band in 1977. Shaken, Bunnell and Beckley took a breath and kept forging ahead.
“Dan leaving did shake us a little,” Bunnell said. “We were at the crest of this whole thing, at our biggest cumbersome elephant of a band with alot of crew, and the band just got bloated. And Dan really didn’t handle it as well, and had other things he wanted to do. We were all in our own worlds, alot was happening fast, and I think Dan was a victim of that. Gerry and I weathered the storm, and came out the other end with the beginnings of this commitment to keep this thing going.”
Although their huge level of success would wane through the 80’s and 90’s (they did have one more hit in 1982 with “Magic”), their hard work, cohesiveness and solid live shows have kept them active and productive ever since. They recently released “Lost and Found,” a deep cuts type of album they hope will appeal to both their older and newer fans.
“It’s a little slice of the last decade, things that didn’t make it onto other albums, things we never got back to,” said Bunnell. “At worst, it’s odds and ends, at best it’s songs that should have been spotlit at the time. It’s a bridge between a new album, which may or may not happen, and having our real dedicated fans keep wanting to hear new stuff.”
Bunnell and Beckley have kept the legacy of this great American band alive and well for 45 years now, and show no signs of letting up, putting on solid, memorable shows every night during a very busy worldwide tour schedule. That’s good news for not only those of us who relish our trips down Ventura Highway with the Tin Man, that unnamed Horse, and the Sandman, as well as those who are just discovering their timeless music. And for the guys in America, the music is what drives their ongoing journey.
“I think the music is what it’s all about,” said Bunnell. “The music is what you’re keeping alive, and those songs, you want them to be as fresh feeling as you can every night. We want people to walk out of there going, ‘Yeah, we got out of ourselves for an hour and a half.’ All the bands from the 60’s and 70’s are bringing a slice of people’s past back to them, and I think what’s you aspire to. And now that we’ve sort of passed over that line into being more than an also-ran band, it’s about keeping this thing going. It’s about the here and now. And in this moment in time, we really seem to be clicking.”