They were Americans. They were from England. They were called America. Talk about walking contradictions. On one hand they’re best known as part of the “California sound,” a description that spoke more about where a musician in the early Seventies hung his or her hat than where they honed their chops. On the other, following Seventies hits like “Horse With No Name” and “Sister Golden Hair,” these American army brats who came of musical age in the U.K. re-crashed the charts again in the Eighties with “You Can Do Magic,” a comeback that had little to do with the legacy of the acoustic songsmiths with whom they played for the previous decade. On one hand, you can see America live every summer, as they still do more than 150 concerts a year. On the other, since the departure of Dan Peek in 1976, singer/songwriter/guitarists Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell have never had to bill their shows as a reunion, since they’ve never experienced an angry group implosion that leaves fans heartbroken and empty handed, with faded T-shirts and live albums.
America have now recorded together for three decades, which have been compressed into the three-disc box Highway: Thirty Years of America. It’s an appropriate title: after three decades the group is no longer wandering the desert. They’ve found the keys to the highway and are riding in comfort. We caught up with Beckley to discuss America history.
Thirty years is a long-ass time to stay together.
I remember years ago, I was at a Beach Boys session and they were doing an album called Fifteen Big Ones. They were doing fifteen of their favorite cover tunes, but it was also their fifteenth year. And I remember thinking that fifteen years was a lifetime.
Do you ever feel less interested or motivated?
I feel kind of like the coach of the basketball team at halftime. How many ways can you come up with a motivational speech? But for us, we still have a great time. It sounds cliched, but we do incredibly well, we work all over the world. And there just never was any reason to shut it down. I do know many a band out there, because believe me, we’ve played with most of them, who are together because they have to be. They might not talk to each other offstage, but they realize they can earn a living by going out and keeping that music alive. So I consider Dewey and I very lucky in that we still enjoy each others’ company and I know the outcome could have been far different from that.
Was the coming together in England happenstance or are army brat bands a common byproduct of that life?
There was irony in the name. Because when we first came back to the States to promote the first album a lot of the ads said “Live from England, America.” I suppose that falls into the any press is good press realm. But there had to be a similar taste thing running through. And it really didn’t matter, because they just threw us all into the California sound. Well in our case we were from England. Exactly what is the California sound? Both Neil [Young] and Joni [Mitchell] were Canadian. The Eagles? Don’s from Texas and Glen’s from Detroit. Just like the state of California, the California sound is made up of immigrants so I don’t think in that respect we’re that much different. I certainly would claim that my influences were British pop, but we were all Beach Boys fans . . . so I guess that puts us somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.
America seemed to capitalize on a more laid-back vibe following the moody music of the late-Sixties.
Your earliest influences are your deepest. So we were of that time and we were incredibly influenced byCSN, still for us nothing compared to that moment when I absorbed Rubber Soul or Revolver. Those were the strongest moments for me. When people say, “Your music was the music of the Seventies,” I say, “So was discoteque.” The Seventies was also the highest peak of heavy metal. Pick a genre, they were all alive. Every decade has its Abba, that’s the proof that pop will always be around. But now it’s rampant, I would say. You know that Mama Mia [an Abba musical] sells out in London every night? They’ve elevated the production to a full evening’s entertainment. [Pauses] We’ve gone down to Australia and had people think we’re an America tribute band.
George Martin produced five albums in the mid/late Seventies for you guys. How did you manage to snag him?
We had co-produced our first album. And we produced the second and third to mixed result. I remember saying, “We’ve got to get a producer.” And both Dan and I put together a “wouldn’t’ it be cool” list. And it turned out [Martin] was coming to L.A. because he had been nominated for Live and Let Die. We had a meeting and instantly loved every aspect of the man. And if you consider the history we had as Beatle fans, this couldn’t be any better. He booked two or three months in his studio, but we were done in fifteen days. We thought, “It can’t be this easy.”
Did you have much involvement in assembling the box set?
It turns out David McLeese from Rhino is my next door neighbor. And he said it was a pleasure to work with us, because when they’re assembling a retrospective the bands don’t even talk to each other. But with us we’re still alive and happy and together. But when they assembled the short-long list, we would very often say why not this song instead of that song? And they’d say, “Well you’re too close to this.” So yes we were involved in swapping a song or two, but they are so knowledgeable in their staff. They grew up with your records, and they ask you to sign them when you’re in the office so it’s in good hands.
Where there any revelations while going through your past?
It’s quite painful to be honest. I’m very involved in those albums when I make them. So to bulk review all of it at once, which I had to do because you had to sign off on all of this, was just this concerted mass of “Jeez, I should’ve…” and “God, I wish…” There’s some great stuff from very early demos that are fascinating to me because I hear us as seventeen-year-olds. And I know the fans out there get a great deal of pleasure out of this stuff. But this wasn’t rocket science . . . we never made Sgt. Pepper.
Anything new on the way?
I did recently finally release a disc called Like a Brother, by Beckley, Lamb, Wilson, which is myself, Robert Lamb from Chicago and Carl Wilson from the Beach Boys. That took eight years of time. Up until Carl dying of cancer, I’m afraid.
You mentioned how well you and Dewey get along. Any secrets for band longevity?
I wish I could claim to have mastered some secret tricks. I jokingly think the secret is that we’re balding at the same rate.