The world discovered America in 1972, when a nameless horse began its gallop across the international airwaves. If this sounds like some sort of fairy tale, it seemed like one for the young musicians who harmonized their way to the top of the charts on the strength of this song. "A Horse With No Name" made the band called America famous in the United States, Europe, and beyond, leading the way for an impressive string of hits to follow. Slightly more than a year after launching their group, Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, and Dan Peek were riding high, thanks to a sound that mixed rock, pop, and folk elements to instantly appealing effect.
America's journey has taken them into a wide variety of musical terrain, and a look backward seems overdue as they enter their fourth decade. Their best-known tunes--which also include "I Need You," "Ventura Highway," "Don't Cross The River," "Tin Man," "Lonely People," and "Sister Golden Hair"--became a ubiquitous part of 1970s Top 40 and FM Album radio. Yet there was always more to America than the hits indicated. In many ways the band was rooted in the melodic pop rock of the British Invasion, most particularly in Gerry Beckley's hook-laden songwriting. This connection was made explicit when legendary Beatles producer George Martin came on board to help refine their sound. For his part, Dewey Bunnell brought a tinge of folk-jazz, combining Latin-leaning rhythms with playfully rhyming words and impressionistic lyric imagery. Dan Peek's contributions often tapped into a country-rock vein, with a strong element of personal confession.
America's albums--six of them certified gold and/or platinum, with their first greatest hits collection, History, reaching the four-million sales mark--displayed a fuller range of the trio's talents than did their singles. From effects-laden rockers to oddball medleys and soul-bearing ballads, their reach was wide and ambitious.
The singer/songwriter/guitarists found success young, even by the standards of rock artists of the early '70s. They literally learned on the job and grew up amid the madness that is the music business. Earning a #1 record and a Grammy for Best New Artist while barely in your twenties has its perils, and the pressures of the pop-star lifestyle affected each of them.
Personal hassles and a rigorous touring/recording schedule caught up with the band in the middle of the decade. When Peek left the group in 1977, his bandmates rose to the challenge of carrying on as a duo. Shifts in sound, changes in producers and managers, and a renewed dedication to the craft of songwriting came in the '80s. America returned to the upper reaches of the Pop chart in 1982 with "You Can Do Magic" and brought their live show to audiences in new corners of the globe. In many ways Beckley and Bunnell came into their own as mature artists during this time. And their growth has continued into the present day with such impressive releases as 1998's Human Nature.
America's songs have frequently dealt with themes of travel and restlessness--from such early compositions as "A Horse With No Name" and "Ventura Highway" through such recent tunes as "From A Moving Train." Their box set, Highway, released in 2000 captures the highlights of where their music has carried them and chronicles the changes they've gone though both artistically and personally. And change, of course, has always been a very American quality.
From the start, America was a band that could transcend borders with its music and message. Its audience has grown to span several generations and a rainbow of cultures. "I think that the ingredients of the America sound are the basic fundamentals that translate internationally," says Beckley. "The Italians are huge fans of dance music, but they also love a ballad--they're romantic at heart. It's the same in the Far East. A lot of times in these countries, we see people singing along, and they don't really know what the words mean. Music is truly the international language."
More new music can be expected from America in the years ahead. And, as ever, the touring continues; the band reports that 2001 was their best year on the road in over a decade.
It's been a long ride indeed for these two old friends. "We've grown up in a world of show biz, seen styles change, seen technology change," Bunnell muses. "But basically Gerry and I have stayed very much the same. We still have those standards in songwriting that we were hoping to establish. We've lived pretty full lives and managed to hold on to some sanity, although the world seems crazier every day."
From anonymous horses to fast-moving trains, the music has never stopped for America.