In the mid 1970s, it was darn near impossible to turn on the radio – AM or FM – without running smack dab into a song by the band America.
The trio of Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, and Dan Peek first hit it big in the U.K. (all three were sons of U.S. Air Force officers stationed in Great Britain) with their 1971 folk-rock smash “A Horse With No Name” before finding success stateside.
In short order, their lush, introspective, vocal harmony-driven sound was a staple on playlists across the globe, alongside songs by James Taylor and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
“We came along at a fabulous time in the music business,” Beckley says. “We got to write the songs we wanted and work with legendary producers, like George Martin, and we sold millions of albums and singles. I look back on that period now and it feels like a dream, like, ‘Wow! Did we really do all that?’”
On the other hand, Beckley insists that the group’s good fortunes would have been impossible had they not adhered to a serious work ethic. “Those years in the ’70s were exhausting,” he says.
“The minute we started selling records, that’s when the pressure began. We were traveling all the time, and we were expected to keep coming up with material. I remember one year when I started producing other artists, I did three albums and completed a world tour. At the end of it, I just collapsed.”
Beckley and Bunnell still perform as America (Peek left in 1977 and passed away in 2011), making their partnership one of music’s longest-running unions. “Dewey is still a dear friend and a brilliant collaborator,” Beckley says. “He’s written some of the greatest songs of our generation, and I’m thrilled to have contributed equally to that list.”
In 1995, however, Beckley, always a prodigious songwriter, began a dual career as a solo artist, first issuing the critically hailed Van Go Gan and continuing with seven more albums under his own name.
“I waited a while before doing stuff on my own,” he says. “There wasn’t a grand plan when I started, but I was always able to fit in my own records with anything Dewey and I were doing. And once I got my home studio setup going, it was easy for me to turn out records that were all set to be mastered.”
Beckley has just issued Keeping the Light On – The Best of Gerry Beckley, a sprawling 20-song overview of his solo output that also includes a generous assortment of unreleased tracks and demos.
Fans who pre-order Keeping the Light On from the Blue Élan website will receive a bonus nine-track CD featuring covers of Beckley-penned America songs by contemporary female artists like Chelsea Williams and Amy Wilcox.
“I’m very flattered by their interpretations of my songs,” he says. “Each one has her own style of singing and production, so you really get an interesting combination of things.”
Hearing surf music inspired Beckley to take up guitar in the early 1960s, and he honed his distinctive style on both six- and 12-string acoustic-electrics, switching between lead and rhythm playing to suit whatever a particular song needed. “I approach the guitar like a painter,” he says. “How many colors does this song need? Does it need something big and bold, or do you finesse the shades here and there?”
Lately, he’s been simplifying the colors on his palette by playing 12-fret guitars and capoing them at the third fret. “My first reason for that is it produces a lovely tone,” he says. “But it also restricts the usable area on the neck. For some reason, I just love working with that framework and the chord structures I wind up playing. They sound very unique and pretty, and you can’t get that if you’re dancing all over the fretboard.”
Below, Beckley looks back on the recording of five notable songs from his remarkable career.
A Horse With No Name – America (America, 1971)
“Dewey wrote this song. At the time, we shared a little cottage just north of London, and it rained all the time. This inspired him to write down his memories of sights and sounds of the desert. It was actually called ‘The Desert Song’ at first. It’s got a surreal element, with all of these kinds of cryptic lyrics, but it was basically Dewey’s love letter to the environment.
“It’s a little ironic in that the song set us on a course that defined our career, but it actually says, ‘On the first part of the journey,’ and it goes through nine days. If you compress it, it’s the story of our lives.
“We didn’t record it for the first album. In fact, the record came out in England in early ’71 without ‘Horse’ on it. But the label did a strange thing, for which we’re forever grateful. They said, ‘The album is doing okay, but do you have anything else?’
“So we went back in the studio and demoed some new songs, and this was one of them. It was more or less two chords, but we applied our usual America production tricks and built some harmonies – two parts the second time around, three parts the third.
“The label loved it, so we cut it. Ian Samwell, our co-producer, told us that ‘Desert Song’ was an opera, so he suggested we retitle it ‘A Horse With No Name.’ We all played acoustics. We used Yamaha FG180s, but I played the solos on a Fender acoustic 12-string. Dan and I traded off on bass most of the time, but he was better at playing shuffles, so he played bass on this track.
“The song was released as a single in England, and it went to number one. Warners in the States saw what was happening, so they said, ‘We’ll release everything you have if you come over and promote it.’ Of course we said yes. But what happened was, they started pressing copies of the album without putting ‘Horse’ on it. Something like 100,000 copies went out before they could change that. Those copies are now collector’s items.”
“Sister Golden Hair” – America (Hearts, 1975)
“This song had been hanging around for a bit. I had originally written this for the Holiday album, which was the first record we made with George Martin. I didn’t dislike the song – obviously, I wrote it and liked it – but the songs I picked for Holiday were a little more piano oriented. So this one stayed in the pile until we cut Hearts.
“George was famous for his creative ideas, but he didn’t really change anything from the four-track demo that I had cut at home. In fact, the demo was almost like a master. I think the only thing that was different was that I had demoed the entire final verse in three-part harmony, but in the studio we kept it as a lead vocal with supporting ‘oohs’ and stuff.
“I recorded the acoustic parts on a limited-edition Martin 12-string. I was never a great slide player – I’m no George Harrison – but I had been working on it a bit.
We had toured with Jackson Browne, so we’d gotten to know David Lindley from his band. David is a master of so many instruments, and he picked out a beautiful Oahu Diana lap steel for me. I plugged it in and got a crunchy sound, played the part and doubled it, and there it was.
“The song went to number one, which felt pretty good. What’s nice is that America had two number one hits – Dewey wrote one, and I wrote the other. I think that helped strengthen the stability in the band. The best thing about a partnership is when you’re partners. We’ve always felt like we contribute equally.”
“Daisy Jane” – America (Hearts, 1975)
“The song starts with ‘Flyin’ me back to Memphis/gotta find my Daisy Jane.’ That’s all poetic license. I didn’t know a Daisy Jane, and I had never been to Memphis when I wrote the song.
“If anything, I was pulling from Nick Drake; he did three albums that are masterpieces. On one of them, Bryter Layter, there’s this song called ‘Hazey Jane,’ so I started playing around with ‘daisy chain,’ and that became ‘Daisy Jane.’
“I wrote it on a Yamaha upright piano in a little cottage in the south of England. I kind of spoke the words when I made a demo of it. I remember playing it for Eric Carmen, and he asked, ‘What are you going to do there in the middle?’ I kind of left a little space open. I shrugged and said, ‘I don’t know – George’ll do something.’
“I was being a little cocky at the time, thinking, Okay, I’ll turn it over to the legendary George Martin. And, of course, George wrote a lovely viola part that’s a signature part of the tune. We’re very grateful to him for that.
“Some songs take a lot of work, but most of this one came very easily. It was succinct. In the studio, I played piano on the track, but I don’t think I overdubbed acoustic guitar. I think that was Dew on acoustic – maybe him and Dan. If it was Dewey, he used his D-50 Guild. That was a beautiful guitar that he used on a lot of our stuff.”
“3 AM” – Gerry Beckley (Horizontal Fall, 2006)
“This is a short instrumental track from my solo album. We’d had some luck with instrumentals. I wrote one called ‘Miniature’ for the Holiday album. What happened was, George Martin said, ‘Okay, ‘Tin Man’ would be a lovely opener, but maybe we’ll do a little something to go into it.’
“And I sat down at the piano and played this little piece that I’d been working on, and George said, ‘That’s perfect. We can use that.’ It was a great idea that worked beautifully.
“I’m one of the biggest Ennio Morricone fans on the planet, so I wrote ‘3 AM’ as my homage to him. The reason it’s called ‘3 AM’ is because I awoke to this song at three in the morning – it was just in my head. This was before I had an iPhone, but I kept a little cassette recorder by my bed. I turned it on and started singing, and then I turned it off and went back to sleep.
“It’s kind of like that story of Keith Richards coming up with ‘Satisfaction’ as he was nodding off. ‘I just think that’s one of the fascinating things about songwriting. I woke up and was like, ‘Did I just do that?’ You can have these dreams and then you go, ‘Where did that come from?’ I guess there’s a big part of your mind that is still active, and in the case of a musician, those wheels keep spinning even when you’re fast asleep.”
“Cup of Rain” – Gerry Beckley (Unfortunate Casino, 2011)
“It’s a succinct message. The refrain is a non-lyric, just kind of an ‘ooh, ooh.’ Sometimes that’s all you need. I had been working on it, but I wrote all the lyrics on a flight home. It was one of those long flights from the East Coast to the West Coast, and I came up with, ‘I’ll bring you a little cup of rain’ – kind of something to use to your benefit, like ‘to wash away your tears.’ It was some imagery, but I thought it worked.
“Over the years, I’ve really enjoyed producing. I tend to approach things in pretty subtle ways, and I like to layer things. ‘Cup of Rain’ is a song where you can put your headphones on and hear the little layers. It doesn’t hit you over the head like the drum fill to ‘In the Air Tonight,’ which is a beautiful example of hitting you over the head. ‘Cup of Rain’ is a dark ballad with a little light and shade.
“Some songs call for really bright guitar strings, but on other songs it’s almost too much guitar. In the case of this song, I used a beautiful old Epiphone Triumph maple archtop. It’s got flatwound strings that I haven’t changed in years. It produces a sound that packs a punch, but each note isn’t ringing through to the next bar.
“We worked with the great bassist Joe Osborn, and he played beautiful stuff on his P-Bass that had 30-year-old strings. I remember reading an interview with Jeff Tweedy in which he said he preferred dead strings. He said, ‘I don’t want the guitar sounding better than my voice.’ I thought that was kind of clever.”
- Keeping the Light On – The Best of Gerry Beckley is out now via Blue Élan.
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