Gerry Beckley is a songwriter with more than 50 years of experience. He is best known for his work in hitmaking ‘70s rock outfit America. One of the group’s founding members, he wrote a number of the band’s best-known songs in addition to contributing vocals and 12-string guitar to America’s most celebrated single ‘A Horse with No Name’. With periods between America albums growing longer in the 1990s, Beckley also struck out on his own as a solo artist.
Anticipating the 50th anniversary of America’s self-titled debut album and ‘A Horse with No Name’ later this year, Beckley has recently released a retrospective collection of solo material titled Keeping the Light On: The Best of Gerry Beckley.
Compiled by Gerry in conjunction with Blue Élan Records Records, Keeping the Light On comprises 15 songs from Gerry’s solo catalogue alongside five previously unheard tracks. As Beckley himself puts it, he is closing the book on 50 years as a recording artist and readying himself for the next 50. Music Feeds’ full conversation with Gerry Beckley below.
Music Feeds: It’s 1967, The Summer of Love. You were living in England at the time. What records are you listening to?
Gerry Beckley: ‘67 was our 11th-grade of school. I know these grades kind of match up with the Australian system. By the 11th grade, some of the great stuff from The States was starting to appear. I don’t think we had Creedence Clear Water Revival or Three Dog Night yet but we were starting to get that stuff.
There was not a [roots rock] backlash [yet] you know? For the majority of the ‘60s, the majority of the great music was coming out of the UK to the States. We had what we called The British Invasion. That had an effect on US groups like The Byrds and people like Buffalo Springfield. And then it started to bounce back to England. I know I was listening to The Byrds’ albums because they started before then and certainly Buffalo Springfield. Those were two biggies.
MF: Were you a Beatles or a Rolling Stones type of guy?
GB: I was more a Beatles guy. I wasn’t unaware of The Stones’ albums. But I was nowhere near as familiar with them. I knew all the singles of course. I think Aftermath was a favourite of mine but I knew every note of every Beatles album.
MF: Were you into folk music?
GB: You know that hadn’t really set in stone yet. I often point this out. The ‘60s was really when the era of the singer-songwriter came alive.
We had artists that wrote their own material before but it wasn’t until Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys and The Beatles that – it was a major part of what they presented. I remember thinking when Rubber Soul came out, “Oh this is really lovely! This is really good tunes.” They were obviously deeper tunes.
I don’t think I was quite on top of it to notice, “Hey, these are all far more acoustic.” It truly was the era of singer-songwriter. And then, shortly after that, the whole Crosby, Stills & Nash and James Taylor wave hit.
MF: When did you come to the realization you could write songs of your own?
GB: I can tell you because I do kind of mark it in time. I was always a big fan of songwriting as a craft. I understood what a bridge was in a song. I knew structures, the difference between verses and choruses.
For me, and most kids of my generation, your musical education was that you played in Top 40 [covers] bands. You learnt in theory what the hits of the day were. They were hits because they were great records.
And great records usually had some of those ingredients: Here’s the verse, the next chorus, second verse, you know? You wanted to copy, clone and present that as close to the record as you could. But it wasn’t long until we started to rearrange those Top 40 songs!
I always use the example of Vanilla Fudge, who did a cover of The Supremes’ ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’. It was a great Supremes song and they turned it into a power ballad with a huge Hammond B3 Organ. By the late ‘60s, we realised that those rules no longer existed.
You weren’t just trying to copy these records. You could mix them! You could turn a fast one into a slow one and vice versa. I think that was the seeds of writing my own material.
MF: Flash forward to 1971. You were now in a band called America, a group best known today for hit single ‘A Horse with No Name’. You played guitar and sang vocals on that track. Is that right?
GB: I did. I played twelve-string guitar on that and then overdubbed the solo in the middle. It’s actually three different twelve strings. One plays the lick and then there is kind of a cascading thing. One of the three founding members, Dan Peek, played the bass on that one.
Dan and I alternated bass so it would just be the case of, “You name the song and I could tell you if I was on bass or not.” I played a lot of bass on the first album. But not on ‘Horse’.
MF: What was going on in your life in the ‘70s? It was quite different to the ‘60s in terms of how people were feeling and what was going on in the world…
GB: Well by ‘69 we had Woodstock. Whatever had been bubbling under as a cultural element just blew wide open with that. We were still in school, of course, so we weren’t at Woodstock.
We were still living in England. But all of that was still going on. The Roundhouse was playing what they called “underground music”. There were all kinds of recreational drugs and all-night raves. The culture had clearly shifted from the Beatles in their suits. Now everything was tie-dyed.
For us in America? Well, ‘A Horse with No Name’ was added as a single [to the UK version of 1971 debut album America] later in England. We had actually recorded and released the first album and it was getting a lot of good attention.
It was charting. So right from the start, it was a pretty successful and hectic run for us. But, of course, when we recorded ‘A Horse with No Name’ and released it as an additional product just a few months after the first album, it just blew wide open.
MF: Why do you think people keep coming back to ‘A Horse with No Name’ after all these years? Is there a timeless element to that song?
GB: Yeah. I think so. In the case of ‘A Horse with No Name’ a variety of things were going on. America was an unknown entity so there was a lot of curiosity about us. “Who is this?” There was some interest in, “It sounds like Neil Young, is this Neil Young?” It was this whole kind of “no press is bad press” kind of thing.
Technically speaking, there are a couple of elements in that song that I would also like to point out. One is that it has an incredibly surreal, cryptic lyric. You could, on the surface, listen to it and go, “What are you on about?” There are all kinds of surreal things and that’s a hook! “Have you heard the word?” What is “he”? What are they talking about? Why don’t they name the horse? In addition to that when the chorus comes it’s “la, la, la, la, la, la.” Which is a universal language. Nothing sticks in the ear more than a good la, la-type of chorus.
I think it was a combination of those elements. Another thing is that it was a shuffle. And on occasion – once or twice a year – there will be a hit with a shuffle time as opposed to straight time. It doesn’t always happen but when they do, they can be pretty big hits.
MF: Let’s jump from 1971 to 2021. You live in Australia now. How did that come about?
GB: Well, first of all, I’m married to an Australian. My wife is from Melbourne so that’s the short answer. I’ve been living here off and on coming up on 9 years now.
We have a home here in Sydney and a home in Venice, California. On a regular year, my wife and I would fly back and forth, depending on work, maybe five times a year. This year, of course, is uniquely different in countless ways. As a professional musician, I’ve never been anywhere for a year straight like I have been here. I have just loved every minute of it. I count my blessings every day.
I have been coming to Australia though since we first toured in the late ‘70s. It was always such a highlight. Every second or third year we would come here for a tour and always look forward to it immensely.
MF: Is there an overlap between the Australian and Californian lifestyles?
GB: There certainly is! We also live in Venice, California, which is a beach community. We don’t live in Bronte, Sydney but I go there every morning for a swim. Bronte is kind of Bondi Beach’s quieter, somewhat cooler brother. It’s next door but it doesn’t have quite the fiasco that Bondi can have on any given day.
And you’re right. It is a lovely parallel thing. The other thing is that my bandmate Dewey Bunnell and I are both half-English and half-American. We both had English mothers. Dewey was actually born in England so what I often thought is that Australia is a sort of a combination of those two cultures. It has this incredibly rich colonial heritage combined with beaches – which would be a far more lovely Californian element. So Australia felt like home from an early stage.
MF: Do you have a favourite Australian act?
GB: No, I don’t! And I’m asked about it quite often. I wish I knew more. They cross our path quite often when we tour here. Often America is paired with classic Australian acts. Ian Moss was on one tour. I was actually at Wollongong Stadium with Jimmy Barnes for the millennium 21 years ago.
So we have intersected with some of the classic Australian talents. But I don’t really know enough about it to go out on a limb and speak. When they were having a huge string of hits, I was a huge fan of INXS. As the world was! Sometimes these things are really cross-cultural and not just unique to Australia.
MF: America is celebrating some big 50th anniversaries this year and you have also been looking back with a new retrospective compilation. Could you tell me a little bit about that?
GB: I like to call it a summation as opposed to just a compilation. It truly is a look back. I didn’t start doing solo records till the mid-’90s. I think the reason it took that long wasn’t like, “Argh! I’ve got to bust out of restrictive frame.”
It was just that there started to be longer gaps between America albums. I have always loved to write and record and have always had a home studio. But my efforts would normally go into prepping for that year’s or the next year’s America album.
So in the ‘90s, I started doing solo albums. I think seven, eight or nine of them with the label that has released the last couple, a wonderful label called Blue Élan Records. They came to me and asked if I would consider a compilation if I could free up the four or five albums that they didn’t partake in. And I said, “I’d love to, let’s do this!”
20 songs later, we put our heads together and I picked five things from my archive that haven’t come out. I always think that’s better. The fans I do have own most of the albums. So I could imagine them saying, “Well, I’ve already got all this stuff!”
So, I put on five things that had not been heard at all. I think we’ve got a nice combination. It’s called Keeping the Light On.
MF: Did you learn anything new about yourself in the process of putting Keeping the Light On together?
GB: Well yeah, it’s a long period, to be honest. When I did these albums, I was already really happy with them when I originally did them. It’s not until you pick three from this one, and four from that one that you really start to address the whole twenty, thirty years in a stretch, as opposed to thinking, “Oh that’s from 15 years ago or something.”
You know, I’m proud of all the stuff. I’m proud of everything I’ve done with Dewey and to do with our songwriting partnership. It’s a very fortunate scenario. I’ve worked hard, we’ve worked hard and I think we are deserving of the success we’ve had.
MF: As time goes by, a lot of songwriters seem to pare things down to the basics. How has your writing evolved over more than five decades?
GB: When I was 15 or 16, I started writing. And yeah, you know, obviously in any creative art it’s going to evolve or devolve. I do like the essence of boiling out the unnecessary elements, which would in theory imply that you’re steering towards simplicity.
That is something you couldn’t have done very early on. You need to try all the different roads, you know what I mean? I don’t want to get too deep into analogies but I love the arc of particular artists.
It’s easier to picture in the visual arts. Like, the Claude Monets and the Mark Rothkos who slowly, over time, simplified their work. I’d like to think that I’m heading towards that but it doesn’t always work that way!
Sometimes songs get a little long and they get a little complicated. Our joke line is that “if it’s got two chords Dewey wrote it and if it’s got 102 chords, I wrote it!” So I suppose I have a little way to go to hone in on that simplicity thing.
MF: Is there any advice you would give to somebody only just starting their journey as a songwriter?
GB: I lectured for many years at Loyola Marymount University in California. And I would speak to kids. It was a music course so it covered everything about publishing and stuff. I would speak as the artist and I did the cliche thing right from the start.
I said, “As tired as this sounds, the best thing you could do for yourself right now and forever in the future is be honest to your head and heart and write what is uniquely yours.” Now that’s obviously a cliché wrapped in a cliché. But the point is that all of us, whether we like it or not, are going to be supergroups in our heads.
We are combinations of all the things that we’ve heard. If you grew up listening to The Beatles and The Beach Boys, in theory, that’s going to be where you steer your own ship. Because there is going to be that influence anyway, what do you bring to the table? What you bring is you.
I love Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. This guy has been making great albums for decades. And the band has evolved. Here is a guy who is not a great singer but it doesn’t matter. It’s just uniquely him. Bob Dylan would be another shining example.
I think that it is really hard to understate the importance of that. I know some incredibly talented people who, in my mind, blew years trying to emulate something else. I would go, “You know you’re doing a great job of sounding like The Beatles, but you’re not the Beatles, you know?”
I think that if we can just embrace the things that we bring to the table that are unique – your voice might be higher. James Taylor has an incredible baritone voice. But nobody would say he has a restrictive style. He’s incredibly talented so that’s kind of where I steer it.
There is an unbelievable wealth of opportunities now when you consider technology and the way we can all have a studio in our laptops or on our phones. The opportunities for creativity are off the charts. But that doesn’t guarantee any better chance of success than any other time. A poor craftsman blames his tools. I think it is vital to really work on it, really hone it down.
MF: Is there anything you would like to throw out to your fans before we close off?
GB: Well, I hope that people will give Keeping the Light On a listen because I’m proud of it. As I said at the start, it is a summation but is by no means the end, of the story. Our joke is, “We’ve just completed fifty years so we’ve closed the book on that one and we are ready to start the next fifty.”
Keeping the Light On – The Best of Gerry Beckley is out now. The album features 20-tracks of Beckley’s output over the years, and beyond. It also includes five previously unreleased tracks, including the single ‘(I’m Your) Heart Slave’. Available at JB HI-FI or to stream, right now.