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Gerry Beckley On 50 Years Of America & What Sets Them Apart From Other Classic Rock Acts

Written by Augustus Welby on September 20, 2019

America will take their 50th anniversary tour around Australia this November and December. It’s been a year chock full of retrospective celebrations for the US band, with the 6CD, Capitol Years, box set arriving in May and a subsequent 3CD set, 50th Anniversary: The Collection, landing in July.

The scope of the two box sets underlines the fact that America are by no means a one-hit wonder. The band – led by singer-songwriters Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell and, until 1977, Dan Peek – were incredibly prolific throughout the 1970s and ’80s, releasing almost one album every year up until 1984’s Perspective.

This stretch of productivity spawned the loved singles ‘A Horse With No Name’, ‘Ventura Highway’, ‘Sister Golden Hair’, ‘You Can Do Magic’ and ‘I Need You’ and included five consecutive albums produced by Beatles maestro, George Martin.

The band’s releases have dried up over the last few decades – 2015’s Lost & Found is one of just two albums of original music to surface this century – but Beckley and Bunnell haven’t signalled an end to America’s writing and recording days just yet.

For now, however, the focus is firmly on the 50th anniversary and the back catalogue. Music Feeds spoke to Beckley about America’s biggest hits, the George Martin years, his partnership with Bunnell and what sets America apart from other classic rock acts.

Music Feeds: Congratulations on the 50th anniversary. To sustain interest at this stage of your career there tends to be a lot of looking back and repackaging things from an earlier era. Does it correspond with where you’re at as artists – have you lost the urgency for new creations?

Gerry Beckley: Obviously the focus is honouring that entire arc, so there isn’t quite possibly the looking forward. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t some forward vision and a couple of concepts on the table.

The show is always hits and an assortment of album cuts and a few covers, so that really doesn’t change. There’s quite a bit of new video, montages and historic, passage of time kind of stuff. But it’s not a problem at all – we’re honoured to do it and the show’s better than it’s ever been.

MF: Your first album (America, 1971), and its lead single ‘A Horse With No Name’, continue to shine the brightest out of all the releases in your catalogue. Is that down to the demands of the crowd or do you and Dewey have a fondness for that record as well?

GB: The answer is both. There’s a lot on that album that people really want to hear: ‘Riverside’, ‘Sandman’, things that weren’t even singles are still part of the canon of familiar music. The good news is there’s a lot of hits throughout the years, well into the ’80s with ‘You Can Do Magic’ and ‘The Border’, but that album I think is loaded with more stuff.

We do ‘Here’ almost nightly and ‘I Need You’, of course, is one of the hits. But ‘Ventura Highway’ and ‘Don’t Cross the River’ from the second album, from the Homecoming record, there are a lot of album cuts from that album that we feature too. There’s 30 or more albums now, you can’t cover them all, but every hit is touched upon.

MF: You released a new album almost every year from 1971 to 1984. The records don’t sound rushed, either. A lot of them were detailed productions showcasing stylistic modulation and progression. Did it feel like a grind to make all those albums in quick succession?

GB: It is a lot of work. We grew up with albums from the ’60s and back in those days groups like The Beach Boys and The Beatles were doing two or three albums a year. So we were doing one a year because frankly that’s what groups did during that decade.

You’re obviously younger, keener, enthusiastic. Most of those early ones were just a real treat, some were a little bit more laborious. Switching to George Martin was a great move on album number four, the Holiday record. We had ground it down that it was taking two, three, four months to do an album and when we switched to George all of a sudden we were back at two weeks. And we weren’t trying to rush it; it just is an indicator of how smooth it was going.

MF: Making five albums with George Martin is a huge part of the America story. The Beatles are the only band he worked with more. How extensive was his influence on those releases?

GB: I always say with George, focus is what he brought. Although he brought so many more countless wonderful skills and just a personality, but focus is the word that I think sums it up.

He was a very big part of it for us. I think having worked with him on not just one project or a couple back-to-back, but really over a decade, we were in a better position to at least voice our own take on his contributions. When it’s mentioned, the whole fifth Beatle thing – we do ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in the show and it’s a nice way to bring him up, and that’s a shining example of his contributions to their work. The band’s not even on that song, it’s just a string quartet and Paul with some harmonies.

But his contributions to the records he did with us are equally as necessary. The beautiful piano licks in ‘Tin Man’, those were his idea. We certainly were not shy of using his abilities and his talents. It was just a dream to be raised on all of this Beatles music and then [get to work with] not only George but Geoff Emerick, the engineer for Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road and Band On the Run.

MF: Something that makes America unique is that you’re a band with multiple singers and songwriters who all produced hits. Was there any sense of competition between you and Dewey and Dan?

GB: First of all, we all had success very early on. It wasn’t just on Dewey’s shoulders and then Dan and I had to earn our place. ‘A Horse With No Name’ was followed by ‘I Need You’. I wrote ‘I Need You’, so it was a totally different writer, different singer. I think that’s one of the biggest strengths is that we were able to bat that ball around. It didn’t fall on Sting’s shoulders to write the whole album.

Obviously it was vital to the success, because [you tire of] even the best of singers and songwriters to a certain extent when you listen to ten or 12 of that same voice over and over again. These were the strengths of groups like The Beatles and The Beach Boys. That is a real strength and it lends itself to longevity and keeping everybody on board.

MF: You’ve been a member of America for your whole adult life – ‘A Horse With No Name’ came out when you and Dewey were just 19 years old. Do lots of the songs feel like inextricable parts of your life story?

GB: You get a nightly reminder of what these songs have meant to people. There’s thousands of people staring you in the face and they’re singing along and stuff. It’s a wonderful thing. I can’t imagine anybody ever tiring of it. There’s a great quote years ago when Mick Jagger said something like, “I can’t really be singing ‘Satisfaction’ when I’m 40.” Well, had he thought at all and looked around at acts like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard and Chuck Berry, those people were still out there. There was no kind of passed due date where you had to stop.

MF: Most bands don’t make it to their 50th anniversary. What do you think has allowed America to get there when so many bands don’t?

GB: I think it comes down to the strength of the partnership between Dewey and I. He is the world’s greatest partner. We’re dear friends, have been since the start. There’s been a few little ups and downs, but nothing at all even on the radar of a challenge.

We play with a lot of classic rock acts. You look at them and a lot of them backstage don’t even talk to each other. They’re in different rooms. You think, “oh that’s such a shame,” but I don’t mean to ever suggest that we are not completely aware of how fortunate we are. That’s why it is still a treat to do it night after night.

America return to Australia this summer, performing a seven-date run of shows down under to celebrate their 50th anniversary. For show dates and tickets head here.

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