Rock and Roll Book Club: 'America, the Band: An Authorized Biography'

'America, the Band: An Authorized Biography.'
'America, the Band: An Authorized Biography' by Jude Warne. (Rowman & Littlefield)

Who names their band America?

America weren't necessarily trying to represent an entire country (let alone a continent or two) when they picked their moniker, but they haven't exactly steered away from that conceit either. Throughout Jude Warne's authorized biography (buy now), there are confusing moments — for example, when an artist is "introduced to America" or a song is criticized for being "un-American." You just kind of have to roll with it.

The new book marks the half-century mark for the trio, who have been a duo since founding member Dan Peek was fired in 1977. That means we've moved beyond celebrating quinquagenaries from the '60s, and on to marking those big anniversaries for occurrences of the Me Decade. America's name, in fact, might be the most quintessentially '70s thing about them.

If the young male military brats of largely U.S. extraction had come together in the '60s, they might have called themselves the Redcoats or Full English Breakfast. By the '70s, though, the Beatles were essentially done and the British Invasion was long gone. Laurel Canyon's soft and socially aware clarion call had reached the U.K. shores, so London residents Peek, Gerry Beckley, and Dewey Bunnell chose to play up their Yankee roots.

Crosby, Stills, Nash, and/or Young were the obvious reference point for America's sound, which was immediately crystallized when they realized their three voices and three guitars (give or take a bass) made them a kind of mellow Cerberus. That was integral to their appeal from the outset: they were three men without a frontman. All three could write (Beckley best of all), all three could play (Peek best of all), all three could sing — with the whole always being substantially greater than the sum of its parts.

Their British origins gave America a proggier edge than their L.A. peers; they weren't going to make concept albums about harlequins having tea and crumpets, but if an unconventional tuning or a multi-part song cycle presented itself, they wouldn't necessarily turn up their noses. Sonically, they channeled CSN and Y so closely that at first they were often confused with those artists, but rather than experimenting with disco or going country or delving into sludgy rock, America rode that back-to-the-garden vibe right into the '80s, holding it down at the hippie edge of yacht rock.

The band's almost determined blitheness cut both ways. The cover of their 1971 debut album has them sticking their sneakered and booted feet out while lounging in front of a mural of three decidedly nonplussed-looking Native Americans at the London office of Warner U.K.; the very fact that the office was thus decorated pretty much sets the scene. Whereas a songwriter like Young, though, confronted North America's bloody past and present, America slid into it like a tepid pool. For white dudes who could write a hook and play it with sparkling tone, the water felt fine.

Their amiability and professionalism won them a lot of friends and fans when they crossed the Pond, wooed by mogul David Geffen on the strength of their easygoing chart-topper "A Horse With No Name." They moved in with Geffen, where they suddenly found themselves partying with the Monkees and the Turtles and Three Dog Night and — why not? — Alice Cooper. Jackson Browne opened for them, and when they finally met David Crosby and told him they loved his music, he shot back, "That's obvious."

For the next decade, they'd remain active and prolific and, while they'd have their relative flops, they generally managed not to go very long between smash hits like "Ventura Highway," "Tin Man," and "Sister Golden Hair." Beckley and Bunnell hit something of a slump after Peek burned out due to overindulgence in, as his replacement guitarist Wood-z (it was the '70s, man) put it, "drugs and alcohol — probably drugs more than alcohol." They weren't above, however, tapping other songwriters to fuel their tanks, resulting in the 1982 comeback hit "You Can Do Magic," written by Russ Ballard.

Although America's hits now fill yacht rock playlists, Michael McDonald and Christopher Cross don't show up in Warne's book until America hit the oldies circuit. Back in the day, they hung out with higher-test collaborators like Sir George Martin, who produced several of their '70s albums including the 1975 hits compilation History, for which he remixed early tracks including "Horse With No Name" and "Ventura Highway," adding some of his special sauce; unless you're an old-school fan, the Martin versions of those tracks are probably the ones you know.

Their paths also crossed the likes of Jimmy Webb, a songwriter they revered and tapped as an opener in the late '70s, when purists like Neil "This Note's For You" Young were turning their noses up at Webb allowing TWA to use his song "Up, Up and Away" as a commercial jingle. America would later perform Webb's songs penned for The Last Unicorn, a 1982 animated fantasy that had a bungled U.S. release but has since become acclaimed as a cult classic. (At least they got on to that soundtrack; a song Beckley wrote as a title number for the animated Watership Down movie in 1978 was passed over in favor of an Art Garfunkel track. Unabashed, Beckley put his rabbit song on America's 1976 album Hideaway.)

Warne isn't the most lyrical writer, but her affection for the band is clear, and with the surviving group members' enthusiastic cooperation (Peek died in 2011), America, the Band is a valuable document of the largely happy career of one of those groups that have soundtracked untold thousands of summer afternoons. Maybe "Sister Golden Hair" isn't all that profound...but wouldn't you like to have written it? Well, you didn't. America did.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

July 8: Blues People: Negro Music in White America by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) (buy now)

July 15: Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir by Linda Ronstadt (buy now)

July 22: Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina by Chris Frantz (buy now)

July 29: Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show by Richard Zoglin (buy now)

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