One of the most misinterpreted songs ever, this is often heard as a patriotic ode, a scathing commentary on the Vietnam War, or a tribute to American women. It's usually American listeners who arrive at the jingoistic conclusions, ignoring a very clear lyric: "American Woman, get away from me."
The Guess Who are Canadian, and Burton Cummings (the song's lyricist) insists it has nothing to do with politics. "What was on my mind was that girls in the States seemed to get older quicker than our girls and that made them, well, dangerous," Cummings told the Toronto Star in 2014. "When I said 'American woman, stay away from me,' I really meant 'Canadian woman, I prefer you.' It was all a happy accident."
Randy Bachman explained the origins of this song in an interview with Words & Music magazine, Spring 2005. Said Bachman: "We were playing in a curling rink in Kitchener, Ontario (Canada), and I broke a string. I was up there alone, tuning up my E an B strings on an old Les Paul. I started playing that riff and in the audience, heads started turning. The band got up, and I said, 'Keep playing this, I don't want to forget it.' When Burton had run out of solos, I yelled out, 'Sing something!' So out of the blue Burton just screamed, 'American Woman, stay away from me!' That was the song, the riff and Burton yelling that line over and over. Later, he added other lines like 'I don't need your war machine, you ghetto scenes.' Before America knew it, it was a #1 record and it was a protest song." (thanks, Darryl - Cambridge, Canada)
According to Burton Cummings, this song owes its creation to a piece of modern technology: a portable cassette recorder. He says that after his ad-libbed performance of the song, they discovered a kid in the crowd who was bootlegging the concert using the device (this is when bootlegging meant literally strapping the recorder to your leg). Listening back to his tape, they were able to jot down the words to recreate the lyric.
This song's American success made them stars in that country, and on July 17, 1970 they performed on the White House lawn for President Richard Nixon, whose daughter Tricia was a huge fan and asked her dad to bring them in.
It was a huge hit at the time, but The Guess Who didn't perform "American Woman" that day because they were asked not to "as a matter of taste." That request came from the press liaison for first lady Pat Nixon, who may have been turned off by what she perceived as anti-American sentiment or political overtones
in the song.
The performance served as a royal reception for Prince Charles and Princess Anne, who were guests at the White House. Looking back on the performance in 2014, Burton Cummings said it was a very stodgy affair, and that he felt the band was brought in to impress the royal guests. "It left a bad taste in my mouth," he told the Winnipeg Free Press. "They wanted a Commonwealth act when Charles and Anne went there. We were the token Commonwealthers."
The first time the band performed this was before 150,000 people at the Seattle Pop Festival in 1969. The crowd loved it even though they had never heard it.
Randy Bachman calls the distinctive guitar sound he used on this song "The Herzog." To get the effect, he would overdrive the preamp (setting it to 9 or 10) while the normal volume settings are turned down. The sound does not get any louder, but gradually it grows dirtier and finally ends up creating a cello-like effect.
Recorded at RCA Studios in Chicago with producer Jack Richardson, this was released as a double A-side with "No Sugar Tonight" and stayed at #1 in the US for three weeks. The Guess Who were already huge in Canada, but this broke them in the States.
In the late-'90s, this was used in a variety of commercials, including one for Tommy Hilfiger and another for Castrol motor oil. Nike also used in an ad featuring women's soccer.
Lenny Kravitz covered this in 1999. His version was used in the movie Austin Powers 2, The Spy Who Shagged Me.
Kravitz and The Guess Who performed this September 21, 2000 at the MuchMusic Video Awards in Toronto. The Guess Who were given a lifetime achievement award.
The album version contains a sultry 1:05 acoustic intro, with Cummings spelling out the title ("I say 'A'... I say 'M'...). Radio stations often skipped past it to get to the riff.
Randy Bachman left the group the month after this hit #1 in America because the band's lifestyle did not jibe with his religious beliefs. Because of his departure, they did not tour the US when this was hot, which could have made them a lot of money.
The Guess Who reunited and toured in 2000, 30 years after this was a hit.
This was featured in the Jim Carrey movie The Cable Guy, where it appears in a Karaoke scene, and American Beauty, where Kevin Spacey rocks out to it while going through a mid-life crisis.
Jack Richardson, who produced this song, was also responsible for other big hits like The Guess Who's "These Eyes
" and Bob Seger's "Night Moves
." (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)