One of the most misinterpreted songs ever, this is often heard as a patriotic ode 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 American pride. "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."
Some songs take months to write, others come quickly in writing sessions or during studio jams. This one, however, had a much more spontaneous genesis: it was written on stage. Randy Bachman explained the origins in our interview. The band was playing a show at a curling rink in Ontario when he broke a string on his guitar. In those days, that meant stopping the show until he could replace it. His bandmates left the stage, and Bachman put a new string on his '59 Les Paul. The next challenge was getting it in tune (he didn't have a tech or even a tuner in those days), so he went in front of Burton Cummings' electric piano and hit the E and B notes to give him reference. As he tuned his guitar a riff developed, then something magical happened.
"I started to play that riff on stage, and I look at the audience, who are now milling about and talking amongst themselves," Bachman said. "And all their heads snapped back. Suddenly I realize I'm playing a riff I don't want to forget, and I have to keep playing it. So I stand up and I'm playing this riff. I'm alone on stage."
The band's drummer Garry Peterson, who had made his way to the audience, jumped on stage and started playing. Bassist Jim Kale heard the ruckus and joined them, and finally Burton Cummings came up and grabbed the microphone. "Sing something!" Bachman implored him. Burton obliged: the first words out of his mouth were, "American woman, stay away from me."
In our interview with Randy Bachman
, he called this "an antiwar protest song," explaining that when they came up with it on stage, but the band and the audience had a problem with the Vietnam War. Said Bachman: "We had been touring the States. This was the late '60s, they tried to draft us, send us to Vietnam. We were back in Canada, playing in the safety of Canada where the dance is full of draft dodgers who've all left the States."
The lines where the anti-Vietnam sentiment are most apparent are "I don't want your war machines, I don't want your ghetto scenes."
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.
Fortunately for The Guess Who, American radio stations either didn't hear this as a protest song or didn't care. With a monster riff and the word "American" in the title, it was embraced and quickly added to playlists. By this time, the band were proven hitmakers, having scored with "These Eyes
" and "No Time," so this single was widely anticipated. "Radio just played it automatically without even thinking we were saying antiwar words in there," Bachman told us.
This song's American success made The Guess Who 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 in completed form 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, making #49 US. 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)
Acts to cover this song include Krokus and Ringo Starr. Perhaps the most bizarre cover is by the Butthole Surfers, who released their version in 1986.