These little mysteries became a hallmark of their songs, which they wrote individually. Bunnell also wrote "Ventura Highway," and their third member, Dan Peek (who left in 1977 to record Christian music), composed "Lonely People." Gerry wrote the band's other #1 hit, "Sister Golden Hair," which rivals "Horse" in terms of riddle: Who is Sister Golden Hair and what's the surprise?
It takes much more than mystery to craft songs that stand up to decades of repeated listens and become part of the collective conscious. Gerry drew inspiration from The Beatles and The Beach Boys, and soon found himself in their circles: he and Brian Wilson became good friends, and Beatles producer George Martin helmed America's albums Holiday (1974) and Hearts (1975 - the one with "Sister Golden Hair").
America is still touring and recording, and in 2016 Gerry released his sixth solo album, Carousel. He spoke with us about the art of songwriting, the new album, and his time as a Chipmunk.
Gerry Beckley: Well, it's an honor. I don't like to get too cliché about it but I'm always asked, "What's your favorite song?" And I usually default to "Horse" because the song itself represents the start of the journey. You know: "On the first part of the journey." It actually says it in the song. But that's what it's been - it's been an unbelievable journey. And after 46 years we're still doing about 100 shows, and as you said, you hear the music everywhere.
It's kind of nice when you appear in public and people go, "Oh, I know that song 'Horse' or 'Sister Golden Hair'" but you can see a look on their faces when they know virtually every song in the set. So, it's a great feeling.
Songfacts: Not only that, these songs get used in a lot of TV shows and movies. One that really strikes me is "Sister Golden Hair" in The Sopranos.
Beckley: Yeah, that was my favorite. The scene with the car radio, it's fantastic.
It would be nice to be responsible for placing these songs with some of your favorite directors or actors, but the truth is usually it's the musical director. It's such a treat when it happens but I don't like to take any credit for it.
Recently, Joel Silver had a film called The Nice Guys with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling and "Horse" was in that, which was fantastic. There was an episode of Breaking Bad, which was one of our favorite shows of all time, called "Caballo Sin Nombre" and the whole episode is framed by Walter White singing "A Horse with No Name" at the start and finish of the 30 minutes. So, there's quite a few of those examples and it's just awesome.
Songfacts: It sounds like as long as it's a quality show or production that conveys some kind of emotion, you're not too worried about how it's used.
Beckley: You know, there was a time... Dewey wrote "A Horse with No Name" and we were approached about using it in a video game, and it was a somewhat violent video game and Dewey was having second thoughts about whether that was a good idea or not. And I remember my son, Joe, who was much younger at the time, said, "Are you out of your mind? It's Grand Theft Auto! It's going to be the biggest game." And now, almost weekly, we'll have some kid come up to us and say, "I learned about your music through Grand Theft Auto."
Songfacts: "Carousel" has a lot of regret, a lot of heartache, and it almost makes me worry about you. What's going on there?
Beckley: You know, I'm not saying it's easy when you're a teenager or in your 20s, but it's a little easier to talk about angst and teen rebellion and all of these things when you're young. I'll use Brian Wilson's example of "I'm Bugged at My Ol' Man."
To me, the challenge is, as you add the decades, how do you stay with truths and talk about elemental pieces of life? It's not easy, but for me, I default to honesty. I'm not saying that everything is verbatim, but I think that's a way that we can all grow with the artist.
I use Peter Gabriel as an example of somebody who continued to do great work. Eric Clapton. These are the kind of people that I would steer towards and sometimes those journeys are going to involve some darkness. I'm not going to shy away from it.
Songfacts: Brian Wilson, I believe, once used you as a sounding board. I remember reading something where he said something like, "Gerry Beckley likes this song so I think it's okay."
Beckley: He's a dear friend of both Dewey and I and the stories of Brian are so countless and numerous. I don't know where to start with Brian. We've toured with him off and on for years. I was reminded that I'm on "Sail On Sailor" the other day. I knew that I was on the album Holland, but I forgot that I sang on "Sail On Sailor," which is Brian's great single from that album. One of the Beach Boys guys told me, "I've got the track sheet right here. Here you are, you and Billy Hinsche and Carl Wilson are all on 'Sail On Sailor.'"
Last year when we were touring together, he stayed around and he wanted to hear "Sister Golden Hair." I was so concerned with impressing him, and afterwards I said, "Brian, what did you think?" And he goes, "Ger, you rushed it."
In my head I'm like, "Shoot!" I think we all play our hits a little bit faster on stage, but there was Brian rating our performance that night.
Songfacts: I found the Brian Wilson quote: "Gerry Beckley from America says 'Just Once in My Life' is one of the best cuts he's heard in a long time."
Beckley: Yeah. Brian did a version of "Just Once in My Life" because of his history with Phil [Spector] and "Be My Baby," and all that stuff of legend. When I heard it I said, "Oh, it's fantastic, Brian."
We did a covers album a few years back called Back Pages and Dewey sang "Caroline No." I thought, "Boy, that's risky. Of all the tunes that are really fastened to certain things and you shouldn't attempt." I'm so happy to admit I couldn't have been more wrong. Dewey did the most beautiful version of "Caroline No" and we played it for Brian, and he loved it. You could just see he was tearing up.
So there's many things that have occurred over these 46 years, but Brian came to our first show in LA in 1972, and to be able to consider him a friend is truly one of the highlights of the entire journey.
Songfacts: When you think about this "Carousel," when you got on this ride you were very young, and even before you broke into the music industry you had an unusual childhood [Gerry and his bandmates were sons of US servicemen stationed in England, where they went to high school]. You've lived a very atypical life. How do you manage to stay grounded and stay relatable in your songwriting?
Beckley: It's come up quite a bit lately. My youngest son came with me down to Australia where we have a lovely home, and I realized the 12 days that I had with him was the most concentrated time I'd ever had with him, and it was such a wonderful trip. I'm right now in the driveway of my older son Matthew who is a successful producer. What I'm trying to say is, there's no substitute for family and what we consider the fundamental building blocks.
It's a difficult thing to do 100 shows. A hundred shows a year is about 200 days of travel. It's exhausting, to put it in simple terms. And, yes, you're right, it is a real challenge. I think that I just have to lay it on a batch of good fortune. Good genes. Both Dewey and I have remained healthy, we've remained good friends, our voices have remained intact. I don't want to pretend that any of it has been just cruising along. It's been a lot of work, but I'm so grateful for what we've built and maybe another 10 years, if we're lucky.
Songfacts: Gerry, how do you typically go about writing a song?
Beckley: Because I write both music and lyrics it can come from either side. Some people don't realize there are certain people that only do one or the other. Elton John has, for example, never written a word - Bernie Taupin writes reams and reams of lovely, beautiful poetry that Elton goes through on his own time and writes. But in my case it can come from either side.
There's a song called "Widows Weeds" on Carousel that was actually a dream. I woke up in the middle of the night and I had dreamt this melody. I sang it into my iPhone and then in the morning I remembered that I had done this and I went back and finished it up, polished it off.
So, that's a very obscure path but more often than not it's a little dee-de-dee idea that you might have for a melody that is completely devoid of any lyric. Or it might be a lyrical line that you use as the springboard. Our good friend Jimmy Webb, who is I think one of our greatest composers, he's always taught us to keep a running list of titles. He likes to start with the title and that's equally valid.
The only thing I try to say, and I speak at UCLA and Loyola where I talk to kids about music and the music business, I say the safest thing is to write from your heart, because you're going to get all kinds of advice and all kinds of push-me-pull-me this way and that. If you know that no matter what happens with your efforts, that if it comes from a very sincere place in your heart, they can't question your motive - you know that it is of you and from you. So, that's my golden rule.
Songfacts: Were you in Roanoke when you woke up from that dream? [The chorus goes: "Roanoke wants to pike down the mountain."]
Beckley: No, I wasn't but my son was going to a school there for a few years and so we had a second home in the country there. It was more by Charlottesville, but I lived in Virginia when my dad was at the Pentagon. I'm pretty familiar with Virginia and all the cities. My brother went to Virginia Tech down in Blacksburg, so I know that area pretty well.
Songfacts: What a gift to just wake up and have a song in your head.
Beckley: Well, it does happen. There's a famous story about Keith Richards. He played the tape back in the morning and "Satisfaction" was on it and he doesn't remember even waking up and doing it. So, it can occur a lot more successfully than my example.
Songfacts: Yeah, and a lot of times it's not luck, it's craftsmanship, and it's really hard work. You were very fortunate not just to have some talent and to have this motivation but also to work with some really good people. "Sister Golden Hair" was done with George Martin and it sounds unbelievable today - you can't go into a studio and figure out a way to do this. Can you explain how you and George Martin worked on this song?
Beckley: Well, there's a few things at play there. First of all, I always have to mention George's engineer Geoff Emerick. Geoff Emerick started with "Paperback Writer" with The Beatles but he then went on to engineer Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road and Band on the Run, so it was such a gift to not only get George, but he came with Geoff Emerick as the engineer.
I very openly tip my hat there to "My Sweet Lord" and George Harrison. I was such a fan of all The Beatles but we knew George quite well and I just thought that was such a wonderful intro.
The song itself was recorded at the Record Plant in Sausalito. I don't mean to say that studios and mics and things are not integral, but it's really more of a mindset. I think if you've got good echoes and reverbs you can make most places sound as Phil Spector as you like them or as dry and right in your face as you like. These are techniques, but I think we were all on the same page on that one.
Songfacts: I believe you did that song in Spanish at one point.
Beckley: Yeah, we did. Sometimes when songs are hits internationally you're asked by the label to do a Spanish version. The Beatles did a few of their hits in German.
You do it phonetically. I don't speak Spanish - I wish I did. I live in Los Angeles, I should speak Spanish. When you travel, you learn how much of the world is bilingual. It's such a gift.
Beckley: Yeah, without total recall, I'm pretty sure that was how it started. I'd like to point out that you can have a #1 record with a line that enters that darkly. That's kind of my thing: I try to mix these emotions and I think "Sister" was a great example. Pretty good message in there. John Lennon famously said, "We don't know what these songs are about till people tell us." So all of our songs, including "Horse," are open to interpretation.
But "Sister" was a relationship song and there is a variety of elements. We always combine them as songwriters so that they're not verbatim, word for word, for a particular circumstance. Poetic license we call it.
"Nature's Way" barely nicked the charts, peaking at #111, but it is regarded as one of Spirit's best tracks, with themes of fate, mortality and ecology wrapped into an efficient lyric:
It's nature's way of telling you something's wrong
It's nature's way of telling you in a song
Beckley: You know, there are tricks. I do a talk sometimes where I talk about rules. It's called "Rules and No Rules" where I talk about these fundamental building blocks of building a pop song: It should be three to four minutes, it should have verses and choruses, you can insert a bridge as a breath of air. It's these building blocks. But my point there is to set up the second half of the talk, where I show shining examples of incredibly successful songs that break every rule. So I try to tell the kids about this dynamic between those two things: That it's important to understand the building blocks but also know that you are free to kick 'em down and knock 'em around.
That's a very good example. I hadn't really thought of it in those terms. But, another thing that's happened with that song is that it has become more and more topical with every decade. They had absolutely no idea about global warming back then - talk about a song playing into its time. I just love the tune.
But, that's a unique thing, that little thing you pointed out. There are some great songs that break the rules. I use, as an example, "America" – pardon the reference – the song by Simon & Garfunkel: "Let us be lovers, we'll marry our fortunes together."
That song is one of my favorites of all time. There's not a rhyme in that song - the entire song is prose. There's not one line that rhymes and I will tell some of the best songwriters you've ever met that particular element and you can see them stop and go through it in their head. We're oblivious to that being an ingredient because we're so involved in the story. You're not sitting there going, "That didn't rhyme, wait a second." It's not an issue. So, that's another example of these rules and no rules.
Songfacts: Is there an America song or one that you composed that breaks all these rules?
Beckley: No, not breaks all of them, but I do like to point people to a song called "It's Life" that Dan wrote on the Hat Trick album . Hat Trick didn't do that well for us but we had a lot of fun producing it and I consider it his best song. I also worked quite extensively on the production of that. So, when people ask, "Give me a rare one that people may not know," I usually point towards that one.
Songfacts: What's one of The Beatles' songs that does that?
Beckley: That breaks the rules?
Beckley: Well, in "A Day in the Life" there's two or three songs together. That was the thing about to what extent do you consider yourselves co-writers? They clearly wrote a lot of these songs separately. Paul wrote "Yesterday" from start to finish - it had nothing to do with John. But then there are other examples like "A Day in the Life" where you hear the voice changes. It goes from John to Paul and you can see the difference.
Songfacts: George Harrison was an interesting example as a songwriter because he composed primarily on his own, which I guess can really help you get into your own head. You did that most of your career, but not always. One example is when you worked with David Cassidy and you did the song "Getting It in the Street," which is not something I would expect of America. Can you talk about putting that song together with David Cassidy?
Beckley: Yeah. We were hanging a lot together. We met David through the photographer Henry Diltz, our dear friend who took most of our album covers. Henry was The Monkees' photographer and he was David Cassidy's. He'd done a world tour with David.
So I got to know David, and the album previous to "Getting It in the Street" was being produced by Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys, who was a dear friend of both of ours - I knew Bruce and all the Beach Boys. I started coming and singing backup on stuff and then pretty soon David and I were hanging out and there were late nights and we started writing together. So, eventually I ended up producing it.
It was a productive time. I really had a great time. It was a lot of work because America's schedule was so full. I think I did three albums that year and a world tour. So, when I think back to that time I think of it as being a bit more stressful but that had nothing to do with David, it was just my own schedule.
Songfacts: Is there any rhyme or reason to whether or not you like to work with another person when you're writing a song?
Beckley: I don't co-write that much because it's such a personal thing to me. I did write a song with Dan Wilson on Carousel. That was an honor - that guy is right up there with co-writers. He's written with Adele.
It's a personal thing to me, writing. I find it a little bit awkward to sit in a room and both have pads of paper and try to go over rhymes and stuff. The whole thing is a little uncomfortable to me.
It has worked and I've written with Dewey, but normally if I'm writing with Dewey I will say, "Here's a great bridge for that tune, Dew" or, "Look, I've put these chords together that I think are more one of your type of songs," and I'll have him sing and write the lyrics. That's another version of co-writing but it's a little bit different.
Songfacts: Can you talk about that song you wrote with Dan Wilson, "No Way I'm Gonna Lose You"?
Beckley: To his credit, he came with a sketch of that tune. I wish I had more to do with that song but it was mostly sketched out by him. It was a treat. I do co-write on occasion. There is a great producer named John Fields who was hooking me up with some writers that he had worked with and that's how I met Dan. I knew "Secret Smile" and "Closing Time" so I was aware of him. I didn't realize that he had become Rick Rubin's kind of go-to guy.
Songfacts: The song adds a different layer to this whole album.
Beckley: Well, in a good way I hope. I'm not sure what you're saying.
Songfacts: I think it makes more of a storyline of it. When I was listening to it, I could picture this character and see him going through this very specific point in his life. I didn't know if you planned it in that way.
Beckley: No, but it is a long song. My son did a radio edit to make it a little bit more radio friendly. But, beyond the actual structure of the tune, what I was trying to do on that song is have it sound like a live band with everybody playing, which it wasn't, it's done in layers. And there is a friend of mine, Jeff, who played Hammond B-3 on it but I think the rest of it is me. I'm happy with how it came out. I'm really proud to have it on the record and Dan's a hell of a writer. I wish I could write with him more.
Songfacts: Is there one song on "Carousel" that's really near and dear to your heart?
Songfacts: Is that a true story?
Beckley: Yeah, basically. I remember I was in Japan promoting Van Go Gan, my first solo album, which was many years ago, and I was in the lounge and I had this idea for a song and I started scribbling it and I almost missed the flight. So, yeah, that part is true.
Songfacts: What's the America song that wasn't a hit but is really tremendous work?
Beckley: We had a couple of songs that were hits elsewhere. "Survival" was a #1 record for us in Italy, which never came out as a single. That was on the Alibi album  and I was very happy with that one. Also, there's a ballad I wrote called "All My Life" which became kind of a thing in Asia. There's certain songs that you do that they enter this tour depending geographically where you are.
Songfacts: Which Chipmunk were you?
Beckley: Theodore. That's a good question. I flunked Alvin. There's a certain character to each one and I had just a bit too much vibrato. Andrew Gold, rest in peace, Andrew was Alvin and I was Theodore.
Songfacts: Which one did you record for this?
Beckley: We did a remake of the Christmas album. When the whole archive was handed from the father to the son, he then went in to digitally remaster all of the hits, and they did it in the old-fashioned way, which was to cut the tracks at regular speed and then you play the tracks back at half speed and that's how you sing them. You sing them very slowly like, [sings half speed] "Christmas, Chris..." like that and then it's sped up. So, the track goes back up to its proper tempo and your voice goes up like a chipmunk. Nowadays, you can do it all digitally.
But it's funny, because I've done a million things and played a million shows but when you tell kids that you're a Chipmunk, they go, "No way!"
Songfacts: What's the best part of your job?
Beckley: The best part is the payback on the show, without a doubt. And I can clearly, in full disclosure, say that the travel and the getting up early - and I don't care if I'm in a first class seat or not - has become worse and worse. Just purely logistically it really has, with extra security lines and waiting and stuff. But it has been equally balanced by the continual increase in the feeling of the reward. Night after night, when you sell a place out, you look out and you see all of these happy people, and there's nothing like it.
October 21, 2016.
Carousel is available on Amazon. Here's our 2015 interview with Gerry.
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