Songwriter Interviews

Gerry Beckley of America

by Greg Prato

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When we launched Songfacts back in 1999, America's songs got lots of heat (still do), mostly from folks trying to figure out why that horse didn't have a name. Their lyrical mysteries are legend: Who is Sister Golden Hair? What are the alligator lizards in "Ventura Highway"? Where is the tropic of Sir Galahad in "Tin Man"?

Many of these songs were written by one of the three members of America - Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, and Dan Peek - when they were rather young (in the case of "Horse With No Name" and "I Need You," teenagers), and there isn't always a hard-and-fast meaning to ascribe this wordplay. There are lots of stories behind the songs, however, and Gerry was kind enough to share some of those with us.

There are also more songs than you might imagine - enough for the band to issue a set of unreleased tunes from the archives (Lost and Found) and an 8-CD box set of remastered titles (The Warner Bros. Years 1971-1977).
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's discuss the new album, Lost and Found, and the box set, The Warner Brothers Years: 1971-1977.

Gerry Beckley: Well, they're two very different projects. The Lost and Found album is something that is a collection of archived songs from my own home studio. Up until a few years ago, I had a studio at my house where I was recording pretty well daily - whenever we were home - and amassed a lot of stuff. But it wasn't until a good friend of ours started to go through it, archive it, and listed it all, that we realized we had an album there. So that's the short version of how that album came out.

I'm very, very pleased with it. It's interesting to go back and review things that you worked on - it's just a fun thing from start to finish. One of the reasons why was the work was already done - you could listen and review and pick what you liked.

The box set is obviously a much different, grander scheme. This is a remastered collection of all the Warner Brothers releases, which was a substantial part of our '70s and our beginnings.

Songfacts: When it came to songwriting in America, the tunes that list you or Dewey as the sole songwriter, did either have input on one another's songs?

Gerry: Yeah. It's usually credited as who's singing it is the one who wrote it. But I would often help Dewey with the bridges. He liked to have a little outside help in that area. To use an example on mine, there's a little answer line on "Daisy Jane" - that's the way he could contribute to some of my stuff. So there is certainly a footprint on other side.

Songfacts: Could you give more examples of that occurring in the band?

Gerry: Well, the guitar lick on "Ventura Highway" is something that Dan and I put together that really wasn't a part of the song. The song is of course, super strong on its own. We had a friend back in England, when he heard it with the guitar lick, he said, "Oh, you've ruined it!"

It's funny how people perceived these things. I'd like to think it added a little something.

Songfacts: How much of a role did George Martin have in shaping the sound of the band?

Gerry: Almost hard to measure how much, because he gave us the focus. We were a group that took three months in the studio exploring all different types of options. When we first worked with George on the Holiday album, our fourth record, he said, "I've booked two months here at AIR Studios. I'm not saying we'll be done by then, but let's see how we go." And the entire album was done in 13 days - mixed and everything. So, it shows you the effect that the right guy at the helm can have.

Songfacts: What do you recall about writing "Sister Golden Hair"?

Gerry: Most of my songs are not literal, in that they are about one particular person or one particular situation. I'm always asked, "Is there a 'Sister Golden Hair'?" Which there isn't.

Something that came up recently in the archiving of the home recordings, we found my original demo of "Sister Golden Hair," and just to give a rough idea of how these things unfold, that demo was recorded before the Holiday album, but I was already happy with the songs that I had selected for that album. So "Sister" sat for over a year, until the next album.

I can't really tell you if it was a lack of faith in the song or not, but it was interesting to see. It shows you that songs can have a life of their own - they might just need the right time and circumstances to surface.

Songfacts: And what about "Tin Man"?

Gerry: "Tin Man" is a Dewey song, but I know it's written around the basic concept of The Wizard of Oz, that the Tin Man wasn't given anything he didn't already have.

There are so many other beautiful lyrical twists in that song, so it's not fair to simplify it as just a song about The Wizard of Oz. To a surrealist, it's like a Dali painting. There's so many things, like alligator lizards in "Ventura Highway" to the "Tropic of Sir Galahad." There was something in there.

Songfacts: "I Need You"?

Gerry: "I Need You" was one of the first songs I wrote. I remember that I was 16 when I wrote it - it was before the actual official start of America. We were all friends and playing in a high school band, but we got lucky early, as they say. That's one of our - if not the - most covered songs.

When America's debut album was completed, "I Need You" was going to be the first single, but they decided to record a new song instead: a Dewey Bunnell composition called "A Horse With No Name." The song caught fire, going to #1 in the US and launching the band's career. "I Need You" was released as the follow-up.
It's not that well known, but Harry Nilsson was going to have that be his follow-up to "Without You." We knew Harry, right from our very early days signed to Warner Brothers, and he asked if we were going to put that out, and we said, "No. The single is 'Horse.'" So he was put into motion, because he was looking for a follow-up - he had a #1 with the Badfinger tune [Badfinger wrote and originally recorded "Without You"]. We picked it as our follow-up single, so he shelved the idea for quite a few years. He did eventually record it many years later.

Songfacts: What did you think of Harry's version?

Gerry: Well, to be honest, by the time Harry got around to it, he was not in great shape. His voice had taken quite a turn.

First of all, we're all so honored to have known Harry. I don't know if you've seen the documentary [2006's Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?], but it's a fantastic tribute to him. But he certainly was a challenge, and an incredibly bright man. I would love to have heard it in that era when he was working with Richard Perry, to see what they could have done with that song.

Songfacts: "Only in Your Heart"?

Gerry: We had a friend in England, where we lived when we first got started. His name was Hank, and he was having a problem with his relationship, and his partner - they weren't married - was named Mary. And that's the only real connection that I can remember. It certainly isn't some verbatim story about a scenario that was going on, but I just remember how we'd pick up these little pieces from everything that surrounds you, and that was basically the start.

An interesting thing about "Only in Your Heart" is the whole finale bit, where it comes back in backwards. That was really a gift from Hal Blaine, the drummer. We had finished the song as it was written, and then he kind of did this fill, and we all came joining back in, and started playing and just winging it. So, what you hear is basically not at all an accident. It was just a great moment: Hal doing the big fill, and saying, "Hey, I feel I can play a bit more on this tune."

And then we added to it - we put all the backwards instruments and stuff to make it interesting. But it shows you the kind of magic that can happen given the right circumstances.

Songfacts: "Daisy Jane"?

Gerry: "Daisy Jane" we recorded up in Sausalito. It's from the second album we did with George - the Hearts album, which was really our fifth album. It was an interesting thing, in that the heartbeat that you hear that starts the song is really just David Dickey hitting muted strings on a bass guitar. But every fourth one, we heard this little kind of pumped heartbeat, and said, "David, how are you doing that?" And he said, "I'm not doing anything!"

It took a while to solo all the tracks to realize that little extra "ca-clump" was my foot coming off the sustain pedal on the piano. You have to listen closely, but those are the funny little things that happen, so we kept it in. It made an interesting little bit for all the headphone fanatics.

America's song "You Can Do Magic," a #8 US hit in 1982, was written by Russ Ballard. As a member of the band Argent, Ballard wrote their song "Liar," which became a hit for Three Dog Night in 1971. His songs have been recorded by Roger Daltrey ("Come And Get Your Love," "Free Me"), Rainbow ("Since You Been Gone") and Frida ("I Know There's Something Going On"), but he is most closely linked with Kiss, as he penned several tunes that either the band or its members have covered on solo albums, including "God Gave Rock and Roll to You" (retitled as "God Gave Rock and Roll to You II"), "New York Groove," "Into the Night," "Let Me Rock You," and "Some Kinda Hurricane."
Songfacts: How was the song "You Can Do Magic" presented to the band?

Gerry: It was written for us by Russ Ballard. He was writing for other people: Russ had written "Winning" for Santana, and he was now quite successful as a sort of songwriter for hire.

So we heard it and thought, "That's really good." He'd obviously put the "Do-Do-Do-Dit-Do's" into the song, which I would have given a nod to CSN [who had a similar sounding vocal part in "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"], because we certainly didn't have any claim to that kind of a vocal thing. But that was put in there to appeal to us.

I think we made a couple of chord changes, but basically took it as he wrote it. And it was very successful - it fit right into our body of work. It was a huge hit and a turning point for us, because it was a hit for Dewey and I, after Danny departed. It was our first hit as a duo. [Dan Peek left the band in 1977, becoming a Christian music artist. He passed away in 2011.]

Songfacts: Did you have any idea that it would be such a big hit when you first heard it?

Gerry: That's always hard to say. I always try to put it into, "How happy are you with the results?" I would never be so presumptuous as to think, "OK... clear out that bank account, here it comes!"

Songfacts: Who are some of your favorite songwriters of all time?

Gerry: The obvious go-to answer - and there's nothing inaccurate about it - is Lennon and McCartney, and Brian Wilson. Brian co-wrote with many, many people: Van Dyke Parks, Mike Love, Tony Asher. Van Dyke always says his favorite lyricist with Brian was Tony Asher. I think they all three did a fantastic job. But it's hard to overstate the importance of that group of composers in our time.

Beyond that, I would probably pick Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach, who both contributed an unbelievable body of work. I mean, I was singing a Jimmy Webb song in my senior review in high school, and he then went on to become one of my closest friends and godfather of my first son. His name always floats to the top.

August 26, 2015
For more America, visit venturahighway.com

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Comments: 9

  • Eileen Robin Lobel from Bowie,md 20715America has a bunch of rare songs Living Isn't Really Giving. Look Up Look Down Coming Into Los Angeles Rain Song How Long Must This Go On Winter Of Our Love Mitchum Junction James Holliday I wish they had included those songs on their first album
  • Eileen Robin Lobel from Bowie, MdAmerica belongs in the Rocking Roll Hall Fame because they had a string of hits they have been together almost 50 years minus Dan peek
  • Eileen Robin Lobel from Bowie,md 20715I've been listening to America since I was a teenager I still have their cassetts anymore I have all their CDs
  • Joe D. from Brooklyn NyGood interview. Wish there was more of it. Gerry came across honest and up front.
  • Beth David from PhilippinesEnjoyed reading
  • Ginnie from VirginiaFun read!
  • Tim Barrett Krock 101.5 from OahuGreat read Greg! Love America!
  • Bill from K.c. MoGreat read, enjoyed it thoroughly!
  • Ginny from Novato CaCan't wait to see you all in Sonoma!
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