Friday, January 9, 2004

Fame came
on ‘No Name’

The band America makes
its name with a unique mix
of earnestness and cynicism

Dewey Bunnell is reluctant to sing a couple lines from the metaphorical '70s anthem that's made him and his partner Gerry Beckley wealthy men and the song a household tune.

"Please don't make me," Bunnell jokes during a telephone interview from his Palos Verdes, Calif., home. "It's not how I really talk; I apologize for that bad grammar constantly. Hey, I'll give you backstage passes if you don't make me."

America -- Dewey Bunnell, right, and Gerry Beckley -- will perform with Chicago tomorrow. See Page 3 for concert information.

When I tell Bunnell I can't be bribed, it's followed by a resounding exhale.

"You see I've been through the desert on a horse with no name / It felt good to be out of the rain. / In the desert, you can remember your name / 'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain.

"To all the teachers who fight bad grammar, I offer my apologies," says Bunnell (who, by the way, turns 53 this month) of the band America. "For 'Horse' and 'Tin Man,' I used poetic license and broke grammatical rules because I've only got three minutes to tell a story, and I'll always mush up the language to do that."

America -- who performs Saturday night at the Blaisdell Arena in a double-bill with Chicago -- was formed in 1970 by two Americans, Dan Peek and Beckley, and Englishman Bunnell, who all first met while attending high school in London. All three were sons of U.S. Air Force officers stationed in England.

After they completed school that same year, they formed an acoustic folk-rock quartet called Daze in London, which was soon pared down to the trio of Bunnell, Peek and Beckley, then becoming America.

The band has had 11 hit singles and 17 gold, platinum and multiplatinum selling albums. Their first single, the quoted "Horse With No Name," was an enormous hit in England and a year later in the United States. That same year, America won a Grammy Award for Best New Artist.

Not bad for a song (originally titled "Desert Song") that took Bunnell just two hours one afternoon to write.

"Our producer, Ian Samwell, insisted we change the name, and even my mother used to say, before it was released, that we should call that desert-y song 'Horse With No Name,' because everyone will remember a poor horse with no name," Bunnell said.

And why didn't the horse have a name?

"Well, that's a whole other story, but the song is deliberately ambiguous and this mysterious horse was the vehicle to get me out in the desert, and the desert is probably a metaphor for being solitary and finding one self," he said.

America never expected the song to be a hit but rather just an album cut.

"I certainly can't trust my own ears to determine what might be a hit," Bunnell said. "But the song is an easy-to-assimilate ballad and has great imagery."

That nameless horse has taken these two old friends a long, long way, galloping across international airwaves. (Peek left the group in 1976). The musicians harmonized their way to the top of the charts on the strength of "Horse," paving the way for their other hits, "I Need You," "Ventura Highway," "Tin Man," "Lonely People" and "Sister Golden Hair."

The public loved their folk pop and catchy, memorable singles, a unique mix of ennui and earnestness, cynicism and sincerity that made other laid-back, California rockers of the period seem so hip. America may have looked like hippies, and paid homage to the hippie lifestyle, but they were definitely a pop band.

"WHEN WE first released 'Horse,' people in the U.S. thought it was Neil Young singing," Bunnell said. "But I think, harmonically, we were more Crosby Stills & Nash."

"Timing is everything," he said. "We happened to hit a vacuum and filled it. It was in the middle of the James Taylor-Elton John era and we were an American group in England, which gave us a leg up over the other British bands."

And since America had a tight 40-minute set, "we could take it anywhere," and they got tremendous exposure opening for Elton John, The Who, Pink Floyd, Traffic, The Band and Cat Stevens.

"It all happened for us within 18 months, which is pretty phenomenal," Bunnell said.

Beckley and Bunnell have continued as a duo, releasing albums and performing more than 100 concerts a year. They've come into their own since the 1990s with impressive releases like '98's "Human Nature." Bunnell also likes their album "Harbor," recorded on Kauai.

"It had all the elements in place to have been a much better album than it turned out to be," he said. "It is memorable for the experience more than the music, in my mind."

It's been quite a ride for Beckley and Bunnell since their teenage days at England's West Ruislip Air Base.

"We've grown up in a world of showbiz, seen styles change, seen technology change," Bunnell says. "Basically, Gerry and I have stayed very much the same. We still have those standards in songwriting that we were hoping to establish. We've lived pretty full lives and managed to hold on to some sanity, although the world seems crazier every day."

About 80 percent of Bunnell's music royalties come from three songs he wrote: "A Horse With No Name," "Tin Man" and "Ventura Highway," whose title comes from a childhood memory.

"My family used to live at Vandenburg Air Force Base (in California) and we would drive south to Los Angeles all the time," he said. "Years later, when I was in dreary old England, I was trying to conjure up images of California, and I remembered this trip where we had a flat tire on Highway 101 and I had looked up and saw a sign that said we were in the city of Ventura. To me, it became 'Ventura Highway.'"

"Tin Man" was inspired by Bunnell's favorite film, "The Wizard of Oz."

"But Oz never did give nothing to the tin man," he sings. "Now there's more bad grammar for you."

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