Once again your crusty chronicler felt the need to resurrect his old “Listen Again” series. For those of you just joining us, the “Listen Again” series is a series in which we revisit albums that for one reason or another perhaps did not receive the attention/acclaim they deserved when they were originally released. Whether it was the recording was ahead of its time, broke away from the artist’s usual style, was poorly publicized or initially misunderstood, the “Listen Again” series urges music fans to listen again. This time we reconsider America’s History: America’s Greatest Hits.
America, for those not up on the classics, is an American folk or pop rock band that originally included Gerry Beckley (lead and backing vocals, keyboards, guitars, bass and harmonica), Dewey Bunnell (lead and backing vocals, guitars and percussion) and Dan Peek (lead and backing vocals, guitars, bass, keyboards and harmonica). They became a hit in 1972 with number one hit songs and even scored a Grammy for best new musical artist. They put out forty-five singles, sixteen studio albums, four live releases and seven compilation albums including their first– History: America’s Greatest Hits.
They were backed by an assortment of additional artists on this collection including: Dave Attwood and Kim Haworth (drums), Hal Blaine and Willie Leacox (drums and percussion), Ray Cooper and Chet (“Tequila”) McCracken (percussion), David Dickey (bass), Henry Diltz (banjo) and Venetta Fields, Clydie King and Jessica Smith (background vocals). While George Martin is touted as producing this compilation, in truth the first seven cuts were in the can before Martin arrived. Martin remixed them.
Side one opens on a 1971 Bunnell composition “A Horse With No Name”. Here on Martin’s version a voice can be heard roughly two minutes into the track. (This would go on to become not only their first single but their most successful one to boot.)
The second selection is the 1972 Beckley tune “I Need You”. Martin added and brought up the bass and slowed down the pitch a quarter-tone. (This would also go on to be a top ten hit.)
The next number is “Sandman”. This dates back to 1971 and while never a single did get airplay on FM stations due in part to a rumor among the military that this breezy acid rock recording was really about the VQ-2 air squadron once based in Spain. This was another Bunnell song.
The hit song “Ventura Highway” also by Bunnell follows. This is from 1972 and features two-guitar harmony by Beckley and Peek in the intro. (This song also contains the phrase “purple rain” which later inspired the singer Prince to write his hit “Purple Rain”.)
“Don’t Cross The River” is the first Peek composition in this mix. On this version of the top forty 1973 tune Martin adds a layer of fiddles to the track to flesh it out. It’s followed by the side’s closing cut “Only in Your Heart”. This, too, is from 1973 and was written by Beckley and has a McCartney-like pop feel to it.
The flip side opens on a song by Willis Alan Ramsey titled “Muskrat Love”. This “hippie MOR” piece also charted in 1973. It’s most famous cover, however, was recorded by The Captain and Tennille in 1976.
Bunnell’s “Tin Man” quickly takes the spotlight here. This pop hit dates back to 1974. Martin plays piano on this one. Bunnell states that his favorite film is indeed The Wizard of Oz. He also confesses: “Great grammar – ‘Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man.’ It’s sort of a poetic license.”
“Lonely People”, with its Neil Young-style acoustic sound is also from 1974. It was written by Peek and his wife Catherine. (In 1986 Peek re-recorded this for his solo album Electro Voice and rewrote some of the lyrics to more obviously reflect his Christian faith.
The chart topping “Sister Golden Hair” was written by Beckley. This updated surf song is from 1975. The lyrics were inspired by the early works of Jackson Browne.
It’s all too quickly followed by Beckley’s “Daisy Jane”. This top-twenty tune is an almost ingenious McCartney-esque pop piece also from 1975. The album ends on Peek’s 1975 song “Woman Tonight”.
With a running time of over 38 minutes, the compilation was released by Warner Brothers in November that same year. (The cover artwork was by the not yet famous, late actor-comedian Phil Hartman. His surname is actually spelled correctly—Hartmann—in the liner notes.)
It was a commercial success in the US climbing to number 3 on the Billboard album chart and eventually went multi-platinum. This is the definitive collection from this trio California folkies famous for hit singles and albums rife with Martin’s sophisticated way with strings, keys and multi-track guitars. America symbolizes the senescence of what was once a strong, vibrant West Coast folk music scene.
This collection is essential for music fans favoring 1970s folk music with noteworthy hooks, expert arrangements and a soft rock-pop finish. If you’ve never listened to America’s History: America’s Greatest Hits, listen to it. If you’ve already listened to it . . . listen again.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.