August 28, 2015

FTV: 3 Sides of America

   Dewey Bunnell.  Dan Peek.  Gerry Beckley.  A few of you may recognize these names.    A greater number of people will recognize A Horse With No Name more readily even if they can’t place the names of the creators of this folk rock classic.  They may not be the hit making machine they were back in the 1970s (an entire Greatest Hits CD worth of material would need to be listed here to make the point) and briefly in 1982 (You Can Do Magic), but they are still hanging around as a recording and performing unit.

    My history with ‘side one’ of the America story goes back to the summer of 1975.  Having graduated from NMU in early May, I took what I call my graduation trip to Portland, Oregon to visit a couple of buddies who had relocated there the summer before.   I was already tired of job hunting (a never ending string of letters, applications, and resumes flowed out of my old manual Underwood typewriter during my senior year), so I planned a two week break to visit Jack and Mitch in Lake Oswego, right outside of Portland.  During our last phone conversation about my travel plans, Mitch mentioned that he was able to get tickets to see America during my visit which amped up the excitement factor for my trip a couple of notches.  Let me see:  First time through Chicago, check, first time flying on a big commercial jet, check, and now tickets to see America, check.   I was both apprehensive and excited about the upcoming adventure.

    On the day of the concert, we planned on getting to the theater early as this was billed as a ‘festival seating’ concert.  I really don’t like festival seating, particularly in venues where it means ‘standing’ so they can wedge in more bodies.  In this case, the Paramount tickets said ‘balcony – third tier’ which my brain had already transposed into ‘nosebleed seats’, but being somewhat naive about concerts I did not realize that ‘festival seating’ meant ‘you find a seat and it is yours’ in a venue like this.  I have grown to love tickets with seat rows and numbers on them and this feeling goes all the way back to this America concert.  Imagine our surprise when we got to the venue and found end of the line of ticket holders no more than a half a city block away from the theater entrance.  The only problem?  The end of the line we were in  extended down the street, around three corners and then got to the entrance.  So much for our ‘early arrival’ strategy.  At least we got to see a couple of guys in the band waving at the crowd after we turned the second corner as the line creeped forward.

    The Paramount is one of those grand old theaters that has been used for stage plays, movies and concerts since it was built in 1928.  It was placed on the National Registry of Historic Buildings in 1972.

Upon entry, we were greeted with a large vaulted lobby with sweeping staircases that lead to the balcony level.  After a long, slow climb, we found ourselves on the walkway between the second and third tier of the balcony seats.  I had never seen a balcony with three massive sections and from where we stood, there didn’t seem to be an empty seat, let alone two right next to each other.  As we stood there scratching our heads, a couple hopped over the small railing that separated the walkway from the last row of the second tier seats and the girl said ‘we are going down lower,  you can have these seats’.  We plunked ourselves down and marveled how lucky we were to have found two seats together after playing follow the leader all the way around the block just to get in.

    The Paramount seating capacity was about 2800 and even though we were two thirds of the way from the front of the balcony, we had an amazingly good view of the stage.  Sightlines and acoustics were always taken in consideration when these old theaters were built because amplification wasn’t available for stage shows in those days.  The large array of P.A. speakers suspended on each side of the stage told us we would be able to hear just fine and the good view of the stage was a bonus.

    America was in the middle of the hit making phase that propelled them to the top of the charts with songs like Horse, Ventura Highway, I Need You, and Sister Golden Hair.  At the time I was visiting Portland, Sister Golden Hair was in heavy rotation on the radio and I was really pleased to hear how well it translated into their live show.  They had  great chemistry between the three singers and their backing band.  I left feeling I had seen an outstanding concert.

    Dan Peek had tired of the rock star life and upon rediscovering his Christian faith, left the band to work on his own musical projects.  While only one Peek tune written for America reached  #1 (Lonely People co-written with his wife), Peek was a founding member of the band and a cornerstone of their vocal harmonies.  Bunnell and Beckley decided to soldier on without him.  They recorded a live album at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles but it was the first album in their catalog that wasn’t a huge success.  These events transpired during my first couple of years that I was in Ontonagon so I wasn’t prepared for ‘side two’ of the American story.

    When I heard America was going to be appearing at Lakeview Arena in Marquette, I told anyone who was interested, ‘Go and see them.  They put on the best concert I have ever seen’.  Unbeknown to me, Bunnell and Beckley were enduring a low spot in their career.  They were still touring but had not produced any new albums since the poor selling America Live album.  In Marquette, they were loud and played more rocked up versions of their songs than I had heard in Oregon.  Beckley’s stage banter about his new, double neck guitar put one thought in my head:  ‘He is drunk!’   It wasn’t a bad concert, but after the highly polished show I had seen in 1975, I walked away disgusted for having recommended them as a ‘must see’ band.  I did some research and found out about Peek leaving the band and put two and two together.  In this case, my sad conclusion was ‘American won’t last much longer’.

    ‘Side three’ of the story has a much happier ending than ‘side two’.   Like a machine, a band that stops working can be fixed and the first step is usually to replace some parts.  Changes with their backing musicians and studio team produced their first hit in many years, You Can Do Magic in 1982.  

One change in their production team found them working with former Argent guitarist Russ BallardNot only did Ballard write You Can Do Magic especially for the band, Ballard produced the song,  played all of the instruments, and sang most of the background vocals.  It may not have begun another string of top 40 hits for America, but it did give them the exposure needed to repair the damage they had done to their career during their post Dan Peek slump.  They worked with Ballard for another album, eventually moving on without him or the backing of a record label.  The burgeoning CD market in the early 90s led to revived sales as did later DVD concert packages.  Their second live album (In Concert) done before Capitol records dumped them was DOA,  yet a later album of the same name released for the King Biscuit Flour Hour series generated enough interest to get them signed to a label again.  The album was actually recorded in 1982 but not released on the King Biscuit show until 1995.

    Reunion rumors swirled about for many years, ending only when Dan Peek passed away in July of 2011 at the age of 60.  I am rather happy to say that my glum assessment of a band on the skids during their ‘side two’ phase has never come true.  America has a proud history and a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, but most importantly, they still have a music career.  We will be airing our copy of the America:  In Concert King Biscuit Flour Hour show in the near future and you can catch it on Your Sound Choice, WOAS-FM  88.5 .

The video clip features Dan Peek’s contribution to the America’s Greatest Hits package, Lonely People – Peek’s departure precipitated  the band’s decline and popularity in the late 1970s.