Just Plain Hit Songs
June 1, 2017
When the British band America debuted stateside in 1972 with the hit single, "A Horse with No Name," a lot of people thought they sounded uncannily (or cannily) like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
In a 2007 interview with the McClatchy wire service, the author and singer of that song, Dewey Bunnell, had this to say about his vocal stylings on "A Horse with No Name": "I didn't consciously try to affect (Young's) vocals. But subconsciously, I might have."
America perform August 15 at the Foellinger Theatre.
There were other controversies about that song, chief among them that it was a thinly veiled (or intentionally garbled) tribute to recreational drug use.
Bunnell denied this in a 2011 interview.
"[The song] was just a travelogue with an environmental message in there about saving the planet," he said.
Local singer-songwriter Dave Todoran isn't so sure.
"You've got to hand it to these guys for writing one of the slickest, easy listening paeans to drug use ever," he said. "It ranks right up there with 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' and 'Let It Be.' But unlike its more blatant contemporaries like "One Toke Over the Line" or "Wildwood Weed," I can easily imagine my Catholic Sunday school teacher, in full black nun-habit, strumming her big Guild 12-string acoustic and angelically piping out 'I let the horse run free, cuz the desert had turned to sea.'"
If the song's meaning was misinterpreted 45 years ago, that misinterpretation clearly had more supporters than detractors.
As serendipity would have it, "A Horse With No Name" replaced Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" at the No. 1 spot on the pop chart and ensured that America would produce music that was vaguely reminiscent of Young's early work (not to mention Jackson Browne's) for years to come.
The band churned out hit after hit for a decade (songs like "I Need You," "Ventura Highway," "Tin Man," "Lonely People," "Sister Golden Hair" and "You Can Do Magic") until changing tastes cooled its career.
It would be easy for a music aficionado to dismiss America's skillful homages, and many have.
America produced songs that resembled those of CSNY but were shorn of the latter band's political and social activism.
Two years before temperance-minded folks denounced "A Horse With No Name" for referring to a horse with a name, CSNY had released one of its most important songs, "Ohio."
Local singer-songwriter Duane Eby credits "Ohio," about the Kent State massacre, with helping get the 26th amendment passed in 1971. The amendment lowered the national voting age from 21 to 18.
Eby said "Ohio" was written by Young, recorded by the band and released by Atlantic Records in a matter of weeks and it had extraordinary cultural impact.
"Ohio" was a protest song that packed a wallop, he said.
"(CSNY) were right on top of Kent State massacre and if it weren't for people writing lyrics like that, 18 year olds would not be voting today," Eby said.
But two years later, teenaged men waiting to be called up needed different sorts of songs, he said - songs like "Horse With No Name."
"The lottery draft was still going on when it was released and I think people were looking for some escapist music from the fear of having to go die for their country," he said.
It is indeed true, Eby said, that meaningful lyrical content in popular music became increasingly rare as the 1970s progressed.
"However, not everything has to be political to survive as art," he said. "And much of art is flawed just like the artists who create it. If you find something comforting in it or that you can identify with, then it has served its purpose."
If CSNY were the band that young men needed in 1970, America were the band they needed in 1972.
"Beautiful escapism in harmony is cathartic for those who are waiting to go die or who have seen their friends die in a war that makes no sense," Eby said.
Bunnel's stream-of-consciousness, vaguely wistful, generally optimistic lyrics weren't written to change the world and they didn't need to be.
'Ventura Highway' is a beautiful picture," Eby said.