TVD Radar: An exclusive excerpt from America, the Band: An Authorized Biography by Jude Warne

As if recovering from a raucous dream of the 1960s, Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, and Dan Peek arrived on 1970s American radio with a sound that echoed disenchanted hearts of young people everywhere. Celebrating America the band’s fiftieth anniversary, Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell share stories of growing up, growing together, and growing older in America, the Band — an Authorized Biography. The Vinyl District writer Jude Warne weaves original interviews with Beckley, Bunnell, and many others into a dynamic cultural history of America, the band, and America, the nation.

Selections from “Chapter One – The Song”

The single wasn’t right; that much was clear. Warner Brothers had listened to the final version of America’s self-titled debut album and its proposed first single. “I Need You” was a ballad by Gerry Beckley, who, as a pop composer and unrelenting romantic, was on the path to becoming Uncle Sam’s Paul McCartney. The song encapsulated the nineteen-year- old’s delicate dance between innocence and experience, acknowledging the earnestness of romantic curiosity, with an unmistakable undertone of sex appeal. “I Need You” was set indoors, where Gerry’s writerly character would reside for the majority of his artistic life.

The song’s theme was what Lennon and McCartney had dubbed “The Word” in their 1965 song on Rubber Soul and in 1967 had declared to be all you need. A generation of young people had recently seized the word in their quest to redefine what mattered for society and for culture, what was important – and just how far and in how many different directions it could fly. It was something that the cumulative youth ideology of the recently closed decade had assumed for its main tenet. It was something thought to have been the answer: love.

But it was 1971 now. The Beatles had broken up. The ’60s were literally—and in many ways figuratively—over. The year 1969 had witnessed the manifestation of the decade’s full potential in the freedom- laden beauty of Woodstock. But it had also witnessed its seeming demise in the heinous murders by the Manson Family, as well as the ill-fated Altamont Free Concert on what Rolling Stone would call “rock ’n’ roll’s all-time worst day.” Disappointment was palpable. Malaise and indifference threatened. A widespread sense of trust in freedom had been violated. What would happen to love? Where would it go? Who would reclaim it?

Gerry Beckley, at least for his own band, America. “I Need You” was Beatlesque, simple and beautifully melodic, a slow song, a pop standard. It immediately established Gerry’s musical character as one foot in the past—the tradition and history of the songwriting craft—and the other in the future—the ever-evolving technological possibilities of the recording studio. Gerry was a born music producer who felt at home in the studio and was intellectually curious about its creative opportunities. He was a big-picture man, able to consider the totality of a song and understand what made it work—and what could make it better.

Dan Peek’s guitar playing usually could. As a musician, he possessed an innate rock ’n’ roll sensibility founded on instrumental acumen. Just what rock ’n’ roll would become over the course of the ’70s—for the moment—remained to be seen. In the previous decade the genre had expanded and defined popular music, allowing for the self-expression of unapologetic attitudes. It had been driven by the guitar. Hendrix, Clapton, Page, Beck, Keith Richards, Peter Green, Pete Townsend, Mike Bloomfield, Robbie Robertson, Duane Allman, Jorma Kaukonen, Johnny Winter, Steve Miller, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young had all come forth to wail. Still tasting strongly of the ’60s, rock ’n’ roll in 1971 held an uncertain future.

For America the band, rock was manifested most ardently through Dan Peek. Like Gerry, Dan felt comfortable in the recording studio. He was a naturally gifted lead guitarist, able to craft melodic lines that would define the group’s sound. And his hauntingly beautiful voice, impeccably suited to high harmonies, made America famous for its three-part vocals. Dan’s character enabled him to dress his actions, words, and musical performing in a coat of nonchalance. Intelligence and wry wit exaggerated his natural charisma and allowed him to instantly connect with America’s young audiences—especially during stage banter with his band- mates. Like the genre he matched so closely, Dan would flirt now and then with self-destruction, but his talent for songwriting that transcended the genre nuances of country rock, hard rock, and mellow introspectives would survive it all. Dan’s band membership would not make the transition into the 1980s. Before the new decade was over, he would leave America for good, never to return—just as rock ’n’ roll as everyone knew it was becoming more and more infiltrated by disco, new wave, and punk.

In 1971, those terms didn’t yet mean much to Warner Brothers. When considering “I Need You” for America’s first single, the label knew what it wanted—and what it didn’t. Though emotively stellar, productively genuine, and a traditional songwriter’s song, Beckley’s love-dove number wasn’t enough for Warner Brothers. The label wanted its newest band to grab listeners by their collars, to wow them, to hit them in the face with its uniqueness. It wanted more. Warner Brothers dubbed the track “too British” in sound. The label was determined to release a single with wide- ranging appeal and would not be satisfied with the endorsement of British crowds alone—it wanted American kids to go crazy over America too. But what did young Americans dig in 1971? What would work? What was “in”? Acoustic, Southern California–based rock; singer-songwriter, bare-bones, emotionally real stuff was. Neil Young was.

Dewey Bunnell couldn’t help who he sounded like when he sang. His influences ran deep—and having been trained as an actor, he was a studied interpreter of characters who inherently absorbed musical inspirations. As a songwriter he composed from musical moods and penned lyrics that sounded stolen from wild image–heavy dreams. Not overly concerned with tradition or restriction, or with the past or future, Dewey was naturally creative and a man of the present moment. His songs were journeys about people—much like the characters of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—who were on their way to or from something. They were about people utilizing their own freedom. And they would always be heavily dosed with nature. If Gerry wrote his songs indoors, Dewey most certainly wrote them out under the stars.

Excerpt from the book America, the Band: An Authorized Biography by Jude Warne – Foreword by Billy Bob Thornton. Used by permission of the publisher Rowman & Littlefield. All rights reserved.

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Pages: 288 • Trim: 6½ x 9½
978-1-5381-2095-8 • Hardback • May 2020 • $24.95 • (£15.95)
978-1-5381-2096-5 • eBook • May 2020 • $23.50 • (£15.95)

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