Now that we here at WMMCM have taken the plunge off the deep end into a huge vat of fromage, we’ll be once again travelling overseas. It’s a bit of an odd sounding story these days but in the late 1960s and early ’70s this kind of thing happened actually fairly frequently – except without all the music and international success part. That part didn’t happen too often…
So, if you’re a young man living in England in the late ’60s and The Beatles and the Rolling Stones are all the rage, what do you do? Well, you start a band. What makes this one a bit different from most English bands in the England of the day is that, they weren’t English. Well, kind of English.
When you have three guys, all with fathers in the U.S. Air Force who married English ladies, and then you find yourself growing up in England as an American citizen, there is a certain logic in calling your band America.
That part makes a certain amount of sense. Where it gets kind of fuzzy is how did these three young – semi – expatriates wind up playing the kind of music they did?
Well, there’s a guy from Canada who was playing music pretty close to what America was playing in England. Except for the guy from Canada was in America and he was not playing anything like they did in England. So, when America played in England they were playing Canadian like music – from a guy who now lived in L.A. – who was playing American music with two Americans and a guy from England.
Now that we’ve got that cleared up, the Canadian is Neil Young and by the time America was sounding like Neil Young, Young was no longer sounding like Neil Young as he was now part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
In one of those situations that can make your head hurt, when America’s first album, America, -natch – was released, it didn’t have the song the band would be best known for on it. “A Horse With no Name,” which was originally called “Desert Song” haddn’t been recorded yet. When sales of their debut album were slow, it was decided to release the newly named “A Horse With no Name” as a single.
That did the trick and the band of Americans from England named America had their first number one hit and the album, America, was re-released with “A Horse With no Name” included and it too went to number one.
In keeping with our Hommage à fromage here “A Horse With no Name” has more than a little to answer for as far as Neil Young goes.
When “A Horse With no Name” was released as a single in the early months of 1972, it instantly became a fixture on radio, which it remains to this day. The thing is, when people first heard it, they all thought is was Neil Young.
It’s pretty much in Young’s musical style of those days, lead singer Dewey Bunnell while not doing a Neil Young impression, is also not trying to distance himself from leaving that impression with his high voice and stilted delivery of the – very much not – Neil Young lyrics.
For the more astute listener of the day, even if the music and vocal first got you thinking about Neil’s new song. this would stop you in your tracks.
“There were plants and birds. and rocks and things,
There was sand and hills and rings.”
While this may sound pleasant when being sung, and it certainly is descriptive, it also could never have come from the pen of Neil Young. Would ol’ Neil ever have used “plants and birds, and rocks and things?”
The guy who wrote these lines of casual dismissal and heartbreak?
“Love lost, such a cost, Give me things that don’t get lost.
Like a coin that won’t get tossed, rolling home to you.”
Now that’s a Neil Young line…
For his part, songwriter and singer Dewey Bunnell has never run away from the Neil Young connection, though he has said that it did bring up some controversy at the time. And, for a young band that’s just getting it’s start, that’s not really a bad thing.
“A Horse With No Name” would be America’s first number one single and the album, would be their only number one release but, they did return to the charts with regularity well into the early 1980s. Unfortunately somewhere along the way, America left behind in their wake the horrific “Muskrat Love,” which after becoming a minor hit was unearthed once again by The Captain and Tennille a few years later to actually become a hit. (As well as being a successful tool for use in psychological warfare.)
If Neil Young ever had an reaction to America’s very Young influenced song, history seems to not have noticed. Perhaps when Young heard the song, as he certainly had to, he might have thought the lyrics so simple and ridiculous that there was no way anyone would put his name to it. We’ll never know.
There is one other interesting detail in the story of “A Horse With no Name” that must be related. When America reached that all important number one spot, the song they knocked out of that position was…
Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.”