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'Fifth Beatle' Came To America After Fab Four Split



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‘Fifth Beatle’ Came To America After Fab Four Split

By John Voket

The early to mid-1970s saw an explosion of crossover acts that were a bit too mainstream for the country western market, and a bit too easygoing to be dubbed rock and roll. These “country rock” acts included one-hit wonders like Sammy Johns crooning about his “Chevy Van,” Michael Murphy and his signature tune “Wildfire,” and even Starland Vocal Band with “Afternoon Delight,” to name but a few.

Then came the hit makers – ‘60s carryovers combining great harmonies with radio-friendly melodies. Some of these acts — Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Eagles in particular — have survived into the 21st Century continuing to pump out new material with some measure of success.

Other acts like Seals & Crofts, Poco, Orleans and America have been more successful retaining their popularity, especially on the concert circuit, leaning heavily on their various repackaged Greatest Hits collections and reissues. But when you begin sifting through the numbers, there’s one Greatest Hits package and band that begins to emerge head and shoulders above the rest… and it’s not because their riding high on a “horse with no name.”

The secret to America’s success may be attributed as much to their huge catalog of songs as the group’s ability to craft singles that had hook-laden, sing-along styles. At the same time, each hit was just different enough to keep the band from being labeled as formulaic, sort of like another extremely popular British band from a decade earlier… and not coincidentally, featuring the talents of the same producer.

Indeed, once the “Fab Four” irrevocably split in 1970, Sir George Martin discovered America and came across the pond to help this fledgling country rock band achieve what might arguably be the greatest of all of this genre’s greatest hits collections.

By the time Sir George Martin came into the studio with America’s trio of co-founders, Dan Peek (who split the group in ’77), Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell in 1974, the group had already proven itself capturing a Grammy for Best New Artist, a number one single with Dewey’s “Horse With No Name,” and a pair of popular follow-up singles — “I Need You” and “Ventura Highway.”

With America (now fronted by Bunnell and Beckley) coming in to The Ridgefield Playhouse on August 19, Dewey Bunnell took the opportunity to chat with The Newtown Bee recently about the group’s work with “Sir George,” a brand new album helmed by a pair of this generation’s hot producers, and many other interesting collaborations the band has orchestrated throughout its nearly 35-year history.

Newtown Bee: He certainly went on to work with hundreds of other artists since the early ‘70s, but America was really the next officially adopted project by Sir George Martin a few years after The Beatles went their separate ways. And even though your band already experienced some great success with the breakout number one single “Horse with No Name” and the Best New Artist Grammy, didn’t he do something historically significant by taking existing singles and reproducing them in a way he thought might make them even more popular?

Dewey Bunnell: We have a lot of audiophiles telling us the subtle differences they hear between the hits on our first two albums and the versions George produced on History: America’s Greatest Hits.

Frankly at that time, I was oblivious to those changes. We just said, ‘sure George, go ahead and remix and remaster the earlier hits.’ George was great of course, and he was with us for seven albums. Every project was like a postcard [because] every project was done at a different location.

He didn’t want to produce every album in his London studio besides the first one, and that was kind of a test to see how well we worked together. After that we recorded with him in San Francisco at The Record Plant, at Caribou Ranch in Colorado, at his studio in Montserrat in the Caribbean, and at his studio in Hawaii.

I think we got along so well with him because of our British background – we were raised in England and I think he liked the fact that we had that sensibility and we got the humor.

Newtown Bee: Did you get the opportunity to enjoy the kind of freeform hands-on creative process that he was famous for with the Beatles?

Dewey Bunnell: He was very hands-on with us. He even plays on some of the songs including the piano part on “Tin Man.” He was really creative working with us on the vocal harmony, even though Gerry did the primary arrangements.

I remember on a song called “Hollywood,” he wanted to create a nightclub atmosphere so he set up tables and drinks in the studio and brought in a bunch of the secretaries to chat and tinkle their glasses together to re-create the sound of a bar.

There was another experience, working on our album Harbor where we actually had to build an entire studio in a house on Kauai. George was in charge of overseeing the shipping of all the recording studio equipment by barge from Oahu, and we installed it into these rented houses where we lived and worked for almost a month.

Newtown Bee: I guess having the background of dealing with the expanding egos of the Beatles, working with you three must have been like a vacation. But he was also with America when the core band sort of broke apart, right?

Dewey Bunnell: Dan left in ’77 and we went on to make Silent Letter with George. He had already been through that big split with the Beatles, probably the biggest split in all of pop music at that time, so we were easy.

He was always a father figure to us as I imagine he was with the Beatles. He was always referring to us as “the lads,” or “the boys.” But it’s important to point out that when he came on with us, we were more than ready to hand over the reigns to him having produced or co-produced the first three albums ourselves. The average Joe doesn’t understand the producer role. It’s a lot more than recognizing a good song or a good take, it involves hiring musicians, paying bills, booking time and mastering the sessions.

Newtown Bee: Let’s snap into the present day. You’re working with a couple of interesting new guys in the studio for America’s new album. What’s it like getting into the situation where you are bringing in new blood to ostensibly graft modern production techniques onto an established act with an established formula?

Dewey Bunnell: Our new album is called Here and Now. It features a song I co-wrote with Ryan Adams, and it’s produced by James Iha from Smashing Pumpkins and Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne.

It’s funny because George was a generation before us and Adam and James are a generation after us, we never really worked with anyone else from our generation. But these young guys are seasoned veterans already. They’re well versed in all of our material, and Adam particularly has all the elements of a “Sir George.” His ears are great, he has a terrific sense of melody, and he and I actually co-wrote a song together for the new album.

He also helped us tap the miracle of digital technology. We wanted to use Rusty Young from Poco to play pedal steel on one of our tracks, and since Poco was out on tour halfway across the planet he said “just email me the track.” So they recorded the pedal steel part on a mobile digital recorder in the dressing room of the club Poco was playing, emailed it back, and Adam mixed it in so it sounds like he’s right there beside us in the studio.

But on the other hand, we also went back to an organic way of building tracks for the new album. We decided to do a lot of live recording in the studio with James and me playing guitar, Fountains of Wayne’s drummer Gerry on bass and Adam on piano – it was like the old days. These days so many young talented players can do almost everything on their own, recording the whole song in their bedroom practically, so it was great energy to get us all together in one place putting down tracks.

We’ve also got some material on the new album from members of Nada Surf and My Morning Jacket, but these songs that they have written really appealed to us, and maybe will bring us [exposure to a younger audience] as well.

Newtown Bee: Besides the sweet harmonies and great music you and Gerry make between yourselves, the two of you also have a long legacy of working with a really interesting mix of personalities, some who are still with us and others who have tragically passed on. Let’s talk for just a few minutes about some of the names on this laundry list that includes David Cassidy, Billy Mumy of Lost in Space fame, composer and Oscar-winning conductor Elmer Bernstein, the late Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, Steve Martin, Steve Perry from Journey, and Phil Hartman!

Dewey Bunnell: We’ve been really good friends with Bill Mumy who has been a fan of ours since 1972 when he came to our shows in L.A. at Whiskey a Go-Go, and we were fans of his too from Lost in Space. He’s really a jack of all trades, acting, writing, music, he writes screenplays and he’s a comic book writer. In fact on the new album, he co-wrote a song with Gerry.

Talking about Elmer, it was interesting because we were doing a show at the Greek Theater and George Martin was having some problems with his visa because of his being a British citizen. Since he was unavailable for that, he called in his friend Elmer Bernstein to conduct the backing orchestra for us at the last minute and that show became our first live release.

We got to know Phil Hartman because for a while we were managed by John Hartman, Phil’s older brother. And Phil was a burgeoning actor and comedian, and he was always hanging out with us at the studio. But he augmented his acting work doing artwork and caricatures. He did three of our album covers and the single cover for “Lonely People.” His was one of those lives really cut short – he was always “on” all the time, on par with Robin Williams.

I’ve lost touch with Steve Perry, but for awhile we were really close and co-wrote a song together called “Can’t Fall Asleep to a Lullaby.” He would show up once in awhile early on and join us on stage for a song. When I was in my early 20s, I was part of that San Francisco music camp with hi

. David Cassidy was another one of these social friendships. He got pigeonholed with this teeny-bopper thing, but on the side he was a very serious musician. Gerry produced an album of his, but I ended up singing backup on a couple of songs on David’s The Harder They Fall album.

America, featuring Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Buckley, is scheduled to headline August 19 at The Ridgefield Playhouse, and can also be seen playing a free show at The Woodstock Fair on September 2.

Tickets for the Ridgefield show are $72.50. Call the playhouse at 203-438-5795 for reservation and additional information.

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