It’s easy to dismiss the merits of soft rock or those artists whose work clung to AM radio throughout the ’70s. There’s a tendency to see them as edgeless, smoother versions of their classic rock counterparts. But it’s foolish to disregard their accomplishments just because their sound doesn’t fit a particular mold or fashion. There were plenty of bands who sought out the softer side of rock music, and who did so with all the determination and spirit of their harder-rocking brethren.
If you look at the history of a band like America, a band whose music is quintessentially soft rock, you see that there was far more going on than just a handful of memorable singles. The intricacy of their harmonies and the way they merged the pop and rock aspects of their work influenced countless musicians in their own pop experiments. America wasn’t a band interested in breaking the rules so much as they were obsessed with perfecting pop’s ecstatic movements. By merging a collection of rockier motions with waves of ebullient rhythms, they helped create—and sustain—the blueprint for the entire soft rock genre.
Founded by Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell and Dan Peek in 1970, the band’s roots can be traced all the way back to their time attending high school in the mid-’60s. Their fathers happened to be stationed at the United States Air Force base near London during that time, and their sons met while playing in different bands. In 1969, Peek left to try his hand at college in the United States, but things didn’t turn out the way he hoped, so he returned to London the following year. And it was shortly after he got back that the three of them began to play together using borrowed acoustic guitars.
Their sound borrowed heavily from bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Byrds, with three-part harmonies and folk-rock stylings building on one another to create a refined soft rock aesthetic. They eventually settled on the name America, as they didn’t want people to think that they were British musicians trying to sound American. Through the efforts of disc jockey Jeff Dexter and musician-producer Ian Samwell, the band was introduced to the Kinney Records imprint and signed to the U.K. division of Warner Brothers.
For the band’s self-titled debut record, they spent time at Trident Studios in London, with Samwell and Dexter handling the production duties. Dexter went on to become the band’s manager. He was also the one who got them their first official gig Dec. 20, 1970, at the Roundhouse in London, as the opener for The Who and Elton John.
Released in 1971, they opened their debut album with “Riverside,” a rollicking acoustic track that highlights their precise manner with tiered harmonies and various folk rock sounds. It is a nice entry point into this specific version of these rhythms and allows audiences to ease gently into the record. The second track, “Sandman,” is a bit darker, lyrically and musically, with the band taking inspiration from various war stories they’d heard. The song quickly became one of their signature tracks and still stands as one of their best.
However, one of their most well-known songs, “A Horse With No Name,” wasn’t actually originally released on this album. After it came out to moderate success, Samwell and Dexter took them to Morgan Studios in London to record a few more songs. One of these new tracks, “Desert Song,” was reworked from a demo they’d been kicking around for a while before being renamed “A Horse With No Name.” Their debut was rereleased in 1972 with this song added, and all subsequent releases have had this addition. The second release quickly went platinum on the success of this song, and the band began to fill larger venues with their folk-tinged rock sounds.
They also scored a major hit with the Beckley-penned “I Need You,” a piano-led song that ratchets up the sentiment and ache to great effect. Here is where America really rose above the glut of soft rock faces that surrounded them. They took what should have been empty sentimentality and turned it into relatable truth. They never screamed and their music never tears out of your speaker, but they found ways to fill their songs with an undeniable emotionality, a pure sense of experience and response. Very few bands could manage this with any sense of authenticity, but it seemed to come naturally to them.
The album ends with “Pigeon Song,” a track that finds the band breaking ties with feelings that seem to be holding them down. They sing of destroying things like a dog, a bird, a farm and a railroad as a way to highlight how they’d evolved as a band and how they’d just begun to understand what America might become. They certainly weren’t the first band to fool around with the guidelines of soft rock, but on this album, they cemented its influence on the coming decade and revealed just how complex the genre could be.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.