Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Third of America, Down the Drain

Dan Peek, one of the trio who made up George Martin's second-most successful production effort, dead at the tender age of 60. Peek formed America with Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley in Britain in the late 1960s; all three had fathers who were in the Air Force and stationed in London. They were signed to the British label Kinney in 1971 - Peek, who shares a birthday with me, was 20, and the other two were just 19 - at the behest of Ian Samwell, who was best known over there as Cliff Richard's guitarist. Samwell produced their debut album, 1971's America, which didn't do a whole lot in Britain.

Before it could be released in the U.S., though, Bunnell had come up with a tune he called "Desert Song" (the three members composed independently of one another). The band eventually retitled it "A Horse With No Name," and stuck it on the later pressings of the debut album. "Horse" shot up the charts and landed at Number One on March 25, 1972, displacing its soundalike Neil Young with his "Heart of Gold."

After the first album finally became a hit, America relocated to Los Angeles and hired Hal Blaine to play drums - good idea - on their second LP, Homecoming, which came out in November 1972. It spawned the big hit "Ventura Highway" as well as the first Top Forty single written by Dan Peek, "Don't Cross the River." But the closest thing to hit on the third record was the unfortunate "Muskrat Love," so the band decamped again, this time back to England. There they worked with George Martin, who hadn't done anything of note since the Beatles' 1970 album Abbey Road, with the exception of Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die." "He's such a hot arranger," Peek said at the time, "thinking about all the stuff that he's done." Right.

The resulting album, Holiday, was a huge hit, with the first single, "Tin Man," going to Number Four, and the follow-up, Peek's "Lonely People," went to Number Five, as well as Number One on the Adult Contemporary charts. It would be the biggest hit ever written by Dan Peek. (Some sources say his wife, Catherine, collaborated on it.) The Martin-produced follow-up, Hearts, contained America's second and last Number One hit, Beckley's "Sister Golden Hair," which provided the title for a blog I used to write. Plus "Daisy Jane," which I like a lot as well.

America was ready to issue a greatest-hits album at that point, 1976's History, with a cover designed by Phil Hartman - yes, that Phil Hartman. It was a good time to release a hits package, because the next two records, Hideaway and Harbor, didn't have a whole lot of chart action in them.

At that point, Dan Peek decided to leave the band and pursue a career in Christian music. He was pretty successful at this, putting four singles into the Christian Contemporary Music Top Ten. I wonder about the efficacy of this, though, since by putting out Christian-branded music, he was limiting his audience to people already predisposed to such things. If Peek had continued with America and put Christian messages into their music, he would have reached a much broader and more heathen crowd. Oh, well: It was his life, and I don't have the right to tell him what to do.

I've seen reports that Peek lived in the Cayman Islands in the 1990s, which would suggest that Christian music pays better than I would assume. At some point, he came back to the U.S. and settled in Farmington, Missouri, which is where his family had lived before his dad was transferred to England in the late 1960s. It was there that Dan Peek died, last Sunday, at the age of 60.

Bunnell and Beckley carried on as America, never forgetting their bandmate and friend. "We still do 'Lonely People' and 'Don't Cross the River' every night on stage," Bunnell said. "We'll always acknowledge Dan's contribution, and those years that we were together as America were really special times."

This is for all the lonely people, thinking that life has passed them by - you never know until you try:


  1. Pale nerds such as I will appreciate the fact that, back in the day, the name was Phil Hartmann.

  2. Thanks for the capsule review of Dan Peek’s career. Of course, he didn’t leave the band America for the purpose of selecting his audience –- he was trying to save his own self from that destructive “Rock Star” lifestyle.

  3. So if I avoid my own "rock star" life, I can make it past 60? I don't believe you.

  4. I had assumed you had already made it past 60! My mistake . . .