Paul Fitzpatrick: London, April 2022
Selected 70s hits from across the pond
If like me you thought ‘Horse With No Name’ must have been written under a star-kissed New Mexico sky by a young troubadour then you’d only be half right.
It was actually written in a London bedsit and recorded at the home of Arthur Brown (yes, him of “Fire, I’ll take you to burn“) by Dewey Bunnell who was one third of a trio who imaginatively called themselves America because they were the sons of American servicemen stationed in Britain.
By 1971, the band still in their teens, had already released their debut album without much success and were packed off to Arthur Browns home-studio in Dorset by Warner Brothers with the brief to come up with a hit single.
Inspired by Salvador Dali paintings of surrealist deserts and fuelled with memories of growing up as airforce brats on military bases in Arizona and New Mexico. Early versions of the track were titled ‘Desert Song’ with Bunnell realising that the desert symbolised the tranquility he was searching for whilst the horse represented the means to reach this tranquility.
Released in December 1971, the song dovetailed perfectly with the singer-songwriter vibe of the time, which no doubt helped it to race up the UK charts, early January 72.
On the back of the songs European success, the bands debut album was re-issued to include the single and by March of that year, both the single and the album had reached the respective number one spots in the US charts, catapulting them to instant fame.
So far so good, but this rookie band and their mellow ‘soft-rock’ anthem would hit a few speed bumps along the way to the top of the charts.
On initial hearing, a large majority of people thought they were actually listening to Neil Young and when they realised it was a bunch of rookies mimicking their idol it resulted in a backlash from Neil’s loyal army of fans.
As fate would have it when the song eventually did get to number one, the record it knocked off the top perch was, you’ve guessed it, Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’.
(get it up ye Neil!)
Neil and his followers were far from happy that he’d been trumped by these young imposters, but to be fair, Bunnell never hid his admiration for Young and admitted that he’d always been a big influence on the band.
Apart from the accusation of plagiarism, the band also had to fend off allegations that the song contained sinister undertones, namely that the ‘Horse’ in the song, was a (not so subtle) reference to heroin.
Accused of promoting narcotics, radio stations in Kansas banned the song due to this misplaced reasoning.
Then, if that wasn’t enough, at a time when Bob Dylan’s verbal dexterity was the benchmark for troubadours, the band came under fire from critics and fellow artists alike… (step forward Randy Newman), for the simplistic nature of the songs lyrics…..
“There were plants and birds and rocks and things“
In his defence Bunnell explained that he was a teenager when he wrote the song in a mates bedsit and it was completed in under two hours as the lyrics and melody just came to him, as if he’d awakened from a dream.
Before starting this piece I wasn’t aware of any cover versions of note until I discovered that Michael Jackson had sampled the main acoustic riff from the song for a track released posthumously, called ‘A Place With No Name’.
It’s actually worth a listen, the trademark MJ grunts and yelps combined with the original two-chord backing track shouldn’t really work, and maybe they don’t, but it’s an interesting coming together.
This of course wasn’t the first time a Jackson family member had sampled a track by the band.
Janet Jackson also sampled America and their song ‘Ventura Highway‘ several years earlier on her platinum hit – ‘Someone To Call My Lover‘
No wonder Dewey Bunnell is worth a few quid!
Like a lot of classic 70s songs the popularity of ‘Horse With No Name’ has endured and finds new audiences with every generation.
As a recent example, who can forget the viral video of the young Amsterdam couple interpreting the song in their own way during the recent lockdown….