America Ventures Down the Remastered Highway

Harmony (/ˈhärmənē/, noun): 1. The combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce chords and chord progressions having a pleasing effect. 2. A relationship where various components exist together without destroying one another; agreement or concord. See also: America.

If there’s one band from the ’70s that epitomizes the literal definition of the word harmony, it’s America. Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, and the late Dan Peek came together in London in 1970, three sons of U.S. Air Force personnel stationed abroad, and they quickly found their collective singing voices worked together quite well. “One of the key elements of America is that our vocal blend is very good,” agrees Bunnell. “I grew up into it myself, and I can now, in retrospect, hear the difference between blends when I hear other harmony singing. You’re lucky when you find those three or four voices that have this element that you can’t just make happen. It’s like a fingerprint — they’re all different.”

Coupled with a knack for writing melodies and catchy acoustic guitar lines, America penned a score of instant sing-along Top 20 classics like “Ventura Highway,” “A Horse With No Name,” “Sister Golden Hair,” “Tin Man,” “Lonely People,” “I Need You,” and “Daisy Jane.” (Admit it — right about now, you’re humming the melody lines and/or singing the choruses to most of the aforementioned songs, if not all of them.)

The band’s classic-era output has been duly remastered and collected in the eight-CD box set The Warner Bros. Years: 1971-1977 (Rhino), and its chock-full of enough audiophile-approved vocals and clear acoustic lines to keep your ears — and your speakers — in fine spirits for days on end. Recently, I got on the line with Beckley and Bunnell, both 63, to discuss the best examples of that magical harmonic blend, what it was like working with Sir George Martin as a producer, and their favorite collaborators. You’re gonna go, I know. In the air…

Mike Mettler: For The Warner Bros. Years remastering phase, did you have to address things like level-matching any of the differences in the dynamic range of 8-years’ worth of your recorded material?

Gerry Beckley: I think the remastering has addressed any of those issues, yes. Back in the old days, you’d just say, “Turn it up,” if the rooms would allow, but that doesn’t translate now. The albums stand on their own, regardless of the technological things.

There’s a certain leveler that I’m not in favor of, though. It’s what my older son, who’s also a producer, and I call “the brick.” That’s when a file is maxed out, so when you look at the readout, it’s just a brick. It’s really a judgment call, but we don’t like to see that one.

Dewey Bunnell: In revisiting this material, I’ve realized that I’ve taken a lot of this for granted. Any time that I do hear our stuff — I’ll put it on shuffle on my own iTunes — something will pop up and I’ll go, “Hey! Yeah!” And I’ll remember that it was fun working out those harmony parts, and arranging those vocals. Sometimes I can remember specific lines where I had to tape a certain one over and over, or we had to drop in a word — we spliced them in, in those days.

Mettler: Ah, the good ol’ razor-blade days. America music, which is so acoustically oriented and layered with harmonies, needs to be heard in the highest resolution possible, wouldn’t you say?

Beckley: We have had such success over the years with audiophiles — take, for example, our first album [America, 1971], which was engineered by Ken Scott. I know it’s often used to test high-end equipment, so I’m very aware of how this stuff translates across the spectrum.

Having said that, we used to sit out in our cars in the parking lots of the studios to listen to the track mixes, because we wanted to make sure they also sounded good in that environment. It’s very hard to get it exact for every listening experience, but clearly, the tide has turned as to how most kids listen to music now.

Mettler: I happen to be partial to the surround-sound mix Elliot Scheiner did for [1972’s] Homecoming [initially released on DVD-Audio in 2001, and later reissued on SACD by Audio Fidelity in 2015].

Beckley: That’s unbelievable! I’m not sure if you know that we did that through a satellite link, where I was at Capitol [Studios] here in L.A., and Elliot was at his place on the East Coast. I’m not saying that happens too often, but if you consider the end result is as good as it is… First of all, kudos to Elliot. I’m very, very happy with how that turned out.

These are very specialized listening experiences, and I’m very happy to be a part of that world. I have a friend who has a thriving business in vintage audio equipment, and it’s fantastic how it’s all being rediscovered.

Mettler: Tell me how “Ventura Highway” came together.

Bunnell: At that stage of our writing and arranging, it was just a trio [i.e., Bunnell, Beckley, and Peek], and we sat around — one guy with a 12- or 6-string, and either Gerry or Dan would play the bass. We would arrange in a circle in a living room, working on those arrangements so we could do them in our sleep.

Mettler: What are the blueprint tracks that you feel best represent the America sound?

Beckley: There are a couple of tunes on Homecoming that I’d like to think were as about as succinct as I could get — “Till the Sun Comes Up Again” and “To Each His Own.” Not every song is a complete home run from concept to listening experience, but both of those I was very happy with.

Bunnell: Well, some of the second album locks in pretty good, like “To Each His Own.” “Ventura Highway,” of course. The hits are now embossed in their own mythology. I liked singing them. “Three Roses,” on the first album. Then, when we get into the George Martin stuff — [Holiday‘s] “Another Try” and ”Lonely People.”

When it was a song we hadn’t written, like John Martyn’s “Head and Heart,” we had to divvy up the verses — “You sing a line, then I’ll sing a line, and then we’ll come together on the choruses.” There was a lot of vocal detail work in the studio, like we would double things all the time. That was always a magical thing, to hear yourself doubled. It just opened it up.

Mettler: And how great was it, with you guys being big Beatles fans, to work with George Martin as your producer on so many of your albums?

Beckley: Well, obviously, it’s about as brightly a highlight as you’re going to have. We’re still friends to this day. But you’re right — it’s one of those things. In the case of “Sister Golden Hair,” for example — Hearts was the second album we had done with George Martin, and that triggers so many memories in us. Each one of those experiences for me is not only related to how well the song did, but I flash on where the song was recorded in what studio and with which producer.

Bunnell: I’ll tell you, in those days, things were just clicking so well for us, that when George’s name came up when we had just finished the third album [1973’s Hat Trick] and produced it ourselves, we thought, “Gee, this is a lot of work. There’s more involved than just going in there and saying, ‘This sounds good.’” So we just shot for the stars. George Martin was coming into town, so we thought, “Let’s start there.” We hit paydirt, because he was very receptive to it.

We got along really well. The fact that we had started in England with a British-based sensibility of humor, weather, music, and food, all helped. We hit it off really well as friends, and we still are friends today.

We did a series of albums together [including 1974’s Holiday, 1975’s Hearts, 1976 Hideaway, 1977’s Harbor, and 1977’s Live], and George always made them interesting. We’d record at different locations, because he liked to bounce around and try different things. He was coming out of his own shell to some degree, because working as a producer at EMI in London, in those days, was practically the white gloves approach.

Mettler: Yeah — artists and engineers weren’t even allowed to touch the equipment to a certain degree, if at all.

Bunnell: That’s right, that’s right. He was the producer and lo and behold, yes, those were The Beatles, but he was just a technician, technically, at the time. In retrospect, we know he was much more than that.

Beckley: But also, to work so closely with the Wilsons, and to have toured with Brian, was also a highlight. I did an album with Carl too [Like a Brother, by Beckley-Lamm-Wilson, in 2000] — all of these things are truly the stuff that dreams are made of. I hope you can believe it means as much to me as it does to somebody looking at it from the outside.

Bunnell: Pet Sounds (1966), to me, was so beautiful, because I felt Brian’s angst and some of that pain in the love songs, like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Even when I heard Surf’s Up (1971), the title song, and “’Til I Die”… (sings) “I’m a cork on the ocean… I’m a leaf on a windy day…” That album, if you have 45 minutes to sit down and listen to it, is killer.

Mettler: Speaking of The Fabs — are you a Beatles mono or a Beatles stereo guy?

Bunnell: I like stereo; I always did. I mean, inherently, we were raised on mono. I guess that’s in the DNA, but it was another world for me when I put on headphones and listened to stereo mixes with panning of stuff all over the place — I love that.

Beckley: I’m actually both. I love the development of stereo, so I’ve listened to, archivally, how we all address this particular technology, how multitrack basically started with 4-track, and how the early home studios started with the [Korg] Sound on Sound multitrack recorders. I’m a retro freak, so that is an incredible bonus to go back and review these things. I love the minutiae of the detail. They wouldn’t even be there when they did the [stereo] mixes.

Mettler: Being able to capture great songwriting at its core isn’t easy, and it’s nice to hear how that’s been faithfully reproduced across this collection.

Beckley: I think the common denominator is not a shock — it’s us. Ken engineered the first album and then we did the second one on our own; just us 19- and 20-year-olds as record producers. And then, within another album, there’s George. Clearly, there are noticeable differences in approach, but what we were doing was enough to anchor everything from the center.

Bunnell: When we would go out to dinner or hang out or whatever, we’d ask George who he thought was the best, and he’d almost always say Brian Wilson was the best producer, the best writer, the whole nine yards.

Mettler: Do you still like vinyl as a medium?

Beckley: I love vinyl, the whole experience. That’s the 20-minute experience, you know — where you have the choice of whether you want to flip it or not, or just listen to a disc side from start to finish. It’s obviously limited because of the technology, but an incredible way to develop pop music.

Mettler: In this ADD age, maybe the younger generation is discovering the idea that maybe you can sit down for 20 minutes and actually pay attention and not do other things.

Beckley: That was always my argument when people would ask, “What do you think about people buying a single, and not listening to the other material?” I don’t just write that off. I think it’s on the artist’s shoulders to make an album a full listening experience.

Mettler: I always looked at a single as the “gateway” to the album. Ok, I like this song, now I’m going to go investigate the rest of it.

Beckley: Yeah. I also think the whole vinyl experience — blowing the dust off the needle, looking at the artwork, and everything — at the risk of sounding too arty, it’s a little bit like the Japanese tea ceremony. It’s a wonderful ritual, and I think the kids are starting to discover it.

Bunnell: I feel very grateful that we lived in an era and made our records in an era when that really was what we were doing. We did it ourselves. We were making this album, this LP that we envisioned people sitting in their living room and putting on, listening to it and talking about it and commenting on it. It wasn’t the background — it was something to be part of someone’s life, the way the LPs we were listening to were integrated into our lives.

Mettler: I think Homecoming is an example of a record where we as listeners earn our way to that point when we get to “Head and Heart.” It really couldn’t appear elsewhere in that albums’s sequencing.

Bunnell: Wow, that’s a nice thing to say. We didn’t disagree a lot. We were usually on the same page, but there were times where had really heavy debates about that sequencing. “No no no, that song should come after that.” “No no no, it’s in the wrong key. That doesn’t segue nicely.” And we’d finally settle on it. Then when we would finally play them in order, we’d go, “Ahh! That did feel right! Ok, we’ve agreed.”

The other thing was, if we’d recorded 15 songs for a 10- or 12-song album and there were a couple of songs that were similar, it was always a gut-wrenching thing: “We can’t put both of them on there.” Especially if they were written by one or the other of us, we’d have to go through the decision-making process.

Mettler: Was it rock paper scissors?

Bunnell: Yeah, exactly! (chuckles) You’d get down to saying, “Well, the first word of this one sounds like the second line of the other one.” You’d come up with some excuse why it couldn’t make it on there.

Mettler: Last thing: Since you’re the guys known for naming most of your albums with words or phrases that start with the letter H, is there a subtitle for the Warner Bros. Years box set that would begin with that letter?

Beckley: (laughs) There isn’t, so maybe we’ll just call it Here, Guys.

A longer version of this interview appears on Mike Mettler’s own site,