Soft-Rock Bottom

America on the Fourth of July. Can't get much more perfect than that, huh? In an age where synergy has become synonymous with success, where capitalism is just another word for something more to sell, anyone with aesthetic sense contrary to the bottom line is just another bitter crank who ain't getting paid. Only an un-American party pooper doesn't enjoy a good laugh on the way to the bank, right?But what kind of patriot falls for such a cynical ruse as a band that undermines the rugged individualist spirit of this great nation by releasing unimaginative swill copped from the bargain bin of early Seventies soft rock under said nation's good name? That this obvious communist plot to weaken solid U.S. rock with derivative ditties more deserving of the name, say, Greenland, persists all these years and refuses to call it quits after 30 years and counting is enough to have usually mild-mannered scribes quoting the likes of Don Henley on the avarice of corporate greed.

Okay, that's overstating things a tad. No matter how bad things get, the hypocritical oaths of Sir Henley (too busy counting royalties to come to the phone) never come into play. Besides, “Sister Goldenhair” is just the sort of sublime nonsense the Constitution guarantees us: the right to bear one-hit wonders.

But sadly America wasn't a one-hit wonder and it doesn't stop there. In fact Rhino Records, which has repackaged the great moments of rock history alongside the temporary and silly, now is releasing a three-disc collection Highway: 30 Years of America with the same slavish attention to detail that would befit an institution capable of burbling more than a Neil Young Harvest knockoff called “A Horse with No Name.” Is it possible that after the goofy nostalgia that fueled Rhino's Have a Nice Day: Sounds of the 70s collection, someone at headquarters thought it was time to scrape through the vaults again and offer the “definitive” look at the molehills of rock? If we don't stop this now, we're looking at deluxe boxes for the likes of Lobo, Orleans, and Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds. Scared yet?

Even a cursory listen to these three CDs yields the knowledge that this is too much of a bad thing. Beatles' producer George Martin came along in time for the band's second album, Homecoming, and the extra polish he applied only served to make an inconsequential folkie act a light-FM pop product, as “Ventura Highway” and others imply.

The sons of air force officers, Dewey Bunnell, Dan Peek, and Gerry Beckley, who met in high school, performed as Daze in Britain as a quartet, eventually paring down to the trio that signed to Warner Bros. as America. In a lesson later perfected by uninspired opportunists like Stone Temple Pilots in the wake of grunge, “A Horse with No Name” captured the number-one spot on the U.S. Billboard chart, taking over where Neil Young's “Heart of Gold” left off. While Young felt the artistic impulse to rejuvenate by scrapping the middle of the road and heading for the ditch with a series of artistically challenging, rock and roll masterpieces such as Tonight's the Night, On the Beach, and Zuma, America went forth with bland ballads and anemic rockers that were offensive in their inoffensiveness. And, of course, for their efforts they won a Grammy Award for Best New Artist.

Hard-working, studious boys, they kept their nose to the grindstone and pumped out several more hits, including “Sandman,” “Tin Man,” and “Lonely People,” before hitting the top of the charts again with 1975's “Sister Goldenhair.” Good business sense told them to capitalize on their mercurial success while the iron was still hot, and History: America's Greatest Hits was released in 1976; it has since gone on to sell more four million copies. It's the most anyone should ask and can usually be spotted in dollar bins and garage sales the world over alongside Frampton Comes Alive, Carole King's Tapestry, and Billy Joel's 52nd Street. Hope you kept your turntable.

While all good things must come to an end, mediocrity apparently has a life of its own, and the band soldiered on. Dan Peek became a Christian-music folk artist, while Bunnell and Beckley kept America together as a duo. Changing sounds in the pop world -- the hypnotic pummel of disco, the spiky defiance of punk rock -- left America out of sync in the fickle marketplace. In 1982 they returned to the charts with the synthesizer-laden “You Can Do Magic.” Only the duo's close-knit harmonies remained to identify the group. It could just as easily could have been Toto, and it's no surprise that Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro is listed among the guest musicians who have played with the group. “The Border,” from 1983, was the band's last hit.

One final note: The Rhino Records' publicity sheet tells us, “The band will embark on a nationwide U.S. tour in summer/fall” in heavy support of Highway, complete with radio promotions, press participation, onstage mentions, et cetera.” That should keep you laughing all the way to the bathroom.

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Rob O'Connor