by Steve Orchard
As the band America crisscrosses the United States in celebration of its 40th anniversary, one-third of that original trio — Dan Peek — remains a semi-retired musician. The founding member still crafts the occasional song while maintaining a weekly blog at his Web site, which is accessible at www.danpeek.com
Peek and his former partners, Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell, were one of the top acts of the early to mid-’70s. The group’s self-titled debut album spent five weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and featured the smash hit “A Horse With No Name.” The group earned the 1972 Best New Artist Grammy.
Other hits followed, including “Ventura Highway,” “Tin Man,” “Sister Golden Hair,” “Daisy Jane,” “Lonely People,” “Today’s The Day” and “Don’t Cross The River” — the last three of which were penned by Peek. In all, the trio recorded seven studio albums, and released one hits collection, called “History,” which has been certified for sales of 4 million copies to date. But by 1977, drug and alcohol abuse forced Peek to leave the band. He renewed his Christian faith and went on to record solo records, including the award-winning gospel effort “All Things Are Possible” in 1979.
Peek has heard little from his former band mates over the past dozen years and admits that friction among the three of them will probably prevent a reunion from ever happening. Goldmine caught up with Dan from his island home where he said he doesn’t consider himself fully retired.
Dan Peek: No, I have to put myself in at least semi-retired, if not fully retired, mode in terms of the music business. I still poke around here and there for opportunities to really, more or less, place my songs that I have written. Garth Brooks recorded “Don’t Cross The River” for his “Scarecrow” album, and that’s something that if you’re a fan of Garth’s or America’s, I would highly recommend listening to it.
Otherwise, I’m occasionally looking around to try to get some tunes out there for other artists to record — not only the old stuff, but newer things that I have written, as well. But other than writing some letters, making a couple of phone calls, shooting out a few e-mails, it’s mainly just the writing of… I don’t know if you’d call it the “prose” or stories or books or whatnot, but that’s more or less what keeps me occupied. And, we do have two humongous dogs that keep my wife and I jumping! (Laughs)
There’s a rumor going around that you intend to do some performing with Poco member Rusty Young. How valid is that?
Peek: A friend of a friend hooked Rusty and me back up, and it was really neat catching up on old times. About 10 miles from where he lives in Missouri, there’s a venue called “Wildwood.” It’s a place where a lot of bands have played. America has played there, and Poco plays there all the time. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere. Actually, it’s a really old hotel from probably the 1930s or so. I’ve never played there, but the last time Rusty and I were in town at the same time, he took me there and showed me the place. And he mentioned that he was trying to put together a songwriter’s workshop, which is probably a little different — it sounds like people sitting down with a hammer and nails and building songs. But his idea was to have several songwriters play there at Wildwood, and each guy gets, like, 15 to 20 minutes just to showcase some of their tunes. And he had asked me this a couple of months ago, and I said, “Yeah, I’d be interested in doing it.” There’s nothing nailed down yet. I’m hoping that within the coming year that might transpire at Wildwood near Steelville, Mo. That would probably be the first public performance I’ve done in… I can’t even tell you when — many, many moons. But I will definitely post an announcement at either www.danpeek.com or at my blog site, which you can get to from the Website.
So how do you occupy your time if you’re not an “active” musician?
Dan Peek: I kind of segued into writing “prose” — you know, stories or books and whatnot, and I began to write this book “An American Band: The America Story,” because while it was still relatively fresh in my mind, I wanted to chronicle the “genesis” of the band and the things that happened while we were together as a band and the reasons for me leaving the band. That took me almost two years to write, which is now available via my Website or even Amazon.com. It’s an autobiography, but it encompasses the life of the band, at least while I was in it. So having done that, and while living in the Cayman Islands, I was writing other stuff, probably five or six books altogether. But that’s the only one I’ve had published. There are times I’d wished I’d never even written it, because as I was writing it I went back in time, and frankly, there were so many ugly parts to being in this just totally balls-to-the-wall rock and roll… I mean, I was a spectrum drug abuser, alcoholic, you name it. And it really just dredged up a lot of that anxiety and freakiness of having been that person at that time. And there was a lot of friction that got worse and worse between the three of us because of this being together 24/7. But on the other hand, I don’t really regret having written it for a whole host of other reasons, and believe me, I didn’t write everything. There were volumes more I could’ve written — good, bad and ugly — but I felt like I said what needed to be said. But again, no hard feelings. I just wanted to set the record straight from my own perspective and my own lips and to let people know my take on it, and I did that.
The book “An American Band: The America Story” was published in 2004. That came several years after an aborted reunion, which is also detailed in the book. What’s your relationship with the guys today?
Dan Peek: Literally, the guys won’t even sit down to have lunch with me for whatever their reasons… I mean, they gave a reason, but it was just so bogus it just didn’t fly with me as an excuse. But I went to great pains, and a lot of people were very upset with some of the things I wrote about the nasty nature of the breakup. But my point in sort of bare-knuckling it with these issues was, look, a reunion is not gonna happen. I know, all things are possible and “never say never,” but really, it’s almost hard to imagine a scenario where there would be a reunion. We came very close to doing one… in fact, that was in some ways what precipitated me writing the book and certainly precipitated some of the things that I then wrote on the blog site about the America “thing,” explaining why it just doesn’t seem like its in the cards for it to happen…
But the guys still do acknowledge your works, as recently evidenced by the addition of one of your songs, “Rainy Day” (from the debut album) to the current set list. And other songs like “Lonely People” have also been a staple of the live set for years. But that being said, “Today’s The Day” still remains a puzzling omission…
Dan Peek: And why is that? That was our last hit as a trio. In fact, Gerry plays the piano on that song. I wrote it originally as a guitar song, and he plays the most beautiful piano part on there, and I just think if nothing else, to showcase his chops and what he added to the recording of the song. I don’t know why it’s not in there; it’s a real puzzler.
How do you view yourself as a songwriter compared to Gerry and Dewey, and what, if anything, did you learn about writing from them?
Dan Peek: I would say that we each had our strengths and weaknesses. And I think we probably learned from each other to a great extent, and every dog has his day. There were times when Dewey was just a hit-writing machine and then Gerry kinda picked up the slack, and then I had my moments with “Lonely People,” “Don’t Cross The River,” “Today’s The Day” and “Woman Tonight,” which I found out the other day was a No. 1 record in France. I think in some ways we had very distinct styles; we found some common ground in the bands that we liked — CSNY, James Taylor… but there were acts that Gerry liked that I didn’t care for and acts that I liked that he didn’t care for, but we tried to find a common ground. And, to be quite honest, I think Dewey probably learned the most from the both of us in terms of writing, because originally, Dewey had never written a song. He wrote what we call snippets or pieces, and Gerry and I would take them and arrange them into songs. Before the end of the first album, he was writing fully formed songs. “Sandman” is a good example. We helped him out with some of the lyrics, but that was a song. By the second album, “Ventura Highway”…I still hear it on the radio and it’s my favorite song — I was just as proud as I could be of Dewey as a songwriter. And Gerry… I recognized early on when he was still like, 15, 16 years old, and we’re sitting around the piano at the teen club in London, and he’s playing me songs that he’s written. At that point, I hadn’t even written a song. He was already writing. But we were then in a group together called “Daze,” and one of the things that we did was Top 40 stuff, but we would rearrange it, and that began the genesis for me of songwriting. I wrote my first song after we had split up and I had gone back to the states. Dewey and Gerry had gone their separate ways. I wrote, believe it or not, “Rainy Day” — that was the first song I wrote — and we got back together after my year in college. I hung out with Dewey for a while, and he said that he and Gerry had this bad breakup in this band. And then I talked to Gerry, who asked me to come down and play some guitar on some sessions he was working on at a place called Morgan Studios. He had some free time, as he worked there as a tape-op, and he wanted to demo some songs. And we actually co-wrote at least one song together, which never saw the light of day. But we had re-connected, and I said, “Man, you have to go hear some stuff that Dewey’s writing. It’s not like songs, but they’re just compelling, the bits that he has played me.” So the three of us got together, we organized some of these bits of Dewey’s songs — arranged them into songs — and then I played them “Rainy Day” and something else I had written, and they’re going “Yeah, sounds great!” And then Gerry played a couple of songs he had written — “I Need You” or whatever, and we’re going,” “Yeah, this is great!” And so by then, we were already more or less fully formed as songwriters by the end of the first album. But I think by osmosis we might have rubbed off on each other. I don’t consider myself a great songwriter; I work really, really hard at it, but I think with age and with time it’s come easier. When we were in America, we had to write four great songs every year. Now that doesn’t sound like a lot. I know people that can write four songs in an hour. But it was just the pressure of knowing they had to not just be songs, they had to be GREAT songs to either make the cut for the album or be so good that they could be the single. So there was just a tremendous amount of performance pressure on all of us. I can remember Gerry coming to me going “I’m going through a dry spell…” And Dewey going “I can’t write anything…” There was an awful lot of pressure on us to produce material because there were three of us. It was kinda good, because then the other person could take up the slack. I don’t even know if I’ve answered your question, but if I haven’t, I’ve answered everything around it.
Ten years ago, Rhino released the three-disc “Highway” box set. Was there more unreleased material out there that could have been added to an additional disc?
Dan Peek: There probably is, and where they would find it, I don’t know. Frankly, there’s at least one song on the box that’s mine that I wish wasn’t even there, and I hate it. Nobody asked me, and that’s part of the price you pay for not being in the band, because they do what they wanna do, they release what they wanna release, and they don’t release what they should. It’s just an embarrassing song. It was one of my very earliest attempts at songwriting… I don’t think it pre-dates “Rainy Day”…It didn’t have any “soul” to it. In fact, it may have been a co-write. It probably didn’t get credited as co-write with Gerry and myself but… that was another strange thing. The only co-write that I know of doing the entire time we were together was “Green Monkey,” which Gerry and Dewey wrote together. Now we did ostensibly on the song “Hat Trick” but it was really a collection of songs, short songs, which were woven together. So that, in some ways, speaks to the difference in the way that we wrote. It was very much of a personal and individual enterprise as songwriting. There was a song Dewey wrote called “How Long,” and it was kind of interesting, because I don’t even know if there is a recording of it that exists. But its interesting, because about three years, later the group Ace — and I’m not accusing anyone of plagiarism — but it was just very interesting as they were based in London and might have been with Warner Brothers. But it was very, very similar to Dewey’s song “How Long,” and he even noted it. But it wouldn’t be the first time things either by accident or whatever sounded like something else. But that was a pretty cool song that he wrote that didn’t make it on to the box set. I wrote a song called “As Sweet As Mirelda” which was… I dunno, it wasn’t that great, but I would have preferred it on there instead of the one that I hate (laughs).
Regarding the blog on your Web site: Do you plan to discuss the CCM years (Contemporary Christian Music) at all?
Dan Peek: You know, it had occurred to me to write about some of the stuff, but there were some real negatives… I have a tendency to dwell on them sometimes. Although it was a wonderful blessing to be able to express my faith freely through song in contemporary Christian music, the whole process… when you take “Christian” and you put in business… it’s oil and water. So there were some dodgy issues involved with the whole process of doing those records. It was really bizarre, because when I left America, somehow Gerry and I ended up becoming like oil and water. And I don’t know why it devolved into that, but I mean toward the end, it got pretty nasty, with name-calling and stuff like that.
And yet he still sang on two of your solo albums…
Dan Peek: But that’s how much Gerry loves music. Gerry is really a musician’s musician. He really is. I try to give him credit whenever I can. He’s a brilliant musician, great songwriter, and he sings like a bird. And Dewey is a good songwriter. He has his moments, and over the years turned into a very good guitar player. When we first started, he couldn’t even play. He knew three chords, and fortunately, they were the chords that all wrapped themselves around the first album’s major sevens. But he was a quick learner, and he asked me several times to show him how to play lead, and I did and he caught on quick. But he played some really great guitar stuff. But Gerry and Dewey both sang on a track on “All Things Are Possible,” a song called “Love Was Just Another Word.” And then Gerry came and sang on “Doer Of The Word” and played the acoustic lead. And it was just a real snappy, great, Christian pop song, basically.
But I almost ended up having the identical relationship with the producer, who I shall not name, but we were just like oil and water, constantly banging heads. In fact, I made one album, and then I didn’t make another album for, like, two or three years. And part of that was because I was building a house and doing some other stuff, but mainly, the reason was I couldn’t stand working with the guy who was the producer. He ran me up the wall. But he was one of these people that you either love him or hate him, and a lot of people loved him and they always thought he was “Mr. Nice Guy.” But for whatever reasons, we just did not get along. Part of it was because he kept trying to cram all of his songs onto the records. It was just a little overly ambitious of him. And I’d come out of this band where it was like, suddenly, I’m free, I’m a solo artist, and I will finally have the freedom to express myself. And even with George Martin… he was a great producer who had a very light touch. Good producers usually filter out the crap, and they’re not heavy handed. And George wasn’t constantly shoving songs at us going, “Here, I just wrote this in the toilet, and I think it would be great for you!”(Laughs).
Suddenly I’m saddled with a producer… you know, we worked with George Martin, probably the world’s greatest producer. But this other guy was not the world’s greatest producer. He was a great songwriter, great vocalist, a tremendous musician…he’s got it all. But he just did not have the personal touch when it came to me, and we just didn’t get along. It’s like the same thing with Gerry. They’re brilliant musicians, singers and songwriters across the board. But when it comes to sitting in the same cramped space for 16 hours a day for months at a time, it gets old real fast. And you know, Gerry, Dewey and I were constantly trying to cram our own songs down each other’s throats — that was to be expected — but suddenly I’ve got this guy who is supposed to be a producer and he’s like, “Hey, you gotta hear this; I just wrote it while I was driving here….”
I think fans were surprised that it took you several years to follow up an award-winning album like “All Things Are Possible”…
Dan Peek: That was why, because of the producer. It took me almost three years to get the courage up to go back in the studio, because it had been such an unpleasant experience working with him.
So you did the second album, “Doer Of The Word” with him. Was the experience any better the second time around?
Dan Peek: No, probably worse. I felt he pulled some numbers that I think I wrote about on my blog. Believe me, there is no love lost there, which is a shame, because, ostensibly as Christians, we’re supposed to love each other, but it was… you’re always gonna run into people you can’t get along with for whatever reason. But I will say this: The end product was good. What we came out of the studio with was great. And so, in some ways, it was worth the head butting.
You worked with producers like George Martin over several America albums. What was it like to finally take the reins on subsequent Christian records like “Electro-Voice” (1986) and “Crossover” (1987)?
Dan Peek: After 1984′s “Doer Of The Word,” I ended up going to Nashville, knocking on doors there and got my own album deal with me producing. I finally got to roll up my sleeves and not be in the same room with somebody for almost 24 hours a day, bashing heads, and I’m real proud of those records. I mean, I go back and I listen to them, and its just thousands and thousands of hours, because basically, I played virtually all of the instruments and sang all of the vocals, but I got it the way I wanted it. And that’s the other thing I’ll say about working with a producer. And not necessarily George Martin — I’ll exempt him because he’s one of a kind. But with other producers I’ve worked with, I felt like a third of the songs came out a little bit better than they would’ve had I done them on my own; a third of them came out worse and I didn’t even like, and another third came out about the same as the way I envisioned them. But I really finally got all of that out of my system, where I got to wear all the hats and call all the shots.