Gerry Beckley, one of the founding fathers of America spoke to us from Australia about his new retrospective collection, success versus critical acclaim, and how having his music in The Sopranos and Breaking Bad has brought the band a new generation of fans.
FT: You’re in Australia at the moment Gerry?
GB: I’m in Sydney yeah. We have a home here. I’ve been here since last April. I had to quarantine. The country’s locked down, borders been closed. It’s very safe. My family – my wife’s Australian – we have a home here. We also have a home in Venice, California and I did five weeks there, from mid March to mid April last year when everything hit the fan. It became obvious it was going to be a long road so I came down here.
FT: I read your blog about your spell in isolation in a luxury hotel, which was very funny.
GB: The Quarantine Diaries! My joke is that I live in hotels on tour anyway. It was kind of like a regular April without that “annoying concert” every night!
FT: You have gigs penciled in for the end of July? How realistic do you think that is?
GB: They’re still on the books. There are European gigs but they’re disappearing by the hour. It’s been a challenge for Jim and everyone at the agency but we’ll be out as soon as we can.
FT: With ‘Keeping The Lights On’, like any artist’s collection, there’ll always be quibbles about what’s left off, as much as the great material on it. I hate to start with a down note but two of my favourite songs didn’t make the cut – ‘Love and Leaving’ and ‘Five Miles Road’. How do you make those choices?
GB: Well, first of all, thank you for being that familiar with the material. The normal reaction with 20, is “oh my God, I had no idea he had this much stuff out”. Quite a few things go into it but the final decision is mine. There was some talk about how many new things to put on. I think we ended up with 5 on the album.
I have to say, those two you picked are two of my favourite songs. So my first reaction was “oh, are they not on there? They ought to be on there”. When I look at it, it’s a lovely list but yeah I’m very proud of those two songs. ‘Love and Leaving’ was obviously something we did twice. We did it with Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne), and James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins) for the ‘Here and Now’ America album. It should be on the album. Next time… (laughs).
FT: ‘Five Mile Road’ is maybe more representative of your solo work; More about life matters and some of the bigger issues…
GB: I’m not sure how it shakes out because we haven’t had that much chance to do new America material. I think if there was an America album, it would reflect the same thing. I mean there’s a palette of things that I usually choose from, and I kind of have a bit of a high/low thing. Usually some are upbeat, with a pop sensibility of it. But even going back to ‘Sister Golden Hair’…
I tried to make it Sunday but I got so damn depressed.
There’s a little bit of introspection even back then, to put it mildly.
I thought about this as you age and, believe me, unfortunately we are adding decades here now and not just a year or two. That’s the challenge of the writing. I think to continually go over and over a broken heart is somewhat self-defeating. I’m all for issues of the heart. Music is such a lovely thing because we have that lyrical element that doesn’t exist in paintings and other aspects. The paintings are far more vague. With music we have these two very tangible elements, melody and lyrics.
FT: Well I’m getting to an age myself where those ‘bigger’ issues concern me more.
GB: That’s what ‘Five Mile Road’ is all about. It’s a life journey. I think in the grand scope of history, we’re all just flashes and specks of time, so I used the analogy of a five mile road. That’s a pretty good distance. It’s not off the maps, but in comparison to one person’s life, it’s a nice journey.
FT: ‘Hang Your Head High’ stands out and is the rockiest I’ve heard you or the band. I can hear your vocal, at times sound almost like Joe Walsh…
GB: When I cut that, I played all the instruments and I was intentionally trying to make it as loose as possible, like a band, five guys that go in. I used to be quite close to Ronnie Wood, and The Faces always had this really lovely loose feel to their records. Ian McLagen was a friend too, and he used to play a lot of Wurlitzer and stuff. I was just trying to summon all of that and I really like it.
I remember years ago I played it to Andrew Gold, rest in peace, lovely singer, songwriter. Andrew said “if this was by anybody else, I feel this would be a career-defining track. It sounds like a really great rock song”. For me, there’s a bit of the “oh I didn’t expect that but, you know, you take your shot and do the best you can”.
FT: You released solo material after 27 years with America. What took so long?
GB: When we started in the 70s, the model was basically an album a year. For Dewey and I to do one album a year was quite a lot. Add on around 100 shows a year, and it fills the year up. I’m always writing so any songs I was writing would always go right into the America hopper.
It wasn’t until those deals ran out that I thought what am I going to do with them. Now having said that, if there was a real America deal in place, that would have taken priority, but there wasn’t. So I had done ‘Van Go Gan’ and ‘Horizontal Fall’ in periods when there just wasn’t an America deal. It really wasn’t appropriate to go knocking on Dewey’s door and go “I got 5 or 10 songs here. Where’s yours?”
The strength of those America albums has been when we have both been well represented. One of the things from the start of America with Dan Peek was the variety of writers, variety of singers, and that to me was a real strength. It didn’t rest on just one pair of shoulders.
I’ve written another 10 or 20 songs since I’ve been here in Australia. I have a feeling we may have to put up with a solo record every so often.
FT: Can I ask about the early America albums beginning with H? ‘Homecoming’, ‘Hat-trick’, ‘Holiday’, ‘Hearts’, ‘Hideaway’, and ‘Harbour’.
GB: It started by accident. The first album was simply titled ‘America’ but once ‘Horse’ became a hit, they immediately started printing “includes the single ‘Horse With No Name’. The next one was ‘Homecoming’ because we were returning to the States from London. The third one was ‘Hat-trick’ as it was a sporting term – three in a row. When we hooked up with George Martin and came back to London, what became ‘Holiday’ was the first time we made a conscious effort with the titles. We just thought in the same way that Chicago had their logo and numbered albums, it would be nice to have some continuity.
FT: Were there any other titles suggested?
GB: Reams and reams. I still send some to Dewy as a joke. I sent one last week. I said how about ‘Ho Ho Silver’? ‘Hall of Mirrors’ was always batted around. People would send us pages of suggestions.
FT: Despite all the success, critics have remained a bit sniffy about the band. Did that concern you in any way?
GB: No, but that’s a lovely word – “sniffy”. We would all love great reviews. It doesn’t matter how strong you are in your business, don’t read the comments because you might read 10, where you are a god and it’s the 11th that says, “who does he think he is?” That’s the one that’ll keep you up all night.
In the 70s we were on the Warner Brothers roster, and there alongside us was Van Dyke Parks, Ry Cooper, and Randy Newman. And at the time, none of those guys were breaking any records for sales but they were incredibly talented without a doubt and got wonderful reviews, and deservedly so. But if I was to be given the choice, would you rather have massive success and top 10 records and million sellers or would you rather have good reviews, I think I’d go with the success. It’s very hard to have both. There are very few people on the planet, the Springsteens of this world, that get the critics plaudits, and at the same time go to the top of the charts.
FT: The music of America has been given a new lease of life in film and TV? It’s featured in The Sopranos and Breaking Bad often juxtaposing with violent scenes.
GB: Those things just pop up. There’s a very slim chance that you can affect the decision of those uses. Kudos when it happens to those guys who use the music so well. We couldn’t be bigger fans of Breaking Bad and its creator Vince Gilligan, so to have an episode bookended by those two scenes of Walter White singing ‘Horse’ at the start and end of the episode is just so great.
I gotta reach out to Vince and just tell him we’re not worthy. I have kids coming up to me at end of a gig who say they’d never heard of us until the soundtrack of ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and I think, hey if that’s what it took, far out.
FT: Thank you so much for your time. Hopefully, we’ll see you back on the road soon.
GB: Thank you for your time. You clearly know your stuff. My love to everyone there, and let’s hope!