It’s not uncommon for record labels to ask artists to write a more commercial, single-worthy song after they’ve already submitted their album. This can be a major point of contention, but it paid off for soft-rock troubadours America, who scored the biggest hit of their career with their chart-topping debut single, “A Horse With No Name” — which would have languished in the novelty bin if it were up to its author.
Despite their band name, the members of America — Dewey Bunnell, Gerry Beckley and Dan Peek — met in the late ’60s on a U.S. Air Force base just outside of London, where their fathers were all stationed at the time. The trio began gigging around London and soon signed a record deal with Warner Bros. They went to London’s famed Trident Studios to record their eponymous debut album, which they released in the U.K. at the end of 1971.
America was moderately successful upon release, but it lacked a hit single. The group had been planning to release the tender ballad “I Need You” as a lead single, but Warner Bros. asked it to write another song that would fare better on the radio.
The band went back to the studio to demo four more songs, including a sprightly, mystifying folk-rock number from Bunnell called “Desert Song.” In it, Bunnell sings of a man trudging through the desert on “a horse with no name,” taking in the sparse wildlife and turning red under the sweltering sun.
Bunnell didn’t think much of “Desert Song” at first. “It was just thrown into a pile of other songs. When I first brought it to Gerry and Dan, and we were playing it, I really thought it was almost a novelty song,” he told American Songwriter. But “when Warner heard it, they said, ‘Hey, we really like that. Let’s record that.'”
The band cut a proper version of “Desert Song” with Ian Samwell, who also produced America. “As we were honing this song down, Ian said immediately, ‘Well, dude, you must call this ‘Horse With No Name,'” Bunnell recalled. “And I said, ‘Sure, that’s fine.’ I didn’t blink.”
Listen to America’s ‘A Horse With No Name’
America released “A Horse With No Name” as a single on Jan. 12, 1972, and included the track on the 1972 reissue and all subsequent reissues of their debut album. The song rode to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in March 1972, despite getting banned by some radio stations for its supposed drug references. “It’s true the song got banned from radio at one time because people said it was about heroin, which sometimes was called ‘horse,'” Bunnell told American Songwriter. “That was news to me. Living in England, I don’t ever recall that term. I think it was more of an American term. It might have been smack or dope or H.”
Rather than a thinly veiled reference to hard drugs, Bunnell said “A Horse With No Name” reflected his desire for a change of scenery at the time of its writing.
“I wanted to capture the imagery of the desert, because I was sitting in this room in England, and it was rainy,” he said in the liner notes to the Highway: 30 Years of America box set. “The rain was starting to get to us, and I wanted to capture the desert and the heat and the dryness.”
“A Horse With No Name” displaced Neil Young‘s “Heart of Gold” atop the Hot 100 — a fitting usurpation, as many people, including Young’s own father, wrongfully attributed “A Horse With No Name” to the singer. Young was reportedly none too pleased with the similarities between both artists’ hits, but Bunnell has insisted that any comparisons were purely complimentary. “No doubt, when I recorded my vocal, I was infused with Neil Young and his music,” Bunnell told The Wall Street Journal in 2018. “I loved ‘The Loner,’ from Neil’s first solo album in . I was immersed in his first and second albums while writing ‘Horse,’ and they affected my vocal trajectory.”
America would score another Top 10 hit off their eponymous debut with the previously planned lead single “I Need You,” which peaked at No. 9. They topped the chart once more in 1975 with “Sister Golden Hair” and racked up several other Top 10 hits throughout the decade.
Still, the band’s biggest hit remains its so-called novelty debut single, which has left fans mystified and emotional for decades. “Here it is, just about 50 years later, and people still say, ‘I feel so sad for that horse. Why didn’t you give that horse a name?'” Bunnell told American Songwriter. “They actually get emotional about it.”
Those fans may be pleased to know that, perhaps as an act of penance, Bunnell bought his own horse and did bestow a name upon it: Noname.
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