Consider it the pop music equivalent of holding a seashell to your ear and hearing the ocean.
Listen carefully to seven of the first 10 albums recorded by the soft-rock band America and you just might hear some subtle but unmistakable elements of The Beatles.
That’s no accident. Not when the real “fifth Beatle,” George Martin, was producing the three U.S. Air Force brats living in England — Dewey Bunnell, Gerry Beckley and Dan Peek — who were still teenagers when they put their voices and guitars together and developed their distinctive sound. Bunnell, now 65, will join Beckley on stage 9 p.m. Saturday, March 25, at Borgata’s Music Box for another America concert in Atlantic City. Peek, the third member of America, left the band to pursue other musical interests in 1977 and died in 2011.
America hooked up with George Martin after The Beatles split up. Having already self-produced their first three albums, which spun off big hits like “A Horse with No Name,” “I Need You” and “Ventura Highway,” Bunnell, Beckley and Peek were signed to a management deal by the powerful entertainment executive David Geffen.(tncms-asset)bc932278-0b1c-11e7-954f-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
But with everything involved in actually producing an album — especially in the days of analogue tape recordings — America realized it needed a real producer.
All you need is … George Martin
“So we said (to Geffen), ‘Why don’t we just shoot for the moon and see if George Martin is available?’” Bunnell recalls during a recent phone call. They jokingly figured that with The Beatles no longer working together, Martin might be looking for a gig.
America met with Martin in Los Angeles when he was there with Paul McCartney to attend the Oscars, where McCartney’s song from the James Bond movie “Live and Let Die” was nominated for best song.
“The moment we met (Martin), it seemed like we had known the guy for our whole lives,” Bunnell says.
He believes it was all those years living in England, where their fathers had been stationed, that helped forge an immediate bond with the British producer.
“It was terrific. The British connection really helped — the British humor, the British food,” Bunnell adds. “Of course, we knew his work (with The Beatles) backwards and forwards.”
Then Bunnell lapses into a faux British accent and repeats Martin’s magic words: “Well then, lads, let’s give it a go, shall we?”
Inside The Beatles vault
Martin insisted that America record with him in his London studio AIR, an acronym for Associated Independent Recording. The Beatles had recorded there, and it was where Martin stored many of the band’s master recordings and little musical tricks of the trade.
“So we prepared ourselves for what would ultimately become our fourth album, ‘Holiday,’” says Bunnell.
“Holiday” produced the first two hits America had with Martin, “Tin Man” and “Lonely People.” It also produced some memorable moments for Bunnell, Beckley and Peek.
During one recording session, Bunnell remembers Martin going into the “back room” at AIR, crawling around in search of something and then emerging with a bell. But not just any bell.(tncms-asset)4bd4dbe0-0a76-11e7-8ddb-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
“We ended up using the bell that was used on ‘Yellow Submarine’ on the song called ‘Hollywood,’” Bunnell says, and — more than 40 years later — he still sounds excited when he remembers the moment.
He described Martin, who died last year at age 90, as a very “hand’s on” producer.
“He would get down and play the piano,” he says. “He plays the piano line in ‘Tin Man.’ He wasn’t just a guy who would be sitting behind the (control) board and say ‘another take, please.’”
Working all those years — and being surrounded by so many musical memories — was “a dream come true,” according to Bunnell.
And, he adds, there was an added bonus to working with Martin. He wasn’t America’s only connection to The Beatles.
“With George Martin, we also got Goeff Emerick to engineer the recordings,” Bunnell says. “He engineered all those Beatles things. I think he started out when he was 17 working as a tape operator, and his first song was ‘Paperback Writer.’”
Borrowing from the best
Although there’s no mistaking The Beatles influence in America’s music, they also borrowed from other artists of the era. There are unmistakable elements of the Beach Boys in some of their songs.
And for almost as long as they’ve been recording, America has been mentioned in the same breath as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young for the soft rock influence they provided.
There are also harmonies that could have been lifted from the Everly Brothers who, ironically, America opened for as part of their first concert tour of the United States.
“It’s kind of like a long continuum with each generation building on the last a little bit. We were always compared to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and there’s some truth to that, of course,” Bunnell says.
“We were hugely influenced by them. They were in our offices when we were managed by David Geffen. And so was this young upstart band called the Eagles that was forming, and icons like Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt … Boy, I’m really reminiscing now,” Bunnell says with a big laugh.