America – Sister Golden Hair
For pop stars, second acts can come in many different forms. There’s chart rebirth after personal tragedy (Eric Clapton, Gloria Estefan) or new and better hits that come after rehab or time away due to “exhaustion” (Britney Spears). Similarly, there can be rediscovery by the public after a Grammy win (Bonnie Raitt, Robert Plant) or a surprise out-of-the-blue hit single (Robyn).
For those in the music industry that are not front-of-the-line talent, however, the choices for a musical renaissance are not as obvious, particularly if the majority of the first-stage of your career has been shaped by a single artist. This was the dilemma facing Sir George Martin in the early 1970s. Although he had produced and arranged hits for other artists, as the chief producer and arranger for the biggest band in pop music history, Martin’s career was seemingly inextricable and inseparable from that of the Beatles. So when the Fab Four famously fell out after recording their final album, Martin needed to move on and find a new musical muse. And like many others in the 1970s seeking spiritual guidance and personal discovery, Martin turned to an obvious source: California.
Los Angeles in the early 1970s was a hotbed of nascent musical talent, and many of the artists that began recording there during this time would go on to create the easy-going, sun-kissed sound that became synonymous with the much of the music of the decade: Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne, the Eagles. Also included on this list? America, the soft-rock trio consisting of Dewey Bunnell, Dan Peek and Gerry Beckley. Interestingly, the band first met in the UK, as all three were sons of US Air Force personnel stationed in London. They chose the name “America” because they didn’t want anyone to think they were British musicians trying to sound American. Unlike the glam rock acts popular in the UK at this time, however, the band modeled itself musically after California close-harmony folk-rock acts such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Their first album was recorded at Trident Studios in London, and was released in 1971 to middling sales. The band went back into the studio to record a few new songs, including A Horse With No Name, which vocally and musically sounded like a Neil Young outtake. The song was added to the album, and both it and the album took off, with the single selling over one million copies and reaching no.1 in the US and no.3 in the UK.
After “Horse” became a hit, the band decided to move back to the US and to Los Angeles, where they felt more aligned with local recording artists and where they recorded their second album, Homecoming. It produced a big US hit in Ventura Highway (an ode to the pleasures of California driving, which was later and notably sampled by Miss Janet Jackson on Someone to Call My Lover) and sold a million copies. Emboldened by this success, the band grew more ambitious, but their next album Hat Trick was an overproduced disaster, yielding no top 40 hits and featuring an eight-minute title track and tap dancing. Something drastic needed to happen if the hits were to keep coming.
Enter Martin. At this point, Sir George had one massive post-Beatles success under his belt (Live and Let Die by Wings) but needed another pop group to produce to maintain his reputation. And America needed hits. The band reached out to Martin, who brought them to his AIR studios in London, where he set to work on the band’s next album, Holiday. The results were superb. Martin took the band’s acoustic folk-pop, jacked up the harmonies, added tight production qualities and orchestral instrumentation, and a smash album was born. The two singles from the album were top 5 US hits (Tin Man and Lonely People), and the band immediately went into the studio to record the follow-up, Hearts. The first single from this album, Sister Golden Hair, took Martin and the band back to the top of the charts in the US. It’s a classic.
Starting with the opening guitar lick, which is meant to echo the opening of George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord, Sister Golden Hair is an unrelentingly catchy anthem, complete with Martin’s trademark exquisitely arranged Beatle-esque harmonies, as well as repeating “ooh la las” and “oom bot ‘n’ doo wops” (which, as everyone knows, are magic when added to ANY song). The meaning of the song is unclear, but it appears to be about a guy who can’t commit to his lady (the sister golden hair of the title) and “ain’t ready for the altar” but still wants to have a casual yet loving relationship. It’s basically a song about friends with benefits – and how more 1970s California could one get?
Although Sister Golden Hair made no.1 in the US and is now considered one of the classic pop songs of the mid 1970s, it failed to chart in the UK. This is too bad, considering the British pop charts in 1975 could have used some sun-kissed Californianalia to offset the glam stompers and Bay City Rollers boppers. At a minimum, it proved there was indeed a second life after the Beatles for Martin, shaped by the sounds of California. He followed this success by producing three more albums for America as well as hits for Paul McCartney, Cheap Trick, Little River Band, Jeff Beck, Celine Dion, and eventually the biggest selling single of all time, Elton John’s Candle in the Wind 1997.
Entered chart: did not chart
Who could sing this today and have a hit? One Direction. Given the band’s ability to deliver poppy hits and tight harmonies, his would be the perfect Emergency Cover Version and addition to the inevitable greatest hits album.