Rock music is one of the great art forms of the twentieth century. But a sideline for those of us who love rock music, like the many movie fans who try to figure out or "interpret' what the filmmakers were trying to say in their movies, is trying to figure out what the songwriters were trying to say in their songs.
In this activity, no greater challenge comes than America's classic tune "A Horse With No Name." A pleasant, catchy, albeit haunting song, it was America's very first single and was also to be America's biggest hit. A number one chart topper in several countries, the song was certified gold in 1972. It remains America's most identified song, almost the group's "theme song."
But what the heck is "A Horse With No Name" about, exactly? What does it mean?
The folk/rock group America originally consisted of three members: Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, and Dan Peek. The band was formed in England and the members were sons of U.S. servicemen. The group found success early, when the members were barely out of their teens.
America's first album, redundantly titled America, was released initially in Europe in 1971 with only moderate success. This album did not contain "A Horse With No Name."
Trying to find a song that would be popular in both America and Europe, they came up with a song about the desert. "A Horse With No Name" was originally titled just that: "Desert Song." The song was written while the band was staying at the home studio of Arthur Brown in Puddletown, Dorset. The first two demos of the song were recorded there, by Jeff Dexter and Denis Elliot.
According to the song's writer, Dewey Bunnell, the song was composed to capture the hot, dry feeling of the desert (he was just 19 when he wrote it). Bunnell said he remembered his childhood travels through the Arizona and New Mexico desert when his family lived at Vandenburg Air Force base.
He said he was trying to capture the dry feeling of the desert that had been pictured in a Salvador Dali painting in Arthur Brown's studio/home. Bunnell said he was also writing about "the strange horse" that was ridden in an M.C. Escher picture.
Bunnell added to the story of the song's genesis as recently as 2008, saying, "It was a travelogue in my mind, an environmental song to some degree. We were part of the hippie era to save the earth, and I've always been attracted to nature and the outdoors."
Originally, the band thought "A Horse With No Name" was too corny and it actually took some convincing to get them to play it. The song had its public debut at the Harrogate Music Festival to a great audience response. After several performances and a TV show, "Desert Song" was officially retitled "A Horse With No Name." It was released in March of 1972, became a #1 hit, and stayed at the top of the charts for three weeks. The debut album America was re-released to include the song and quickly went platinum.
The song was actually banned on some U.S. radio stations because of its title and lyrics. "Horse" is a common street term for heroin. Dewey Bunnell and the other members of America completely denied any drug reference connected with the lyrics.
The popular song was also ridiculed by several critics for its banal, oddly-phrased lyrics, i.e. "The heat was hot," "There were plants and birds and rocks and things," "'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain," etc.
The song was also knocked for being a Neil Young ripoff. Many actually thought it was a Neil Young song. Bunnell understood this criticism and never tried to hide the fact that he greatly admired Neil Young. "I never shied away from the fact that it was inspired by him," said Bunnell. Ironically, "A Horse With No Name" replaced Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" at #1 on the charts.
Randy Newman once said the song was "about a kid who thinks he's taken acid."
Comedian Richard Jeni joked, "You're in the desert, you got nothing else to do. Name the freakin' horse!"
Like it or not, "A Horse With No Name" remains a rock classic around the world. Tune in to any "'70s weekend" on an oldies radio station and you will most certainly hear its strange, haunting lyrics.