In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
America – “A Horse With No Name”
HIT #1: March 25, 1972
STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks
“A Horse With No Name” is a song about finding an existential epiphany after a trip through the desert. When he wrote the song, the 19-year-old America frontman Dewey Bunnell had to rely on vague memories and ideas of what the desert was even like. When he was a kid, Bunnell had lived on a California Air Force base, where his father had been stationed. He’d loved riding through the New Mexico and Arizona deserts with his father and his brother. But by the time he wrote the song, Bunnell had been living outside London for years. The desert was an idea, a pure abstraction. You can tell.
America, it should be noted, is an absolutely ridiculous name for a band. Bunnell and his two bandmates, Dan Peek and Gerry Beckley, were American kids. All of them had fathers in the Air Force, and all of those fathers were stationed on the same base. (Two of them, Bunnell and Peek, had English mothers.) Bunnell went to high school with Peek and Beckley, and they bonded over the shimmering, heavily harmonized folk-rock that was coming out of California. When they started a band, they called themselves America because they didn’t want anyone to get the idea that they were English kids trying to sound American. Instead, they were American kids trying to sound American — trying so hard, in fact, that they called themselves America.
America’s self-titled debut album came out in the UK in 1970. It did OK. At first, “A Horse With No Name” wasn’t on it. But after the album came out, the band recorded “A Horse With No Name,” which they’d started out calling “Desert Song,” while fucking around at a friend’s home studio. The band wanted to release “I Need You,” a drippy Beckley ballad, as a single, but the band’s label wasn’t hearing it. Sometimes, the label is right. Instead, America released “A Horse With No Name” as a non-album single in a few European countries. It was an instant success. When the label released the in the US, they added “A Horse With No Name,” and both the song and the album were huge. (After the success of “A Horse With No Name,” America did end up releasing “I Need You” as a US single, and it peaked at #9. It’s a 4.)
The band hadn’t thought much of “A Horse With No Name” when they recorded it. They figured it would be a fun little novelty, that it was too weird to be a big success. But where a song like “I Need You” is hazy and generic, “A Horse With No Name” is hazy and memorable. It raises immediate questions. Like: Why does the horse have no name? And: Is it because the horse is really heroin?
The horse is not heroin, at least according to Bunnell. Years later, he said, “The central theme was ‘solitary thinking in a peaceful place.’ The horse was really just a vehicle to get out there.” That kind of sounds like heroin! But it also sounds like an American kid in London, staring out rainy windows while listening to sunny American music, dreaming of a homeland that really only existed in his mind. It sounds like one big cauldron of homesickness and nostalgia and hero worship.
“A Horse With No Name” is, to put it bluntly, a stupid song. There are some real lyrical clunkers on there, lines that nobody older than 19 would’ve been able to sing with a straight face. Bunnell wanted to evoke the feeling of being in a desert, but he hadn’t been in a desert since he was a little kid, so he describes it in the vaguest terms possible: “There were plants and birds and rocks and things,” “The heat was hot,” “The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz.” There is also this timeless bit of wisdom: “In the desert you can remember your name / There ain’t no one for to give you no pain.”
Maybe Bunnell could remember his name, but he sounds a whole lot like Neil Young, the man who America replaced at #1. That’s a very distinct vocal tone, an airy high-lonesome quaver, and Bunnell nails it. It can’t be accidental. Talking to Rolling Stone around the time, Bunnell acknowledged the similarity like this: “I try to use a different voice so that I won’t be branded as a rip-off. It’s such a drag, though, to have to not sound like someone when you can’t help it in the first place.” Again, though, I chalk that up to Bunnell being young and unformed, trying to sound like his heroes. (Young was never above that, either.)
And despite all that — the dumb lyrics, the distracting Neil Young similarities, the fact that Bunnell never gives the damn horse a name even after nine days riding the thing through the desert — “A Horse With No Name” works. There’s a warm, cloudy sense of mystery to the song. The band (and the session musicians who filled out the song) play with a real confidence. It’s full of neat production touches: murmuring bongo drums, a politely meandering bassline, a darting-hummingbird dual guitar lead that nods to flamenco without giving into it altogether. The harmonies add a mythic out-of-time quality even as they imitate what Young’s buddies Crosby, Stills & Nash were doing at the time, and the arrangement builds to a pleasant swirl. Those la la las say more than any of the actual words Bunnell writes. “A Horse With No Name” never sounds like the desert that Bunnell might’ve been imagining. Instead, it sounds like a dream, which is what it is.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 1999 Friends episode where Joey drives through the desert while listening to “A Horse With No Name”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Heres the scene from a 2010 Breaking Bad episode where Walter White drives through the desert while listening to “A Horse With No Name,” and where he gets himself maced and arrested, at least in part, because he’s really enjoying “A Horse With No Name” and hates having to turn it off:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Milo — evidently, per yesterday’s Bonus Beats, a big fan of circa-1972 folk-rock — rapping over a sample of “A Horse With No Name” on the 2013 track “Geometry And Theology”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 2017 cover of “A Horse With No Name” that Patrick Carney and Michelle Branch contributed to the soundtrack of BoJack Horseman, a show about a horse who definitely has a name: