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.
In 1972, a 19-year-old London kid wrote a fake Neil Young song, and that song knocked an actual Neil Young song out of the #1 spot. “A Horse With No Name,” the first hit from the England-based American trio America, was a piece of charming spectral nonsense, and it led to an actual career. Over the next three years, America notched four more top-10 hits, none of which are as good as “A Horse With No Name.” And then one of that kid’s bandmates wrote a fake Jackson Browne song, and America got their second #1.
Growing up outside London, the three members of America were all sons of American Air Force servicemen. They idolized the California sound from afar, and they made their own take on that sound — three fans doing a pastiche of the music from their barely-remembered shared homeland. As soon as they got a chance, the members of America uprooted themselves and moved to America. After “A Horse With No Name” hit, they relocated to Los Angeles, the city whose music they’d already been imitating.
All three members of America wrote songs. “A Horse With No Name” came from Dewey Bunnell, and his bandmate, singer and guitarist Gerry Beckley, was responsible for “Sister Golden Hair,” America’s second and final #1. Beckley has been forthright about how his fellow California-pop songwriter Jackson Browne inspired the song: “I find Jackson can depress me a little bit, but only through his honesty. And it was that style of his which led to a song of mine, ‘Sister Golden Hair,’ which is probably the more LA of my lyrics.” The song ended up being a whole lot bigger than anything Jackson Browne ever did. (Browne’s highest-charting song, 1982’s “Somebody’s Baby,” peaked at #7. It’s a 5.)
Beckley has also admitted that the song’s use of lap steel was heavily inspired by George Harrison in general and “My Sweet Lord” in particular. But America’s combination of hazily lush harmonies, creamy sundazed LA pop arrangements, and vague honky-tonk murmurings ended up sounding a whole lot more like the Eagles than like Jackson Browne or George Harrison. That worked out nicely for America, since that gooey country-rock sound was absolutely blowing up in 1975. Once again, America found a wave to ride.
Lyrically, the Jackson Browne influence paid off. Bunnell’s lyrics for “A Horse With No Name” had been dreamily laughable gibberish. But on “Sister Golden Hair,” Beckley wrote about actual relationship situations. In the opening line, he sings about being so utterly devoid of motivation that he spends an entire day in bed: “Well I tried to make it Sunday, but I got so damn depressed / That I set my sights on Monday and I got myself undressed.” He’s telling you this to let you know that he’s not equipped to handle any sort of committed relationship. But he still depends on the company of this mythical Sister Golden Hair: “I ain’t ready for the altar but I do agree there’s times / When a woman sure can be a friend of mine.” And so he spends the song begging her to be patient with him, to “meet me in the middle.” He’s not going to commit to this girl, but he’s going to ask her to stick around anyway.
That’s a manipulative way to write a song, of course. Beckley begs for sympathy, painting himself as helpless, and he more or less offers nothing. He’s a pathetic figure, one in need of nurturing. Even his expressions of devotion are almost passive-aggressive: “I just can’t live without you, can’t you see it in my eyes?” Listening to it, you want to tell this Sister Golden Hair to get the fuck out and never look back. Beckley has said that there’s no one Sister Golden Hair, that he based it on a composite of the women who he’d known. That’s just perfect; you can imagine him laying the same line on women all over Los Angeles. But it’s still good writing — an evocative description of life as a shitty and undependable boyfriend.
America recorded “Sister Golden Hair” with Beatles producer George Martin. Martin had become a regular America collaborator after he produced their 1974 LP Holiday. (“Sister Golden Hair” was the 20th #1 single that Martin had produced, and it’s the first one he’d produced for anyone other than the Beatles. Martin productions will show up in this column a few more times.) So the song sounds great. It’s rich and layered, with room for twinkly Western guitar runs and Beach Boys-esque backing harmonies. But it’s got the lightweight gloss of so much of the middle-of-the-road California pop of that era. The song has a way of breezing right past me without leaving any impression. It’s a sharp, professional take on a sound that I just don’t find interesting at all.
America would never get back to #1. Two years later, Dan Peek left the trio and started a Christian-rock solo career on Pat Boone’s label. (He died in 2011.) The other two members of America kept going without Peek, and they kept making hits, still landing songs in the top 10 as late as 1982. They also did the soundtrack to the beautiful and bugged-out 1982 cartoon classic The Last Unicorn, and that shit slaps. They’re still around today.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s a grisly post-murder car-crash death scene from a 2001 episode of The Sopranos, set to “Sister Golden Hair”: