Chewing on a piece of grass/Walking down the road/Tell me, how long you gonna stay here, Joe?
Happily, the music of America has stayed with us for 50 years. Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, and Dan Peek met in London where their fathers were stationed with the United States Air Force; their coming together at the dawn of the 1970s has led to 16 studio albums and 47 singles including three U.S. chart-toppers and eleven Top 40 hits. That's in addition to a Grammy Award, a spot in the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Dan Peek left the group in 1977 (and died in 2011), but to this day, Beckley and Bunnell keep the music alive. The bands 50th anniversary celebration has already encompassed such releases as a career retrospective from Rhino (50th Anniversary: The Collection), an archival set from Omnivore (Heritage II: Demos/Alternate Takes 1971-1976), and an albums box (The Capitol Years). Now, the band is preparing its most extensive 50th anniversary project yet.
Half Century, due on August 21, is an expansive 7-CD/1-DVD box set packed with rare and previously unreleased material. There's a slew of unreleased demos circa 1970; a remastered full-length radio session in Bremen from 1973; rehearsals and demos for the Hideaway album; 11 unheard session recordings from 1981; a disc full of rarities from the overlooked period of the 1990s; and interviews and promotional material. If that weren't enough, there's also a DVD of home movies filmed from 1972 to 1975 that give America aficionados an inside look at the band's early years. You'll hear intimate jams, get a sneak peek behind the scenes of the Bremen session, see the band onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and in-the-studio at George Martin's AIR facilities, and much more. All of the tracks were sourced from the band's personal archives and are exclusive to the box set. There's also a fair amount of memorabilia included in the lavish package, including posters, promo pictures, and a book.
The Second Disc had the pleasure of speaking (at a social distance, of course!) with America audio archivist - and an acclaimed singer-songwriter and musician in his own right - Jeff Larson. We chatted about Half Century and what fans can expect in the future from the band's vaults.
Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to sit down with us, Jeff. Half Century is quite an impressive collection by any standards. What was the biggest challenge of assembling such a sprawling and comprehensive set? What's the biggest reward?
This effort started with going through hard-drives, even cannibalizing parts, etc. I come from a tech background so this was the easy part both on the hardware and software side. Working with analog tape of various sizes and condition was the real effort. I could do some of this at home, but I am also fortunate to have some good services in the Bay Area and beyond to help with some transfers. I used various companies from Coast / Fantasy in Berkeley and Iron Mountain to The Caribou Sessions being transferred at Skywalker Sound. The editing process of the digital transfers was natural since I had already been involved in that area and knew where to go. The reward is simply being part of having this music go forward.
Were there any surprises as you combed the archives for potential material?
I guess the biggest surprise is how much was there. This started after all with me being asked to help with organizing Gerry's studio recordings from 1997 - 2012, but turned into a deeper process with the discovery of old America reels with demos, alternate mixes, rehearsals and more.
What was your favorite discovery?
Well, unreleased material is always fun to discover and there is a good amount, including unfinished sessions that could lead to a new America album. There also was a large amount of video footage discovered among the audio. Dewey and I spent 11 hours going through and documenting and making notes about a year ago. There will be a nice DVD of some 8mm films on the Half Century box set titled Home Movies which fit well together. There is more video footage. The hope is there will be a documentary at some point.
We're certainly rooting for that documentary to happen, Jeff! America fans have been so grateful in recent years for the amount of archival material that's seen release. What sets Half Century apart from past collections like 50th Anniversary as well as the classic box set Highway?
Highway (30th) and The Collection (50th) were both sets from Rhino/Warner of the original released material with some added archives here and there. The Half Century box set is for the most part archive material and a deeper dive into things like gathering all of America's early recordings before they were signed to Warner; that disc will be titled London Demos 1970. Nigel Waymouth, the photographer of the iconic first album cover, wrote a nice memory inside the set. The Caribou Sessions is a collection of demos and early takes before the larger, overdubbed recordings that were released as Hideaway in 1976. The Poison Oak Sessions is unique in that it was the duo working out new songs at Dewey's home studio in Northern California in 1981. There are also fully unreleased sessions with the majority of these tracks never being re-cut or released. I like this era of America just before their early '80s comeback. The Alternate '90s shines a light on an overlooked period of the band. There are mixes for Hourglass and Human Nature: most are alternates and some newly remastered, but scattered throughout are unreleased songs. The '90s only had two studio releases, but there was much more tracking as America and Gerry. This album also features a 2020 unreleased America song, "Remembering." There is also the remastered Bremen 1973 in-studio performance, two radio discs of interviews and miscellaneous audio to "tell the story" though the years, the DVD of home movies, and a book of memorabilia. Most recently, I convinced them to add a bonus America Records Sampler CD.
Wow! That's an incredible treasure trove, with so much material that will undoubtedly be new to fans and collectors. You've worked with Gerry and Dewey for many years now; did you learn anything new about the band in curating the box?
Not so much new, but a confirmation maybe that they have always cared deeply about songcraft and in getting it right. That can never be old school, but really just the rule for making music of any worth.
What do you hope Half Century will add to America's already considerable legacy?
The goal is always to provide something similar to other archival sets. That there is something more behind the scenes, in America's case, something more than only the top 40 hits. A deeper appreciation of their work overall.
I'd say you've certainly succeeded on that count, Jeff. While we certainly all want the chance to appreciate this box set first, might I ask if further archival releases are in the pipeline?
Well, I think after this larger box set, the Studio archives are good for now. There are some Live Concert archives from the trio and duo pending release. I also put together a deluxe edition of America's Hearts album (1975) with unheard alternate versions of the songs and rehearsals, plus there is a remaster of the album that could be utilized. This release would have to come out via Rhino/Warner or in collaboration with them since they own it. There is talk of a documentary on The Record Plant in Sausalito, CA where Hearts (and many other classic albums) were recorded back in the day. Some tie-in there would help towards the deluxe Hearts release.
That's wonderful. One thing fans can rely upon is the high level of quality in all of these releases.
Gonzo in the U.K. have done a great job with their America reissues in 2019 and now with the Half Century box set. There are no shortcuts in quality. Half Century is a deluxe box set. With live concerts on hold and the cost of seeing America for two being about the cost of the box, the timing could be good to indulge in this band's work.
What's next for you, Jeff?
I'm currently working on mixes towards a Best of Gerry Beckley album. The Omnivore Heritage II release is out on CD now and soon on vinyl for Record Store Day in August. [See our coverage of the Record Store Day Drops here! - JM] Heritage II is a solid set of music that does not step on the toes of this larger box set, and well worth the money.
Thanks, Jeff. Best of luck with all of your future endeavors!