In Which I Kill Dan Peek

A friend tweeted me last week: “We’re waiting for your Dan Peek piece. No one’s really dead unless you write about them, Jim.” That’s an argument for not writing about Dan Peek, I suppose—and you could click over to Barely Awake in Frog Pajamas for a fine post on America—but we should probably spend a little time marking the passing of a guy who was part of some of the signature records of the 1970s.

It’s been a long damn time, but “A Horse With No Name” can still take me back to 1972 now and then, and one of those soft spring Saturday mornings when the last of the snow was melting and the farm was coming back to life. I gave a lot of thought to the song’s imagery over the years, especially after I began to fancy myself a writer. And as a fan of little moments in songs, the turn toward the end—“After nine days, I let the horse run free”—still grabs hard whenever I hear it.

Three years later, another springtime saw another indelible America song: “Sister Golden Hair.” As a radio record, it couldn’t be better—the introduction gives a jock plenty of room, with a good post to hit at :06 before the vocal comes in at :17. And the last 30 seconds, down to the ending with the counted-off “1-2-3-4,” are perfection itself. (When I play the song on the radio, I always count it off out loud, sometimes with the microphone open. Pay attention next time.)

I can’t think of an America single I didn’t like, actually—although apart from these, I particularly dig “Ventura Highway” and one recorded after Peek’s departure, the luminous “Right Before Your Eyes.”  But there are two others that stand above the rest. The band’s followup to “A Horse With No Name,” “I Need You,” is another sweet radio confection, with that great cold opening: “We used to laugh/We used to cry.” But what makes it a song for the ages is the first lines of the second verse:  “And every day I’d laugh the hours away/Just knowing you were thinking of me.”

That’s the single most precise definition ever written of how it feels to be in love. That’s it exactly.

In the summer of 1976 (Christ, there he goes again), “Today’s the Day,” written and sung by Dan Peek, would be the band’s last significant single until 1982. Although it would reach only Number 23 on the Hot 100, it hit the top of the Easy Listening/Adult Contemporary/Whatever the Hell They Were Calling It Then chart, one of three America singles to do that (along with “Tin Man” and “Lonely People”). It is, like all of their singles, more delicious ear candy, with a nice little moment about two minutes in, after the solo, when they reprise the first verse: “Hold me close . . .”

Peek left America shortly after that—to little fanfare, as I recall—and went into Christian music. I remember playing the America-like title track to his first album, “All Things Are Possible” on the radio in the fall of 1979. It’s one of those Christian songs that you can read in an entirely secular fashion, and so pillowy soft that it should have charted higher than Number 78 in that particularly wimpy year.

I lost track of Dan Peek after that, until his death last week. I was surprised to hear he was only 60. When people that young die, it tends to attract my attention a little more than it used to. And now that I’ve written about him, I guess he’s really dead.


6 responses

  1. I often think a lot of the lip service done to “soft rock” is ironic in nature, but I think groups like America and Bread were both great at making solid, interesting pop music. Good songs, especially for the radio. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know Dan Peek’s name until I read his obit (familiar only with Beckley and Bunnell).

  2. a couple of years back I had one of those “oh, yeah, I forgot about that song” moments when I heard the band’s “Woman Tonight.” Its weird mix of reggae-ish tempo, Frampton talk-box bit and bass solo(!) probably kept it out of the Top 40. It hit #44 in The Year of Jim.

  3. Another Dan Peek song worth noting is Slow Down from Harbor, the last album he & George Martin were a part of, about as funky as America would ever get. Wonder what happened in Hawaii while they recorded this to make Dan see the ‘light’.

  4. I always liked America’s material, although I admit I was familiar mostly with their singles than their many “H” albums. I think the wonderful “Don’t Cross the River” was one of Peek’s also. And “Today’s the Day” was at its Peek peak just as I graduated from high school in June 1976; as you’ve noted, it was the last track of theirs I heard on the radio until “You Can Do Magic” in 1982. The band often gets rapped for its lyrics, but I find ’em wonderfully obscure.

    This leads me to something else I’ve wondered about over the years (obviously I’ve got too much free time): When Beckley and Bunnell kept on as a duo, how did they divvy up Peek’s songs in concert? It seems unlikely they would just no longer to “Lonely People.” Likewise, when the Eagles did “Take It to the Limit” after Randy Meisner left, who sang lead? And how do Cory Wells and Danny Hutton divide Chuck Negron’s leads when they do a Three Dog Night concert? I assume that when Chicago does one of the many hits originally sung by Peter Cetera, Bill Champlin takes over (is he still touring with them?). But what about the Terry Kath-sung songs?

  5. Takes me back ….but I never hear anyone mention “Donkey Jaw”. One of my true favorites and an America classic when they were a real band. Guess I remember driving to a National Park in a Volkswagon and listening to America….Am I old…hehe

  6. I was just thumbing through some 45s and took note of the seemingly high number of Warner-era America singles that failed to chart at all in Billboard. “Rainbow Song” from ‘Hat Trick’ was a worthy choice, but “Green Monkey” was a major misfire, singles-wise.

    “She’s A Liar” from ‘Hideaway’ along with a pair of ‘Harbor’ singles (“God Of The Sun” and Dan Peek’s “Don’t Cry Baby”) also missed the mark completely. I’ll have to admit that the only one of the bunch I’ve listened to in the ensuing decades (let alone would even recognize) is “Rainbow Song.” Must rectify that. Except for
    “Green Monkey.”

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