DAN PEEK will forever be remembered for the '70s mega hit for the band America, "A Horse With No Name". But there's more, much more, to this veteran singer/songwriter, as Mike Rimmer found out.
One of my poignant childhood memories is being in the back of the family car driving round the wild country roads of Argyle on a summer holiday in 1972 singing along to "A Horse With No Name". The song didn't make sense to my childhood self since I always thought that if it were me, I'd have come up with a name for the animal. However there was something memorable about the melody and the strange words that appealed to me.
The band responsible for the hit were America. More than 30 years later, when reading band member Dan Peek's autobiography, I discover that the reason we barely heard of them again in the UK is that although the band launched in Britain, they were Americans and the nature of their record deal meant that they'd never survive financially on these shores but moving back home would provide bigger and better opportunities. And they were right, million selling albums, hit singles and endless touring opportunities awaited them in the '70s and all the trappings of rock'n'roll to go with them. But hey, I'm getting ahead of myself here.
Across in the state of Mississippi, Dan Peek lives farmer's hours so he is up as dawn breaks to talk to me on the phone about his life, his famous band and the solo career that continues to this day. Gerry Beckley, Dan Peek and Dewey Bunnell were all the sons of American airforce men stationed in the UK. They met at a school for American kids. They were all teenagers when "A Horse With No Name" became a hit although they had spent a few years as musicians entertaining the troops on bases. Signing with the British wing of the Warner Brothers label the song wasn't actually on their debut album. It was recorded as an afterthought and released as a single on the suggestion of producer Ian Samwell. "Of course Ian Samwell started out with Cliff Richard and The Shadows," Dan Peek remembers, "and wrote their first hits. He went on to become a very able producer. He produced our first album and Sammy heard something in 'Horse With No Name' that really just got him and he championed that as the single. It turned out to be a very prescient whim because the record seemed to catch fire around the world and literally went to number one - top of the charts - all over the whole world."
At the time that the band broke, Peek was 19 years old and had dropped out of education and with band mate Dewey Bunnell was working as a dishwasher! He remembers, "When the thing broke it was just like a light switch going on, just a total overnight thing. Even though we had worked for years and I'd been performing on stage since I was 12 when the band actually broke it was just a night-and-day difference; going from just total obscurity and a total ignominious beginning, to the next day, being on Top Of The Pops and doing TV shows and radio shows and performing at the Royal Festival Hall and flying around the world and touring. We got to open for everybody from Pink Floyd to Cat Stevens and The Who and Elton John and others."
So what was Top Of The Pops like in 1972? "It was a three-ring circus! We were living in England. We tuned in every week to watch Top Of The Pops and see our favourite bands perform their latest hits. But to actually be there was astounding! The activity was just frenzied! It was bands coming on and off stage, the dancers doing their thing and cameramen rolling around and gaffers moving lights and cables, directors shouting orders. It was just an absolute frenzy of activity. The Bee Gees were also guests on the show and we were just in awe of them, just speechless! We ended up in the Green Room with them and just thought, 'My goodness! We've really finally arrived here! We're on Top Of The Pops!' So we did our set and it was well received. They had a live audience of course and everybody was shouting and screaming. It was just an amazing, amazing experience. Smoke and mirrors and lights and flashing strobe lights - the whole thing. It was wild!"
With the move to the USA and further hits and albums, the band became one of the most successful of the period but despite all the trappings of success and fame, Peek confesses that all was not well. Was he shocked to discover that all the success didn't actually fulfil him? "It was a terrible shock. I had bought into the whole materialistic consumer-oriented advertising age theory that if you just have the right car and the right clothes and the right hairstyle and the right shoes, then you would be happy and fulfilled. We were able to attain all of that stuff at a very early age because we were just miraculously and incredibly fortunate. Things just clicked. We had all the success; the hit records and the fame and the material things that came along with it. I think probably the rudest shock of all was to just wake up and think, 'My goodness.I'm empty!' I was still searching for some type of peace and some type of meaning to my life after we ended up with walls covered in gold and platinum albums and the accolades and the praise of our peers and the fans. You just still felt this nagging emptiness. It was very, very frightening."
Like many caught up in the rock'n'roll scene of the '70s, Peek confesses that he indulged in a great deal of drugs and alcohol. "That was all part of the drug culture of the '70s and sadly that still is very pervasive. The abuse and overuse of drugs and alcohol is still a horrible problem. But coming of age in the '60s and '70s, there was a mindset that all of the world's problems could be cured by a puff on marijuana or a tab of acid or some type of pill or potion. I bought into it wholeheartedly. I think whether I'd been in rock'n'roll or whether I'd been in real estate, I would have been the same person; seeking this transformation and happiness in my life through artificial means, chemical means or even herbal means.whatever."
He pauses for a second to reflect and then continues, "Again, it's a false hope and it's a cul-de-sac. You end up at the end of it and you're still the same miserable person but you've now got a drug or alcohol habit! As anybody who's ever had that burden knows, it's extremely difficult to bear."
At the same time the success only magnified the internal problems within the trio so that eventually even the creative process of recording and performing music became an empty experience for Peek. "I think part of it was the constant togetherness of a working rock band," he explains. "We had shackled ourselves to touring probably more than we should have. The touring had a way of just grinding all the joy of the music out of you. But we had made a contractual commitment to a management firm that we would tour a certain amount. It was probably above and beyond the amount that was good and healthy for us. As individuals certainly, on some level it began to stifle the creativity and there was a lot of competition between the three of us in terms of the writing and the songs that made it on the albums and what songs were released as singles. It became a cauldron of all these pressures building up, very much like a pressure cooker. You throw into that my personal problems with drugs and alcohol and various other problems that some of the members were experiencing themselves in their own lives and into that mix there was also a lot of pressure put on us externally by the record companies and management. It all began to wear."
The final element that began to impact the core of the band is Dan Peek embracing the Christian faith. He says, "I finally found out that all of this stuff - the fame, the success, the glory, the records, the accolades - had left me totally empty. So I turned to Christ. I tuned to Jesus as Lord and Saviour. THAT was the transformation that I had been looking for my whole life. When that happened, I attempted, within the confines of the band, to live out this new life. And yet I was very weak and needed to be on my own. So for various reasons it just seemed to be the thing to do, to go my own way."
Peek had attended church as a child and had learnt that he needed to "be good." It's what he calls a social gospel. "I thought I had to be good and try not to be bad. And if you're bad, then be good and sort of try to outweigh the bad. I literally, even at the age of six and seven, would lay awake at night and go, 'God, I'm not gonna make it!' I recognised my sin as a child. Frankly, you can't outweigh the bad. A murderer can't go before a judge and say, 'Well you know, last week I saved someone's life; they were drowning. How 'bout cuttin' me some slack?' It doesn't work that way! Good works DO NOT outweigh bad works. God demands total perfection. So I was haunted by that."
He continues, "At the age of 12 I heard the Gospel message for the first time. My mother had gotten 'saved', as they say, and she had received Christ as her Saviour. She explained to me that there was a way to deal with this burden of sin; that the weight is too big for any human being to deal with but that Jesus had done it and dealt with the problem on the cross. She explained that by faith, if I would receive his gift of Salvation for him having paid the price for ALL mankind's sin, including my own, that if I would receive that, by faith I would be saved. And I did. It made total sense to my spirit and I received Christ as my Saviour at the age of 12. But in many ways, at the age of 12, you're really not fully formed as a person and there were so many areas of my life that came along after that which I refused to put under his Lordship. Now at that point I believe that Jesus was my Saviour, but he was not my Lord. I let so many other things become Lord of my life. The seeking after fame and fortune, the lust of the flesh.those became my captain, and I followed them and became in bondage to them essentially."
In the late '70s, having sold millions of records, Peek faced his inner emptiness and addictions and realised he had fulfilled all his earthly aims but was still lost. "I was more empty than ever," he remembers, "and sadder and lonelier than ever. I remembered what my mother had told me at the age of 12 - 'You may wander from Jesus but he'll never leave you. And if you ever get to a point where you have gone away from him, you CAN go back.' I knelt on the floor in my beautiful home in Malibu and cried out to God and said, 'Lord, I have abandoned you, I have run away from you and I want to come back. Please take me back! I don't need all this stuff, I don't need all these things, I need you! I have no meaning to my life without you. Please take me back! Please come back into my life and now be my Lord. I turn everything over to you.' And that was the watershed moment. And from then on it's been wonderful but not always easy. He doesn't promise it will be totally problem free but he does say that He's there."
When it came to dealing with his addictions, his faith helped to strengthen him but Peek really struggled with alcohol. "I struggled with alcohol because it's so readily available and there was a culture almost of, 'If you don't drink, you're abnormal.' I think advertising and television and movies and those sorts of things, you watch them and everyone's having a drink and everyone's smoking a cigarette and they're all sitting around and looking wonderful. Yet they're not! Let's face it, alcohol is the number one drug problem in the world. One out of three people in the United States are in hospital as a result of alcohol, either indirectly or directly. 25-30,000 people die every year as a direct result of alcohol abuse because of traffic accidents where people were driving under the influence. I'm not castigating people who consume alcohol but if you have a problem, there IS help out there. But it's by humbling yourself and recognisng that you ARE out of control and asking God to help you with it.
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