Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
If you were to step into a time machine and request to be sent to “a hot summer day in the early ’70s in the U.S.A.,” there’s a damn good chance History: America’s Greatest Hits would be the album blaring through the transmitter during liftoff.
History is the sound of a VW van driving toward a multi-colored sunset in 1971. It is the thunk of a frisbee landing in the mouth of a leaping dog wearing a bandana around its neck in 1972. It is the whoosh of a breeze blowing through the long, middle-parted, Herbal Essence™ scented hair of a “lady” in 1973…
Damn. Sorry about all that. I’m getting transported and I’m not even listening to History right now, I’m just freakin’ thinking about it (and trying to imagine what the hell flying alligator lizards look like).
History was released in November of 1975 and featured all the singles the soft rock trio of Dewey Bunnell, Gerry Beckley, and Dan Peek had released up to that point. Six of the album’s 12 tracks had been Top 10 hits on the Billboard pop chart: “A Horse With No Name,” “I Need You,” “Ventura Highway,” ‘Tin Man,” “Lonely People” and “Sister Golden Hair.” The album’s other six tracks didn’t hit those same heights, and they range in quality from mighty fine (“Daisy Jane”) to just okay (we’ll get to those coattail riders shortly). History went platinum both in the U.S. (4 million copies) and Australia (450,000 copies) and to this day remains the band’s best-selling album.
Now while millions of regular citizens enjoyed that sweet, windblown America sound, the music press emphatically did not. The Rolling Stone Album Guide described their music as “little more than bubblegum for adolescent hippies.” They also offered this snooty slap-and-run attack on the trio’s most popular and beloved songs:
America’s early ’70s hits were all variations on the same themes: mawkish love songs (“I Need You”), clumsy impressionism (“Horse With No Name,” “Ventura Highway”), childhood fairy-tale metaphors (“Tin Man”), and corny affirmations (“Lonely People”).
Okay then, Rolling Stone. History class dismissed, bitches.
America wore their unabashed fandom of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on their sleeves, and their music openly reflected that worship. This not only triggered hostility amongst the aforementioned music pundits, but also inspired some pointedly hilarious disdain from at least one of the objects of their affection. Upon meeting David Crosby for the first time and mentioning to him that they loved his music, he responded with some of that trademark Croz verbal acid we’ve come to know and (mostly) love: “Well, that’s obvious.”
But you know who (more importantly) did love America? Legendary Beatles producer George Martin. He loved them so much, he ended up producing seven(!) of the trio’s albums (from 1974-1979), including the History compilation.
It’s not hard to understand why Martin was drawn to America: their songs were, gonna be blunt here, melodic as f*ck. Each one was filled to the brim with lustrous acoustic picking, lush harmonizing, and home to an insidiously unforgettable chorus, not unlike that other band Sir George used to work with.
I was a child during America’s heyday, and at that moment in time, I regarded them with the same distaste the rock critics did. In other words, I thought they sucked. Well, I thought “Tin Man” was okay-ish, with its soapsud green light bubbles, but as far as my single-digit arse was concerned, the rest of their songs could go straight to hell. America made freakin’ babysitter music. Their wishy-washy, sensitive long-haired guy, acoustic stylings were what the girls who used to watch my brother and I swooned and grooved to. America didn’t “ROCK” like my beloved Boston or ELO; therefore, they were of no use to me.
It is now 2022 and, sigh, I don’t feel that way anymore. As the years have passed and the universe has grown more unstable, I’ve come to love America and their infatuated, blue-jeaned, pop mantras. I now find their songs about horses, girls, and cartoony existentialism to be downright comforting (yeah, yeah, 8-year-old me, I see you with that “what the f*ck?” look on your face. Sorry, but this is who you are now).
Constructing “Full Album” features like this one can be challenging. There are always one or two songs that either haven’t been covered or whose existing covers aren’t quite up to snuff. And frankly, it sucks to have to serve up something that isn’t awesome or at least intriguingly weird or adventurous. You’d think that an album as ubiquitous as History wouldn’t have this problem…but it does.
As I alluded to earlier, there are a couple of lesser lights hanging onto History‘s coattails, specifically the songs “Woman Tonight” and “Only In My Heart.” By strange and perfect coincidence, they each occupy the closing spot on their respective album sides. There aren’t many covers of either, good or bad, not only because they weren’t big hits, but because compared to the rest, they ain’t that great. Still, they were released as singles, and thus are part of History.
The coolest covers of History‘s tracks tend to be a little off-kilter in some way and run the gamut from skillfully accomplished to gloriously amateurish. There are a couple that wouldn’t be out of place soundtracking a gruesome low-budget horror movie (that’s a compliment, I swear). But seriously, kudos to you, History, for inspiring one wonderfully weird bunch of covers.
Let the mawkish, clumsy, corny, and awesome journey begin…
Michelle Branch – A Horse With No Name (America cover)
What motorcycles were to ’60s pop culture, horses were to the ’70s (NAY, muthaf*ckas). In the first half of the ’70s, we were blessed with not one but five (!) AM radio-ready horse-referencing anthems. The five horses of the pop-pocalypse were The Rolling Stones’s “Wild Horses” (’71), the Osmonds’ “Crazy Horses” (’72), George Harrison’s “Dark Horse” (’74), Michael Martin Murphey’s “Wildfire” (’75)…and the almighty daddy-stallion of all equestrian-themed tunes in the history of pop music ever, America’s infamous “A Horse With No Name.”
The best-known cover of “Horse” is the theme song for the animated series Bojack Horseman, by Michelle Branch. When it was first released, I had to listen to it at least a dozen times before its seductively dark and moody vibe started to penetrate my heart. Yes, it’s a little less melodic than the original as well as a bit grungier, but it possesses an undercurrent of melancholy that is really winning.
There are, unsurprisingly, a lot of covers of “Horse” (you’ll find a few more here) so talking about just one seems like a disservice. But rather than waste this spot on a pedestrian run-of-the-mill version, let’s just head straight to “the world of weird America covers,” because it’s just plain more fun. There are no “plants and birds and rocks and things” in this next cover by Tulum Shimmering aka, uh, Jake Webster. It is an instrumental version of “Horse” that is 41 minutes in length. Yeah, you read that right. I’d say it was the perfect soundtrack for a solo drive through the desert, but its dirge-like, repetitive nature might lull you into a horse-shaped trance and cause you to miss your exit or veer off the road into a cactus. And honestly, if you didn’t know it was “Horse” to start with, you might not even recognize it as that. But “Horse” it is, and a damn hypnotic one at that.
Nilsson – I Need You (America cover)
Harry Nilsson first met America’s band members in the early ’70s and was both a friend and admirer. This version of “I Need You” was featured on his 1976 album …That’s the Way It Is. Two years earlier Nilsson famously ruptured a vocal cord, and at the time of this recording he was still learning to navigate his diminished range. This version is more over-the-top than you might expect, considering his physical circumstances, and it features a very loud and ostentatious string section. Harry reaches the high notes, but there is a genuinely mournful quality to this performance. He quits singing about 45 seconds before the end of the song, sounding positively breathless, and lets the strings transition to the fadeout without him. You can’t help but think he had nothing left in the tank at that point, which makes this cover especially moving.
M. H. Stanley Intermediate School – Sandman (America cover)
While this 1977 cover by the Big and Little Choruses of M. H. Stanley Intermediate School of Lafayette California (!) starts like a more sophisticated version of the cult faves Langley Elementary School (whom we’ve lovingly written about before), it quickly veers into (delicate) mayhem. The drums grow more urgent and fierce as the song progresses, and the last minute where the choir and drums take turns “punctuating” each other is kind of a riot. Hit that cymbal, baby.
The Whims – Ventura Highway (America cover)
I know this 1974 cover of “Ventura Highway” by The Whims, an all-woman choral group, and band out of Wheaton College in Massachusetts sounds like it should be soundtracking the idyllic opening scene of a horror film involving co-eds. The song is delivered in such a faceless and matter-of-fact fashion that it can’t help but seem like a bad omen. The lack of emotion in those “I know-ooh-woah’s” is especially chilling. Where the original is infectious and optimistic, this cover is efficient and ominous. And its distinct lack of flavor is what makes it so freakin’ awesome.
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver – Don’t Cross the River (America cover)
Doyle Lawson, virtuosic mandolin player, and his equally virtuosic band kick up the tempo in their 1979 rumble through Dan Peek’s “Don’t Cross The River.” Doyle and crew reshape the breezy ‘n’ wistful “River,” into something genuinely buoyant ‘n’ lively.
Mary Scholz – Only in Your Heart (America cover)
Welcome to the first song in the “slim cover pickings” category. The McCartney-meets-Nilsson-flavored “Only in Your Heart” is sweet, but as far as America songs go, it’s strictly B-team. There are at least a dozen-plus deep cuts more worthy of inclusion on the hypothetical “30 Best America Songs Ever” list (ex. “Molten Love,” “Midnight,” and “Cornwall Blank,” all of which crush “Only in Your Heart” into dust). That said, Mary Scholz’s cover is kinda nice, a slick, delicately twanging, country-esque shuffle that offers a quietly inventive twist on the original.
Willis Alan Ramsey – Muskrat Love (America cover)
Okay, we’re gonna flip the script for this next entry–but first, a little history. Since I’ve already outed myself as an America fan, why not take it all the way: I genuinely like the Captain & Tennille. “The Way That I Want To Touch You” kills. Their version of “Love Will Keep Us Together” is a truly magnificent piece of candy (see here). Their cloying, cringe-inducing cover of “Muskrat Love,” on the other hand, is the work of Satan himself. It got as high as #4 in the Billboard pop chart and is a bridge too far in every way imaginable (the Captain’s squiggly keyboard effect representing muskrat “canoodling” is the nadir of a song that is all nadir all the time, baby). America had covered the track several years prior to C & T’s and released it as a single. The trio’s version only slithered and slimed as far #67 on the pop chart, but ended up doing quite well on the Adult Contemporary chart, getting as high as #11. This is why it is part of History.
Okay, fellow “Muskrat” haters, ready to have your mind blown (or at least shaken up a little)? Take a listen to the original 1972 version, as performed by its composer Willis Alan Ramsey on his self-titled album from that same year (fun fact: the song’s actual original title is “Muskrat Candlelight”). I heard this for the first time a few years ago, and it actually upended my hatred of the song (somewhat). I mean, it’s good. This “Muskrat” is dusty, laid-back, and home to an especially fine, warm, and raspy vocal from Ramsey. After hearing it, you’ll understand why America thought it was worthy of a cover attempt…and hate the Captain & Tennille version even more.
John Edwards – Tin Man (America cover)
Despite its title and famous line referencing the character from The Wizard of Oz, “Tin Man” wasn’t actually about the beloved film. In an interview with American Songwriter magazine in 2020, Dewey Bunnell explained that the song was just “chunks of thoughts and themes that I was putting together into a kind of mosaic. It wasn’t a common thread…The song is like surrealism…yes, we smoked some weed then.” So basically the Tin Man was one chunk that was joined together with other chunks that Bunnell wrapped together to make one intoxicating miracle pop song.
Before his stint as lead singer for the legendary Spinners, which began in 1977, John Edwards had been pursuing a solo career, releasing two albums and landing a solid handful of singles in the U.S. R & B charts. His luminous cover of “Tin Man” is a considerably funkier affair than the original (horns, strings, big drums!), but don’t worry, it’ll still get you high.
Pomplamoose – Lonely People (America cover)
With a YouTube following of 1.5 million and hundreds of covers under their belt, Pomplamoose are legends in the modern-day interpretive universe. Their 2020 take of “Lonely People” is equal parts downbeat and dirty. The bouncy piano of the original has been excised and replaced with some gorgeously twanging guitar (courtesy of John Schroeder). But what takes this cover to the next level is the smokin’, seriously swoon-worthy vocal ad-libbing by Nataly Dawn in the latter half.
Anna Ash – Sister Golden Hair (America cover)
“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.” No, I have no specific reason for starting this blurb with the opening lines of “Sister Golden Hair” other than to pay tribute to their perfectly descriptive awesomeness. “Sister” is surprisingly charming for a song about being unable to fully commit to someone but still wanting to hook-up (if that’s cool with you). Singer-songwriter Anna Ash is best known for her fine cover of the Lucinda Williams classic “Righteously,” but her cover of “Sister” is even better. Led by Ash’s emotive vibrato, it has a bit of a ’70s country meets soft rock vibe and sounds a bit like Pam Tillis singing a Jackson Browne song. Yes, it’s as dreamy good as that.
Underground – Daisy Jane (America cover)
Underground were a trio of choir mates from the Ethel Walker (High) School in Simsbury, Connecticut (with an honorary Riot guy on keys). Their cover of “Daisy Jane” is a magical combination of rudimentary, earnest execution mixed with unbridled joy. It oozes “Guys, if we want to win that talent show, we really gotta practice!” from its every pore. While Pat Beeson and Ann Haviland belt out the vocals with real commitment and determined precision, I’m most fascinated with drummer Ellen Clark and her effort to keep time. She doesn’t so much groove as hammer one nail in very slowly. It’s enthralling. Her little flourish with the sticks in the song’s last seconds is both hilarious (she wanted to show off a little after her yeoman’s work, and who can blame her? ) and unspeakably wonderful. Is this crazy old thing better than the original? No, but it’s close. Gimme a Rimshot, Ellen.
Hat Trikk– Woman Tonight (America cover)
To reiterate what we were talking about earlier, there are scant few covers of “Woman Tonight,” a song fortunate enough to have been released as a single in 1975, thus justifying its presence on History. “Woman Tonight” only got as high as #44 on the Billboard pop chart, but its lack of major success has more to do with the appeal of the song than, say, bad luck or bad timing. It hasn’t been covered much because it just ain’t a stellar America song. This cover by Hat Trikk is sweet and sincere and that’s about all you can ask for or expect.
Fun fact: the illustration of America on the cover of History was done by the late comic actor (and forever Troy McClure) Phil Hartman, who was working as a graphic artist specializing in album covers at the time and whose brother was managing the band!
P.S. If you are not a soft rock fan, I want to thank you. The fact that you were open-minded and tough enough to reach this part of the essay means that you are not only a music nerd but, in the eyes of Cover Me, a true friend and champion. But we aren’t ready to give up. I heartily, emphatically invite you to read Soul In The Middle Of the Road, our feature about Soul and R & B covers of ’70s soft rock songs starring Carla Thomas, the Isley Brothers, Donny Hathaway, and many other wonderful artists. Hearing the Isleys transform “Fire and Rain” into an epic anthem, or hearing Donny turn “You’ve Got a Friend” into a maniacally rousing hymn, may not change your life, but I promise you, it will definitely make it better. Check it out here.
Did Neil Young ever record a cover of Horse With No Name?
Great one. First, I fancy myself a bit of a Nilsson obsessive, and I have “That’s How It Is,” but didn’t realize he covers America on it… that was interesting. Lots of other interesting ones here too. And for all who don’t have that one Willis Alan Ramsey album, run don’t walk to get it. To me, he’s a bit like Harper Lee – hit a home run with his debut, then never recorded another album the rest of his life. (He’s still living.)
Yo, Hope. The “horse”’in question is heroin. It’s a song about kicking, which makes it even a greater trial to enjoy given that it was written and performed by guys who would likely pass out from getting their blood drawn. But the song metaphor is true – they admitted it years later in interviews and – I’m real sorry for the rest of this sentence but it has to be said: I met one of the guys and…got it confirmed from the horse’s mouth. I said I was sorry.