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Adventures Through The Mines Of Mellow Gold 45

Well, howdy again, folks, and welcome back to another not-so-exciting wusspedition!  (I just made that word up!)  Today’s another one of my favorites from the early ’80s!

America – You Can Do Magic (download)

America has received the Mellow Gold treatment here before: who can forget good old MG #38 and the
The Sixth Day Of Mellowmas?  So while I don’t have to supply you with any history on the two main men of America – Gerry Buckley and Dewey Bunnell – I do maintain that "You Can Do Magic" deserves its own entry.  There are various reasons why, and they’re apparent from the minute the song begins.  Take a listen, won’t you?  Those wimpy drums, reminiscent of Robbie Dupree’s "Steal Away," let us know exactly what what’s in store: gentle, gentle rocking.  I mean, you can’t actually have a real rocker if Gerry Buckley’s going to sing.  His enunciation and vocal quality just screams whispers "I’m meek!"  And take a listen to those smooth harmonies!  The piano!  The triangle!  The frickin’ triangle, ferchrissakes!  It’s weak.  Weeeeeaaaak.

And yet, "You Can Do Magic" is the most daring single ever released by America.  Why?  Because of its harsh language, of course.  You know what I’m talking about.  It’s the second part of the chorus.  That one line that pierces through all of us, thanks to the filthy, filthy mouth of Gerry Buckley.

You know darn well when you cast your spell

A few months ago, I was having dinner with a bunch of relatives.  My aunt was telling me that she enjoys reading my website, but every once in a while, covers her eyes and says to herself "that can’t be my Jason writing that."  She’s talking about those moments where I’m all fuck this, fuck that, fuck fuck fuckity fuck fuck.  So what I’m wondering is: who in America has an aunt that made them feel guilty?  Because that’s what I want to believe.  I want to believe that the first version of this song went something like "you know muthafuckin’ well when you cast your spell, beeyotch," but they changed it due to external circumstances.  Because what I’m really afraid of is that the conversation went more like this, in yet another segment of Mellow Gold Theatre:

1982.  Capitol Studios, Hollywood, California.  In the room:  Gerry Buckley, Dewey Bunnell, and some other guys in the band that nobody gives a shit about.  The band is in the middle of a heated discussion about how to make America relevant again.

Beckley:  You guys, it’s 1982!  Times are changing!  We haven’t had a single since our lame cover of "California Dreamin’" three years ago!  If we want to keep up with the times, we need to be different!  Edgy!  Daring!

Bunnell:  Well, Gerry, what do you suggest, exactly?

Beckley:  I suggest we say a naughty word.

Stunned silence from all parties.

Beckley:  I’m serious.  What if we say…."darn?"

Bunnell, with tears in his eyes, storms out of the room.

Twenty minutes go by.  The rest of the band sits there.  The audacious suggestion hangs in the air.

Finally, Bunnell re-enters the studio.

Bunnell:  I say we do it.

Beckley:  Dewey!  But…are you sure?

Bunnell:  Darn sure, Gerry.

Other d-bags in band:  Yaaaayyyy!

The duo hug and kiss on the lips.  All is well in America.


Of course, this never happened.  (Shocked, aren’t you?)  In reality, "You Can Do Magic" was written by Russ Ballard, former leader of Argent (he left before "Hold Your Head Up") and writer of songs such as "God Gave Rock And Roll To You" and Rainbow’s totally awesome "Since You’ve Been Gone."  He also wrote and performed on some Roger Daltrey solo albums, but won’t admit to it even if you put a gun to his head.  Anyway, here’s how it all went down:  America manager Jim Morey was well aware that the band was fading fast; their last album, Alibi, was their third American hitless release, and peaked at #142.  Morey contacted Ballard, who had written a song for Alibi, and asked him for a few more, since clearly Beckley and Bunnell weren’t cuttin’ it.  Ballard gave the band a song called "Jody," and this one.  The duo heard the demo and knew instantly it was perfect for the group.  As Bunnell said, "
There wasn’t a doubt in our minds that that was the single, and if that didn’t make it, then something was really wrong."

Ballard flew over to Abbey Road Studios in London, recorded the entirety of the track on his own, then brought Beckley and Bunnell over to sing.  That’s right:  for a period in the early ’80s, America became The Monkees.  But no matter:  Ballard had written the song exactly in the style of America, right down to the guitar sound and the full harmonies. 

I do think he could have done a little bit better with the lyrics, though.  I don’t know why, but I almost always tune out the words whenever I hear this song.  Seriously, I hear the words "doubt," "darn," "well," "spell," "hypnotize," "eyes," and that’s it.  In fact that last line of the chorus always eluded me:  "A heart of stone can turn to…" what?  Gay?  Taint?  I swear I have never been able to make out this word.  Turns out it’s "clay."  Looking at the lyrics, I realize Ballard had to rhyme with the word "way," but seriously, the heart turns to clay?  CLAY?  Whose heart turns to clay, Russ?  Really?  Why not just break the rhyme?  How about "dust?"  Or "dirt?"  Or "shit?"  (Sing that last one to yourself.)

Regardless of the lyrics, "You Can Do Magic" gave the band the comeback they so desperately needed:  in October of ’82, the song reached #8 on the charts, making it their first Top 10 since "Sister Golden Hair."  And although the accompanying album View From The Ground didn’t crack the Top 40 (#41…d’oh!), the band still had a certified hit on their hands.  They even filmed a video – and you know it’s gonna be good when, in retrospect, Bunnell says "we missed the boat on videos."


Look at this!  Four fucking freaking guitarists in the video, and not one person on a piano.  I don’t know what I love more: the adorable collection of pastel shirts, the drummer who clearly lost a drumstick up his butt somewhere, Beckley’s glasses that, once again, threaten to swallow his face whole, Bunnell’s stripey shirt and the way he bounces up and down, and…wait a minute, that totally looks like me!  Except for the facial hair, which I can’t grow!  I love the early-’80s production values as well: the random cuts to "magic hands," the fact that they’re playing on some sort of cloud, and the lead guitarist is ripping that riff so damn hard that smoke is appearing by his feet…let’s face it, it’s perfect.  And by perfect, I mean horrible.

I kid, though.  I love "You Can Do Magic."  Against all odds, it does somehow rock a little, and you really can’t go wrong with those terrific America harmonies.  So forget about the fact that Buckley and Bunnell were clearly just Ballard’s puppets: the song gave them another well-deserved shot at success.  And isn’t Mellow Gold better when it has a happy ending?  (Of course not, but I have to end this entry somehow.)

See you next week for more wussy music!

  • Old Davy

    Obviously, you’ve never heard "Sister Golden Hair"?  "Well I tried to make it Sunday, but I got so damn depressed".  (Sorry ’bout the naughty language, Jason’s aunt.)

  • David

    Yes! Not only was this one of my first 45 purchases, but it also represents the return of THE MIGHTY WOOD BLOCK!

    All hail its hollow clonk …

  • I’ve heard "Sister Golden Hair" (see Mellow Gold 38) but the "damn" is relatively understated.  The "darn" in this song is pointed (and repeated), like it’s meant for some kind of serious emphasis.  (Also, it was just a joke.)  Good point, though.

  • Um, did the drummer just take one drum lesson before joining the band? 

  • Is it just me, or is someone playing the typewriter on this song?  I know it’s triangles or synths or something, but after "you can do magic", it’s like someone has reached the end of the line while typing a document on an old non-computer-related typewriter.  This has always bothered me.

    Maybe it’s just me.

    P.S.  I am old enough to remember typewriters.

  • Dw Dunphy

    Quit picking on the video! It’s Def Leppard, after all! Look at that axe shredding! The one-armed drummer! Gerry Friggin’ Beckley! That’s Def Leppard, alright! Oh, my… This song is so flaccid in a penile sort of way, but it fits in with Capitol Records’ fascination with the dark arts during this time period (Steve Miller’s "Abracadabra" was around about the same time, I believe). And finally, with glasses like those, it’s a wonder Beckley never accidentally set his face on fire in the summertime.

  • I think the drummer is just soft rock’s answer to Keith Moon and his don’t-give-a-crap-about-lip-syncing attitude. He’s clearly making shit up, and he’s not flattered by the ’80s democratic attitude of sharing screen time among the band members. The bassist, bless his heart, is actually trying to replicate the part — which, to be fair, is easily the most active in the song.

    The dueling strummed guitars reminds me of Pete Yorn and his band. I think he actually had four guitarists, NOT including the bassist. One guy strummed an acoustic through the whole show, and I’m convinced I didn’t hear a single note.

  • Oh — and Schmoe? Yes, I always thought it sounded like a typewriter, too. Of course, I always thought claves sounded like glasses clinking for a toast.

  • I thought Rod Argent was the leader of Argent – that’s why they were called Argent and not Ballard.

  • Beats me.  I make 90% of this stuff up.

  • Old Davy

    When I was a kid, you could say "darn" around my mother, but "damn" got you a couple swacks with the fly-swatter on the be-hind.At least the line isn’t "You know DANG well when you cast your spell…"

  • Jane

    I loved Abracadabra.
    And I like this song, too, but they are wayyyyyy too happy to be singing it. The video needs some angst. I don’t know how you segue from “magic hands” to angst, but that might help.
    Now Beckley looks less like Anthony Michael Hall and more like Peter Cetera …. An angst-less Peter Cetera, though.

  • Ah Jason. The very first piece of music I ever owned. (I was 2 years old.) Then my sister got at me and snapped the 45 in half. Bitch. At least she left my Steel Breeze alone.

  • 360 sound

    Yes, Ballard was in Argent, but it was Rod Argent’s band. Russ Ballard also did a killer song a couple of years after this event called "Voices".                                                                                            Voices… I hear voices……

  • Ann

    LMAO at that video!!  Especially those huge glasses and the "magic hands."  And they all look constipated, not just the drummer.  Hilarious!

  • "The duo hug and kiss on the lips.  All is well in America."

    That made me laugh and laugh and laugh.  Because you know it’s true.  George Martin turned a blind eye to it in the ’70s, but you know he was thinking, "These guys get way too excited when they come up with a good idea. I really miss John and Paul rolling their eyes at each other."

    Good call on the typewriter sound too, Schmoe.  Did "The Simpsons" ever feature an animated version of Beckley with those huge glasses?  I feel like they did, but maybe I’m wrong.

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  • Karen

    Only an idiot would say those horrible things about the band America. They are and have been a great and wonderful band that has made many people happy with their music. Just because you don’t like ‘You can do magic’, doesn’t mean you have to say mean things about the band. Gerry’s voice is beautiful. I LOVE his singing. Their sound is what many people like about them. Why do things always have to have angst in them and filthy language? I hate when that is in music or when people even talk like that. There is something really wrong with folks like that. I’m not crazy about ‘ You can do magic’, but most ALL their other music is great no matter what you say or think. It’s refreshing and what all music should be more like. They all play harder in some songs, but that’s not mostly what the bands about, it’s what they like to do (like CSN&Y, Beatles, Eagles, etc.)and people love that. They combine a lot of different elements in their stuff and it’s all great no matter what horrible people like yourself think. I’d love to see you write all those songs (and hits) that they did and worked so hard on. They produced much of their own albums early on themselves which included hits, before any of that Ballard stuff (or even George Martin for that matter). If they were crap as you incinuate, I doubt Martin would have bothered with them at all. FYI, they are really from the early 70’s (not 80’s) initially and Dan Peek was the other guy in the band…another great singer. WE LOVE AMERICA! (the band) You’re just obviously jealous of them. AMERICA ROCKS! softly a lot of the time, but we LOVE THAT!!!!

  • Tony M

    No offense, Karen, but I think you missed where he emphatically expresses love for the song. The entire point of the series is to rationalize the appreciation for a style of music that has been deemed unfashionable. “We kid because we love”, as someone who isn’t me once said.