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.
– FIN –
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!