Naming The Horse With No Name

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Songs that lend a voice to the equestrian world in a way only music can.

A Tails Behind The Tunes Installment

When I first introduced the 100% Sound column, I promised to avoid those horse songs that were overworked or not really about horses at all, and I have no intention of going back on that promise now.  But in my musical travels for my playlists, I cannot help but to uncover the true stories and legacies behind these hits.  I’d like to share some of the intriguing tales with you.

Given the deep freeze that has taken over much of North America, I will begin with a so-called ‘horse song’ about escaping some bad weather for the bone dry desert air. I’m talking about, of course, America’s “A Horse With No Name.”  Take a listen to refresh your memory on the tune.

America – Horse With No Name

The song was written by America band member Dewey Bunnell in an attempt to mentally distance himself from the relentless English rain.  You see America the band was actually formed in England by three sons of U.S. services men who were stationed there.  So despite their sunshine pop sound, these boys actually knew a lot more about rain showers.

But, Bunnell’s childhood also included time at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California’s high desert and drives through Arizona and New Mexico.  It was these images that he fondly remembered when he penned “A Horse With No Name.”  Now that all makes sense, but it doesn’t answer the question: “What’s with the horse?!”

Salvador Dali Savage Beasts in the Desert

Salvador Dali – Savage Beasts in the Desert

And that’s because the lyrical inspiration for “A Horse With No Name” came from not one, but three places. The first was Bunnell’s actual desert experiences, but the other two were more artistic in nature, and that’s where the horse comes in!

On the walls of Arthur Brown’s home studio, where Bunnell was writing, there were two notable works of art.  One was a painting by Salvador Dali that depicted a desert scene.  While it’s unclear exactly what work it was, I’m willing to go out on a limb and guess it was Dali’s “Savage Beasts in the Desert.”  I spy “plants and birds and rocks and things,” in this painting.  Not to mention horses! Click on the picture for a closer look.

M.C. Escher - Horseman (No. 67)

M.C. Escher – Horseman (No. 67)

The other work that hung in Brown’s studio was by M.C. Escher.  Bunnell has been quoted as saying he was also writing about “the strange horse” that was ridden in an M.C. Escher picture.  I bet it was Escher’s Horseman (No. 67), as seen to the left.  Those certainly are unusual horses.

The one thing Bunnell adamantly denies is that this classic is about drug use.  “Horse” can be a slang term for heroin, and given that this song came out in the early ‘70s, many listeners were skeptical that there wasn’t a hidden meaning.  In fact, several radio stations refused to play the song based on the mere implication of impropriety.  But Bunnell, particularly in later years, is much more thoughtful on the metaphorical meaning of the horse: “I see now that this anonymous horse was a vehicle to get me away from all the confusion and chaos of life to a peaceful, quiet place.”  Sounds like the work of a real horse to me, albeit one in desperate need of a name!

So what should we call this desert horse of infinite fame?  I think we should call him ‘Artist.’  After all, he was born out of master works, served as the inspiration for one chart-topping song in the 70s, and continues to spur creativity today.

Case in point – the lead single “Southern Sun,” from 100% Sound playlist artist Boy & Bear’s new album Harlequin Dream.  “It’s a really simple song,” says lead singer Dave Hosking. “I was always fascinated by something like America’s ‘Horse with No Name’. The song is only two chords, but it’s completely captivating. That was in my mind. The longer I do this, the more I appreciate subtlety in music.”  Can you detect the similarities?

Boy & Bear – Southern Sun

“A Horse With No Name” may be used way too often on equine playlists, it’s true, but for my part, I think I still love you my ‘Artist.’  Play on!

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