Friday, June 24, 2011

June 24: The Guess Who, "American Woman"

Artist: The Guess Who
Song: "American Woman"
Album: American Woman
Year: 1970

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Though they are few and far between in the larger picture of the overall history of recorded music, one is often left to wonder whether a band is aware of the magnitude of their efforts whilst in the process of creating a song that will go on to be named an "all time great."  While some groups have made comments that they knew it was "something special," there are just as many that claim to have been shocked when the song in question reaches such iconic status.  Yet in most cases, one can see the group itself building to such a moment as their career progresses and their sound develops, and the situations where it seems to "come out of nowhere" are far fewer.  However, even though they had already had a number of moderate hits, it was not until The Guess Who made a drastic shift in their sound that they became the legends that they remain to this day.  Furthermore, their best selling song was about as accidental as one could possibly imagine, forming out of an impromptu jam session one evening on stage.  More than forty years later, the song remains as powerful and iconic as it did when it was first released, and many aspects of the song would become the key elements to the "arena rock" sound that dominated a majority of the 1970's.  From it's iconic riff to the somewhat controversial lyrics, there is no other song in history that can boast the same groove and musical prowess that one can experience on The Guess Who's unforgettable 1970 single, "American Woman."

When it comes to unmistakable guitar riffs, the one that Randy Bachman plays at the top of "American Woman" can easily be argued as one of the greatest of all time.  There is instantly a slinky, almost sensual swagger to the song, and few other recordings have been able to achieve such a distinctive groove.  On many levels, it is this sway that defines the decade that had just passed, and the slight distortion that his guitar brings makes the riff nothing short of perfect.  The downbeat emphasis brought by drummer Garry Peterson quickly builds a superb level of tension, and when the song drops into the main section, it is largely his efforts that make it so dramatic.  Bassist Jim Kale delivers the finest performance of his career, and it is within his playing where the groove of the song resides, as he is able t bring an amazing level of depth to the circling progression.  Yet aside from the guitar riff, "American Woman" may be best known for the almost wild keyboard playing from Burton Cummings.  Again making a close tie to the psychedelic sound, it presents a fantastic compliment to Bachman's playing, whilst also giving the song an amazing amount of width.  As a combined sound, there is a clear sense of blues influence, and yet there is also an overall amount of grandeur within the song, and it is this element that one can see becoming the cornerstone of what would become the "arena rock" sound.

Furthering the blueprint for that sound, Burton Cummings' vocals on "American Woman" remain some of the finest ever captured on tape.  The passion and energy that he brings to the track are absolutely infectious, and even after hearing the song countless times, they are just as invigorating.  Cummings easily works all across the vocal scale, and there are even moments where one cannot help but compare the tone and pitch of his voice to that of Robert Plant.  Yet Cummings keeps his sound completely unique, and the link to the blues influence comes through most clearly in his frustrated, but pointed delivery.  This is one of the finest examples of a musician completely giving into the music, as one can only listen in awe during the points where Cummings shows an amazing level of control, whilst still delivering with full strength.  However, while his performance is absolutely amazing, the song was met with a bit of controversy due to the seemingly "anti-American" lyrics which he sings.  With lines like, "... don’t come ganging around my door, I don’t want to see your face no more...," one can understand why this interpretation was so popular among many "anti rock" crowds.  Yet if one delves deeper into the song, the social critique becomes more clear, especially in the lines, "...I don’t need your war machines, I don’t need your ghetto scenes..."  Truth be told, the lyrics were written after the band returned home to their "small town" after many shows in large US cities, and the words reflect their want to leave that "dark chaos" behind.

It is almost ironic that even with the rather pointed lyrics, "American Woman" topped the charts in the US, and it stands as the biggest hit for The Guess Who.  As the decades have passed, the song has become nothing short of a standard in rock music, and it has been covered by everyone from Lenny Kravitz to The Butthole Surfers to Krokus.  The fact that such a wide range of artists have made their own versions is a testament to how far "American Woman" was able to stretch beyond "just rock," and one can easily hear the songs' influence in a number of hard rock acts that followed.  Strangely enough, when one looks at the overall catalog of The Guess Who, "American Woman" is a bit of an oddity, as until that point, the band had been recording some of the finest, more ballad-based psychedelic songs that one can find.  However, "American Woman" shows that truly talented artists can shift their style as they see fit, and one can understandably draw the conclusion that The Guess Who were a hard rock band from day one.  So many aspects of the song have become ingrained into culture, as the riff is one of the few that "everyone" knows, and the vocals of Burton Cummings are almost equal in their universal appeal.  The fact that this all came from a jam session on stage proves the fact that in most cases, one cannot predict from where greatness will arise, and even more than four decades later, there are few songs that are of equal sound and stature to The Guess Who's magnificent 1970 single, "American Woman."

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