The Guess Who’s ‘American Woman’ Album: Distant Roads Are Calling

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The Guess Who's 'American Woman' album

By early 1970, the Guess Who had established themselves as a true force on Top 40 radio—with “These Eyes,” “Laughing,” and “Undun” solidifying the Canadian band’s reputation as masters of the three-minute pop song. The group aspired to something more, however, and with the American Woman album, they achieved it. Sporting a heavier musical vibe and tackling weightier themes, the record helped carve a niche for the band among its harder rocking peers. Guitarist Randy Bachman and frontman Burton Cummings wrote nearly all the material for the album. Jim Kale (bass, backing vocals) and Garry Peterson (drums, backing vocals, percussion) filled out the band’s lineup.

“We always wanted to have a harder sound,” explained Bachman, speaking with this author for a 2001 feature that appeared in Performing Songwriter. “We fought like mad not to have ‘These Eyes’ released as our first single, because we didn’t want to be viewed as a ballad band. But when ‘These Eyes’ became a million-seller, the record company asked us to write another song like that one.

The original scribbled out lyrics for “No Time”

“When ‘Laughing’ came out, we were very fortunate that radio programmers flipped it over and started playing ‘Undun,’ which was the B-side. That song helped bridge a gap for us, and put us into a new arena.”

The first single from American Woman was “No Time,” a re-recorded version of a track featured on the band’s previous album, Canned Wheat. Released before the new album was completed, the song peaked at #5 on the charts, ramping up expectations for the forthcoming LP.

When American Woman hit record stores in January 1970, however, it was the title track that created the biggest stir. Structured around a heavy guitar riff worked up by Bachman during a concert jam, and featuring a menacing vocal from Cummings, the song homed in on what the band viewed as the social and political havoc wreaked by the Nixon administration.

Listen to the five-minute version of the title track

“A lot of people thought ‘American Woman’ was addressing the woman on the street,” explains Bachman, “but it wasn’t at all. The band had witnessed all the desolation going on in America, where there were hardly any young men in any of the towns we went to. They had all been drafted. We would see 18-year-old guys at the airports, with their buzz cuts and their uniforms, with their fathers telling them how proud they were, and their mothers and sisters in tears. It was heartbreaking. So instead of singing ‘Uncle Sam, stay away from me,’ or ‘Richard Nixon, stay away from me,’ it was ‘American woman.’ RCA actually released a piece of promotion that showed a New York alley filled with litter, and at the back of the alley was the Statue of Liberty, holding up the torch. Fortunately, by the time radio and the government understood that the song was an anti-war song, it had already reached #1,” which it did on May 9, 1970. Both the album and single, cut down to 3:50, were certified Gold by the RIAA on May 22.

Related: The top radio hits of 1970

An early promo photo of the Guess Who

An early Guess Who publicity photo

Following the explosive one-two punch of the title track and “No Time,” American Woman settles into an eclectic mix that showcases the growing maturation of Bachman and Cummings as songwriters. “Talisman” features Cummings singing the words to a poem he had written two years earlier, as Bachman provides classical-style accompaniment on acoustic guitar. “969” finds Bachman rocking out on a blues instrumental spiced by a jazzy break played on the flute. With the exception of the title song, however, it’s the inventive “combination” track, “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature,” that shines most brightly. A melding of two distinct tunes into a “round,” of sorts, the composition resulted from a bit of serendipity.

“Burton and I often brought pieces of songs to one another,” observes Bachman. “We would write great half-songs, which is what most co-writers do. Or maybe you write a third, and your partner writes a third, and then you work on the last third together. In this instance, I brought Burton what I thought was a really weird song. It was in F#, which is a really strange key for the guitar. I played it for him, and he was like, ‘Hey that’s a complete song.’ Then Burton told me he had a song written in F#, which was also weird, to have a piano-based song in that key.”

Bachman continues: “Somehow, at that point, I got the idea that we should play both songs together. I started singing ‘No Sugar Tonight,’ and as I finished each line, Burton would answer me. It was just one of those magical things. We decided to do one of the songs, and then do the other, and then overlap them. The idea was that it would be like the Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life,’ where you have two different parts, in different tempos.”

Related: Bachman talked to us about the Guess Who’s early days

Decades after it first hit record stores, American Woman remains an essential cog in the classic rock lexicon. “No Time,” “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature,” and the title track continue to occupy prime spots on countless playlists for classic rock radio. Moreover, in 1999, Lenny Kravitz topped the charts with an inventive reworking of “American Woman,” bringing a fresh perspective to the Guess Who’s place in rock history.

True, in the wake of the record’s release, Bachman broke away from the Guess Who, going on to find success with Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

Related: Our interview with Bachman on BTO

Still, American Woman stands as a testament to what a great songwriting partnership can yield.

Watch a performance of “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature” at the 2001 Juno Awards

“We knew if both of us liked something, it was better than if one of us liked it,” recalls Bachman. “I would play something for him, and maybe not see a reaction, and then I would play something else and would see a reaction. And the same applied for him, with me. We would put those positive reactions together, and we knew we had something. We would look for that glint in one another’s eyes.”

Watch the Guess Who performing the title track on The Midnight Special in 1974

An extensive Bachman Cummings collection is available here.

In recent years, Bachman and Cummings reunited for several concerts. They’re performing separately in 2024. Bachman is touring as BTO with tickets available here and here. Cummings is doing his first U.S. tour in several years. Tickets are available here.

Russell Hall

12 Comments so far

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  1. Scott
    #1 Scott 30 September, 2016, 21:56

    Burton Cummings had the quintessential rock voice. It’s really a shame the group didn’t last longer.

    Reply this comment
    • JCB
      JCB 10 May, 2019, 10:55

      Sad they are not in the R+R Hall of Fame, they certainly belong there. Cummings voice is incredible. His first solo album is a classic.

      Reply this comment
      • The Csar
        The Csar 17 February, 2021, 08:26

        Absolutely correct, this was a great band that did not get the respect that they were due. Great songs, wonderful performances and story. Saw Burton once on his own and he was a masterful story teller.

        Reply this comment
        • Hart Man
          Hart Man 10 May, 2021, 02:36

          Bachman and Cummings contributions to Rock&Roll from the 60s to now, with a catalog of music written by them that has sold 10s of millions of records. Decades of concerts. If these accomplishments don’t qualify them for the Rock Hall of Fame. Then the Hall of fame has NO Credibility.

          Reply this comment
          • zipper
            zipper 2 February, 2022, 11:19

            So damned true.

  2. Adrian
    #2 Adrian 12 June, 2017, 10:39

    I always thought Burton’s sarcastic lyrical wit was what largely made The Guess Who. Ended up getting a few of their albums

    Reply this comment
    • 122intheshade
      122intheshade 20 February, 2021, 23:42

      The inner sleeve to “So Long, Bannatyne” is a classic. Yeah, the band had a wit as wide as Canada.

      Reply this comment
      • 122intheshade
        122intheshade 10 May, 2021, 20:04

        SL,B and Something/Anything. Inner sleeves worth the price alone. An immortal recording, featuring the timeless advice: “You can’t go fidd-halin’ . . . without . . . yer bow.”

        Reply this comment
        • The Flow
          The Flow 28 January, 2022, 10:27

          I was just telling my wife about Fidlin’ the other day, played it for her and she loved it. Cummings is The Voice of rock imho even better than Paul Rodgers.

          Reply this comment
  3. Kfall
    #3 Kfall 17 February, 2021, 21:46

    Great band. Definitely deserve to be in hall of fame! Great songs. Underated!

    Reply this comment
  4. phil
    #4 phil 6 May, 2022, 17:22

    The cut belongs on the Richard Nixon Memorial Album, along with ‘Welfare Cadillac’ ..

    Reply this comment
  5. BMac
    #5 BMac 10 May, 2024, 11:33

    As much as I wish Bachman could’ve stayed with The Guess Who, there was a lot of the Kurt Winter stuff I loved so much. If Bachman had stayed, we wouldn’t have had “Bus Rider”, “Hand Me Down World”, “Do You Miss Me Darlin'” and many others.

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