Coloured Lights Can Hypnotize: American Woman at 50

Bolstered by its era-defining title track, The Guess Who’s sixth studio album confirmed the band’s legacy amongst the cream of Canadian rock

Vintage Guess Who art poster

It isn’t as if the Guess Who hadn’t already made a formidable impression with their neighbors to the south.

In fact, by the time the band released their sixth album, American Woman, in January 1970, they could boast the fact that they’d become one of the most successful Canadian bands in rock history. From 1968 on, they scored a succession of hits that found steady placement on the AM airwaves, beginning with the hypnotic tones of “These Eyes” and continuing quickly with other equally enticing chart contenders, including “Laughing, “Undun” and “No Time.” Their handle aside, there was no need to guess whether or not the Guess Who were certified hitmakers.

While many bands in their position could base album sales on the strength of the singles those discs contained, the Guess Who were developing a burgeoning reputation as more than radio mainstays, a group that was cognizant of the need to conceptualize their efforts in order to gain FM acceptance as well. A series of albums from 1969 onward — namely Wheatfield Soul, Canned Wheat, American Woman and Share the Land — found them attempting to gain equal standing with their American cousins who were attempting to stir some social consciousness and provide compelling anthems that could rally the masses at the same time. 

Recorded between August and November 1969, American Woman was the Guess Who’s farewell to the ‘60s and a harder edged effort than its predecessors. The title tune was a staunch, somewhat strident cast-off to either (A) a lover who grown dismissive and impervious or (B) an indictment of U.S. foreign policy, particularly the war in Vietnam. Over the succeeding decades the band members have weighed in on both sides of the debate, while leaving it to listeners to determine its exact meaning. What is known is that when the band were invited to perform at the White House by President Richard Nixon, First Lady Pat Nixon asked them not to include the song in their set. Then again, that request could have been attributed to the fact it came across as simply a blanket putdown to begin with. Nevertheless, it’s said the song began spontaneously at a jam session when Randy Bachman started improvising a riff and realized he had the beginnings of a song.

The Guess Who American Woman, RCA 1970

That title tune was one of several songs on the album that bolstered The Guess Who’s hit-making potential. It also featured a remake of the furious rocker “No Time,” which had been previously been included on their preceding album Canned Wheat; the newer version being the one that would go on to scale the charts. “No Sugar Tonight,” offered in a medley with “New Mother Nature” as a means of stretching the song out, maintained the band’s edgy intents. It was culled from the album as the B-side of “American Woman” and eventually attained hit status on its own. 

Other songs of note included “969 (The Oldest Man),” an obtuse instrumental, and “When Friends Fall Out,” a somewhat ironic title given the fact that core member, singer, songwriter and guitarist Randy Bachman would leave the group following the album’s release.

Today, some 50 years later, American Woman still remains a critical effort in the Guess Who’s trajectory. Number one in their home country and a top ten entry in the U.S., it solidified their stance as an iconic ensemble whose music was destined to stand the test of time. 

 

VIDEO: The Guess Who perform “American Woman” live 1970

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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