This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #187: American Woman by The Guess Who.
Well, lookie, lookie! A Canadian band makes it into the top 40% of the greatest songs of all-time! Normally, the national origin of the artist or band in question doesn’t hold much currency but, in the case of The Guess Who, it is actually one of the principle reasons the song, “American Woman” ever came to be in the first place.
I don’t think this statement is as true now as it was when I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s but, there was a time when the true level of success for a Canadian band was measured in how successful they were in the United States. Lots of “stars” made it big in America, such as Paul Anka, Hank Snow, Neil Young, Joni MItchell and Leonard Cohen, to name but a few. And, because they were big stars in America, we made them even bigger stars back home in Canada. However, in more recent times, the opposite effect is almost becoming true. Take, for example, a band like The Tragically Hip. They had some success in the U.S. but, whatever success they had there paled in comparison to how they were viewed here in Canada. In fact, it was almost their very Canadianism that made them so beloved in their homeland. But, it took awhile for Canadians to embrace their own, as it were, without that band needing the badge of honour that was, success in America.
The funny thing about The Guess Who is that they were a success in the US but, they decided that life in the US didn’t agree with them and so, they turned their back on America to a certain degree. The Guess Who were comprised of singer, Burton Cummings, lead guitarist, Randy Bachman, bassist, Jim Kale and drummer, Garry Peterson. By the time “American Woman” was released (and the B-side single, “No Sugar Tonight”), they had already scored several Top Ten hits with “These Eyes” and “Laughing” and had earned multiple Gold records. Their time touring the US coincided with the Summer of Love, the Vietnam War and so on. The band was even invited, as the “token Commonwealthers” to perform at The White House when British Royalty was in Washington for a State visit. However, as big as The Guess Who were becoming in America, the guys in the band found America to be a little too bold for their liking. They were, also, repulsed by all of the violence associated with The Vietnam War and the counter protests that were occurring all through the US. And, as much as the song, “American Woman” can come across as being anti-American, Burton Cummings has been quoted as saying that the song was meant to actually be a pro-Canadian song. It was a song that had the guys casting a furtive glance back across the border and contrasting how great they found life in Canada in comparison to the brashness of America.
The song, itself, came to be because of a fortuitous moment of improvisation by Randy Bachman. The Guess Who were playing a show at a curling club(!) in Scarborough when Randy Bachman broke one of the strings on his guitar. Back in those days, there were no guitar techs or multiple guitars at his disposal so, in order to repair the guitar, the band had to temporarily stop the show. Once Bachman had replaced the string, he began tuning the new string by playing a riff that he had been fooling around with during rehearsals. As he fooled around with the riff and his tuning, the audience began to cheer and applaud. Garry Peterson, the drummer, leaped back on stage and starting drumming in time with Bachman’s guitar. Burton Cummings rejoined the band in mid-jam and started improvising lyrics off of the top of his head. Well, that riff and those lyrics, eventually, became the iconic opening of a song that they would eventually called, “American Woman”. Luckily, a teenager in the crowd was tape recording their show in order to make a bootleg copy of the concert. The band were able to get their hands on that tape, copy down the exact words Cummings had used and away to the races went The Guess Who. “American Woman” became the very first #1 hit by a Canadian band. It did so, even though the lyrics seem to put America down. The reality seemed to be that many American music listeners liked hearing a song with “American” in the title and happily rocked out to it. As for The Guess Who, they claimed that some of their favourite shows were ones held in Canadian border towns, when a large segment of the audience would be US Draft Dodgers who reallllllly appreciated this song.
So, sometimes we, as Canadians, would only accept a singer or band as being “great” if they made it in America. The Guess Who were one of the first to come back home and tell Canadians that, you know what, we are happy enough spending our time right here in Canada. It reminds me of those lines from the John Mellencamp song, “Small Town”:
“No, I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me.
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be.
Got nothing against the Big Town.
Still hayseed enough to say, “Look who’s in the Big Town”.
But, my bed is in a small town
And that’s good enough for me.”
It was good enough for the boys from The Guess Who, too. So, without further ado, here is the first Canadian song by a band to reach #1 in the US, “American Woman” by The Guess Who. A success by any measure but, to The Guess Who, their greatest success may have been having the gumption to turn their backs on commercial success in the US and simply, come home.. Here is “American Woman”. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “American Woman” by The Guess Who, can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Guess Who, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.