VIDEO of The Accidental Origin of the Hit Song ‘American Woman’
The song “American Woman” by The Guess Who wasn’t ever supposed to happen. It wasn’t planned, staged or pre-mediated. Yet you all know the iconic riff. Sometimes all it takes for a hit song to form is an accident, a bit of luck and a whole lot of inspiration. For Randy Bachman and The Guess Who, that’s exactly what happened.
Cover of the 1970 German single
|Single by The Guess Who|
|from the album American Woman|
|B-side||“No Sugar Tonight“|
|Recorded||August 13, 1969|
|The Guess Who singles chronology|
“American Woman” is a song released by the Canadian rock band The Guess Who in January 1970, from their sixth studio album of the same name. It was later released in March 1970 as a single backed with “No Sugar Tonight“, which reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100.Billboard magazine placed the single at number three on the Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1970 list. On May 22, 1970, the single was certified as gold by the RIAA.
The song‘s origins took the form of a live jam that emerged during a curling rink concert in Southern Ontario (various recollections include Kitchener and Mississauga, while Burton Cummings, the lead singer, recalls the curling rink was “The Broom and Stone”—a popular Scarborough location for concerts at the time). When Bachman broke a string he unknowningly played the riff to American Woman when tuning the replacement string. He played it louder and Cummings improvised the lyrics to fit what Bachman was playing. They liked what they had played and noticed a kid with a cassette recorder making a bootleg recording and asked him for the tape. The subsequent studio recording features the original almost completely unchanged; only a few lines were added.
In an interview with Randy Bachman in Songfacts he elaborated further, calling this “an antiwar protest song,” explaining that when they came up with it on stage, the band and the audience had a problem with the Vietnam War. Said Bachman: “We had been touring the States. This was the late ’60s, one time at the US/Canadian border they tried to draft us and send us to Vietnam. We were back in Canada, playing in the safety of Canada where the dance is full of draft dodgers who’ve all left the States”.
Cummings (the song’s lyricist) insists it has nothing to do with American pride. “What was on my mind was that girls in the States seemed to get older quicker than our girls and that made them, well, dangerous.” Cummings told theToronto Star in 2014. “When I said ‘American woman, stay away from me,’ I really meant ‘Canadian woman, I prefer you.’ It was all a happy accident.”
Interpretations of the lyrics
The song’s lyrics have been the matter of some debate, often interpreted as an attack on U.S. politics (especially the draft). Jim Kale, the group’s bassist and the song’s co-author, explained his take on the lyrics:
The popular misconception was that it was a chauvinistic tune, which was anything but the case. The fact was, we came from a very strait-laced, conservative, laid-back country, and all of a sudden, there we were in Chicago, Detroit, New York – all these horrendously large places with their big city problems. After that one particularly grinding tour, it was just a real treat to go home and see the girls we had grown up with. Also, the war was going on, and that was terribly unpopular. We didn’t have a draft system in Canada, and we were grateful for that. A lot of people called it anti-American, but it wasn’t really. We weren’t anti-anything. John Lennon once said that the meanings of all songs come after they are recorded. Someone else has to interpret them.
Weekly singles charts
“ABC” by The Jackson 5
|Billboard Hot 100 number-one single (The Guess Who version)
May 9, 1970 (three weeks)
“Everything is Beautiful” by Ray Stevens
“American Woman” has been covered by a number of artists. In 1982, Swiss hard rock band Krokus included a cover on their album One Vice at a Time.Butthole Surfers created a drum-heavy experimental version for their 1986 album Rembrandt Pussyhorse.
Lenny Kravitz version
|Single by Lenny Kravitz|
|from the album 5|
|Released||June 29, 1999|
|Lenny Kravitz singles chronology|
The most notable cover of “American Woman” is Lenny Kravitz‘s 1999 version. Kravitz recorded the song for the soundtrack of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. It was released as a single and was later included in the 1999 reissue of Kravitz’s album 5. Kravitz’s version is slower and softer than the original, without the signature guitar solo; he later said to Randy Bachman that the reason why he skipped the lead guitar part was “I couldn’t get the sound. I couldn’t get the tone.” The music video (directed by Paul Hunter) featured actress Heather Graham (who starred in The Spy Who Shagged Me); the original political themes of the song were largely replaced by sex appeal.
- “American Woman” (Single version) – 3:50
- “Straight Cold Player” (Live performance) – 3:42
- “Thinking of You” (Hexum Dancehall Remix) – 5:58
- “Fields of Joy” (Live performance) – 4:20
- Best Male Rock Performance: Won
|Canadian RPM Singles Chart||26|
|Canadian RPM Rock Chart||2|
|US Billboard Hot 100||49|
|US Billboard Adult Top 40||23|
|US Billboard Top 40 Mainstream||17|
|US Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks||3|
|US Billboard Modern Rock Tracks||7|
Use in film
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It was also featured in Sam Mendes‘s movie American Beauty.Sam the Eagle performed a karaoke version of this song in a Muppets viral video. It is being used in the HBO trailer for the movie Game Change. A version sung by an older man was used in the film The Cable Guy (1996). It was heard during the ending credits of the Witchblade TV movie (2000), starring Yancy Butler and based on the Top Cow comic book series.
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It was jammed onstage one night in Mississauga, Ontario, we were playing at a club called the Broom & Stone which was actually a curling rink and doing two shows that night. Between the two shows, I was outside bartering with this kid, he had some old Gene Vincent records that I wanted to get for my collection and tried to strike-up a deal with this guy. The next thing I know, it’s time to start the second show and the other three guys have gone back onstage and I hear them start this riff … I said to this guy, Oh my God; I’m supposed to be onstage man, I’ve got to run, I’ll see you later about these Gene Vincent records. I run inside and run up onto the stage and just grab a microphone and started singing whatever came into my head; it was all stream of consciousness at the moment stuff … all that stuff about war machines and ghetto scenes, colored lights can hypnotize… it was all just spur-of-the-moment. And nobody would have ever heard it again but there happened to be a kid bootlegging the show that night. This was way back in the 60’s and he had a cassette machine, and those machines were a relatively new invention at that time. But this was 1968, forty-five years ago. We noticed this onstage as the night went on and he still kept recording. So we motioned to our road manager, go get that tape, go get that tape! He got the cassette tape and we listened to it later and heard this jam about American Woman stay away from me. So we actually kind of learned it from that tape, otherwise nobody would have ever heard it again. So talk about a Cinderella story. And that was a monstrous hit record for us; it was number one on Billboard for three weeks. So it was all an accident, I guess the music gods were smiling on us. The music gods probably sent that kid with the cassette machine.
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- American Beauty Soundtrack Retrieved March 7, 2015