It happened half a century ago … In 1970 The Guess Who released an unintentionally provocative song: American Woman.
In the late 1960s an unscheduled improvisation suddenly develops into a worldwide hit. During a concert of the rock band “The Guess Who” in their native Canada, guitar player Randy Bachman needs to deal with a broken string. A small mishap, but not unusual for a rock concert. The experienced musician, who five years later would join Bachman Turner Overdrive and celebrate another worldwide hit, You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, puts on a new string and starts tuning his instrument. He absentmindedly improvises a guitar riff, and suddenly the fans are electrified. A few moments ago they were talking and busy with other things, now they’re staring at the stage and banging their heads. Bachman’s bandmates react. Drummer Garry Peterson is the first one to join in, followed by bass player Jim Kale and, finally, singer Burton Cummings. With a striking grating voice Cummings begins to improvise over the steamhammer riff, singing what comes to his mind: ”American woman, stay away from me / American woman, mama let me be / Don’t come hangin’ around my door / I don’t wanna see your face no more …“ Amazing what is going through a celebrated rock star’s head … Several minutes later the impromptu song comes to an end, followed by thundering applause. And the band knows: We have to remember this – come what may. But how?
Fortunately the musicians have discovered a fan who captured the piece on tape. Is he one of these goddamn bootleggers who make lots of money with their illegal recordings? Never mind! They approach the young man, gain possession of the tape and are thus able to reconstruct the framework of the song. After some compositional finetuning and reworking of the lyrics they can finish the piece. Released in 1970 unter the title American Woman, the song hits Nr. 1 on the US charts as well as the Top 20 and even the Top 10 in several other countries around the world.
At first glance the simple lyrics just seem to reject some nameless American woman. The speaker of the song seems to be fed up with her: ”I got more important things to do / Than spend my time growin’ old with you“. Is it a song about the end of a love affair, a breakup song? Only to a limited extent. In the further course of the song the lyrical images become more general, now they seem to address American women as such: ”Coloured lights can hypnotize / Sparkle someone else’s eyes.“ And then the lyrics introduce some new aspects. When Burton Cummings sings: ”I don’t need your war machines / I don’t need your ghetto scenes,“ he doesn’t address American women any longer – he’s addressing the US as a whole. And he provides the lyrics with the touch of a protest song. A statement against the Vietnam War and against social injustice in America.
However, these protest song elements are less marked. The lines about war machines and ghetto scenes don’t manage to outshine the whole song. The words, which were made up during an improvisation and then associatively completed, combine several levels of meaning. These levels do not necessarily fit together. And that leaves room for interpretation. The internet platform ”Songfacts.com“ quotes statements by members of The Guess Who, which give at least some clues. The band claimed to have been shocked by the social problems they became aware of while touring the US. They also explained ”that girls in the States seemed to get older quicker than our girls and that made them, well, dangerous“. They’d rather prefer ”their“ Canadian girls, Cummings & Co said. An outlandish attitude from a present-day perspective, eh? In the end they reported that, near the Canadian border, US American authorities had tried to conscript them and send them to Vietnam – maybe because The Guess Who had many male American fans who had moved to Canada in order to evade such a conscription.
Controversies often arise from misunderstandings, ambivalences, and felt or real provocations. American Woman in particular offers several starting points. People who listened only superficially and focused on the striking beat of the song assumed that it paid homage to America or to American women. Other people accused the song of misogyny and chauvinism. Members of the protest movement celebrated the lines about ”war machines“ and ”ghetto scenes“, whereas upright patriots were thoroughly upset. Somehow the band managed to scare many layers of society, but in the end they escaped unscathed. I guess it was because of the music. Ironically, in July of 1970 The Guess Who were invited to play at the White House for then US president Richard Nixon. Nixon’s daughter Tricia was said to be a huge fan, which was totally understandable, since the band’s softer songs in particular were in a class of their own. First Lady Pat Nixon, however, understood the political implications of American Woman. And so the band deleted the song from the set list of their White House concert. Not exactly an act of courage …
In March 2019 my new book Provokation! Songs, die für Zündstoff sorg(t)en was published. It presents about 70 hit songs from the last 100 years which caused a stir in their time, and some of which are being discussed even today – from Rock Around the Clock to Relax, from Anarchy in the U.K. to Punk Prayer, from the ”British Invasion“ to ”shock rock“. The last chapter of the book explains some basic lyrical techniques and answers 26 FAQs around the topic of controversial songs. Due to issues of space, this piece about The Guess Who didn’t make it into the printed version of the book.