Retrospective Reviews: The Guess Who's 'American Woman'

The history behind the Canadian album that brought the 'American Woman' to life.

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Aug 20 2014, 2:12pm

The Guess Who wrote the song "American Woman" in a way that rock bands never write songs anymore. They were playing a show at a curling rink in Kitchner, ON, when guitarist Randy Bachman broke a string on his guitar and had to retune. He started playing a couple notes with the piano to get his pitch right, when out came the song's famous riff. Heads started turning in the audience, the dance floor filled up, and the band jammed on the riff for as long as the vibe lasted. A couple weeks later, "American Woman" was a complete song and a staple of their live sets.

The Guess Who came from a time when the first duty of rock bands was to make people dance and have fun. Of course they had ambitions of being the next Kinks or Beatles or Rolling Stones, whose fame permitted them to play their own material, but before any band could get there, they had to play the local party circuit. This meant inserting their own songs between covers, sticking to a riff when it worked, and paying attention to the audience's reaction above all else. You can hear The Guess Who's workmanlike attitude, developed across years of playing small Western Canadian venues, come out in every note of their music. But on the album American Woman, you can also hear them breaking free and doing their own thing.

It makes for an odd patchwork of songs, from the paisley-prog of "Tailman" and "969 (The Oldest Man)," to rock stompers like "No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature" and "Proper Stranger." Rarely do you get Robert Plant-esque vocals and jazz flute on the same record, but then, The Guess Who had a lot of forces pulling them in different directions. One thing that defined the album, and positioned it for mainstream success, was its AM radio-friendly short songs. Tunes like "No Time" and "American Woman" might have been packed with anti-Vietnam War lyrics, all the more offensive coming from a group of Canadians, but they were catchy enough that listeners could sing along while ignoring their deeper meanings.

It's a bit strange that their iconic hit became "American Woman," a hard rock, even proto-metal song, when they were much more into a quieter, more complex form of psychedelic rock. They could've even been the Canadian Pink Floyd if they did more drugs and suffered from greater levels of insanity.

But the drugs - that's what brought an end to the story, in a way. American Woman was the fourth and final album that Randy Bachman recorded with The Guess Who, since his newfound Mormon beliefs clashed with the band's, let's say, Summer of Love lifestyle. Their followup album, Share This Land, sold well but lacked the originality, grit, and weirdness that had defined their sound. Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau called it "Their most unflawed and uninteresting record," and gave it a C+. With American Woman, The Guess Who were on to something, but now we can only imagine what that was.

Greg Bouchard is a writer living in Toronto. He's on Twitter.