Thirty-five years after it topped the charts, we take a look back at this enigmatic and influential hit with some of the biggest names in rock.
Pete Townshend: I’ll certainly not forget the first time I heard it. We were at a party at George Harrison’s mansion. Clapton was there of course. Jackie Stewart. Benny Hill. Anyway, George plays us this record he’s been raving about. Says it’s number one in the States. Eric and I listened and then just looked at each other. More perplexed than anything I suppose. Then Keith Moon, who’s roaring drunk, pulls down his trousers, pisses on the phonograph and manages to electrocute himself. For me the memory of the tune will be forever and inexorably linked with the image of Keith’s smoldering pubic hair. How rock and roll is that?
Neil Young: When it first came out everyone thought it was me. Hell, until about 1975 even I thought it was me. An outtake from Harvest I’d cut in a peyote and mescaline haze. It wasn’t until I cleaned up and started asking my manager about the royalties that I learned the bitter truth. Man, that hurt. That sucker shipped over two million units.
Mick Jagger: Of course Keith [Richards] insisted the horse was really slang for heroin. At some point every day on the Goats Head Soup sessions he’d unplug, say “I’m off to see a man about a horse with no name” and then disappear. Three hours later we’d find him nodded off in the loo. Don’t know how we ever finished that record really.
Bruce Springsteen: At the time I was trying to find my voice as a songwriter. Every night I’d drive up and down the Shore listening to the radio. I was looking for a formula, you know. A recipe for a hit. I’d soak it all those songs up, then go home and try to write my own. Little Steven always said if you listen hard enough to “Spirits in the Night” you can hear echoes of “A Horse with No Name.” I don’t know. If you listen really hard, maybe. Really, really hard.
Bono: I remember I first heard it on Top of the Pops. I’d play me bongos along with it. To me the song was like a miniature three-minute John Ford movie. The sun-blasted beauty and cruelty of the desert. The harsh wide open vistas of the West. Its plants. Its birds. Its rocks. Its things. It was always those mysterious, unnamed things that most evoked for me, a twelve-year-old Irish lad, the pitiless majesty, the powerfully ambivalent allure that was America. The country I mean. Not the band. I didn’t much care for them after that. Although “Muskrat Love” is one of the Edge’s all-time favorite songs.
Alice Cooper: One night on the bus when we were touring with Sabbath, me and Ozzy must’ve smoked half a pound of dope listening to that song and trying to come up with a name for the horse. Naturally he argued for El Conquistador Primero Diablo Bastardo or some such bullshit. I thought something simpler. Like Frank. I mean, it’s 120 freaking degrees out there in the desert, the sun’s scorching your brain, you’re gonna want something easy to remember. Am I right?
Dave Matthews: My dad had it in his record collection. It’s the first song I learned on guitar. I played it acoustic at the high school talent show with a fifteen minute solo on the end. You can download a bootleg of the show on the internet.
John Mayer: America? Oh yeah man, they were one of my big early influences. Them and the Underground Velvets and Ziggy Pop and the Stooges. I think you could argue that “A Horse with No Name” was the first ever punk song. In a way.
Clay Aiken: Oh gosh, I love that song. I even wanted to do it for [American] Idol but the producers talked me out of it. They felt it was a bit too edgy for me.
Pete Townshend: Or maybe I’m the one who peed on the record and Keith Moon drove his car into the swimming pool. I can’t seem to recall. Have to ask Eric. He’d remember.
Eric Clapton: Actually I was touring in Japan at the time … I’m really beginning to worry about Pete.
Neil Young: Are you sure I didn’t do the lyrics? That “ain’t no one for to give you no pain?” It sure sounds like one of mine.
Ozzy Osbourne: El Caballo Diablo de Cucaracha Tierra del fucking Feugo. That’s the bloody horse’s name. End of fucking story.