The Vinyl Word - David Ackles - American Gothic

15/01/2021

Discover David Ackles and the cult album labelled "the most beautiful unheard album of it's era".

Very few albums have garnered the kind of cult attraction that the David Ackles 1972 masterpiece American Gothic has received.


Born in Rock Island, Illinois, to a mother of English music hall background and a father who was himself a musician, Ackles and his family soon moved to Los Angeles where, as a child, he starred in numerous films aimed at young audiences.


He sang folk songs with his sister and through going to church he was surrounded with music throughout his life. He studied English Literature at University of Southern California in an attempt to "learn it all". By this, Ackles meant he wanted to learn how to construct poetry and novels so that his music could tell these stories and be coupled with partner books or tales.


Moving through a number of jobs after college, private detective, security guard, and circus roustabout, Ackles' musical career began when he started working as a songwriter at Elektra Records. Jac Holzman, founder of the company, suggested that Ackles' songs were not right for any of the artist signed on and that Ackles himself recorded his own work.


His debut self-titled album was released in 1968 and had very little, if any commercial success, yet it seemed to find a home with other singer/songwriters. The same can be said of his follow up album Subway to the Country released in 1969. This second release established Ackles' sound; the record credits twenty-two musicians as his style began to incorporate brass and wind instruments as well as his staple, piano. 


However, the album we are focusing on is the 1972 release American Gothic. Taking its name and cover art inspiration from the iconic 1930 Grant Wood painting, it's an album brimming with character driven narratives and assured poetic lyricism.


Produced by Bernie Taupin, a lyricist and poet best-known for his writing collaborations with Elton John, the album, despite its complexity and the two years spent concepting by Ackles, was recorded in just two weeks at IBC Recording Studios London.


The title track, and also the album opener, is a comical tale of a drunk farmer and his unfaithful wife's unhappy marriage, told through piquing piano and almost sprechgesang style vocals.


This is followed by 'Love's Enough', perhaps the least experimental track on the album- as one reviewer describes "this could've been cut by any artist, in any era". However, the following song 'Ballad of the Ship of State' is unequivocally unique for an album labelled as folk. The track most obviously illustrates Ackles' love of the theatre, crying out to be performed on stage. In fact, upon the albums release, Rolling Stone compared the song to the work of theatrical legends Gilbert and Sullivan.


'Oh, California!' pays homage to the "Land of McDonalds and the Ice Capades" in humorous fashion, whilst 'Another Friday Night' has been praised as a working-class-hero song.


'Midnight Carousel' encapsulates elements of jazz, pop, and folk, and ten-minute album closer 'Montana Song' is vivid adventure story packed with emotion and swelling orchestral involvement.


As the release date of American Gothic edged closer, record company Elektra began an advertisement campaign labelling it the 'Album of the Year'.


If early reviews were to go by, this was a fair reflection. Rolling Stone stated the album completely overshadowed Ackles previous work and the excellence of the musical arrangements "cannot be overstated", whereas Circus simply suggested "David Ackles' music is magic".


However, the critics reception did not seem to match that of the public. The album failed to break the top 150 in the US charts, landing at just #167, a measly effort for an album labelled "the Sgt. Pepper of folk" by Melody Maker.


Seemingly burdened by the heavy praise yet undoubtedly disheartened by the lack of commercial success, Ackles struggled in writing his fourth album Five & Dime (1973), subsequently withdrawing from the studio to record it at home. His final effort has been considered simple in comparison to American Gothic and uncharacteristically modest.


With this, another supposed failure, Ackles gave up on his solo career and found comfort through theatre and screenplays. Working on a six-acre horse farm he had minor successes with his new career path; Word of Honor was a TV-film written by Ackles that was broadcast in 1981.


Despite a car accident that nearly severed Ackles arm the same year (an even which led to his wife Janice shouting "don't cut off his arm, he plays the piano!"), he returned to University of Sothern California to teach musical theatre, and his musical Sister Aimee was performed in Los Angeles in the 1990s.


Sadly, Ackles developed lung cancer during in his 50's and passed away aged 62 in 1999. Yet whilst commercially Ackles was unsuccessful, he lives on through his constant influence on the musical world.

"David Ackles was one of my heroes"- Elton John  (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
"David Ackles was one of my heroes"- Elton John (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)


Among those to credit him as an inspiration, Elvis Costello hailed him as a major influence during his 2003 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Costello says "it's a mystery to me why his wonderful songs are not better known".


Phil Collins chose Ackles' 'Down River' as one of his all-time favourite songs.


Elton John said simply "David Ackles was one of my heroes".


Undoubtedly, American Gothic is Ackles' best work. AllMusic writes that it remains "one of those great albums that never found its audience. It waits to be rediscovered". And Mojo highlights it as "one of the most beautiful but rarely heard albums of it's era".


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