By Richie Unterberger

On David Ackles's first two albums (David Ackles and Subway to the Country, both also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music), the singer-songwriter had blended rock instrumentation with a Brecht-Weillian theatrical sense and dark Americana. The rock instrumentation would recede, and the orchestrated musical theater and dark Americana come more to the forefront, on his third record, American Gothic. The 1972 release remains the one for which he is most known, though like his other albums, its reach was largely limited to critics and a fervid, intellectual cult audience.

    Oddly for an album that explored such avowedly American moods and landscapes, American Gothic was recorded in England. Producing the sessions was Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin, who had met Ackles in 1970, when David opened for Elton at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles. Taupin had recently done a spoken word album for Elektra, Ackles's label, and as he explains "was a good friend of David's, a tremendous fan of his music. I had a sort of relationship with [Elektra president] Jac [Holzman], and I guess [Jac] just put two and two together, thought it would be a good idea. To be honest, I think [David] could easily have done the job himself. But I think he wanted somebody to mirror his ideas, to sort of help him out, be a conscience for him and confidante. Somebody he could sort of lean on in the studio."

    Why go to England to record an album so steeped in American imagery? Taupin: "He always said to me that in order to get a perspective of your own country, you have to leave it. I believe that's very true. He certainly encompassed it in that record." From September 1971 to mid-1972, Ackles not only recorded but lived in England.

    American Gothic's arrangements were so dramatically orchestral in their scope that the record was ultimately only tenuously related to rock music, though occasional rock-accented backing did surface from time to time. "David's music was always getting more and more theatrical," notes Taupin. "There is such a classical edge to his music, and theater was a great love of his. There's something almost Wagnerian about some of his things. It was totally his idea; I was almost just a monitor, his crutch, and his support system. He knew very much what he wanted, and I had certainly never worked with a real orchestra before. I'd been in the studio with Elton, and I was familiar with strings in the sense that I'd seen our sessions run that way, but I certainly wasn't very familiar on how to sort of record them. Luckily, we had a very, very good engineer, Damon Lyon-Shaw. A lot of the credit must go to him, because he sort of guided me in a lot of what went down."

    According to Ackles's widow Janice Vogel Ackles, who was at the sessions, most of the musicians on American Gothic were from the London Symphony. Robert Kirby, most famous for his arrangements on early Nick Drake records, assisted as conductor and director. An actual Salvation Army chorus contributed some backing vocals, though as she recalls with amusement, "The only trouble is, it's not the same as the American Salvation Army, so they were elongating all their a's, and he kept saying, 'No no no, you've got to get rid of that accent.'" Those aren't Salvation Army singers, though, emoting the soulful backups on "Another Friday Night." Taupin agrees that those were likely vocalists Doris Troy, Madeline Bell, and Lesley Duncan, all of whom did a great deal of session work in England at the time.

    "The main thing I remember about the sessions was David was very, very concerned about keeping his voice in perfect condition," points out Taupin. "He used to take medications and different kinds of herbal teas, honey, and all this stuff. Very concerned about the 'timbre' of his voice. That was a big thing, being able to record that correctly."

    The result was an album that sounded almost like an extended theatrical piece in its own right. The snapshots of a troubled, sometimes specifically American, landscape were peopled with characters both imbued with fortitude and torn by considerable conflict. While there were occasional spices of soul, gospel, church hymns, and even (in "Midnight Carousel") country fiddle, the main mood was orchestral art song, though on ballads like "Love's Enough" and "One Night Stand," he fell somewhere between Randy Newman and Scott Walker. The ten-minute "Montana Song" was Ackles's epic, liberally appropriating themes from Aaron Copeland's Appalachian Spring, as Taupin readily acknowledges: "He wanted to do something in that vein, that was his blueprint. I don't think there was any pretending. He admired those people. It's like the Rolling Stones ripped off blues guys, and David Ackles wanted to rip off great classical composers," he laughs. "We all steal from somewhere."

    American Gothic got extraordinarily positive reviews in Rolling Stone, Melody Maker, and The Los Angeles Free Press, which as Taupin remembers "called it the folk Sgt. Pepper." But like Ackles's previous two Elektra albums, it didn't sell much, though it did briefly make the lower part of the charts. Ackles was dropped from Elektra and made just one more album, 1973's Five and Dime (on Columbia), though he worked for a while afterward as a Warner Brothers staff songwriter. Over the last 20 years of his life he worked in various disciplines, including university education and script writing, before dying in 1999.

    "Everybody who knew him would say he was very happy and optimistic," observes Janice Vogel Ackles of her late husband's life and the sometimes contrasting tone of his work. "He was saddened by the many vagaries and woeful conditions with life that we all have to encounter. In some cases, they affected him more deeply than others, like with most people. But it was hard for him to just kind of put them away and go on. They kind of ruminated within him and contributed to this sometimes overwhelming sadness about the condition of our planet. Having said that, he was a deeply religious and spiritual man. Not in the sense of evangelical or born-again, but a privately spiritual man who did in fact take part in a community of the church, had a daily ritual of prayer.  He was constantly searching for meaning of things that we all have to deal with, and like all of us, didn't really come up with any answers." -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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