America was formed in England by sons of US servicemen who were stationed there. Lead singer Dewey Bunnell wrote this when he was 19. Although the song is commonly misinterpreted about being on drugs, it is not: Bunnell based the images in the lyrics on things he saw while visiting the US. This was originally titled "Desert Song," since Bunnell wrote it based on the desert scenery he encountered when his dad was stationed at an Air Force base in Santa Barbara County, California.
The song tells a rather abstruse tale about a trip though the desert. While the landscape is unforgiving, the singer also finds comfort in that scenario.
According to Dewey Bunnell, the "horse" represents a means of entering a place of tranquility, and this tranquil place was best represented by the desert, which sounded pretty good to him while he was stuck in rainy England.
As for why the horse had no name and why it went free after nine days, Bunnell doesn't have any answers - it seems the various listener interpretations are far more colorful than any meaning he assigned to it.
The group's self-titled debut album was released in the UK in late 1971, but didn't contain this song. When they were contemplating a single, they considered "I Need You," but decided to come up with a new song instead. The group went back to the studio and recorded "A Horse With No Name," which Bunnell had written.
Released as a single in the UK, it shot to #3 in January 1972, prompting the group's label, Warner Bros., to issue the single in the US and also release the album with the song included. On March 25, both the single and album hit #1 in the US; the song stayed at the top spot for three weeks, the album for five.
The album was recorded in London where the band was located. In February, when the song started climbing the charts in the US, the group embarked on a tour of the States, playing club shows before supporting the Everly Brothers as the opening act on their North American tour.
"I Need You" was released as the follow-up single, reaching #9 US. The group would become one of the most successful acts of the '70s and score another US #1 hit with "Sister Golden Hair."