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Kansas

As much as fellow arena-meisters BOSTON launched their beginnings in 1976 through monster hit, `More Than A Feeling’, the similar but seasoned prog-sters KANSAS – already into their fourth LP – staked their claim to classic-rock fame a la `Carry On Wayward Son’. For most uninitiated rock punters from across the big pond, that was where the story ended, fans interested only in English acts of the times, unaware North Americans (RUSH and STYX included) were capable of prog-rock in any shape or form – “Leftoverture” en masse, some would say.
Formed in Topeka, Kansas… 1970, initially as White Clover, high school buddies Kerry Livgren (guitar/keyboards), Dave Hope (bass) and Phil Ehart (drums) expanded their horizons with the addition of classically-trained violinist Robby Steinhardt, guitarist Rich Williams and the multi-talented singer/keyboardist Steve Walsh; the sextet adopted the KANSAS moniker during 1972.
A couple of years of relentless touring, the boogie/prog act signed to Kirshner Records, a fledgling label set up by industry mogul Don Kirshner. Almost immediately, they secured a Top 200 entry with their eponymous debut set, KANSAS (1974) {*8}. A windswept American answer to the British art-rock scene of the early 70s, the group combined progressive, harmony-laden muscle (a hybrid of YES, ELP, GOLDEN EARRING or the MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA) with ambitiously complex and intricate “mini-suites”. Bouncing from pomp platters `Can I Tell You’ and `Lonely Wind’, the adventurous arpeggios of epic pieces `Journey From Mariabronn’, `Apercu’ and `Death Of Mother Nature Suite’, guaranteed the listener of their prowess; only a cover of J.J. CALE’s `Bringing It Back’ seemed odd in reflection.
Balancing the boogie of `Down The Road’ with graceful, grandiose Livgren time-pieces (including the GENESIS-esque 10-minute title track), the Top 60 breakthrough SONG FOR AMERICA (1975) {*7} had all the self-indulgent elements thrown in, mainly at the deep end of the orchestra pit. Mirroring the pattern of their previous set (half normal-length rock; the other extensions of their futuristic minds), `Lamplight Symphony’ and the finale segued `Incomudro – Hymn To The Atman’, could well’ve held the key to unlock British listeners – had they not waited several months for their belated release! Yeah, the reason was clear; it was indeed an overseas marketing problem.
While a perplexed Walsh was keen to keep KANSAS a bona fide back-to-basics rock’n’roll band, Livgren was writing dark-themed symphonic rock to match his peers across the pond. 1975’s MASQUE {*7} opened with single fodder, `It Takes A Woman’s Love (To Make A Man)’ (sax by Earl Lon Price), but once again, prog-styled ambitions outweighed other creations, tempered slightly by a schizoid cross of both, by way of highlights `Child Of Innocence’, `All The World’ and finale `The Pinnacle’. KANSAS had now found a happy medium and concept compromise. What was lacking was a hit single. Mmm…
So far, the band had enjoyed increasing commercial status, but with the Jeff Glixman co-produced LEFTOVERTURE (1976) {*8}, KANSAS soared ever higher (Top 5), when their aforementioned `Carry On Wayward Son’ (written as a sequel to `The Pinnacle’) took the charts by storm. A little bit hard-edged, more than a bit prog-orientated, the mythically-infused `Miracles Out Of Nowhere’ continued the concept, running majestically into the concluding climax of both `Cheyenne Autumn’ and the 6-part suite `Magnum Opus’.
For many fans, the subsequent triple-platinum, POINT OF KNOW RETURN (1977) {*8}, marked the peak of the group’s career, its string-laden pseudo-classical pretensions providing another major hit courtesy of `Dust In The Wind’; the Top 30 title track and `Portrait (He Knew)’ also managed to generate decent sales figures. Revealing a penchant for ELP-like keyboard flourishes, others such as `Paradox’, `The Spider’ and end-piece `Hopelessly Human’, approached music from an early-70s angle – the antithesis of punk and all it stood for.
The band’s more indulgent tendencies were glaringly evident on the rambling live double-LP, TWO FOR THE SHOW (1978) {*6}, a welcome back my friends to the something or other that never ends type of thing. One would be hard-pressed to take umbrage with KANSAS for taking the same cash-in-concert approach as their peers (see above for details).
The aptly-titled MONOLITH (1979) {*5} was another nuts-and-bolts concept, but for the fact that it concerned time-travelling Native Indians, as the hit `People Of The South Wind’ testified. Aimed unashamedly at the FM radio market, `On The Other Side’ and `Reason To Be’, tragically left the Top 10 set virtually free of prog – the odd display of musicianship hardly the ticket to ecstasy fans might’ve expected.
As the 70s fizzled out, KANSAS increasingly pursued a more accessible approach. Therefore, AUDIO-VISIONS {*5} was no great shakes. To their tight-lipped fanbase in Britain, many were baffled at the band trying inanely to sound like JOURNEY, FOREIGNER, TOTO, REO SPEEDWAGON and the likes. The writing was probably etched into the back of a church bench rather than a wall, but Walsh and born-again Christian, Livgren, had their own conceptions on where KANSAS wanted to be, the former’s best piece `Got To Rock On’ pitted against the latter’s ballad-y hit `Hold On’.
Disillusioned with their lack of direction, STEVE WALSH had already recorded a solo debut, `Schemer-Dreamer’ (featuring KANSAS alumni), while his time was called after forming a harder rocking outfit, Streets. KERRY LIVGREN, meanwhile, had taken his new-found religion as inspiration for his solo debut, `Seeds Of Change’ (also 1980).
With fellow born-again Christian, John Elefante, duly in place of Steve, KANSAS cut a further couple of sure-fire hit albums, VINYL CONFESSIONS (1982) {*5} and the Steinhardt-less and well-named DRASTIC MEASURES (1983) {*4}. As attendant singles such as `Play The Game Tonight’ and `Fight Fire With Fire’ (from both) tailed off into the ether never to be heard of again, the story of KANSAS was still evolving.
While Livgren and Elefante both attained successful careers in the Christian-rock music field, Ehart and Williams subsequently revived KANSAS with former frontman Walsh; fellow ex-Streets bassist Billy Greer and co-composer/guitar maestro Steve Morse (from the DIXIE DREGS) re-positioned the band as a solid commodity, caring little for unhealthy reviews. Now signed to M.C.A. Records, the all-new and improved KANSAS enjoyed middling chart success with POWER (1986) {*5}, an album which bore the stamp of Walsh’s heavier work with Streets; check out the Top 20 `All I Wanted’.
However, a follow-up concept set dealing with the true-life happenings jolting their city’s Neosho Falls in 1951, IN THE SPIRIT OF THINGS (1988) {*5} was a commercial failure, while critical schtick found them without a subsequent record deal. Ploughing on regardless, KANSAS re-introduced violin to their sound in 1991, courtesy of David Ragsdale; Morse having left by the unveiling of the independently-released concert set, LIVE AT THE WHISKY (1993) {*4}, Greg Robert (keyboards) had now been added, while Messrs Livgren and Hope played a guest role on `Lonely Street’ and others.
A belatedly-delivered studio set, FREAKS OF NATURE {*3}, finally appeared in summer ‘95, with KANSAS retaining a core fanbase despite their absence from the charts; though outsider Livgren’s `Cold Grey Morning’ seemed somewhat out of place. Things became more interesting in 1998 with the release of the self-produced ALWAYS NEVER THE SAME {*5}, an album recorded at Abbey Road and utilising the London Symphony Orchestra. Hardly an original idea, but one which breathed new life into KANSAS chestnuts, it also contained three new tracks (`In Your Eyes’, `The Sky Is Falling’ and `Need To Know’), plus a bombastic opening cover of The BEATLES’ `Eleanor Rigby’.
SOMEWHERE TO ELSEWHERE (2000) {*6}, meanwhile, heralded the new millennium with an album recorded by the original line-up, plus Greer. Based on a WWII concept, the record captured at least some of the band’s early flair and dynamism with a clutch of 7 or 8 minute epics tailor-made for long-lost fans; `Icarus II’, `Myriad’ and `Not Man Bag’, leading the way.
Scaling down to a 5-piece without the need for Livgren and Hope, the live CD/DVD package DEVICE – VOICE – DRUM (2002) {*5} was one for the avid fan. A long time coming and with Ragsdale returning to replace Steinhardt, the symphonic THERE’S KNOW PLACE LIKE HOME (2009) {*6} – recorded live at Washburn University in Topeka, that February – served up all the usual suspects, while a friendship was, as always, re-kindled with guest appearances from Livgren and Morse. One wonders if KANSAS will ever get around to releasing another studio album – one might have to click one’s red shoes: once for a pompous arena-rock set, and twice for a prog-rock set reminding fans of their gallantry and greatness.
As prog-rock reared its not-so ugly but ageing head, KANSAS – i.e. Ehart, Williams, Greer, Ragsdale and newbies Ronnie Platt (vocals), David Manion (keyboards) and Zak Rizvi (guitar, vocals) – did in fact click twice for album number whatever, THE PRELUDE IMPLICIT (2016) {*7}. If one can avoid the cosmic-country covers of `Home On The Range’ and `Oh Shenandoah’ (thankfully only available on the deluxe version), then the re-birth of KANSAS was a stellar one. Lush in its heavy uber-AOR movements, opening salvos `With This Heart’ and `Visibility Zero’ were worth the ticket price alone, whilst the folk-y `Refugee’ and symphony-addled `The Voyage Of Eight Eighteen’ were plucked from prog heaven.
© MC Strong 1994-2002/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2015-Sep2016

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