Friday, November 22, 2013

Friday 80s Flashback for November 22, 2013

Cover for album Power by Kansas (via Wikipedia).

[A State of 80s Prog Rock] -- In the mid to late 70s, nothing noteworthy seems to have happened in the state of Kansas (at least not according to Wikipedia). However, the band called Kansas did great things for the state of prog rock in particular and album-oriented rock in general. From 1974 through 1980, the band released seven studio albums, one live album, and 14 singles. The very first 45 I purchased with my own money was "Carry On Wayward Son" from Kansas' 1976 release, Leftoverture, and I still have it in my collection. Each Kansas album released in this period achieved least gold status, with two of them going quadruple platinum. Their sound was big and (according to one critic) overdone. But fans ate up Kansas' style of blending elements of boogie, classical music riffs, and straight-ahead rock into long and (sometimes) overly complicated songs featuring that oh-so-rock 'n roll instrument, the violin. Kansas stalled a bit in the 80s, releasing two albums, disbanding, and then reviving for a third record (albeit with only three original members and no violin). With the exception of the 1982 release, Vinyl Confessions, there is very little Kansas music in the 80s that sounds like, well, the Kansas that had sparked a legion of loyal fans known as Wheatheads. Kansas is still touring these days, and I regret that I never got to see them with my father whom I credit for my love of their music. Kansas is in the midst of a 40th anniversary fan-appreciation tour. Sadly, however, violinist Robby Steinhardt is unable to participate due to suffering a heart attack in August. Still, Kansas at 40 is closer to the Kansas of the 70s that of their 80s incarnations. How far did they stray from such classics as "Point of Know Return" and "Dust in the Wind"? Read and hear more after the break.

Flashback #1"Is it worth the time, is it worth the price | Do you see yourself in the white spotlight."

With half the band converting to Christianity, and with guitarist/keyboard Kerry Livgren inserting his religion more and more into his writing, lead singer (and primary songwriter) Steve Walsh left to form his own band. This put Kansas in a tough spot. They needed a new vocalist who not only matched the band's style, but also could contribute compositions. After a long audition process, they chose John Elefante, a young multi-instrumentalist out of Long Beach, CA. Kansas went into the studio in late 1981 and released Vinyl Confessions early the following year. This album represented a turning point for many reasons -- new vocalist, strong spiritual material foremost among them. It was the #1 CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) album of 1982. This brought in a whole new audience, but it also exacerbated internal tensions in the band. Our first Flashback of the day is also the first single from this album: "Play the Game Tonight." It was Kansas' sixth top 40 hit, peaking at #17 and #4 in the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and U.S. Top Tracks respectively. The video has the band miming on a huge chess board. Check out the pieces in the chess set -- they seem to be characters from Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings!

Flashback #2"4 o'clock in the morning | I hear the telephone ring | It's the voice of a stranger saying | I like the way you sing."

Drastic Measures (1983) was Kansas' ninth studio album ... and was seemingly the last gasp for the once mighty prog rock outfit. Although by this time they had dropped the prog elements and were pretty much a mainstream rock band. Gone was the violin as well as the stately arpeggios and shimmering organ runs that had adorned previous efforts. And that's funny considering that the record was criticized for being too repetitive of those prior efforts. Although "Fight Fire with Fire" was the more successful single (and, as far as I can tell, the only one for which they made a video), I have a greater affinity for our second Flashback of the day, "Everybody's My Friend." I don't know what it is that hooked me -- the cheesy "Hello! Hello!" refrain, the chunky rhythm guitar, or the soaring vocal of the narrator explaining how everyone wants to be friends with a rock star -- but I love it, even if this song does represent the end of Kansas as I had previously loved them. And they would never be the same again: Drastic Measures was the band's lowest-charting record since their debut in 1974; that failure combined with internal band tensions and Kansas officially disbanded at the end of their 1983 tour. A new lineup would raise the flag of Kansas in 1986 leaving this album as an interesting sonic photograph of a band in transition. 

Flashback #3"How many times till I break? | You're hurting me the way I'm loving you the way I do."

As mentioned in the intro, Kansas disbanded after their 1983 album. As this was before the days of reunion tours -- or even multiple farewell tours -- fans thought they'd seen (and heard) the last of the band. Former vocalist Steve Walsh, however, revived the band with two other original members in 1986. They brought in guitarist Steve Morse from the Dixie Dregs, a giant of 70s southern-flavored fusion, and a bassist Walsh had previously worked with in 1981. This new five piece did not include a violinist, but they tried to make up for that with some studio orchestration. Or, perhaps, the orchestration was used instead of a violinist. This record, Power (1986), is notable for the change in direction it indicated, however short-lived it was. The sound wasn't quite classic Kansas, but it wasn't exactly In particular, the record's first single, "All I Wanted," was the band's first real foray into the genre of romantic ballads, and it met with some success as it reached the top 20 on three different charts. The band's last single to hit the Billboard Top 40 chart, "All I Wanted" was a perfect radio song for the mid-80s. This lineup released another album two years later, but it received very little airplay. The public just wasn't willing to continue embracing this intersection of time and artists. (And dedicated prog fans continued to trash the album). Kansas did pick up and resume recording in various incarnations (releasing records in 95, 98, and 2000), and they continue to perform to this very day -- note the 40th anniversary tour I previously mentioned. 

Once again, I remind you that the rule of three applies when doing Flashbacks. As I've made my three offerings, that's all till next week. Dedicated 80s-philes can find more flashbacks in the archives. As always, your comments are welcome on today's, or any other, flashback post. And if you like what I'm doing here, please share the link with your friends. If, however, you don't like the flashback, feel free to share it with your enemies.

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I'll see you in seven!

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