From the first time I ever heard “Carry on My Wayward Son” all the way back around Christmastime 1976, I had mixed feelings. You see, my parents were going through a divorce at the time that had left my head spinning in confusion. At that moment, a song’s lyrics could have a very visceral effect on me. So, the lyrics (and song for that matter) written by guitarist extraordinaire Kerry Livegren messed with me. I was should if Kerry was espousing some cloaked variation of Christian view of life, or was he being existential? Or, to make me more befuddled, was he being an existential Christian? That is the thing about Kansas, they were much, much more than just an American version of Yes or Emerson, Lake & Palmer, virtuoso players attempting to integrate classical music movements, sounds and instrumentation in with good ol’ rock music. Regardless, they were never easy for me to digest. Heck, I think I had an easier time learning about the imagery of Don McLean’s lyrics in “American Pie”.
Well, I recently watched a documentary about Kansas on MTV-Classic. The documentary, entitled Miracle: Out of Nowhere, which got me thinking about this band once again and listening to their music for the first time in years. First off, the documentary is excellent. I love well-done documentaries about rock artists that not only give you the history of the band, but also make you interested enough in the band to re-evaluate the artist. And, that is what I am doing now. Think about it! An all-star band of the best musicians in the state of Kansas all organically assembling into a band with a common goal: to develop a unique art-rock sound that is American in nature. The original line-up was Phil Ehart (drums), Dave Hope (bass), Kerry Livegren (guitars, songwriting), Robby Steinhart (violin, vocals), Steve Walsh (lead vocals, some songwriting and some keyboards) and Rich Williams (electric and acoustic guitars). Immediately, all of the band members were on the same musical page, though it did take a few years for the band’s sound to develop. But, once it did develop, Kansas was very successful from 1976 through 1979. Then, new wave and punk kicked their overblown sound. Now, in the twenty-first century they band is content to rake in royalties and continue live performances.
By the time in 1976 when the band was recording what was to become their breakout hit album, Leftoverture, Kansas was feeling the pressure to write a hit song. They were becoming a solid concert draw, after successful turns opening for Aerosmith and Queen, the latter with whom Kansas developed a strong friendship. When the band initially entered the studio, they looked to their two main songwriters Kerry Livegren and Steve Walsh, but neither had much. So, Kerry took the reigns and each new day in the studio, Kerry brought a new song with him. Then, just as the band was getting ready to wrap up work on the album, Livegren brought in a killer new song called “Carry on My Wayward Son”. At that moment, the band, management and the label all knew the band had a hit. The song peaked at number eleven on the Hot 100, while the album topped out at number five. Now, Kansas were superstars.
As is often seen in rock history, once a songwriter gets hot, his streak can be stretched into multiple albums. While Kansas had their biggest selling album of their career with Point of Know Return, they also created two more hit songs with the title song (which stalled at number 28 but was huge on FM radio) and the band’s most iconic song “Dust in the Wind” which peaked at number 6, though I swear central Indiana radio stations were all playing the song EVERY hour for the song’s two month life-span, or was it six months?. Regardless of the answer, Kansas had developed into one of biggest bands in the world. But, then came MTV.
Unfortunately, Kansas was not a darling of the music channel. Their songs, which were deep in lyrical thought and abstract playing, were the antithesis of MTV’s WAM BAM, Thank Ya MA’AM montage of glitter, fun and an underpinning of sex. For a couple more years, Kansas continued to make creative music all the while attempting to adjust to the new musical climate. And for that short period of time, the band had rock radio hits, but they were not the huge superstars they were just a couple years earlier in the late Seventies. Slowly, original members began leaving the band, while surprisingly maintaining friendship with their former band mates. For a while it even seemed as though there were a couple of different versions of Kansas, but that was quickly rectified.
To this day, you can turn on any classic rock radio station and hear any of Kansas’ three big hits, especially “Dust in the Wind”. And that song has even survived a great heartfelt parody in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to be earning respect from today’s current crop of rock critics. So, here’s to Kansas! The United States’ very own art rock band from Middle America!