Kansas and the perils of creative indecision

Kansas was one of my favorite bands while growing up. But this was always something of a minority viewpoint. Sadly, Kansas is a band that never reached its full potential.

Kansas, like the Canadian rock trio Rush, always had an intellectual, progressive streak. Kansas always wanted to make rock music “something more”.

Here’s an example: the band’s debut, self-titled album contains a song called “Journey from Mariabronn.”

What the heck is Mariabronn, you ask? That’s a reference to German-Swiss author Herman Hesse’s 1930 novel, Narcissus and Goldmund.

Highbrow, yes. But a little too highbrow for popular music. Even in the artistically indulgent 1970s. How many 16-year-olds—either then or now—are conversant in mid-twentieth-century German classic literature?

Kansas basically had two commercially successful albums: Leftoverture (1976) and Point of Know Return (1977).

Leftoverture contains the spiritual rock anthem “Carry On Wayward Son”. This song brought the band mainstream success. This is also the Kansas song that non-devotees are most likely to recognize.

On Point of Know Return you’ll find “Dust in the Wind”, another Kansas song that still gets a fair amount of airplay.

That was about it, as far as commercial success went for Kansas. Although the band soldiered on for years (a version of Kansas continues as a going concern today), the group never became another Journey or Foreigner.

Kansas’s songs are well-thought-out, often to the point of being abstruse. In short, most of the group’s music isn’t immediately accessible to the casual listener. And that’s a fatal flaw in rock music, where the competition is fierce, and audience attention spans are notoriously short.

Kansas was also riven by an internal philosophical dispute. Founding member and chief songwriter Kerry Livegren became a born-again Christian in 1979. He often infused Kansas’s lyrics with quasi-Christian themes.

The other members of the band weren’t on board with this new direction. Many of Kansas’s albums during the 1980s (Drastic Measures (1983), comes to mind here) contain songs that aren’t really enough of one thing or another. This isn’t explicitly Christian music, but it wasn’t mainstream rock—or even progressive rock—either.

The last Kansas album I bought was Power (1986). Kerry Livegren had left the band by this time, and the remaining members cobbled together an album that was imitative of the commercial rock music that was popular at that time.

Power contained a few worthwhile songs. But by this time Kansas had simply become too unpredictable as a musical entity—even for fans like myself.


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