Kansas: Leftoverture or Point of No Return?

Best Kansas album? These two are usually ranked 1 or 2 on fan rankings.  I’ll make a case for both, and then give you my pick.

 

Leftoverture

Released in 1977, this album broke Kansas through to radio and a bigger audience. Kansas was able to fuse a hard rock with tight melodies and a polished sound for radio. This was the era of Styx, Boston, Bad Company and Foreigner all going for the same audience.  Guitars in the foreground, keyboards in the back, and not afraid to go long on songs for instrumental emphasis.

ab37b870ac317c018f8263a6a3dd6ada.1000x1000x1“Carry On Wayward Son” what a tremendous bit of rock and roll.  This song jumps out of your speakers.  Kansas was that somewhat rare American progressive rock band, and one that came from the middle of the country, Topeka, Kansas.  Corn and Christianity?  Whatever it was, this band were musicians first and rock and roll stars second.  Excellent prog rock bands are accomplished musicians first; if not, they sink to the bottom and disappear.

Guitarist Kerry Livgren wrote all the songs on the album except three.  Lead vocals mostly by Steve Walsh.

“Kerry was on an incredible writing roll, and we had been learning song after song,” guitarist Richard Williams recalled. “As exciting as working on new material is, we were ready to move on to the next phase – going to the studio and recording. When Kerry walked in the final day of rehearsals and announced he had one more song, we were less than eager, but there definitely were some cool parts and great lyrics. The interesting thing is that while all the other songs on Leftoverture had been rearranged and rehearsed many times before we came to the studio, ‘Wayward Son’ was, for the most part, learned in the studio, as the tape was rolling. The version you hear is probably the first time we played it correctly.” – Ultimate Classic Rock

“This was the fourth record and he still hadn’t had a hit and you know, he needed a hit,” recalled drummer Phil Erhart.  “The album came out and ‘Carry On Wayward Son’ hit and kaboom! — it just exploded. The rest is history.” – – Ultimate Classic Rock

The band had been under some pressure by Don Kirshner, on whose label they appeared. Their sales had been adequate but not outstanding up to this point.

Side one

No.      Title            Writer(s)         Length

  1. “Carry On Wayward Son”   5:23  A number 11 Billboard charting single.  Brilliant power-chords, the guitar and organ work together for a formidable wall of sound.
  2. “The Wall” Livgren, Steve Walsh   4:51
  3. “What’s on My Mind”  3:28
  4. “Miracles Out of Nowhere”   6:28  With lead vocals by Robby Steinhardt, this was another of the most notable songs on the album, although not released as a single.

Side two

No.      Title            Writer(s)         Length

  1. “Opus Insert”   4:30
  2. “Questions of My Childhood” Walsh, Livgren 3:40
  3. “Cheyenne Anthem”  6:55
  4. “Magnum Opus”  Livgren, Walsh, Rich Williams, Dave Hope, Phil Ehart, Robby Steinhardt 8:24  You either like or hate this song.  Is it grand or pompous? Composed of a suite of songs it no doubt ambitious and arguably beyond anything they had attempted.  Kansas was proving they were not a one-trick pony.  This song is on par with Genesis or Yes in tenacity and blending different song tempos together.  The casual fan might overlook “Magnum Opus” but to understand Kansas, you need to embrace this song.
    1. “Father Padilla Meets the Perfect Gnat”
    2. “Howling at the Moon”
    3. “Man Overboard”
    4. “Industry on Parade”
    5. “Release the Beavers”
    6. “Gnat Attack”
Point of No Return

R-2200561-1453846401-2871.jpeg

Anyone remember something called “Dust in the Wind”?  Of course you do, it might have been the most overplayed song of the 1970s.  It’s a marvelous song, just worn-out by radio.

Livgren recalls the origins of the song, it was an acoustic song that he had been working on, but wasn’t going to offer it up until the band asked him during the sessions if he had something else.

 

“Well, I’ve got this one, but you guys wouldn’t like it – I mean, this is not Kansas.” Now, I’m really hesitant to even play it. “Come on, play the
song!” So I played the song, on acoustic guitar, and everybody kind of
stood there and said “We need to be doing this song.” And I was amazed!
In fact, I rejected the whole idea – I actually fought with the band
over – you know, the fact that we shouldn’t do this song. I thought,
this is not us!”

After Leftoverture, there was a lot of pressure to top their most commercial work.  Somehow, they did. Selling over four million copies, Point of No Return was Kansas’ most successful album, rising to number four on the charts.

The writing on this album was more balanced between Livgren and Walsh.  Most of the songs were of shorter length, perhaps with an eye toward radio programmers.

There were growing tensions in the band too.  This is more of a keyboard album than Leftoverture.

“We thought the band was over with,” recalled Livgren. “So we thought, well, even if
that’s true – if the band’s splitting up, we’d be fools not to go ahead and finish this thing. So we just kept on working, and then you know, once everything kind of settled down and blew over, everybody realized, not only do we have to not break up and finish this record, but we need to continue on as a band. None of this is worth breaking up over – it
really isn’t.”

Side one

No.      Title            Writer(s)         Length

  1. “Point of Know Return” Steve Walsh, Phil Ehart, Robby Steinhardt 3:13  This was a number 28 single, the lead single from the album.  This song sounds more like Styx with the heavy synthesizer emphasis.  To me, this sounded like a forced song, less creativity an more formula.
  2. “Paradox” Kerry Livgren, Walsh   3:50  One of the stronger songs on the album, a bit like Jethro Tull in early 1970s.  Very interesting time signature changes.
  3. “The Spider” (instrumental) Walsh    2:05  Since I’m telling you who these songs sound like, this is ELP and Keith Emerson.  Not a bad song, but really just a fragment.
  4. “Portrait (He Knew)” Livgren, Walsh 4:38  Another signature song from the album.  One of the band’s best. Walsh brings some significant keyboard riffs to the song.   Walsh sounds like Lou Gramm (Foreigner).  Just kidding.
  5. “Closet Chronicles” Walsh, Livgren 6:31  One of the longer story songs on the album.  The musical interludes are quite nice.

Side two

No.      Title            Writer(s)         Length

  1. “Lightning’s Hand” Walsh, Livgren 4:24   One of the least interesting songs on the album.
  2. “Dust in the Wind” Livgren    3:28  The acoustic guitar and violin interplay are quite stunning, along with Walsh’s vocals.  The loveliest melody they’ve written.
  3. “Sparks of the Tempest” Livgren, Walsh 4:18  A straight ahead rocker, more guitar than other songs.  The lyrics are rather silly: kings and queens stuff.
  4. “Nobody’s Home” Livgren, Walsh 4:40  Now, they sound like Genesis with the thunderous keyboards and drums.  A slower and more gentle song.
  5. “Hopelessly Human”  Livgren    7:17  Similar to their past work, a grander portrait of a song, with various musical sections.  This is what Kansas is really good at.

 

Both are good albums, Kansas at their best.  I believe they peaked with Point of No Return.  This was a very fertile period creatively, not just songwriting but in the arrangements.  My favorite of these two albums is Leftoverture, it was out of left field, creatively unexpected, and it seized the attention of not only Kansas fans but people who enjoyed the other harder rock bands that were progressive or art-rock bands that infused instrumental work in their songs. “Carry One Wayward Son” was as strong as “Dust in the Wind,” as a breakout song.


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