Any rock group that has been around for a few decades has seen its share of line-up changes. The same is true several times over for certain prog groups, some having a near legendary reputation for players coming and going, returning and re-leaving, rinsing and repeating. Yes comes to mind, along with King Crimson, Asia, and Kansas. The latter has essentially (if not precisely) had three different incarnations in the forty years since it formed in 1973: the original/current one (1973-1981; 1985-present), the one with John Elefante replacing Steve Walsh as lead singer/keyboardist (1982-84), and the line-up with Steve Morse taking the place of Kerry Livgren as lead guitarist (1985-89). Violinist Robbie Steinhardt has come and gone several times over the years; the two stalwarts have been drummer Phil Ehart and guitarist Rich Williams, who have appeared on every Kansas album. (A complete breakdown is available here)
The 1980s brought challenges stylistic, cultural, and technological in nature for most prog groups (Yes, Genesis, etc.) that tasted or enjoyed significant success in the 1970s . Much is made of the influence of punk in the demise of ambitious, complex prog albums, but other factors were in play. Those included the advance of electronic instrumentation and production values that were intertwined with the arrival of New Wave Music, something of a sophisticated, artsy cousin of punk. Also notable was the rise of Album Oriented Rock (AOR) in the mid-70s, which eventually narrowed the focus and homogenized the content of music-oriented radio. It is rather fascinating, in considering the groups Yes, Genesis, and Kansas, how each went through big line-up changes in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then experienced massive successes in the first part of the Eighties with songs and albums that were less complex, more commercial, and often very much in keeping with the AOR sounds of the time. Journey, the band that (arguably) best embodied the AOR “sound”—or at least approach—was originally formed in the mid-1970s as a rather “meandering jazz-rock” , prog-ish band, finally arriving on the winning formula when singer/songwriter Steve Perry joined the group in 1977. And there is no doubt that Asia was formed by four prog giants in order to produce radio-friendly music that could—and did, of course—move truckloads of units.
Kansas, meanwhile, had its biggest hit with “Dust In the Wind” (what, you’ve heard of it?), which reached #6 on the Billboard Top 100 in 1978. Yet the song was not the typical Kansas song up to that point: it was quite short—just over three minutes long)—quite simple, and quite sparse, with just vocals, acoustic guitar, violin, and a great melody line (not to mention some overtly existential lyrics shot through with palpable angst). But, having achieved remarkable success, the band began to show the wear of constant touring and being pushed to have further commercial success. In addition, band founder and primary songwriter Livgren announced during the Monolith tour in 1980 that he had converted to Christianity after years of obvious spiritual seeking (many of the lyrics on the Monolith album were influenced by The Urantia Book). Later in 1980, Livgren released his first solo album, Seeds of Change, which featured overtly Christian lyrics. With discord growing, Walsh finally left Kansas in October 1981. The year before, Walsh had released his first solo album, Schemer-Dreamer, which featured Kansas band mates Livgren, Williams and Ehart, as well as the great Steve Morse, who would eventually become the lead guitarist of Kansas when Walsh rejoined the group in 1985 (yes, keeping track of this stuff can be challenging!).
Which brings me, finally, to John Elefante.
Back in late 1980, he was a young 22-year-old just getting started, along with his brother Dino (guitar), in the music business. He was also a recent convert to Evangelical Christianity and a huge fan of both Kansas, Yes, Gentle Giant, and other prog groups. In this 1992 interview, he explained how he came to be the lead singer of Kansas: he knew someone who knew someone who knew…and the rest was history. “I remember, the first thing the band wanted to do was to go over some of their early material,” he said, “They’d been off the road for a few months at that time, and I actually knew some of the songs better than they did!” The other two top candidates for the job were reportedly Warren Ham and Michael Gleason, both of whom would eventually form the group A.D. with Livgren in 1983. Kansas hit the road for one of the highest grossing tours of 1981 and then released Vinyl Confessions, which included the hit song, “Play the Game Tonight” (#17 on Billboard) and three songs penned by the Elefante brothers and one (“Play On”) co-written by Livgren and John Elefante.
What is notable about Vinyl Confessions is the obvious move in the AOR direction; the only song that I would generally describe as “prog-gish” is the final cut, “Crossfire”, penned by Livgren. AllMusic.com is in the ball park in writing that “it was getting hard to distinguish Kansas from Foreigner and Journey.” The big difference was that while Journey and Foreigner specialized in love songs, the new Kansas material was lyrically much more in the vein of early ’80s CCM (Contemporary Christian Music). Songs such as “Borderline”, which urged listeners to make a choice between being “hot and cold”, obviously referred to the church of Laodicea, chastised in the Book of Revelation for being “lukewarm, neither hot nor cold” (Rev 3:15). The next album, Drastic Measures, which features the worst Kansas album cover of all time. was Elefante’s second and last with Kansas, and it was, to put it nicely, a mixed affair. Livgren was already moving on to A.D., and at times it is hard to believe it was produced by the same band that had, just a few years before, put out Leftoverture (1976)and Point of Know Return (1977). As Elefante would bluntly admit ten years later: “I didn’t like ‘Drastic Measures,’ and we even said to the band, ‘Guys, this is almost an Elefante Brothers album. This isn’t what Kansas is all about.’” Steinhardt had left the band at the end of 1982 and the band was now an overly AOR group, with just one song, “Mainstream”, breaking the six minute mark—and it was a Livgren-penned tune that openly skewered the direction of both the music world and his band:
It’s so predictable and everybody judges by the numbers that you’re selling,
Just crank ’em out on the assembly line and chart ’em higher (higher, higher),
Just keep it simple boys it’s gonna be alright, as long as you’re inside the Mainstream,
are we moving too far away?
Is it worth it if it doesn’t pay?
That said, the album does demonstrate that the young Elefante, in addition to being a fine vocalist, could write a great hook and a good tune. The hit, “Fight Fire with Fire” (#3 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart) is a good example, but personal favorites include “Andi”, which is a precursor of sorts to songs such as Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian”, with its imploring, ruminating lyrics about a young girl trying to find her way in life (“And you’re not just anyone; don’t be ashamed”), and “Don’t Ever Take Your Love Away”, which ambiguously works as either a love song or a modern psalm: “‘Cause nothing means a thing unless you’re here/To live without your love’s my only fear/I just want to let you know/I can’t make it on my own.”
After Kansas broke up in 1984, John Elefante embarked on a prolific and award-winning career (multiple Grammy and Dove awards) in CCM as a producer, songwriter, and bandleader (Mastedon). Although he received offers that promised success in the broader music world (such as an invite to be lead singer of Toto in the late 1980s), Elefante was committed to working with Christian artists, including Guardian, Petra, Bride, and numerous others and, later, producing some of his own albums. During the 1990s, he released three solo albums, none of which I’ve listened to. In fact, I’ve not paid much attention to Elefante’s work for many years until he released his new solo album, On My Way to the Sun, his first in fourteen years, which came out on May 7th. I saw the album on amazon.com, noticed that Kansas members Williams and David Ragsdale (violin) performed on the 11-minute-long opening cut, “This Is How the Story Goes”, and I had a listen. My immediate impression was, “This is Kansas, circa 1978!” That was not entirely accurate, but similarities are obvious: the lush harmonies, the violin-driven opening, the very Kansas-esque guitar licks from Williams. In truth, the song is a near perfect marriage of mid-1970s and early 1980s Kansas, but with superior production and some frankly evangelistic lyrics:
And this is how the story goes:
You must believe it all, my friend,
from the beginning to the end.
Everyone lives forever, we just have to choose where,
Because the virgin had a son,
and the stone was rolled away,
so how can we can be terminal,
because He lives today.
Granted, those sort of direct lyrics aren’t going to attract many new listeners (I do like the line about being “terminal”; it reminds me somehow of Part IV if Eliot’s “East Coker”). But, while I’m not a big fan of overtly evangelistic rock tunes, I think “This Is How the Story Goes” is a really fine bit of prog-rock. It is perfectly produced and performed, has a killer hook, develops wonderfully, and is both rocking and thoughtful. Another plus, and a pleasant surprise, is just how great Elefante sounds. He has always been a fine singer, and he displays not only range, but an admirable combination of confidence and reserve, never over-singing or being indulgent; there isn’t an unnecessary note on the album.
The other nine songs are certainly in the AOR/”classic rock” vein, but with lots of nice twists and details. “Where Have the Old Times Gone” has some obvious tips of the hat to Led Zeppelin and Foreigner, but also features violin work that is directly from the Kansas playbook. The Foreigner influence is front and center on the title track while “All I Have to Do” could have fit nicely on Vinyl Confessions, albeit with an updated sound. “The Awakening” begins with a huge, warm wash of harmonized vocals that then leads into lush guitar-driven verse and chorus that reminds me of some of Livgren’s work with A.D. “Half the Way Home” featured more lush harmonies, over the top of a 38-Special-like guitar riff; the lead vocal, oddly enough, sounds like Doug (Dug) Pinnick of King’s X in a few spots, and there is a huge sing-a-long chorus (did I mention the album has big hooks?). “We All Fall Shorts” is a largely acoustic number that starts with a Beatles/Phil Keaggy vibe before moving into a very Yes-ish chorus. “Don’t Hide Away” returns to the Foreigner influenced sound, but with a very Styx-like chorus, along with a short section of rap (yes, that’s right). “This Time” offers a somewhat abrupt shift in tone and lyrics, a moody, minor-keyed (and quite emotional) song about a pregnant girl who decides, at the last moment, to keep her baby rather than have an abortion. The closing track, “Confess”, is, frankly, a praise-and-worship tune, but a very well done one at that: “Fall down on your knees/Praise Him/And fall to your knees/And confess with your lips/that Jesus is Lord.”
While the influences are obvious, there’s never a sense that Elefante is trying to write, say, a “Foreigner” or “Kansas” tune. Rather, this is a very cohesive-sounding album that works because Elefante is an exceptional musician, songwriter, and producer who seamlessly marries a myriad of loves and influences without losing his way or his focus. He knows prog-rock and classic rock better than most, and he does a fine, even exceptional, job of crafting songs that draw on those sources. Anyone who enjoyed the Elefante-fronted Kansas, or likes AOR/classic rock with lyrics that are unapologetically Christian will enjoy this well-crafted album. Having said that, here is the opening cut: