‘We’re just real Topeka folks, man,” a long-haired teen laconically tells touring rock star Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) in the Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous as he invites him to a local party.
Chances are the music the kid and his friends blared at the party include Topeka’s native sons Kansas, the first rockers from the heartland state to make it big in the 1970s.
Merging a British progressive rock sound with American arena rock, Kansas typified the musical excess and bombast of the mid-1970s. Their biggest hits – “Dust in the Wind” and “Carry On My Wayward Son” – are dredged out any time a film maker wants to create a retro mood, and with good reason. Their tunefulness, earnestness and total lack of trendiness or fashion were what ‘70s rock was all about – and how much more unfashionable can one be than not only being in a band from Kansas, but actually naming said band after that decidedly unhip location.
For the band’s founding guitarist Richard Williams, it was never about style, it was always about the music.
“I was in so many bands before Kansas. Topeka is not that big a town, so all these bands would be formed by the same small pool of players,” said Williams last week from his Atlanta, Georgia, home – a location he and the rest of the band migrated to in the late 1970s.
“As one band would break up, another group would come together from this handful of people. That’s how Kansas came into being in 1973.”
Together with band mates Phil Ehart on drums, Dave Hope on bass, Steve Walsh on keyboards, guitarist Kerry Livgren and violinist/ vocalist Robby Steinhardt, Williams combined a love for Top 40 1960s rock with the progressive sounds that were emerging from Europe in the late 1960s.
“We had all played in cover bands and cut our teeth on Motown and all those ‘60s hits. But we really liked that more progressive twist we were hearing from bands like King Crimson, Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull,” said Williams.
“So we sort of brought them both together and adding the electric violin brought it a little more out of the box and gave it a mysterious, more aggressive sound.”
But success didn’t come overnight, even after famed music impresario Don Kirshner signed the band to his eponymous record label. Through the course of three albums in 1974 and 1975, they built a steadily rising following with their mix of meat-and-potatoes rock sparked by Steinhardt’s violin and numerous time-signature changes. However, those years were marked by meagre paydays, lots of opening act slots and not much recognition. For Williams and mates, though, it was heaven.
“We didn’t have anything to compare it to. All we ever wanted was to make a record and break out of the Midwest,” said Williams. “When you’re young and dumb and your whole life is ahead of you, you don’t necessarily set goals or plan anything other than what you’re doing at the moment. But it wasn’t frustrating, for us it was just a lot of fun. We were used to not making money.”
Their fortunes turned with the 1976 release of Leftoverture, including the driving anthem “Carry on My Wayward Son” which became both an AM Top 40 and FM progressive rock standard and busted the band’s future wide open.
When its 1977 followup Point of No Return became even a bigger hit thanks to the delicate ballad “Dust in Wind,” Kansas were suddenly one of American’s biggest bands and selling out Madison Square Garden.
Riding in the eye of the storm, Williams said that aside from having some spending money the band was too busy to appreciate their resounding success.
“We were in a limo riding to Madison Square Garden, and our manager was so excited, saying ‘you guys don’t know how big this is!’ We just kind of yawned at him, we had no idea of the scope of it. For us it was another show,” said Williams.
After that peak, the band continued to release albums that failed to scale the heights of Point of No Return. Additionally, chief songwriter Levgren’s increasing allegiance to Christianity, along with bassist Hope, threw them into conflict with their more secular-minded colleagues. And by 1983, Kansas had called it quits.
“The Christianity element had something to do with the band’s splintering, sure,” said Williams. “Kansas was never a ‘Christian’ band, but some of its members became born again and it became their life and pursuit, which became somewhat of a wedge for the rest of us,” said Williams.
“There was a gap between what the band was and what they wanted it to be and it was decided it would be best if they left and pursued their own interests, which they did.”
By 1985, core members Williams, Erhardt and Walsh reformed the band and have been together ever since, with Steinhardt and Levgren returning for stints of varying degrees. For the past 25 years, the trio has been enhanced by bassist Billy Greer and violinist/vocalist David Ragsdale as they tour the world playing for the ‘70s faithful.
“Kansas has always been more about the music than the people in the band,” said Williams. “I like to use a baseball analogy – I loved the Yankees growing up and I love them today. But it’s not the same guys on the team. Yogi Berra isn’t there and neither is Mickey Mantle. But I still love them. With Kansas, this is the team we’ve got now. And for some fans, it’s the one they love best.”
Celebrating their 41st year making music, Kansas is undertaking a five-week tour of Europe this summer, culminating in their Israel debut on August 5 at Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv (After this interview, Walsh announced that he was leaving the band and retiring at the end of the tour). For Williams, playing someplace new after more than four decades is what it’s all about.
“I can’t believe we’re coming to Israel. Most of the band is staying after the show for three days, and my wife is coming to join me,” he said. “Kansas has provided me with the opportunity to see the world in a way I never imagined I would. And if there’s one thing I love, it’s something new. This weekend, we’re playing in Milwaukee.
Now I love it there, but I’ve been there about 50 times! “I love what I do. I’m very fortunate to have avoided the workplace for basically my entire life. I recommend it to anybody.”
Said like real Topeka folk.