The American rock band Kansas experienced an onslaught of change during the '80s, ranging from personnel shifts, a rise in spiritual and even outright Christian lyrical themes, and a steady move away from its original heartland take on progressive rock. Most critics saw these changes in an almost exclusively negative light, but the various '80s incarnations of the band also managed to generate compelling melodic guitar rock that has held up quite well. Here's a chronological look at the best Kansas songs of the '80s, drawn from the group's five arena rock-geared studio album releases of the period.
1980's Audio-Visions initially appeared to be this band's last record with original lead singer, keyboard player and vital songwriter Steve Walsh. By this time, the group's other chief songwriter, guitarist Kerry Livgren, had become a born-again Christian, and his intensified personal spiritual direction began to influence his songs noticeably. Even so, before quitting, Walsh contributed some fine songs to the album like this one, a highly personal, frank exploration of a complicated romantic relationship. Featuring some fine piano grooves and the muscular, underrated guitar work of Livgren and Rich Williams, this song is a passionate, secular delight. Spotlight lyric: "I fell for you cuz you were nice and tall/I liked what I could see."
Walsh scores again with this distinctive blend of folk rock and hard rock. Although Livgren's "Relentless" and "Hold On" have their moments of transcendence, little of this appeal comes from the gauzy, overly broad proselytizing presented in the lyrics. Whether or not you agree that a general blandness is characteristic of pop/rock music with overtly Christian themes, it's difficult to argue with the searing, soul-baring approach Walsh takes in compositions such as this one. The rock guitars charge in with a fury and make for a visceral experience unmatched by Livgren's obscure, vague explorations of Christian faith. And all is accompanied by energizing guitar riffs and Walsh's lyrical take on relationship communication breakdown.
3. "Back Door"
Walsh closes the album with a prime piano ballad that offers the spotlight to one of the other Kansas members whose role was diminishing at this point: violinist and singer Robby Steinhardt. I'm not sure I should leave out Livgren's contributions completely from my Audio-Visions selections, but I do highly appreciate the immediacy and desperation of Walsh's direct lyrical approach. And maybe it's just a matter of personal taste, but I detect far more profundity in this song's searching themes than in Livgren's hazy pontifications and soul-saving appeals. This is just superior lyric writing, I think: "You want the world to give you some/You fight a war that's never won/And you come back scarred cuz you've seen who's really dying."
For 1982's Vinyl Confessions, Kansas faced the arduous task of replacing in Walsh not only one of its major songwriting contributors but also its frequent lead singer. Understandably, Livgren sought out a spiritual ally to continue the band, and John Elefante proved to possess both the vocal chops and composition skills to take over Walsh's central role. Although the themes remain obviously Christian throughout most of this record, I always found songs like this one to be quite accessible for secular audiences. Even better, the melodies here sparkle in ways not found on Audio-Visions, perhaps because Livgren had fewer conflicts to deflect his focus. Steinhardt's violin is still here - for now - but the band's two-guitar attack dominates.
Another Livgren composition, this track again employs some rather obvious metaphor to describe the importance and perilous path of spiritual awakening. Even so, Elefante's vocal performance is far more convincing here than Walsh's had been in interpreting this kind of subject matter, and it's hard to argue that he's not a great rock singer in the highest pitch ranges. Luckily, Livgren's lyrics possess a broader application here, as they actually describe the trials of living while seeking truth for all human beings, religious or not: "Now I know your wheels are spinning/But you never seem to move/I can see right through you/So what you tryin' to prove?" Good mainstream rock no matter how you interpret it, I'd say.
6. "Play On"
Elefante serves capably as co-writer on this one, and his nearly power pop sensibilities help this track to transcend what could be constricting thematic barriers. The verse melodies, in particular, have the capacity to inspire and uplift even without consideration of the lyrics, which is a special achievement indeed. If a listener chooses, in fact, it's perfectly reasonable to view this song as a celebration of the songwriting muse and all its glorious mystery: "My morning star, has always been with me/Lifting me up, when I couldn't carry on/Turning the page, to each song I write/Leading me on, on through the night." This is fine crossover music that can be appreciated by the unconverted in search of only quality '80s guitar rock.
Kansas remained in turmoil leading up to the recording of 1983's Drastic Measures, as longtime violin player and chiefly backing vocalist Steinhardt bowed out and thus removed a major element of the band's signature sound. Livgren, too, was drifting away from the band he helped found, which resulted in an album fueled mainly by the songwriting efforts of Elefante. However, Livgren scores here with a scorching guitar riff and some angry lyrics aimed at the music industry and perhaps even at the cookie-cutter expectations he felt characterized the career of Kansas. No matter the target, his lyrics are direct and powerful when applied to wholly secular matters. Relevant as ever in today's pop music climate, this is a genuine hard rock sleeper.
Though its title is ironically applicable in light of the band's impending split, Elefante actually delivers a compelling secular rock song of his own here that rewards repeat listens. Musically, Kansas retains some of its signature prog touches, but ultimately this track simply works remarkably well in the post-new wave landscape. Atmospherics and keyboard textures play a vital role here but without taking anything away from the muscular guitars of Williams and Livgren. The remaining members of the band must have been frustrated enough with its direction to call it quits following a brief tour, but Elefante is certainly not to blame. His tenure as lead singer added favorably to the band's catalogue, particularly through this track.
Having already tried making a go of it without Walsh, mainstay members Williams and drummer Phil Ehart decided to take another shot at it in 1986 without Livgren and with Walsh back in the fold as primary songwriter. The result, as before, is decidedly mixed at times, as on Power the Kansas sound suffered the loss of much distinctiveness without Steinhardt's violin parts and with an even more direct hard rock approach. Even so, the reformed lineup had an ace up its sleeve with guitar virtuoso Steve Morse, whose presence offered songwriting input (along with new bassist Billy Greer) as well as instrumental prowess. Walsh's vocals work fairly well in this song's rousing melodic structure and are more convincing than on the album's ballads.
10. "Tomb 19"
Despite its somewhat silly Indiana Jones-tinged narrative, this catchy rocker has always held some charms for me, so I'll include it as yet another obscure entry on this list. '80s production certainly sands down the edges to an irritating smoothness, but Morse rips some nice solos and I somehow forgive the Choose Your Own Adventure feel of the song's lyrics in spite of my better judgment. This lineup of the band would release one more studio album, 1988's In the Spirit of Things, but the songs became less memorable as the decade wore on. Record company pressure to use outside songwriters didn't help on either record, but at least this track retains the trademark Kansas interest in the mystical and mysterious.