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This album was all over the radio the year my family and I moved to Kansas, and it was the one that first introduced me to the band. During this time, Kansas (the band) could, and did, play to crowds of tens of thousands of rabid fans in Kansas (the state). The first time I saw them was the summer after this album released in Wichita Kansas, and the crowd of 15,000 or so booed opening act Cheap Trick off the stage just to get Kansas up there sooner. And this was only three years removed from their staged audition for Kirschner scout Wally Gold in a cowboy bar in tiny Ellenwood Kansas. Most fans were new, and hadn’t yet discovered the first three albums yet. Back then you couldn’t go anywhere in the state without hearing “Questions of My Childhood” or “Carry on Wayward Son” blasting out of the windows of nearly every car being driven by anyone under the age of twenty. Those were heady times for the band.
But on to the album. The first thing I’ll say about this album is that it is best listened to while in a large-engine car driven at the highest possible speed, and with no regard whatsoever for the personal safety of yourself or those around you. Or at least that has been my experience. A little organic stimulation doesn’t hurt either.
The first copy of this album I owned was on 8-track tape. Back then I had a pair of Nova 6 house speakers in walnut cabinets that graced the back seat of my 1974 Dodge ‘Hang-Ten’, which also had an in-dash 8-track player. Actually, a lot of kids back in Kansas had goofy getups like that. The point is, the 8-track version of Leftoverture was laid out completely differently from the album version (and at the time cassettes were really only for pussies). This was of course years before CD’s became the norm.
Anyway, the songs had to be arranged differently on 8-track to allow for a roughly equal amount of recording time on each of the four ‘programs’. The order on 8- track then, was
- Opus Insert - Miracles Out of Nowhere - Questions of My Childhood - Cheyenne Anthem - Magnum Opus - The Wall - What’s on My Mind - Carry on Wayward Son
So if you listen to the songs in that order (and while driving madly down a country road with dual 60-watt speakers cranked to ‘11’), you get a completely different feel than if you listen to the CD layout on an iPod in your college dorm room, or on your PC’s Media Player. The album sounds much more like Masque, which was recorded in the same Bogaloosa Louisiana studio the year prior. So I’ll comment on each track in this order, which I’m more familiar with. Amen.
“Opus Insert” has typical Livgren lyrics, “there’s a message in every word, and it’s more than the word you heard…”. The real beauty here is the very tight rhythm line Phil Ehart and Dave Hope lay down, perfectly accompanied by Steve Walsh’s voice at its prime, as well as his masterful keyboards. This is the Kansas ‘any-song’, as in it would have sounded good on any of their albums.
Walsh’s greatest vocal achievement has to be “Miracles Out of Nowhere”. Steinhardt is good too, but his violin work far outshines his vocals. Back then the band played this pretty much all the time in concert. Today Steve can’t hit the notes, but this is one song that just flat out thunders on a good set of speakers. This one should have been a single.
The “Questions of My Childhood” may have been intended as a single, and I’ve heard there was a video released, but this was pre-MTV so I never had a chance to see it. More incredible violin work here too, and Walsh just flat belts out the lyrics. Speaking of lyrics, this one is really an interesting work. Livgren wrote most of the songs on Leftoverture because, as he has said many times, he was “incredibly prolific” at the time. This was his pre-Christian period, but the guy was always rabidly searching for some kind of meaning in his life (myself, just being a juke-box hero at the time would have been pretty meaningful, but that’s just me). At the time he was living in his parent’s basement, years out of high school and spending most of his time and money just trying to eke out a living and hit the big time with the band. This is one of the songs that came out of a basement session while trying to put something together for their upcoming recording session. If you read the lyrics it almost seems to me like Kerry started each verse with his ‘searching without finding’ theme (“I don�t need to face a world of disillusion, I�ve come to one conclusion that I know you know is true; in the game of silent searching”), but since he wasn’t ‘finding’ at the time, Walsh came in and finished them as some sort of weird love song (“the cost of love is rising, and I�m just now realizing I�d be better of with you”). Come on, you try it:
Kerry – “Can you help me find the answers, can you tell the way I feel? Will you stay with me forever”: Steve – “just stay with me tonight, and we can talk about tomorrow if it all works out alright”.
See what I mean?
Maybe its just me.
“Cheyenne Anthem” has got to be the greatest song on this album, if not the best thing Kansas ever did. Okay, maybe that’s a bit over-the-top, but I am a Kansas fan after all – one should expect that from us. There’s a story that Walsh brought another song into rehearsal the day Livgren brought in Anthem, but after Steve heard it he wouldn’t show his song to the rest of the band. Walsh said years later that he never liked this song, and that the extended part on the middle sounded like music for a Warner Brothers cartoon. It might, but at the time the band was clicking on all cylinders for this one. The slow crescendo that builds with Walsh’s keyboards and Steinhardt’s violin is totally Ravel’s Bolero, but its so over-the-top that if you’re fifteen years old and full of testosterone, it can make you almost go Syd Barrett mad. This one is timeless and I still play it a lot early in the morning – much better than coffee.
“Magnum Opus” just demonstrates how on-fire Kerry Livgren was as an arranger during the recording of this album. The various parts are musical doodling from each individual band member, but put together by Livgren, they sound like the closest thing to a truly progressive work from this band that probably exists. This song stands with the best of the European music of that day, in my opinion.
Kerry has said in interviews that “The Wall” was the best thing he ever wrote for Kansas. I’m not sure I agree with that, but it definitely summed up the state of his mind at the time. I can picture him sitting in front of the beat-up piano his father bought him in his parent’s basement. He just spent two years playing roughly 500 concerts all over the place, having also recorded three albums in the space of less than two years. His management had the band on a tight leash to produce a commercially viable album to leverage the exposure they’d gained from constant touring. Yet Kerry was still ‘on salary’ for a few hundred dollars a month from the label, still toured in a crappy old school bus, and still lived in his parent’s house. The word ‘depression’ comes to mind. From all that, plus his obsession with deep thinking, comes a perfect synopsis of where he was emotionally and spiritually at that time. Three years before he takes the Christian plunge, he has previewed his ‘testimony’. Pretty fascinating, no matter what your religious persuasions.
“What’s on My Mind” is the one I always hoped was playing whenever my car’s speedometer hit 100 mph. I truly believed at the time that there wasn’t a note in human hearing range that Steve Walsh could not hit. He tried several of them on this one. These have to be Walsh lyrics, although the actual owner of them seems to be somewhat in question. This is just a rocker, much like “Relentless” and “Loner” from Audio-Visions (hmmm, “Relentless” was a Livgren tune).
There’s really nothing to add about “Carry on Wayward Son” that hasn’t already been said. Is there anyone alive in this world who even remotely cares about western music that hasn’t heard this song?
So anyway, enough rambling. I have tried very hard not to obsess on Kansas album reviews on the Archives, but this was a slow evening and I figured the time was right. Everyone who knows this album has well-formed opinions that probably won’t be changed, certainly not by the nostalgic ramblings of a aging forum troll. But this is one great album, and I didn’t even get into the great cover artwork.
Spring is coming, summer will soon be here. Get yourself a good copy of this one and stick it in your car’s stereo. If you don’t have a car, go find someone who does. Drive real fast somewhere desolate, and crank it up. Kansas may never have a place at the table with the elite of progressive music icons, but if this album can’t get your heart racing and your imagination flowing, you should probably check your pulse and think about making some serious lifestyle changes, because you have become either dead, or an old codger.