By the time Kansas released it’s breakthrough album, Leftoverture, in 1976, progressive rock music was hitting it’s popularity stride. Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes were blazing the trail of stylistic experimentation and exploration that came to define ‘prog rock’. Fusing together elements of jazz, folk, blues, classical and rock music, the prog rock movement utilized complex arrangements, time signature changes, song length and fantasy subject matters to captivate its listeners.
Kerry Livgren, the guitarist and keyboard player for Kansas, grew up in a musical family and had an affinity for all sorts of music, but was especially enraptured by the classical genre. He learned to play guitar as a teenager in Topeka, where he assembled a band consisting mainly of friends from school, a couple of which remained, making the core of the rock group Kansas.
Leftoverture came at a time when Kansas was struggling to produce a hit song. Having already released three albums without much acclaim, the band was in a do-or-die situation as producers and executives were growing impatient. The pressure mounted, paralyzing the band with writer’s block as they entered the recording studio. In a recent interview with Livgren, he recalled that their creativity had dried up. With their backs against the wall, they would write a song, practice it and then record it the next day. Some of the music that had been unused from other projects was pieced together in desperation to make complete songs. The second arrangement on the album, The Wall, contains an ascending chord progression toward the end of the piece, which was one of these previously unused pieces. The leftovers from the earlier ideas is exactly how the album Leftoverture got its name.
As scattered as the writing and recording experience was, the outcome was brilliant. These were masters at their respective crafts who refused to let a dry spell stop them from creating great music. Their resolve was a testimony to the abilities of six band members who quickly rediscovered their creative genius to transform a hurried project into a tapestry of artwork that ushers the listening mind into a musical daydream.
Steve Walsh – lead and background vocals, organ, piano, vibes, synthesizer.
Robby Steinhardt – lead and background vocals, violin, viola.
Kerry Livgren – electric guitar, piano, clavinet synthesizer.
Rich Williams – acoustic and electric guitar.
Dave Hope – bass guitar.
Phil Ehart – drums and percussion.
A very receptive audience helped to catapult the album to #5 on Billboard’s pop album chart, thanks to the first song on the record, Carry On Wayward Son. This rock anthem peaked at #11 on Billboard’s top 40 hit list and continues to get widespread airplay on every Rock station in every city in America. It is often included in conversations about the greatest rock songs ever produced. Kerry Livgren wrote the song as a sequel to the last song on their previous album, Masque. Wayward Son almost never made it onto the album, as it was written just as the band was about ready to record the material they already had prepared. One can only speculate about the impression Kansas would have left on the music world had this song not been included.
Livgren claimed that Wayward Son was a song about himself as he sought to provide himself some encouragement to press on. “Carry on my wayward son, for there’ll be peace when you are done. Lay your weary head to rest. Now don’t you cry no more”. Livgren’s introspection and personal search for purpose and meaning is evident throughout many of his early songs as he often pressed for answers to the questions of life and the hereafter. As such, Leftoverture is a deep well of intellectually stimulating lyrics. It asks some probing questions, many of which abruptly stop us in our tracks because we have the same questions.
Miracles out of Nowhere
On a crystal morning, I can see the dewdrops falling
Down from gleaming heaven. I can hear the voices call
When you coming home now, son? the world is not for you
Tell me, what’s your point of view?
The promised land is waiting like a maiden that is soon to be a bride
The moment is a masterpiece, the weight of indecision’s in the air
It’s standing there, the symbol and the sum of all that’s me
It’s just a travesty, towering, blocking out the light and blinding me
I want to see
Questions of My Childhood
Well I walk the road of life among the strong, among the weak
And I ask them for the shortcut to the answers that I seek
But it seems nobody understands what is and what will be
Oh, the questions of my childhood weave a web of mystery
Several events in Kerry Livgren’s life caused him to develop an acute awareness of the brevity of life and the finality of death. He expressed these themes in his lyrics. He eventually found answers to many of his pressing questions when he became a Christian while on the Monolith tour in 1979.
Even though Kansas had their roots in Topeka, they credit the Western Pennsylvania area for thrusting them into the spotlight. The bill for a 1975 show at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh featured Kansas, Styx and Queen. Freddie Mercury became sick and unable to perform that night and so the promoter asked Kansas to extend their set, essentially making them co-headline the concert. The fans were thrilled. Though the band was not well known nationally at the time, the Western Pennsylvanians knew every lyric from the songs because early Kansas had been well received in the concerts they had done in some smaller the local venues like Slippery Rock and Johnstown. Very soon, Kansas was playing in every large arena all over the country. Guitarist Rich Williams commented that, “Pittsburgh will always be the holy grail for us. When nobody else supported us, Pittsburgh and the rest of Pennsylvania did.”
The drummer, Phil Ehart was essentially the art director for the band while artist Dave McMacken actually created the album cover art for Leftoverture. McMacken was known for his work with such musical icons as Journey, AC/DC, Frank Zappa and the Beatles. In retrospect, the cover seems to convey the timeless nature of the music. The old man, surrounded by cut stone, deep in thought, presses the quill into the scroll as he writes his Magnum Opus is set against the backdrop of futuristic-looking planetary constellation. The modern-style ‘Kansas’ font is a stark contrast to the handwritten ‘Leftoverture’ calligraphy, an artistic form of writing first employed thousands of years ago using a reed. The electric guitar made popular in the last 75 years and the white baby grand piano are like bookends around a violin, an instrument dating back to the 16th Century. The smouldering wood in the fireplace, the empty inkwell, the melted candle wax and the crumpled up papers may have been symbolic of the hardship of the writing and recording process. Even one of the books on the writer’s desk is entitled ‘Music Thru the Ages’, which seems to be more than a subtle prophetic clue to the album’s eventual timeless status. The back cover shows that the writing desk has been tipped over, possibly an indication of the completed masterpiece, but we only speculate on these things. It’s a beautiful piece of artwork to complement the amazing music on the album.
Any music collection that doesn’t have Leftoverture is an incomplete collection. Download it now, or better yet, search through a local vinyl record shop and treat your turntable to a magnificent symphony of classic seventies Rock.