Images of Midwest America in the 70’s are mostly replete with pick up trucks, farms, daisy dukes, open beers and outdoor parties cranking kick ass rock music. But Moog synthesizers, complex time signatures, Tolkien-esque lyrics and velvet? How the hell did this happen?
Midwest bands of the 70’s were generally ignored on both the East and West coasts of the States, and that was fine with the farm belt. They had a secret, and if no one wanted to hear, well so much the better. And most of these guys had a sound unlike any band had found up to that time, and had it in spades. Common to most of these bands are the following necessary elements:
1. Tight harmonies, 3 vocalist minimum (think CSN)
2. A solid guitar based ability to kick ass
3. cringe worthy choruses in embarrassing stabs at terrible pop singles implementing step #1 and ignoring #2
4. a Moog
5. a nearly schizoid approach to music fluctuating between lame attempts at pop and long adventurous prog jams. It is usual to have no actual successful hybridization, but two separate Jekyll and Hyde styles.
6. Huge in Indiana, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and plains area of Central Canada.
7. Mental case beer swilling party fan posse
Bands that could muster these pre requisites started to pop up like mushrooms after a spring rain in 1973-4, and many a teen answered the call as either a budding populist rock god or boisterous partying over appreciative acolyte. But why did these bands have such a similar approach? What common theme did they take as their model? Oddly, the common theme seems to be the British prog rock legends, Yes. How did this happen that such a distinctly British and classically trained outfit would have such a huge stamp on the boogie rock denizens of the heartland of America? Not sure, but let’s look at the results that witness this phenomenon clearly. What exactly hath Yes wrought? Below is an overview of the little discussed ‘Midwest progressive sound’ of the 1970’s.
Other than an 1983-84 revival with Owner of a Lonely Heart, Yes had been largely ignored since their final tour in 1978-9 with the core of Wakeman, Howe, Anderson, Squire and White. The run from 1971-6 was their heyday in America, with the Yes Album, Fragile and Yessongs occupying shelf space in most kids record collections. Roundabout ruled the airwaves. But soon British bands fell out of favor, and American tastes went decidedly towards limp country-folk influenced stuff. Loggins and Messina, Jackson Browne, Linda Rondstadt, Seals and Crofts and the Eagles shot to the top of the charts, leaving many rockers wondering what the hell happened to the radio. But in the Midwest, a secret was percolating—rock wasn’t dead, and the seeds planted by Yes were mutating and growing in unexpected and unusual ways.
The big two are names that most people know and can hum along with. They also are the only two bands to successfully synthesize the disparate elements of a catchy pop song and some serious progressive rock chops to make fellow musicians jaws drop.
Kansas, from Kansas perhaps is the best and most easily understood exemplar of the Midwest ‘sound’. And you can’t get anymore Midwest with a band name like Kansas. They have the ability to kick ass and take names, and can assault the crowd with their many weapons. Synthesizers, Hammond, violin and guitars are all capable of blowing your mind or getting your butt off the seat and jumping around. From their start as the strangely named Proto-Kaw in Lawrence Kansas in 1972, this band exemplified the midwest sound. Yes-like harmonies combined with a distinctly American flavor with an underpinning of top flight musicianship. From their debut in 1974 to their signpost albums, 1976’s Leftoverture and 1977’s Point of Know Return, they nailed the CSN harmonies, nicked many of Yes’ signature moves and tried to not be too obvious about it. They got huge. Listen to the 1978 live album Two for the Show to see what they could do to an audience. Carry on My Wayward Son stands as the most successful integration of pop, progressive rock and Yes stylings to ever click into the Top Ten (#11 actually).
The other band that was able to be prog without any of the negative connotations that were starting to crop up around that genre were Styx. They were Chicago based, and elements of the band go all the way back to 1961(!), but their proper debut in 1972 and three ensuing albums showed a strong Yes and prog rock influence. Lady and Suite Madame Blue were but a prelude to the massive 1977 release The Grand Illusion. Sprawling and hugely popular, it featured a lengthy (six minutes) Top Ten single, Come Sail Away. Replete with ARP2600 sound effects, powerful organ, spine chilling harmonies and slashing guitars, this is another solid example of the Midwest Yes sound. (in an unlikely coincidence, I was shopping on the newly created eBay in 2000 for an ARP 2600. I was bidding on one for two days, but on day three i noticed you could scroll down the picture. It was sitting on a flight case that said ‘Styx Chicago Ill 60663’ stenciled on it. Holy shit! This was Styx’s Grand Illusion synthesizer? Holy shit!! ps: I got outbid)
Starcastle, from Champaign Illinois, were the most blatant of the Yes inspired bands. Words like derivative, clones and plagiarists swirl about them, but for a band to copy Yes so meticulously and still hope to get signed to a major label is pretty inspiring. And that is exactly what happened. Their 1976 Epic label debut has all of the elements of a good Yes album: vocalized ‘diddits’ straight from Roundabout and Your Move, Tolkien references in lyrics abounding, and even a little known Roger Dean clone for their debut album cover art and later the Dean-esque The Brothers Hildenbrandt on their 3rd lp cover. Attention to detail like this is hard to imagine today. Even Rolling Stone in their review of their debut takes great pains to point out that Starcastle is a literal note for note copy of Yes, down to the tiniest elements. A+ for emulation for the Starcastle boys, it doesn’t get any more Yes than these guys. They hung in there for 4 major label releases.
Head East from South Central Illinois deviate more to the traditional 70’s boogie end of the Midwest sound, but still retain strong elements of the progressive Yes stamp. Tight harmonies and kick ass guitars interspersed with a loud Moog synth line formed their only national hit, Never Been Any Reason in 1975. Their self financed debut was reissued on A&M records. Head East are also one of the bands that was huge in the farm belt, but relatively unknown on either coast. Their one hit is still a staple of FM radio to this day, a testament to the fans that knew something then that we only found out decades later. Plus, adding a Moog to this song is sheer brilliance.
The like minded REO Speedwagon were also cut from the same cloth as Head East, more boogie influenced than progressive influenced. Another Champaign, Illinois band, their roots begin in the late 60’s. But their early work has most of the hallmarks of the Midwest sound, prominent keyboards and slick harmonies. Roll With the Changes from 1978 is a good later example of this–a balance of harmony vocal driven straight ahead rock with some progressive window dressings. These guys blew up huge in 1981 and never looked back, writing tunes for tween-age girls to great success, leaving their traces of the progressive Midwest sound behind. (note: first album lead vocalist Terry Luttrell went off to found Starcastle and guitarist Steve Scorfina went on to found Pavlov’s Dog, so the prog influences were in their DNA early on)
There were some little known major label bands of this era. Ethos from Fort Wayne Indiana mined the progressive vein heavily. With two keyboardists and song titles like Intrepid Traveller, The Dimension Man and Space Brothers, they are in tune firmly with the Jon Anderson cosmic ethos. Rickenbacker bass and mellotron reinforce the Yes vibe, and like many of their contemporaries, songs alternate between musical brilliance and occasionally annoyingly uneven and puerile. This kind of polarity plagues many Midwestern progressive styled bands, but Ethos stuck to their guns and refused to compromise.(If Barclay James Harvest sounded a bit more like this, they’d have done quite well in the prog stakes). These guys also had a strong King Crimson and Genesis streak in them.Their 1975 recorded debut (ardour) is not impossible to find at record shows, and is recommended. Pavlov’s Dog from St. Louis were a 1972 strings and mellotron heavy outfit fronted by the unique vocals of David Surkamp. They managed somehow to get their debut album released on ABC Dunhill and Columbia at nearly the same time (there’s a story yet to be told). Their second album featured Bill Bruford, and the band was co-founded by REO Speedwagon’s guitarist. Yezda Urfa, also from Indiana also deserve mention as one of the more uncompromising purely prog bands of the mid 70’s.They tangled with many major label folks, all to no avail.
Chicago’s Shadowfax put out Watercourse Way in 1976. More experimental than most, their band name comes from Gandalf’s horse. This alone gets them included. The band is more an edgy early Genesis than Yes though. Tolkien, the muse of many of these bands, is omnipresent here. They got another shot in the 80’s on the Windham Hill label.
Even more obscure but deserving of attention: Albatross from Rockford Illinois sound like Styx with an even stronger Yes fixation. (an excellent recap of their history by their sound engineer can be read here) Surprise from St. Louis straddled the pop and progressive line, hoping for fans from both camps, but decidedly Yes-like. Intra from Cleveland got some attention and plied the Yes waters straddling originality and homage. Pentwater from Chicago round out the list of these bands some in the Midwest may remember, but got little more than regional attention.
What about our Canadian brethren? Well they also fall into the Midwest sound category, and though some are less Yes influenced, they did have the same huge fan base in the farm belt and stayed unknown on both coasts during the 70’s. Toronto was the hotbed for bands of this ilk in the mid 1970’s. The best known would be Rush, who could fill hockey rinks in Iowa while playing to 750 people on either coast. Their perseverance and dedication to the fans of the Midwest eventually paid huge dividends. Also known to drop a Tolkien reference or two, their lack of keyboards and any meaningful vocal harmonies seem to exclude them from this sound, but they are very close cousins to the movement. (Geddy Lee and David Surkamp of Pavlov’s Dog shared a polarizing ‘cat thrown into a furnace’ vocal wail that people either loved or hated) Max Webster from Toronto, featuring the dazzling guitarist Kim Mitchell, perhaps come the closest to the true Midwest sound. They were huge in Canada, and spectacularly unknown in any other country, despite US and UK label releases. FM from Toronto, featuring violinist Nash the Slash came a bit closer to the Midwest sound, but never really caught on in America. The trio lacked a proper electric guitarist, a major requirement of this sound. They leaned closer to European tinged progressive rock than many major label bands. Dillinger from Toronto are a good example of the dichotomy of the Midwest ethos, excruciatingly bad and profoundly clever in the same breath.
So, there is a unified Midwest sound. Who knew? What is odd about all of this is that many of these bands started off mining fairly disparate territory only to come back to a recognizable variant on the common themes listed above. They all came to some common musical ground in the mid 1970’s, as if by some unspoken agreement, and became some variant of the Yes musical model. They also had an uncanny ability in most cases to be able to remove the ponderous intellectualism that so many found off-putting in British progressive music and replace it with a unique American party vibe—Bach replaced by Budweiser, philosophy replaced by raw energy. And like many of the British forbears, these bands eventually discarded the adventurism and creativity for bland to completely awful songs that attempted to crack top 40 and grab the elusive pop ring. Their careers soon fizzled like a wet firecracker after this shedding of the progressive mantle. But for rock superstar and aspiring regional prog band alike, the result was always the same when trying to go ‘pop’. When will they learn?