Tag Archives: Prog rock

When Critics Get It Wrong-“Flash Will Get Huge and Yes Won’t Survive”-A Blast From the Vaults of Rock Obscurity

It’s 1970, and one of the up and coming British bands tapped for success was Yes. The liner notes of their 1969 debut boldly quote Melody Maker critic Tony Wilson who declared that Led Zeppelin and Yes would be the two Brit bands most likely to succeed in 1969  (Nostradamus-wise, Zep perhaps being an easy call, Yes less so). Their debut album got some attention for it’s mash up of unlikely covers and burgeoning musical prowess, but in May 1970, disaster struck the band….

As the second Yes album, Time and a Word was undergoing final tweaks in post production and a tour testing the new material was underway-founding member Peter Banks was shown the door. Or quit, depending on who you  believe. Either way, this was looked upon in the industry as a death knell for Yes. After all, Peter Banks was generally considered to be the heart and soul of the band-fashion savvy, and with a personality and playing style that were open and daring–in marked contrast to the taskmaster persona brought by Jon and the aloof and entitled (some friends said condescending) views of Squire. He had named the band in 1968 when Jon Anderson’s suggestion of ‘Life’ and Chris Squire’s suggestion of ‘World’ were met with indifference. Peter suggested ‘Yes!’ (exclamation and all) as a holding action until they came up with something better. It stuck,  though the exclamation point was dropped quickly.(The less letters in the band name, the larger it shows up on posters noted Peter).  Banks also designed the first Yes logo.

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With a sound fueled by a Gibson ES-335 that was very difficult to define, Banks was able to fuse rhythm and lead guitar sounds simultaneously to make a jazz rock fusion that some said formed the original definition of  progressive rock guitar. Lester Bangs noted of their debut album both the good and the bad in his February 1970 review:

Because all of it is excellently done: brisk fuzz leads, whirring bass, a bit of the Beatles vocally, a touch of Wes Montgomery in the guitar solos—a definitive album, in fact, in the prevalent style of “hip” groups over the past two years. The only trouble is that there are hosts of American bands (and presumably British as well) who are into the same bag with equal facility and taste. The excitement of true innovation is missing—which may not be a valid criticism, since most rock is folk music anyway, but that’s what makes albums like this one so much less arresting than many others…Their version of the Byrds’ “I See You” is especially nice, although none of their own compositions are very memorable.

Image result for yes time and a word      Image result for yes time and a word

The second Yes album cover was hastily reshot for the US version with newly acquired guitarist Steve Howe on the cover, although he didn’t play at all on the record. Howe played a similar style to Banks and his Gibson ES-175 hollow body brought a similar sound to the band as Banks’ ES-335. Howe’s reputation on the circuit was as a low key but tastefully improving guitarist, but not a forceful and flashy personality like Banks. Time and a Word featured some fairly heavy handed orchestral overdubs which stepped all over Banks’ guitar in the mix, and rendered Kaye’s organ work nearly invisible. A short attempt to demo this live in  concert left Banks even more dissatisfied-and he was gone. But with a new guitarist under their wing, the band soldiered on to create their first mini masterpiece, the meticulously ‘assembled from little song bits’ lp the Yes Album. Recorded six months after Banks departure, it brought some new success to the band. But while on tour in 1971, the axe fell again-and founding keyboardist Tony Kaye was left curbside for pickup. Two founding members leaving in a year? Many thought Yes was in big trouble. This is where our story begins:

Flash (clockwise, from left), drummer Mike Hough, bassist Ray Bennett, guitarist Peter Banks and vocalist Colin Carter. 

There is little agreement on the facts surrounding Banks and Kaye’s ouster from the Yes. In one interview Kaye said that Anderson came in his bedroom while he was sleeping off a night out and profoundly hung over. ‘You’re out of the band” said Jon and Kaye later said “I just grunted, mostly relieved that he was leaving the room so I could sleep more”

An early 1972 Rolling Stone article noted the difference of opinions as to what had transpired:


Tony Kaye and Pete Banks have now come together and formed their own band, Flash, which is currently working its way around the club and dance hall circuit.  Their departures from Yes are explained by Jon:  “They didn’t leave- we decided to get someone else.  It doesn’t help them to say that.  We’ve always said that Tony decided to leave the band because it’d get him a better situation. The truth is that we blew them out because they weren’t really into what we were trying to get together . . . Peter was a bit lazy, that’s why. He liked his clothes a bit more than his music.  Tony had a marvelous mind, he was a great guy to talk to, but he didn’t have so many ideas.  He wasn’t willing to expound himself.”

Jon and Tony seem to agree that he was tossed, Peter however disagrees (from the same early 1972 article):

  Pete Banks still doesn’t quite see that things happened the way Jon described.  “I decided to make a move more than anything,” he explained one evening, sitting on the floor of his basement flat.  On the walls were reminders of his stay with the band – posters, photographs and an album sleeve.  “I only made the decision though after I’d given it a lot of thought. Luckily Yes were strong enough to get a new guitarist, rehearse and get it back on the road.”  From his point of view Yes had become a mechanical band producing music that was less than human.  He remembered the times when he and Bruford had gone through the motions of clocking in and out on live performances, and how it [was] really only half a joke for them. “We’d go on each night knowing we’d go down well,” he said.”We’d got things worked out to that degree.  Yes always went for the technique approach, whereas with Flash we’re going for the feel.  Yes tends to lack feel.  Sometimes it’s good to make mistakes to show you’re human and that it’s not being made by a machine.  I don’t think Fragile was human.  You couldn’t fault it in any other way though.”

Peter seemed to reverse himself  and took a more distanced view of what happened in a 2006 interview:

Peter: I was kicked out, simple as that. I’ve never really found out why, to be honest. I think it was mostly musical. We hit a really bad period where we had quite a lot of work and rehearsals. I think the musical reason was, and I’m kinda guessing here, I think I lacked a certain amount of structure, and Steve came in to replace me, he was a more structured player, where my approach always has been really, I don’t like to play the same thing twice.

Obviously you have structure within music, but if someone says ‘I like what you played last week can you play it again?’ chances are I probably won’t, I’ll go out of my way to play something different, with a new spin on it. If you’re a lead singer, that kind of puts lead singers out. I think that might have been a reason but I don’t know.

I think Jon mentioned in a recent interview, where he was talking about Yes guitar players, he was very frustrated that I never played the same thing twice. Same with Bill, us two were a bit of a loose cannon. Because we were playing the same things night after night after night, we would like to screw around with it.

Rolling Stone in their review of 1971’s Fragile also took note of some of the complaints Banks had pointed out about Yes’ shortcomings:

  Some problems remain, however: They’re good and they know it, so they tend to succumb to the show-off syndrome. Their music (notably “Cans and Brahms” and “We Have Heaven”) often seems designed only to impress and tries too hard to call attention to itself. Is anyone really still excited by things like “Five tracks on this album are individual ideas, personally arranged and organized by the five members of the band..etc.”

Melody Maker echoed this in 1971: ‘Fragile’ does not seem to go anywhere or have any theme except displaying Yes’ technical ability …   It’s all a little too much like exercises, clever and beautifully played”.

 (A quick aside: Jon wasn’t averse to taking some dodgy chances with Yes-like recording around this time, as a Faberge commercial was recorded during the sessions for the studio version of America:     Another project which was waiting to be recorded when “America”  finally reached the can was a 60-second commercial for Faberge-
Put a little music on and hear it play/ Put a little music on from Faberge.
They’d even got a nice little arrangement for the band to set the lyrics to, but Jon wanted to it his way. He decided to use the same technique he used on “We Have Heaven” on the Fragile album, where they overlay vocal tracks from their own music. ” I think it’s worth it,” said Jon.”Not for the money we’re getting, but because it’ll be a nice little song when it’s done the way I want it. I didn’t want a dinky little song. Anyway, the more people that hear our music the better.”)

Whatever the facts were, two important founding members of Yes had joined forces in 1971 to create a band that echoed the early sound of Yes, but emphasized feeling over technique, and playing for the sheer joy of creation over the construction of things far removed from the emotional immediacy of rock n roll. People were excited.

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Although he is listed as a full member on their debut album, Tony Kaye was always viewed as a sideman in this project according to both Kaye and Banks (there were high hopes he’d stay on) Still, this fact escaped the music press, and Flash were viewed as a back to roots version of Yes, something that is less evident as desirable today as it was back in 1971. With the guitarist and keyboardist who’d provided most of the musical ‘sound’ to the parent band now in a new project-who could say which one would come out on top?

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https://ronkanefiles.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/flash_new.jpg?w=1440&h=712Their debut album in 1972 was decidedly Yes-like. Band members Mike Hough on drums, Ray Bennett on bass and the noticeably Jon Anderson-ish Colin Carter on vocals made up the quartet. Bennett had some prog-cred even in his teenage years: he’d been in a band with Bill Bruford at age 15, and rubbed elbows in bands with musicians who ended up in Gentle Giant, Man and Gun. The album cover by Hipgnosis was ambiguously created to impart a sauciness when viewed in the racks, but entirely confusing as to whether it was a front or rear shot when folded out. Small Beginnings, the first single, charted on both sides of the pond (top 30 in US Billboard) and things looked bright.

Children of the Universe, another highlight, accentuated the Yes vibe. Diddits and rahoovyahs straight out of The Yes Album were the frosting on the dexterous and constantly changing instrumental underpinnings. Banks was able to knit together some impressive runs that challenged the depth of his earlier work with Yes. His runs became even more jazz-like than in Yes, approaching a territory the Robert Fripp had dipped his toes into during the early days of King Crimson, yet Banks created a more successful hybridization of rock and jazz stylings. Although this album didn’t make the waves some critics were expecting, it did well enough to warrant a second album release, and many Yes fans snapped this up instantly. In retrospect, this was a fine response to  The Yes Album. Fragile? Well there was no challenger to Roundabout here, but the earlier notation by Banks that Fragile was hampered by sterility of playing shows the difference of opinions that led to his departure. Besides, Fragile only contained four actual songs.

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Fully keyboard-less, the band delivered their sophomore effort, just as strong as their debut. Titled Flash in the Can, a name that punned on  the sophomoric cover. Like the first album, this one also flaunted the ‘sex will sell this album, dammit!” as it likewise folded out to a more salacious version. Despite the word flash meaning ‘fancy and cool’ in British slang, the record company was intent on another meaning of flash for the public to grab onto. One thing was sure at this point-Flash could jam live.

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Banks reveals anti-gravity guitar solo effect

The second album contains what many consider their finest musical moment, There No More. Overall, this album hangs together better than their debut, despite the lack of a proper keyboardist. The first two albums are definitely essential for any Yes fan. Critics weren’t so sure that a progressive rock band could cut it without keyboards, but Banks fretwork here ups the ante from the debut. Check out this:

Despite being perhaps even more overtly Yes-like (albeit an early version of Yes), their second album didn’t get the attention it deserved.Songwriting credit for Banks was limited to a half a song, as Ray Bennett was revealed as the principle songwriter-Banks crafted his guitar in and around songs. Maddeningly,  despite a full US tour spending a large chunk of  1972 in the States with the likes of Foghat, Savoy Brown, Wishbone Ash, Three Dog Night, Beck Bogert and Appice, Black Sabbath, Genesis, Alice Cooper, Mott the Hoople and Humble Pie, the band’s fortunes only slightly crept onward. A second US tour in December of 1972 did see them headlining many of their own shows, and a full billboard graced the streets of Los Angeles next to the Whiskey-A-Go-Go.

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Their 1973 album, Out of Our Hands continued the ‘boobs n butts’ theme, with hands and knuckles cleverly taking the place of arched backs and bums. The band had been sued for their name, forcing the record company to call the band ‘Flash featuring England’s Peter Banks’, much to the consternation of his hard working band mates. Sure Banks was still the draw, even three albums in, but his musical mates chafed at the change. They  played at least 65 US shows on an arduous tour from early August to mid November, finally imploding on November 17, 1973 with seven shows remaining to the tour-which all had to be canceled. Dissension and fatigue combined with the inability to get to the next level to finally destroy the band. According to Bennett, the problems 
all came down to Banks: “He
 was almost entirely to blame for the early Flash breakup, and for a major 
amount of friction and unrest in our
 camp — and not just with the band
— almost everyone around us, too:
 manager, producer, Capitol Records
 and others. I’ve restrained myself
 from just saying it bluntly in the past,
 but Flash didn’t just ‘implode on the
 road’. We’d had enough of Banks.”Some information on their dissolution can be found in an interview with Carter and Bennett here.

Banks takes a more distant, but similar view of the break-up in 2006, acknowledging he might have been a problem:

 We didn’t last long, but we were very creative, we made 3 albums in 2 years. But business things were very bad, we needed new management, I was very unhappy. What turned out to be our last tour was very Spinal Tap, I wasn’t even traveling with the guys, I would show up sometimes 10 minutes before the show, and I  probably acted like a real asshole at the time.

We broke up in New Mexico with 4 more gigs to go, very unfortunate thing to happen. I tried and I tried after that, because it was like a divorce. For 2 years we’d been working so intensely, we were getting better but the audiences were dropping off. We were playing with bands we shouldn’t have played with.

I had wondered about some of the bills they had been booked on during the US tour. They had more success here than in the UK, and it made sense to try to capitalize on the buzz created by the first album and single, but really…Three Dog Night and Flash on tour together? Grand Funk? Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show? A gig is a gig I suppose, but a more concerted effort to get them in front of an appreciative audience by  their management is perhaps the biggest spike driven into their possible success.
An easy example-Genesis was in the States in 1973, and Flash would have been the perfect opening act on that bill. Perhaps they were trying a bit too hard to shake the perception that they were a junior varsity version of Yes and were their own band by playing with folks not even close to their more technically adept stylings.

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Image result for flash colin carter   Image result for flash ray bennett

In retrospect, it’s easy to see that Flash wasn’t going to hit the same level as Yes. But in 1971, things weren’t as easy to predict. Half of Yes strikes out on their own, leaving only the singer, drummer and bassist? You can see how those paying attention might be wont to plunk their ducats on the dark horse in this race. To this day, the first two Flash albums stand up extremely well against their peer group of B-division progressive rock bands of the early 70’s, (hell it even stands up fairly well against pre-Close to the Edge Yes.)  And the world would have to wait a few more years for the next even more  derivative Yes clone band to hit the floorboards, (though lacking the cachet of real Yes members)…..Starcastle.

But for now, let’s just ruminate on some small beginnings with large aspirations. One more pass through with Flash on US TV in 1972:

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The Best Bands You’ve Never Heard of: Van Der Graaf Generator: “Camps of Panolply and Majesty-Meet Tortured Soul and Refugee”

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Van der Graaf Generator is another band that is criminally unknown is the common era. Even among neo-prog twenty somethings, their name usually elicits blank stares. It isn’t until you hit rock kids that are tipping in at the late forties early fifties end of the spectrum will you be greeted with knowing nods and slow smiles. Because those people still know what has now become a bit of a secret-Van der Graaf Generator were one of the most challenging and influential bands in the world in the early and mid 1970’s. One of the big ones. But they seem to be slipping from the zeitgeist of musical gatekeepers. This needs to be addressed.

Name checked by a wide variety of artists (John Lydon of the Sex Pistol/PIL, Marc Almond of Soft Cell, Graham Coxon of Blur,Mark Smith of the Fall, John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden and Julian Cope of general psychedelic fame. Even Geddy Lee of Rush mentions them briefly in an interview) Van der Graaf made an imprint on rock in four very short years from 1969-1972 that is still reverberating through music today. How could a band this unknown have influenced such a wide variety of bands, and how have they seemed to have flown under everyone’s radar?

One reason is the lineup– having no guitar player in a rock band in the late sixties or early seventies was not something that would play to your benefit. Electric guitar is the heart of rock, right? How about no bass player AND no guitarist? Unthinkable. So the line up of the classic quartet of Peter Hammill, Guy Evans, Hugh Banton and David Jackson? Piano, drums, organ and sax.  What? But the people who were watching music closely (ya know, the folks who could correctly tell you King Crimson was a much more advanced proposition than Yes or Genesis, and why) could tell you that this band was something special.

Iconoclasts in philosophical bent, lyrical bent and certainly in musical ideas-Van der Graaf was a loose collective of ever changing musicians trying something new in a field of musicians currently defining what new was. Rock was really changing big time in early 1967 London-Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Cream, Traffic? You could walk into clubs and see them playing to crowds of a hundred or so. A Beatle or a Rolling Stone or two might be in that crowd. Pop fluff was being scattered to the winds, and an intellectual wave of literature, philosophy, drugs, mysticism, ufo investigation and science fiction imagery had bubbled into rock. The Hammill led band proceeded in an organ driven Arthur Brown vein, but the next two years saw them shuffling line ups, guitarists, bassists, hiring session men who would become band members, getting signed to Charisma (future home of Genesis), and putting out a solo Peter Hammill album out as a Van der Graaf Generator lp…they stopped to assess things in 1969. Band equipment stolen, contract hassles with labels (Mercury, Charisma, Polydor)-things needed to settle. With the departure in 1970 of Nic Potter, Banton began bashing away on bass with both feet on organ pedals while using both hands to create most of the meat of the song-saxophone and drums barking in reeling consonance.

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The quartet era of the band from 1970-1972 is the stuff of legends. (their 1975 reunion is also worthy as is their work up until this day). Their master piece, Pawn Hearts in 1972 is the quiet cousin  of King Crimson’s better work. Fripp actually dips in for some of his most inventive session work in his career for these guys The inner sleeve of Pawn Hearts was something I didn’t see for a while (the US version wasn’t gatefold), and it is unsettling in a dada-esque tableaux. An unsettling vocal jazz version of a King Crimson-esque approach to music supported by drums, organ and sax is an unlikely combination for a band that could inspire riotous fan behavior, but this band certainly did, especially in Italy in 1972, where three tours supported this album. Hugh Banton playing bass with his feet on organ pedals upon Nic Potter’s departure, Peter Hammill a genius of vocal histrionics, and able to twist the throat of a phrase and make it spit out some truth was worthy of the poets of a brit century ago, hey stir in some eloquent piano and slashing acoustic guitar as well.

A good introduction to the band is with their last work with their bass player Nic Potter in 1970, Pioneers Over C, all 12 minutes of it:

 Van der Graaf Generator are also one of the big finalists in the ‘best side long song ever’ -prog rock is usually understood here-among the best of the best. Close to the Edge? Supper’s Ready?
The third choice is usually A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers, side two of Pawn Hearts. Never performed live (except once in pieces and repieced for Belgian TV right before they broke up). Below is that Belgian appearance of Plague (I urge you to watch this in its 24 minute entirety to understand how this song is one of the big ones-
Nice epitaph to a civilization teetering on the edge of breakthrough from 45 years ago in Manchester. These guys are one of the best of the best, yet somehow have slipped through many cracks. You like Yes? King Crimson? Magma? ELP? Genesis? Area? PFM? Freaky pre-goth vocals okay? I might have your band right here. Lyrically, there’s more angst in a single Van der Graaf song than two full Nirvana albums. This is an overload of powerful psychic outburst that might fry the fragile subwirings of delicate millenials, yet showed up in 75% of their core stuff. Insanely essential rock band, one of the best of the early seventies by a long shot.
             Image result for the least we can do is wave van der graaf          Image result for h to h van der graaf     Pawn Hearts (Van der Graaf Generator album - cover art).jpg
Get all three of those albums, immediately. If King Crimson scared the Moody Blues out of signing them to their label in 1969 as reported, then this is the only band that could scare King Crimson.
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This is the stuff of legends, legends that some now haven’t even heard of, which is disturbing. One more time:  grab all THREE of these albums right now. Sure, there was a 1975 reunion, with Godbluff and Still life in 1975 and 1976 respectively nearing the bar set so high in 1972. But this article is about the big three from 1970-1972.  More angst than how many Nirvana albums? In a field of bands that are almost literally undefinable in sound, this band defies description. You up for a challenge in your listening diet? This kind of band is what happens when you actually pay attention to everything that has come before, a quantum leap in creativity can create a break with the predecessors.

Camps of panoply and majesty, what is Freedom of Choice?
Where do I stand in the pageantry…whose is my voice?
It doesn’t feel so very bad now: I think the end is the start.
Begin to feel very glad now:
ALL THINGS ARE A PART
ALL THINGS ARE APART
ALL THINGS ARE A PART.

Kansas in 2014–Sparse. “Steve Walsh is Still Amazing….Wait…What?”

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Kansas has been on their 40th anniversary tour for a while now, going on two years. Though some are unfamiliar with the hectic changes time and God hath wrought upon the band, not many are aware of the recent change to the lead singer/keyboardist’s position. For a majority of Kansas fans, Steve Walsh IS Kansas, a gyrating, keyboard thrashing center of attention, with a set of vocal cords that put most seventies yelpers to shame. It was pretty much unthinkable for him to leave, but the wholesale lineup upheavals that plagued the band since the mid 80’s saw Steve exiting the frontman position in the middle of a tour with basically no explanation. Peculiar to say the least.

This brings us to the recent New York appearance by the band. The above quote in the title was overheard in the bar after the show ended. Nobody corrected him because you see, very quietly Steve Walsh left the band a few weeks ago, and Kansas kept that news kind of quiet. Hardly anyone knew. They kept it so quiet they almost mumbled the details as they introduced new singer Ronnie Platt halfway through the show. Even then, some in the crowd were unaware it was not Steve. But Ronnie, from the Chicago area cover band Arra fills the shoes of Steve Walsh nicely. Anyone familiar with Kansas’ Live at the Whisky 1992 live album is aware of the vocal problems plaguing Walsh over the last two decades–straining to hit notes, little power and a general uncomfortable sensation wondering if the next note would be his last. These problems have not abated in the recent decade, and the casual fan is left to wonder if he quit or was thrown out of the band. Either way, most fans are fairly disappointed that the big 40th tour is now a celebration being held by the guitarist and the drummer. Sparse lineup.

When do we become original members Billy?

Kansas has been held together by (old time) newcomers Billy Greer on bass (joined 1985) and Dave Ragsdale on vioiin (joined 1991) for the better part of two decades. Robbie Steinhardt, the original violinist, bailed in 1982, Kerry Livgren, the wildly talented lead guitarist and widely regarded leader of the band left in 1983 (he did return briefly in 1990-1). Founding bassist Dave Hope left with Livgren (they had both become devoted Christians and became born again after Monolith in 1979, essentially tearing the band apart from the inside. After dabbling in the dense Urantia Book for answers, LIvgren fell headlong into Christianity on tour in 1979). The horrors of post Monolith Kansas were largely ignored by most, when with John Elefante (another devout evangelist) on vocals (joined in 1982), the band essentially became a modern day Christian rock band. Only the religiously converted and the extremely fanatical stayed on board. The odd addition of the Dixie Dreg’s Steve Morse in 1985 saw a brief flicker of interest rekindled, while few noticed Walsh’s return, a return that lasted nearly 30 years. The band became a fairground and casino circuit draw, rubbing elbows with Foghat and such.

The unexpected and untimely departure of Walsh led to a lineup consisting of the above mentioned Ragsdale and Greer, along with surviving founding members drummer Phil Ehart and guitarist Richie Williams. The lighting guy was depped in to play (nearly inaudible) keyboards, and Ronnie Platt on keys and vocals round out the sextet. The band stage lineup look was sparse, and the stage had a PA hung from the ceiling left and right, with no supplemental speaker columns on stage. No stage monitors or guitar amplifiers graced the stage for any of the instruments, lending a further sparseness to the air. ‘Is this a band on extreme budget tour?’ was a queston that came to mind.

But there is more to Kansas than Dust in the Wind, their signature but unrepresentative major hit. On a good day in the mid 70’s, Kansas were quite a musical phenomenon. An Americanized version of Yes and other British prog bands, they were able to give many bands a run for their money. Like some Jr. Varsity Mahavishnu Orchestra, Kansas could change keys, time signatures and instruments in seconds, stopping on a dime and leaving change. Many forget the power these guys were capable of mustering in their heyday of 1974-1979. Much of that muscle was still on display this week, as the remnants of Kansas were the backdrop for the new vocalist showing off his chops. Ronnie Platt was the real highlight of the evening, a flawless imitation of Walsh in 1975 at the height of his powers, giving the band a strange dichotomy. A depleted Kansas with a faltering lead vocalist is but a shadow of a former monolithic band, but still original. A replacement vocalist that acts and sings so much like Walsh that some didn’t even notice it was a new guy? Well that’s pretty damn good too.

Old songs mixed with newer ones-Point of Know Return, the achingly beautiful Song For America, Belexes and Closet Chronicles rubbed elbows with clunkers like Fight Fire With Fire, Hold on and Play the Game from their Christian era. But the overwhelming power of their original material won the day. Dave Ragsdale doubled on guitar for some tunes, enabling the dueting Livgren and Williams used to such good effect. The obligatory Carry on My Wayward Son rounded out the evening (a song that is diabolically difficult to play or sing) leaving the crowd stomping and chanting.

Final note-in lieu of merchandise, two large posters with the band’s URL graced the lobby. No shirts, no hoodies, no DVDs, no CDs, nothing. Fan reactions varied from miffed to genuinely annoyed. “How hard is it to pay a guy to sell a thousand bucks worth of shirts per night? Really?” Sparse again.

Yet out of the sparseness still was a solid backbone of a band that changed many people’s lives forever. And despite the best efforts to dismantle it through muddle headed decisions and overt religious flourishes (Robbie Steinhardt used to complain openly that the band had gone from good time partying to holding prayer meetings before shows), Kansas is still a very entertaining proposition. As they once said in Closet Chronicles: “I heard the king is dying, I heard the king is dead”. Pretend you don’t know it’s a new singer, close your eyes and prepare to be impressed. Not dead yet. Wheatheads rejoice!

Update, February 2016

I was down in Florida recently and noticed on a billboard that Steve Walsh was touring this spring, opening for the John Payne version of Asia. If Steve is healthy enough to be touring, well……one can hope, can’t one?

Prog Rock Was Famous in the Midwest? Or, The Land That Yes Fertilized

 

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Cosmos
starcas
Starcastle

 

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

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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, Orleans 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_-_Leftoverture

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).

 

styx

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 cover    Citadel

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.

 

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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.

 

REO 1971 Illinois

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 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.

 

Little known major label band 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. 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.

Albatross            https://i2.wp.com/www.pentwatermusic.com/images/cornerlogo45.jpg

Even more obscure but deserving of attention: Albatross from Rockford Illinois sound like Styx with an even stronger Yes fixation. 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.

max_4    Black Noise

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. 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?