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Behind the Music with Former Kansas Star John Elefante
by Andy Argyrakis
Pamplin recording artist John Elefante released his third solo project "Defying Gravity' this Spring. Tollboother Andy Argyrakis asked him about his days with the legendary rock group Kansas
Kansas is one of those bands you just find yourself singing along with on retro radio. Back in the 80s, they were king of the charts with the bragging rights to numerous singles like "Dust in the Wind," "Fight Fire with Fire," and "Play That Game Tonight." Sure they were an early MTV band that made lots of money, but that doesn't mean it was always smooth sailing. Let's start with a bit of background. The group's first hit came way back in 1977 with the tune "Carry On Wayward Son." It paired the songwriting skills of
Kerry Livgren with the vocal styling of the group's first singer Steve Walsh. Kansas exploded in the following years with the hard driving rock anthem "Point of No Return" and the spiritually focused ballad "Dust in the Wind."
Spiritually focused is a key word in the history of this band. Ironically, Livgren developed a deep interest in God as the band started to grow in popularity. The themes of each song grew deeper by the group's 1980 album "Audio Visions," as Livgren dug deeper to find God. The hit of that project, Hold On, is just one of the many examples of Livgren's faith in action.
Although Livgren was faithful to a higher power, some other band members didn't want to look up to that same force. In fact, vocalist Steve Walsh got so fed up by the time the group began writing for their 1982 Vinyl Confessions album that he quit the band! Little did he know he was walking out of a hugely successful chapter in the history of Kansas.
"I auditioned for Kansas shortly after Steve left and had a lot of the elements they were looking for," says John Elefante, the band's next vocalist. "It was really a miracle that I was chosen since the guys auditioned tons of singers. After losing the voice that fans had known, it was important to get someone who could continue on pace. I'm thankful that my joining helped keep things going."
Vinyl Confessions was the album that propelled the band onto every radio station in the nation with the smash singles "Right Away" and "Play That Game Tonight." Strangely enough, the band's lyrics became even more spiritual as Elefante's Christian beliefs matched Livgren's. "Kerry and I both had a real bond going right off the bat because of those beliefs," says Elefante. "That was not always well received by other members who didn't share the same views, but there was always a mutual respect for each other."
Their next album Drastic Measures spawned the classic "Fight Fire with Fire." "A song like 'Fight Fire with Fire,' deals with standing up for your faith," says Elefante. "It's a great rock song, but, once again, lyrics like that didn't always please the entire band."
Regardless of the band's divisions over lyrical content, the notoriety kept coming. "Around that time, videos became a really big part of our music," says Elefante. "To be honest, I think the birth of music videos was one of the most negative things in the 80s. I'm probably in the rare group of people that think so, but music videos took away from the mystique of the band. Fans got into songs based on what the videos looked like, while the underground loyal followings that bands built were getting lost with commercialism."
In the case of Kansas, going in a television studio to make a "commercialized" video was something they had very little control over. "Our record company set us up to do a shoot and from there we were left in the hands of the video director and whatever he told us to do," says Elefante. "I always thought to myself that rock stars don't do videos, they play music instead."
For instance, in their "Everybody's My Friend" video, Kansas had to just go with the flow of what they were told. "We thought the basis was absolutely ridiculous and hilarious," recalls Elefante. "Here we have a rock song and the video is taking place in a wrestling ring with a bunch of wrestlers beating up on each other! We looked at the [script] and said to each other, 'How in the world is this video going to work?'" Whether Elefante wants to admit it or not, it was those videos that brought more album sales.
However, controversy still brewed when
album sales were discussed within the group's management and record company.
"We were told that continuing to write songs with such spiritual lyrics
was just going to slow down record sales," says Elefante. "They wanted
us to keep the rock sound in but take the Christian message out. That's
when Kerry got out of the group all together. When Kerry left, I knew it
was time for me to leave. Not being allowed to say what was on our minds
within the framework of Kansas is not something we wanted. I look back
in retrospect and think, man if we could have just sat down and talked
it out we could have survived this whole thing and stayed together."