Kansas guitarist Rich Williams vividly remembers a certain day in 1977 that still has an impact on his life and career in 2019.
His band had just finished playing a show in Chicago when they headed for a studio which had been set up for them to be filmed miming to two tracks from their upcoming record, Point of Know Return. On deck was the title track, along with a little ballad called “Dust in the Wind.” Though they weren’t quite sure what to call what they were doing.
“That was long before MTV, and the term ‘music video’ didn’t exist. I didn’t know what we were doing it for!” Williams laughs today. “But in Australia and Europe, the way they market music is to show these videos on television. I said ‘Aw, that’s not gonna last!’ We went in there, shot it, then went to bed. And that was it! Those videos come back and haunt me to this day!”
Maybe it was Williams’ disco-meets-country-gentleman white suit that makes him cringe today, because the two tracks certainly stand up. The band had high hopes for Point of Know Return as their previous album, Leftoverture, had given the band its breakthrough hit with the now-staple of classic rock “Carry on Wayward Son.”
But if asked to name one Kansas song, most people would cite “Dust in the Wind.” Penned by original guitarist Kerry Livgren, it hit #6 in 1978 and is the band’s only Top 10 hit. The gentle ballad with heavy lyrics about life’s legacy and its somewhat fatalistic view has run the gamut of use in the ensuing 40+ years, from being played seriously at funerals to being quoted by Bill & Ted in their first Excellent Adventure and as Will Ferrell’s eulogy for a friend (“You’re My Boy, Blue!”) in Old School.
“’Dust in the Wind’ is not a dated lyric or even dated sounding,” Williams says of its continued appeal. “There was nothing else like it at the time, unless you go back to the folk era. It stood on its own. Country stations even played it!”
In 2019, Kansas performed Point of Know Return in its entirely – along with a selection of hits, deep cuts, and newer material – on tour. Williams says the record was crucial to the band’s career.
“Leftoverture was a platinum record, so we knew we had something special. It just exploded and we went from small headlining shows and opening act slots to playing Madison Square Garden,” he says.
“Every album to that point was getting more cohesive and selling more. So our expectations for Point of Know Return were for it to be even better. And it did outsell it – though I think Leftoverture has sold more as of today. But those two albums back to back were career makers for us.”
Of the deeper cuts on the sextuple-platinum record – some of which Kansas had never even played live before this tour – Williams says “Hopelessly Human” is his favorite to play. Even if it finds him frantically switching between acoustic and electric guitars and changing settings and pickups. All accomplished amid flashing stage lights.
The current lineup of Kansas includes original members Williams (lead guitar) and Phil Ehart (drums), along with longtime bassist Billy Greer and violinist/guitarist David Ragsdale. There’s also Ronnie Platt (lead vocals/keyboards), Zak Risvi (guitar), and new addition Tom Brislin (keyboards).
Williams says that he and Ehart have a special bond as the two remaining original/classic lineup members, having played together consistently since 1967 when both were in their junior high band, the Pets.
“It’s kind of like my other marriage. Whatever difference of opinion or philosophies we’ve had have long been talked out. There’s no surprises, and we’ve always known we can count on each other. We’ve never wavered in our commitment to what we do,” Williams says.
He notes that the original six man lineup – Williams, Ehart, Steve Walsh (lead vocals/keyboards), Kerry Livgren (lead guitar), Robbie Steinhardt (violin), and Dave Hope (bass) was like a “mighty pirate ship on the sea” (sort of like the iconic cover to Point of Know Return). And all six participated in the 2015 band documentary Miracles Out of Nowhere.
Williams says that all six remain friendly and business partners, and the former members will often come see the current band or sit in with them at shows. But what he admits gets under his skin is when purported “fans” simply won’t accept anything but the original lineup, no matter what the current reality is.
“Not everybody has the will or the inclination, desire, or ability to stick with something for 47 years. Nothing against the [former members], they’ve moved on and wanted to do something else. And we’re all fine with each other,” he says. “But you can’t remain frozen in time.” If you want the original lineup, Williams suggests to stay home and listen to the records – or call the former members and gripe at them.
In fact, Kansas is about to release a new record, The Absence of Presence this month, their first since 2016’s The Prelude Implicit. Though unlike during the band’s heyday, commercial success is not a goal.
“Business is a fraction of what it once was. There’s no money in putting out a new record. But we still want to be relevant and be creative and experiment,” he says. The band was also looking forward to hitting the road in 2020 with Foreigner (which has since been cancelled due to the pandemic). He was hoping that it would allow them to change up their set list even more. “They’ve had like 20 hits and have to play all of them. We’ve had a couple of big ones and a few minor ones, so we have more freedom!” Williams laughs.
Finally, Kansas – along with Foreigner, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Boston, Bad Company, and Supertramp – are examples of worthy classic rock bands not yet in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Williams has some thoughts on the matter, and ultimately why he hopes that Kansas will be enshrined in that glass pyramid in Cleveland.
“I don’t know who it’s for – I don’t know that anybody does!” he says. “I know what we’ve accomplished. I would be appreciative of it, and it would be great for my personal legacy for my grandchildren after I’ve gone, so it has an importance to me for my family. But personally, it’s not something I need or [obsess] about.”
He jokes about starting a “Not in the Hall of Fame Hall of Fame” for similar rock bands as-yet not enshrined. And he isn’t so sure that the term “Rock and Roll” should even be part of the Hall’s moniker.
“I don’t know at what point it became so politically correct to represent genres that aren’t rock and roll,” he sums up. “Not to take anything away from those [inductees], but it’s not their arena. It’s like taking the person who won the Bassmaster Classic and putting them in the Baseball Hall of Fame!”
This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com