NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Welcome Back! It’s the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and my mic is working this time, baby. Yes it is.
Hey, don’t forget to check out the website, and the Twitter thing, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, How Good It Is Pod.
Have I got some trivia for ye this time around! What song from the TV show Sesame Street managed to make it into the Top 20? I’ll have the answer for you near the end of the show.
Unlike the bands The Bay City Rollers, who are from Scotland, or Berlin, which is from Los Angeles, the progressive rock band Kansas is, indeed, from that part of the United States. Between 1970 and 1973 the band went through several lineup and name changes, but when guitarist and songwriter Kerry Livgren joined the band, things really started to gel and they managed to get a recording contract with Don Kirshner’s label, which was called Calendar Records around the time he was producing The Archies, but which had morphed into Kirshner Records by the early 70s. Kansas had already pretty much locked in their signature sound by the time that first album came out in March of 1974. There was a little bit of boogie rock, a lot of changes to the time signatures, and symphonic arrangements punctuated by Robby Steinhardt playing the violin. And Steinhardt’s playing had more of a roots-y style to it than, say, the Electric Light Orchesta, which was going for a more classical feel. For the next couple of years—and the next couple of albums, Kansas had more of a cult following. At that time, the primary songwriter was Steve Walsh, but after three albums he was starting to run a little dry, so Kerry Livgren helped fill in the gaps. They opened their fourth album, titled Leftoverture, with a song that was intended to be a sequel to the last track on their previous album.
[CARRY ON WAYWARD SON]
“Carry On Wayward Son” was released as a single and it was the band’s first big hit, reaching Number Eleven on the Billboard Hot 100 the week of April 2, 1977. And so far as I know it’s the band’s only single to chart in the UK, peaking at Number 51 there. I’m pretty convinced that it didn’t do better in the US because there were just a lot of monster-size hits going on at that time creating a logjam in the Top 20. Barbara Streisand’s “Evergreen” was just ending its domination of the charts, “Hotel California” was ascending, Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle” was only just starting to drop, Hall & Oates was on top with “Rich Girl”, and some of the other songs in the Top 20 had been there for weeks, so the chart was churning very slowly. I don’t know that it would have gone to Number One, but in a weaker field it would have done much better, I think. At any rate, Leftoverture was their breakout album and Kansas became a major headline act.
[POINT OF KNOW RETURN]
When Kansas went back into the studio to record their fifth album, titled Point of Know Return—and that’s K-N-O-W, Know Return, Steve Walsh left the band briefly. Later on in a radio interview he admitted that he was starting to turn into a bit of a prima donna and was looking at a solo career. This left a lot of the heavy lifting for the songwriting on Kerry Livgren again. Walsh eventually returned to the band to contribute some of the songwriting, including that title track, but it was Livgren who was feeling the pressure to come up with the hit song that would follow up “Carry On Wayward Son”.
“Dust in the Wind” started out when Livgren, who was primarily an electric guitar player, was trying to improve his acoustic guitar skills, and so he would practice this style of fingerpicking called “Travis Picking,” which was named after country guitarist Merle Travis. Travis Picking involves playing a steady rhythm of bass notes with your thumb while your index and middle fingers play the melody on the higher strings. So the guitar line on “Dust in the Wind” was really just a finger exercise that Livgren had put together to practice his Travis Picking. But as he practiced, his wife Vicci would walk by and she kept telling him, “Honey, you should do something with that, that’s pretty.” And that struck him as interesting, because she would rarely comment on the stuff he did. So he put together a melody, which came together very quickly.
The band was on literally the last day of rehearsal for the Point of Know Return album, when their producer, Jeff Glixman, asked if they had any more songs.
Now, Livgren was reluctant to play this song for the band because it was acoustic, and not especially representative of Kansas at all, so he finally played it for his bandmates. In an interview with John Bowes, he recalled that after he played the song, “There was kind of a dead silence. And I thought, they don’t like it. And the guys all piped up, they said ‘Where’s this song been?’” Again, Livgren protested that it was just a finger exercise, but they talked him into using the song on the album.
[DUST IN THE WIND]
The lyrics themselves are haunting, but they’re still pretty straightforward. Livgren has said in interviews that the initial inspiration for “Dust in the Wind” was a book of Native American poetry he’d been reading, which included the specific line “for all we are is dust in the wind.” That particular line struck him hard, and had him thinking about the value of material possessions and success. Essentially, no matter what our accomplishments or what we manage to accumulate, we still all wind up back in the ground. This philosophy is echoed in a lot of places, including the Bible, where it appears in Genesis, Chapter 3 verse 19, where we get the common phrase “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” and in the book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3, where it reads “All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” It also appears in the 12th Century Japanese epic The Tale of the Heike, which has in its opening paragraph the phrase, “Yea, the proud ones are but for a moment, like an evening dream in springtime. The mighty are destroyed at the last, they are but as the dust before the wind.”
A huge chunk of the band isn’t even on the track. Livgren is on one guitar, Rich Williams is on the other, and Robby Steinhardt is playing both string parts, violin and viola. There’s no bass on the record, and no percussion except at the very end of the song, in the fadeout, where Phil Ehart does a little bit on the congas.
Not only was it their first acoustic song, it’s arguably one of the most popular acoustic rock recordings ever. It got all kinds of airplay on Top 40 stations, Album Oriented Rock stations, Adult Contemporary stations, Country stations, Soft Rock stations…it was everywhere for a bit. The song peaked at Number Six on the Billboard Hot 100, making it their biggest single, and it was in the Top Five in Canada, and a hit in a few pockets in Europe. Guitarist Rich Williams said a few years ago that, in retrospect, the band took some heat because they appeared to be selling out. In an interview marking the album’s 35th anniversary, he said, “What about ‘Dust in the Wind’ was mimicking anything to do with the mainstream? That was an absolute fluke that it was a hit. We had no idea it was going to be talked about 35 years later. It was only a hit because it…was a great song. Even a blind pig finds a truffle once in awhile.”
It’s time to answer today’s trivia question! Back on Page Two I asked you to identify a song that originated on the children’s show Sesame Street that made it into the Top 20. I’m willing to bet that most of you guessed this song:
[Mah Nà Mah Nà MUPPETS]
And that would be a big fat “No,” for a couple of reasons. First, “Mah Nà Mah Nà” was released in 1968, by Piero Umiliani so it pre-dates Sesame Street by a year.
The other reason is that it only went to Number 55 on the Billboard Chart. What’s more, it was used in Sesame Street, but it was also used for blackout sketches on The Red Skelton Show and on The Benny Hill Show.
This is the song that did the feat:
Rubber Duckie! was, of course, sung by the Muppet Ernie in the show. His voice at the time was provided by Jim Henson, the inventor of the Muppets, and the song actually made it to the Number 16 slot on the Hot 100 in September of 1970, about one year after the show debuted. Given that my brothers and I were small kids at the time and therefore part of the show’s target audience, I may have had a copy, but frankly I don’t remember.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we’re Heroes…but just for one day.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.