“I was born upon the prairie, where the wind blew free, and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures, and where everything drew a free breath.” – Chief Ten Bears
I was sitting in a steak house with my close friend and lead guitarist, Steve, sipping in a beer and waiting for our food to be served. The restaurant’s music system was playing the Styx hit “Renegade.”
“This band sucks, but there’s a great moment in this song,” Steve said. I agreed.
When the moment came, late in the song, Steve and I yelled simultaneously, “That’s it!”
It was 1-2 second drum roll.
My opinion of the successful arena rock bands that came out of the Midwest in the seventies – Styx, of course (Chicago), Kansas (Topeka), and REO Speedwagon (Champaign/Urbana) has never been particularly high. My iPod (yes, I’m that kind of dinosaur) has about 8000 songs on it. There are none by any of these bands.
But by chance I heard songs by all three of these bands today and an interesting, perhaps slightly daft, idea occurred to me that connected the work of these groups in a way that is worth sharing. I think that it makes sense to see the music of Styx, Kansas, and REO Speedwagon in terms of the geography in which these bands formed: a landscape dominated by the vast spaces of the American prairie.
First, a slight historical detour – all of these bands show the influence of progressive rock. The musical virtuosity and grandiosity of the British originators of prog-rock – bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer – are clearly evident in the work of even REO Speedwagon, the least prog-rock of this group of midwestern arena rockers. But where Yes and ELP tend to explore highly intellectual matters such as the relationships between classical music and rock, the midwesterners, interestingly, explore topics relevant to those living in the prairie: the psychology of dealing with vast open spaces and a natural world full of dangers.
Example 1: Styx doing “Man in the Wilderness”:
Example 2: Kansas doing “Dust in the Wind”:
Example 3: REO Speedwagon doing “Riding the Storm Out”:
This is expansive, windy music coming from bands whose members for the most part grew up in an expansive, windy environment. The human versus nature themes in the lyrics are verbal expressions of the psychology that develops in such an environment.
While we might debate the musical merits of these groups, this unifying idea – that the work of a given band seems to reflect the landscape in which that band developed – has, I think, interesting possibilities in gaining a deeper understanding of their work.
Next time, a look at the Northeast.