In the 1970s, defiant artists native to America’s erroneously labeled “flyover country” developed thriving and idiosyncratic music scenes far from the media glare of the coasts, in cities as unlikely as Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Louisville, Kentucky. Here we present a dozen classic heartland prog releases that, while often exhibiting the influence of famous British originators like Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, proved that Americans could contribute to the new, exploratory rock scene in their own valuable ways. Of course, the drummers appearing on these recordings had to be extremely well equipped to tackle the material, which could be as demanding as that found on the classic releases from across the pond.
1. Kansas Song for America (Phil Ehart, 1975)
The Topeka band’s ability to generate massive radio airplay with the perennial favorites “Carry on Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind” has long overshadowed its more mystical and sprawling efforts. Records such as Kansas’s self-titled debut, Masque, Leftoverture, Point of Know Return, and former guitarist/songwriter Kerry Livgren’s early 1970s material (immortalized in a Cuneiform Records collection titled Proto-Kaw) dazzle with their compositional complexity.
Recorded in 1974 at Wally Heider Studios in Los Angeles under the auspices of coproducers Jeff Glixman and Wally Gold, Kansas’s second studio effort is distinctly American, from its flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants epics and boogie rock to Peter Lloyd’s cover illustration depicting an eagle-like bird of prey extending its sharpened (metallic?) talons.
The title track, the paranormal timpani-tastic “Lamplight Symphony,” and the twelve-minute closing song (reportedly cut in one take), “Incomudro—Hymn to the Atman,” which includes a studio-effected drum solo, present a wide spectrum of sonic textures, tempo changes, and lyrical concepts. Drummer Phil Ehart’s “ghosting” protocol guides the spirit of these fan favorites. “Groove is important to me,” Ehart tells Modern Drummer. “I’m not schooled, not trained—not anything. I don’t know where stuff came from, and I couldn’t notate it. I had to look up the term ghost notes.”
Ehart continues, “I would listen to a ten-minute song, like ‘Song for America,’ and I would say, ‘What the heck time signature is that?’ [Livgren] said, ‘Just play whatever you feel.’ Most of the time it was figuring out where we were going. We didn’t know any differently.”
2. Styx The Grand Illusion (John Panozzo, 1977)
The title track trumpets forth from our speakers with the impassioned intensity of a military march. Or, as former Styx lead singer Dennis DeYoung once told this writer: “Hannibal taking the elephants across the Alps.” Despite the lyrical content cautioning us on the pitfalls of fame, such musical pomp and circumstance was nonetheless a fitting salutation for the Chicago-area band’s breakthrough effort. Not only did The Grand Illusion soar into the U.S. top ten, boasting two bona-fide hits in “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” and the sci-fi nautical adventure “Come Sail Away,” it also earned multiplatinum status.
The Grand Illusion highlights Styx’s level of deceptive sophistication. Drummer John Panozzo, who passed in 1996, complemented the subtle complexity of the music. “Play ‘Fooling Yourself,’” current Styx drummer and August 2017 MD cover artist Todd Sucherman says. “There’s a lot more there than meets the ear. The keyboard solo has that perfect 7/4, like Peter Gabriel’s ‘Solsbury Hill.’ You may have no idea that it’s in seven, because you can clap your hands right through it. Actually, the song has a 12/8 intro, a 4/4 body, a 7/4 solo section, and kicks that are in 5/8 that go into 12/8. That’s hardly a radio song, and yet it became a hit.”
3. Crack the Sky Crack the Sky (Joey D’Amico, 1975)
Once dubbed the Baltimore-area band’s “resident psychopath,” drummer Joey D’Amico was, in fact, a steady-handed player underscoring comical elements of guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist John Palumbo’s songwriting style while also bolstering Joe Macre’s articulated bass lines.
“[D’Amico] had four other band members breathing down his neck all the time,” says Terence P. Minogue, coproducer and arranger for the early Crack the Sky albums, including the group’s self-titled first release, which took Rolling Stone magazine’s Debut Album of the Year award. “They all felt they knew how to play the drum part as well as, if not better than, he did. D’Amico had to be diplomatic and never really ever had to do any retakes. ‘Surf City’ was done live. We hardly changed anything on that whole basic track.”
The string-laden “A Sea Epic,” the faux-rhapsodic “Robots for Ronnie,” and the driving and romantic “Sleep” demonstrate D’Amico’s ability to ply his trade for the good of the song. “Listen to ‘Ice,’ in 6/8,” Minogue says. “[D’Amico] is playing a very sparse part. He made those jerky rhythm changes more accessible to the listener.”
4. Yezda Urfa Boris (Brad Christoff, 1975)
Although this demo by the Chicago-based band, unreleased digitally until 2004, failed in its intended purpose of securing a major-label deal, it’s nonetheless a bold musical statement. The very busy and often swingin’ Brad Christoff navigates jagged compositions including “To-Ta in the Moya,” the uber-aggressive “3, Almost 4, 6 Yea” (both of which appear on the 1976 studio recording Sacred Baboon and the NEARfest 2004 live set), and the blazing bluegrass fusion of “Texas Armadillo.”
5. Ethos Ardour Ethos Ardour (Mark Richards, 1976)
Recorded in 1975 at the Hit Factory in New York City, the Fort Wayne, Indiana, band’s self-titled debut bristles with a variety of percussive sounds, from clanging bells to popping temple blocks to twinkling glockenspiel. As the musical palette expanded, drummer Mark Richards grew more inventive behind the kit, even tapping Moog’s synth-drum technology for added textures. “I used to duct tape the Moog drum to the top of my kick and trigger it by turning up the sensitivity level [on the controller],” Richards says. “I’d add bass effects, which you can hear in ‘The Spirit of Music.’ Near the end Mike [Ponczek, keyboardist] and I are trading riffs, and I’m bending the pitch.”
6. Starcastle Fountains of Light (Steve Tassler, 1976)
The first wave of British progressive rock inspired countless musicians from Maine to Marin County. Although Starcastle, from Champaign, Illinois, was labeled a Yes clone, the band moved hundreds of thousands of units with its exuberant Tommy Vicari–produced debut. No surprise that expectations ran high for 1977’s Fountains of Light, recorded at Le Studio in Quebec with Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, Cars, Yes).
“[Baker] was at an interesting point in his career,” says Starcastle drummer Steve Tassler, now a medical physician. “He was stepping out to capitalize on his fame, which he deserved. I can’t say we hit it off real well. I mean, he was a rock ’n’ roll star and we were just kind of poor.”
The tracking was done expeditiously, Tassler recalls, but the band was not thrilled with the mix. But because of its efficiencies rather than its deficiencies, Fountains of Light is often considered the group’s most artistically successful release. “We recorded the songs all the way through,” Tassler says, “except for [the ten-minute] ‘Fountains,’ which we did in two segments. Never used a click track.”
7. Easter Island Easter Island (Mark Hendricks, 1979)
Having been bitten by the British prog bug in the early 1970s, guitarist Mark Miceli, formerly of the proto-Southern-rock outfit Elysian Field, formed the Louisville-based Easter Island as an outlet for his more esoteric musical visions. “The rhythms on the debut album are broken up so much that it takes someone special to go from one time signature to another without the listener knowing that it’s happening,” Miceli says. “Mark [Hendricks] was a natural at this.”
Miceli notes that “the oddest beat on the record is in ‘Telesterion,’ the middle section of ‘The Alchemist’s Suite.’ I had just spent the New Year’s Eve before with fifty traveling Sufi drummers. I wrote the song that night. I think we recorded several of us hitting different pieces of Mark’s kit. I remember I played a Gato drum, a slit drum.”
Released on a limited basis at the tail end of the 1970s (literally on December 31, 1979), EI’s debut was once considered a Holy Grail collectible. Reissued with new material and titled Now and Then, the album can be downloaded directly from Miceli’s page at bandcamp.com.
8. Pre Pre (Dwight Dunlap, 1973)
Recorded at Cardinal Studios in Lexington, Kentucky, Pre’s debut was once a lost gem, escaping transfer to CD for twenty years. Drummer Dwight Dunlap unleashes rolling thunder on “Ascetic Eros,” one of two major centerpieces of the record. In the other, the nineteen-minute “Ballet for a Blind Man,” Dunlap grooves through a few different time signatures.
9. Gypsy In the Garden (Bill Lordan, Joe Lala, 1971)
This ambitious outing from the Minneapolis band that included future Robin Trower drummer Bill Lordan and Blues Image/CSNY percussionist Joe Lala juxtaposes layered harmonies with psychedelic blues and vaguely folk- and classical-rock vibes. The first installment of the two-part, quasi-multicultural track “Here (in the Garden)” features a Latin-esque drum solo that recalls Michael Shrieve’s iconic Woodstock workout.
10. Robert Bensick Band French Pictures in London (Scott Krauss, 1975)
This recently unearthed gem is a fine reflection, even a microcosm, of the diversity of artists inhabiting the mid-’70s Cleveland music scene. The depressed industrial climate of the region undoubtedly contributed to the hothouse weirdness of the city’s musical underground, which nurtured rare strains of experimental rock, from Pere Ubu to the Genesis tribute artist Paul Fayrewether.
The postmodernist mash-up of jazz, art-rock, and spoken-word mysticism on French Pictures in London coalesces around a narrative arc. “That whole album was about people I lived with in [the historic east Cleveland apartment building] the Plaza,” says Robert Bensick, who thought he’d left the arts forever when he became a Wall Street executive. “The building was gorgeous, although it was run down, because we were in the red-light district. It was a very romantic period.”
Scott Krauss, later the drummer for Pere Ubu, was at the top of Bensick’s “players to get” list. Bensick, himself a drummer, says, “Scott and I were both in the Bridge, a famous underground band. I became obsessed with synthesizer and got into playing guitar. I needed a drummer, and because Scott was so damned good, he was the obvious pick.”
11. Pavlov’s Dog At the Sound of the Bell (Bill Bruford, 1976)
This is a great example of the cross-pollination of British recording artists and blossoming North American prog rockers in the 1970s. Despite not being a full-fledged band member, former Yes and King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford takes a commanding role on the St. Louis group’s sophomore album. His playing is dynamic, even dramatic. Bubbly tom work injects excitement into the droning/hypnotic “She Came Shining,” and Bruford’s knack for detail kicks into high gear for the knotty “Did You See Him Cry?” “I asked [Bruford] how he kept track of all the time-signature changes in King Crimson,” bandleader/vocalist/guitarist David Surkamp told this writer in 2008. “He said, ‘[Crimson leader] Bob Fripp expects we can all count.’”
12. The Load Praise the Load (Tommy Smith, 1976)
Led by keyboardist Sterling Smith, this Columbus, Ohio, trio of serious-minded musos signaled more than just a nod and a wink to the slightly absurd. Drummer Tommy Smith, Sterling’s brother, never lacks wit while laying down a triple-time feel in “Fandango,” channeling his inner Carl Palmer for the classical-rock “The William Tell Overture,” or bringing da funk to the shuffling “Dave’s ‘A’ Song.” Owl Intermedia, the band’s own label, pressed Praise the Load to vinyl in 1976, but the New Jersey–based the Laser’s Edge eventually released the album on CD in 1991, with two bonus tracks.
Happy the Man’s Mick Beck
In the Cage With One of America’s Great Prog Acts
Happy the Man was formed in the Virginia/D.C. area, but founding member and percussionist Mick Beck, bassist Rick Kennell, and early lead vocalist Cliff Fortney were originally from Indiana, and it was their good ol’-fashioned Midwestern determination that helped this largely instrumental group secure a deal with Clive Davis’s Arista Records in the mid 1970s.
On stage Beck fused his drumming craft with performance art via the mechanics of negotiating his so-called drum cage. Beck was a visual focal point of the band, leaping from his hanging percussion pieces and timpani at the back of the cage to the front “room” containing his kit. He collected percussive pieces from everywhere. “People would appear at our shows and bring me instruments,” Beck tells Modern Drummer. “They had more meaning because these were gifts. The cage was my home.”
Before recording HTM’s second album, 1978’s Crafty Hands, Beck exited the group amid creative (and other) disagreements. Drummer Ron Riddle (later of Blue Öyster Cult) assumed the drum throne. HTM broke up in the early 1980s but reunited some twenty years later behind the power and finesse of drummer Joe Bergamini (Dennis DeYoung).
Further Progging From the Heart of America
Syzygy A Glorious Disturbance (Paul Mihacevich, 2012) /// French TV The Violence of Amateurs (Bob Douglas, Brian Donohoe, Chris Vincent, Kirk Davis, Mike Sary, Dean Zigoris, Greg Acker, 1999) /// Thinking Plague In This Life (Bob Drake, Mark Fuller, 1989) /// Glass Harp Glass Harp (John Sferra, 1970) /// WhiteWing WhiteWing (Norm Curtis, 1975) /// Tin Huey Contents Dislodged During Shipment (Stuart Austin, 1979)