Death by Power Ballad: Kansas, “All I Wanted”

Written by Music, Power Ballads

Rob Smith revisits Kansas’ “All I Wanted” and singer Steve Walsh’s toned pecs in this week’s “Death by Power Ballad,” only at Popdose.

Believe it or not, boys and girls, once upon a time, not so long ago, certain rock bands long past their use-by date valiantly attempted to re-enter the public consciousness and get on Top 40 radio (when there was such a thing) by recording power ballads. I know, I know—it seems silly now, nigh impossible, even. But true, so true.

I point to KISS (“Forever”), Alice Cooper (“Poison”), Kix (“Don’t Close Your Eyes”), and Aldo Nova (“Someday”) as examples of this—and not particularly quality examples (of the four, the KISS track is the only one I return to repeatedly). All had had their moments in the sun—well, except for Kix, unless by “moment in the sun” we’re referring to playing the freshman social at Hagerstown Community College in ’83—and had faded into the background or, in the case of Nova, disappeared altogether. Yet each act reanimated its career by slowing the tempo, turning up the drums and the amplified acoustic gee-tars, throwing in the WEE-diddle-diddle solo, and waxing dramatic about love or lack of love, or suicide, or whatever.

Even a once-commanding presence like Kansas couldn’t help but get in on the game. From roughly 1977 to 1980, these guys were the absolute shit, an American answer to the British prog bands like ELP, Yes, and Jethro Tull, which had all become arena-rockin’ gods in this country. Kansas regularly played stadiums on the backs of tracks like “Point of Know Return,” “Carry on Wayward Son,” and “Dust in the Wind,” as well as the tanned, smooth back of keyboardist and singer Steve Walsh, who, when the weather was warm, was prone to performing in just his tight shorts and knee-high athletic socks. Cuz it was the Seventies, and he could sing better that way, plus what’s the use of tanning one’s supple, toned pecs if one can’t show them off to 40,000 people? I ask myself that question all the time …

Walsh split the band in the early Eighties, only to return in 1985 after several years of only being able to show off his pecs to audiences of a few hundred at a time. With Dixie Dregs (and future Deep Purple) guitarist Steve Morse replacing longtime band mastermind Kerry Livgren, Kansas released an album called Power in 1986. It was a modest hit, in large part due to “All I Wanted,” a slab o’ slow-dancin’ goodness Walsh and Morse conjured up apparently after listening to Night Ranger’s Seven Wishes for an entire weekend straight.

Lyrically, it’s heartbreak-by-numbers stuff, using only three or four colors. Each of the verses ends with some variation of “All I wanted was to [hold/touch/love/tickle/lick/engage in a three-way with your sister and] you,” preceded by a line with an internal rhyme. So you get “You say it’s time to stay behind,” “There’s no need for blame cause we’re not the same,” and “It’s not so strange for us to change”—not exactly heady stuff; probably took Walsh three or four minutes to write. There’s also something of a chorus whose purpose is apparently to allow him to hit a couple notes in his upper register and emote a little, like any good chorus should.

This is not to say that Walsh does not deliver the cheese with a manly come-hither big-willied rock star voice, for he does. There’s also the portion after Morse’s brief mid-song guitar interlude (the solo doesn’t come until the end) when we fear the cheese might melt in his hands as a result of the heat emanating from a line like, “All I wanted was to love you,” sung in an almost heroic fashion. Yes, my heart is broken, he seems to say, but I just want to tell you this one last thing—all I wanted was to … love … you. At which point, all his beloved’s clothes miraculously disappear, and they get down to some serious coital action as the guitar solo builds.

Instrumentally, “All I Wanted” is pure mid-Eighties adult contemporary blandness—about 75 tracks of lush keyboards and drums that sound like they were recorded at a Radio Shack over someone’s lunch break. It’s a shame, too, because the melody is pleasant enough, though a bit odd coming from someone like Steve Morse, whose jazz-inflected Dixie Dregs material is several times thornier (and more interesting) than this. In other words, there’s little here that sounds like Kansas—no suite structure, no noodling, and if there’s a violin on the record, it’s of the Casio PT-1 variety.

It’s impossible to discuss this song without mentioning the unintentionally hilarious video, which interspersed black-and-white lip- and finger-synch footage of Walsh and Morse with color stock video that appears to have been repurposed from television ads for Dry Idea or Massengill (some stills from these sections grace this very column). I imagine the video’s director calling the band and telling them that only members named Steve could show up (causing perennially eyepatched guitarist Rich Williams to file a complaint with the band’s Human Resources department). To see Walsh in the video, though, was to see a man born to preen, in his leather jacket, with his perfectly coiffed Eighties rock star hair, looking sincere and, yes, a little hurt, as he “sings” the song. The ladies just had to know the bronze pecs of old were somewhere under that outfit, and that, on some wonderful evening, at some concert for some fortunate audience, he might bare them once again.

Kansas still tours, but no one is asking to see Walsh’s pecs anymore. This is what he looked like then. This is what he looks like now, having taken an ugly pill and decided he was a shaman, as well as a keyboard player. Somewhere along the way, he apparently also gargled with battery acid, shortly after eating an Applebee’s glass shard appetizer, cuz last I heard the band, his voice sounded more than a little ragged. Yes, it’s a little sad, but we still have classic Kansas to ponder over, and “All I Wanted” to bring the power ballad thunder, when the power ballad thunder is called for.