Most people, when asked to name a song by Kansas, would gravitate toward one of two songs. And so would I, and probably so would you, since there are two songs from that group which are more well known than the rest of Kansas’s discography combined. With that said, there were multiple top 40 hits, most of which have fallen by the wayside, at least as far as radio is concerned. Case in point: how many of you remember the band’s top 20 single “Play The Game Tonight”?
After the Biggest Hits
To start with the obvious: Kansas had its biggest hits in the mid-1970s with two songs that have lasted, “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind”. The group’s website points out that both those hits were million-sellers. And, quite honestly, a lot of the group’s other music from that era was quite strong as well.* To put it simply, as Allmusic did, Kansas was “among the most popular bands of the late ’70s”.
The early 80s, though, brought change to the direction of Kansas, and then to its lineup. Two prominent members, Kerry Livgren and Dave Hope, became born-again Christians, and their songs shifted in that direction as well. Soon after, the disagreement in the direction boiled over, and lead vocalist Steve Walsh quit the band.
Eventually selecting John Elefante as the group’s new lead vocalist, Kansas moved forward, issuing its first album with Mr. Elefante, Vinyl Confessions, in 1982.
(Vinyl Confessions peaked at #16 on Billboard’s Hot LPs & Tape chart. Album ℗1982 Kirshner Records.)
The first single from Vinyl Confessions was “Play The Game Tonight”. It started out, very differently, as “Stay With Me Tonight”, but was rewritten and renamed, presumably to suit the new direction of the band. One commenter at SongFacts summarized the rewritten song thus:
The lyrics are intense, about someone who is playing to win at something that involves great celebrity and power, but facing the risk of grave consequences. It sounds like someone who is selling his soul for success in the entertainment industry, but it could also apply to corrupt politicians or even wealthy businessmen making profitable but destructive choices.
As always, when interpreting others’ inscrutable lyrics, your mileage may vary.
The video for this particular song seems to me, looking back, to have been rather ambitious for 1982. Certainly, the video effects have not aged well, but overall, the video does a very good job of telling a story. And that’s more than one could say for most videos of that time. Or since then, honestly.
“Play The Game Tonight” entered Billboard’s Hot 100 at #78 for the week ending May 8, 1982 (chart | magazine).** Just under two months later, in its ninth week, the single reached its peak at #17 (chart | magazine). It remained on the Hot 100 for 15 weeks; this performance was not quite good enough for “Play The Game Tonight” to make the year-end chart.
The Mainstream Rock chart was better to the single. It stayed on that chart for 18 weeks and peaked at #4 the same week that it peaked on the Hot 100 (chart – Billboard Pros only).
Don’t get me wrong; “Play The Game Tonight” was a big hit for Kansas; as it turned out, it would be the third biggest hit the group ever had.
Kansas After “Play The Game Tonight”
As it turned out, the music-buying public wasn’t as taken with the new sound of Vinyl Confessions. While it made it into the top 20 on the album chart, it was the first Kansas album not to at least be certified gold.
Unfortunately, the tension between the members of Kansas continued, with some disagreement on the direction of the group’s sound. The next album, Drastic Measures (recorded without violinist Robby Steinhardt, who had left for personal reasons), had more of a traditional pop-rock sound; it would prove to be the last of the John Elefante era. Kansas broke up shortly thereafter, and Mr. Elefante would never record or perform with Kansas again afterward.
A couple of years later, Kansas reformed, and, with a number of lineup changes over the years, including the returns of every original band member (though some of those were rather short-lived), the group has continued to this day.
But you’ll only rarely hear anything on commercial radio beyond those same two songs you’ve heard many times before.
* One of those songs has been on my ever-increasing list of songs to spotlight here for a long time. Watch this space, I guess.
** This would be the same week in which The Waitresses, who are also spotlighted on this site, entered the chart.
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