Reading for the Stars, Vol. 10

Chart Week: July 10, 1982
Song: “Play the Game Tonight” – Kansas
Chart Position: #17, 10th week on the chart. Peaked at #17 for three weeks.

I would guess I heard this song approximately once in a quarter century before I heard it at, of all places, a high school football game a few years back. In the hour of pre-game, pump-up music that was heavy with AC/DC, Guns ‘n Roses, and Metallica, the dad who was playing the tunes threw this in. It was very random, but, when you consider the title, also a pretty inspired choice.

I guarantee I didn’t hear it again until I became a SiriusXM subscriber and now I’ll hear it a few times a year on the Classic Rewind channel, or in a VJ Big 40 Countdown.

I heard it on our local AT40 replay two weeks ago while eating a bagel. It got me inspired to do some Sunday morning Wikipedia-ing. I read about the change in band’s lineup, when original vocalist Steve Walsh left and was replaced by John Elefante in the early 80s. Elefante, who sang “Play the Game Tonight,” was the choice after a rather broad search for a replacement for Walsh. There are several relatively obscure singers who were also in the running along with one who was on the verge of major fame. Sammy freaking Hagar auditioned to be the lead singer of Kansas! That kind of blew my mind, because it doesn’t make much sense.

Kansas always made somewhat pretentious, album-oriented, progressive rock. They are perhaps the archetype for a cheesy, late 70s American rock band. There was never any affectation to anything Sammy did. He was just a good time, straight outta the bar, rock ‘n roller. There were no attempts at deeper religious allegory in his lyrics as in some of Kansas’ songs. It seems like an odd combination and makes sense that it didn’t work out. I wonder if it was the band reaching out to him, an artist who had not yet carved out broad solo success, or the ambitious Hagar wanting to latch on to a band that had a couple massive hits a few years earlier and were trying to claw their way back into relevance.

The bigger question to me, though, is had Sammy joined Kansas, what happens when David Lee Roth leaves Van Halen? If he had hauled Kansas back onto the charts, but with a far more ornate sound that VH’s, would he still have been a candidate to replace DLR? I think probably not. So who does Eddie go after then?

I’m going to spend approximately 35 seconds thinking about this. My first thought was someone from Night Ranger, who blew up in 1984 and played a similar good-time r-n-r to Sammy’s solo work. But Jack Blades played bass and Kelly Keagy played drums, so the Night Ranger’s two lead vocalists would not slot into VH at that time. (As far as we know Eddie wasn’t ready to throw Michael Anthony off the bus yet in 1984.)

Tommy Shaw was responsible for many of Styx’s most rocking hits, where Dennis DeYoung penned their softer, more Top 40 tunes. DeYoung had gone off on his own by 1984. Styx was in limbo. Shaw both sang and played guitar. Now I’m not sure if Shaw was dynamic enough to front VH. DLR was an impossible guy to replace, but at least Sammy brought his own brand of laid-back charisma that helped him slot in fairly easily. I honestly don’t know if Shaw had full-time lead man chops.

Fortunately Sammy Hagar did not take Steve Walsh’s slot in Kansas, he put out some solid solo songs for a few years, and then we got a couple pretty good albums out of Van Hagar. As for Kansas, they had one more top 40 hit in 1986 and then faded away. I think some version of the band still tours, so good for them. “Carry On Wayward Son” is an all-time classic good enough to get you on the casino and state fair circuit.

This song, though, is pure 1982 classic rock shlock.