I will admit, I never have been a fan of the bands that name themselves after places. Boston? Meh. Alabama? No thanks. Chicago – ok, ok, that one gets a pass, but Chicago had an era or two in their (long) career that just didn’t excite me. Kansas, another band named after a place…and another band that just doesn’t excite me. Sure, Kansas has a couple good songs. Dust In The Wind is not bad for taking a soul searching walk around town. The best song by Kansas, however, has to be “Carry On Wayward son.” Ultimate Classic Rock agrees. The song is so wildly popular that not only is Carry On Wayward Son the unofficial song for the TV show Supernatural, but also dozens of artists have done a Carry On Wayward Son cover.
Carry On Wayward Son has so many covers, it’s hard to pick just a few to compare. Then again, if I can do it for Johnny Cash, I can do it for Kansas. So carry on with me as I lead you on a wayward journey of different covers, son.
Original Version – Kansas – 1976
The original Carry On Wayward Son starts out with a crowd pleasing cold intro – the band sings the lines of the refrain in an acapella style. Then comes an extended instrumental, full of guitar riffs, drums, and keys. The verses are slow and stripped down, but the choices show a bit more energy, as does the coda, both of which give us multiple vocals in unison.
Ultimately, Carry On Wayward Son by Kansas shows us a journey. The song starts with a call to the main speaker in the form of the chorus. The instrumentation in the bridge, gives us a sense of traveling. The verses, though slow, might be the most interesting part of the song, as they give us an insight of the soujourner’s thoughts. We see doubts, hopes, fears, and a desire to follow the call of the chorus. Finally, the coda serves an epilogue – the sojourner is done with his journey and he knows it was all worth it. He knows he gained riches both in this world, and the next.
I will admit – this song was originally going to be part of another article (songs that get too much hype). However, as I analyze this song, I find myself recanting my previous position. Carry On Wayward Son shows a lot of depth. I officially state that this song deserves all the hype it gets.
Cover Version – Rachel Rachel – 1991
The Carry On Wayward Son cover by Rachel Rachel is a peculiar one. Ultimately, Rachel Rachel got the rights because their producer happened to be the lead singer for Kansas at one point in the 80s – John Elefante, also of Mastedon (no, not Mastodon) was the producer to have in the early 90s Christian rock scene. Oh yeah – Rachel Rachel was a christian band – perhaps the best known female christian rock act of that era. But enough history, how did Rachel Rachel do on their cover?
Rachel Rachel’s cover feels like a straight forward, almost karaoke version of Carry On Wayward Son. Perhaps that’s because (as I said before) their producer (Elefante) was part of Kansas. Once more, Kerry Livgren of Kansas even makes an appearance on the video for this cover. The karaoke approach on this cover kind of saddens me, as Rachel Rachel truly was an amazing band. I would love to hear what they could have done on their own.
This might be nit picky, but Rachel Rachel didn’t even change the male pronouns to female. While hard to do in music sometimes without rewriting a ton of lyrics, the leading female christian rock band of that era probably should have made the effort.
I do have to say, despite the karaoke Carry on Wayward son cover, the vocals are spectacular. Lead vocalist Cheryl Jewell executes her notes with perfection. In fact, the entire band plays a top notch performance. This might be a karaoke version, but it’s a darned good one.
Cover Version – Dream Theater – 1995
Dream Theater’s cover of Carry On My Wayward Son is part of a melody, sandwiched in between Pink Floyd’s “In the Flesh” and the hard rock portion of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The Dream Theater Carry On Wayward Son cover focuses mostly on the first bridge, and ignores the vocals altogether. Essentially, Dream Theater give just the journey part of the song, without the call or the deep inner thoughts. This kind of misses the point of the song entirely.
I will say, the bridge flows well into Bohemian Rhapsody. This almost rewrites the narrative of the song, as we get a speaker who realizes their deepest fears as they find themselves in Hell. Surely Heaven does not wait for the speaker of this cover.
Cover Version – The Oak Ridge Boys – 2002
Immediately as the Oak Ridge Boys start their Carry On Wayward Son cover, we notice something different – something we have not heard before. This cover does not start with an acapella chorus, but rather the instrumental bridge. Once more, The Oak Ridge Boys mellow out the guitars quite significantly.
Granted – The Oak Ridge Boys is a country band, and one that appeals to older folks at that, so the melowed guitars might be a matter of audience targeting. However, starting the song with the bridge starts the journey without the call! Even so, this might be fine for another band – but the Oak Ridge Boys obviously care about the message as they appear to almost preach the lyrics. The quest for The Oak Ridge Boys, all of which have professed christianity, is indeed the quest for heaven. In fact, the bass singer mimics the voice of God in the coda with his booming line of “carry on.”
The Oak Ridge Boys seem to get the message of the song, but miss how the different parts of Carry On Wayward Son form to make a whole picture.
Cover Version – Stryper – 2011
Yet another christian band gives us a Carry On Wayward Son Cover. Stryper, best known as the hair metal christian band that toured with Ratt, Bon Jovi, and others produced an album made of entirely covers in 2011. Essentially, every cover on the album was a love song to some of their favorite songs.
The Stryper Carry on Wayward Son Cover sounds essentially like the original. Of course, Michael Sweet’s vocals don’t sound like Steve Walsh – they actually sound better. That is not a slam on Walsh in anyway, that’s just to say that Sweet’s vocals just sound, well, sweet. Still, as far as instrumentation – Stryper does a pretty faithful recreation. Another karaoke version mind you, but a faithful recreation of the song. Stryper capture’s the song’s essence and portrays the journey of Carry On Wayward Son.
Cover Version – Gwar – 2012
Gwar feels like the opposite of Stryper – and so it’s fitting that when Gwar came into The AV Club’s studios for Undercover 2012, Gwar also chose to cover Carry On Wayward Son. Of course, Gwar, being the over the top grotesque horror metal band they are, starts off by insulting the song. Lead vocalist Oderus Urungus (RIP) even makes a crack about Robbie Steinhardt hair in the 70s.
The lyrics for the verses are sung extremely fast, while the lyrics for the chorus are outright changed. Instead of a man receiving a call to a great quest, the speaker of the song actually turns out to be an unemployed son, and the “call” is actually his father telling his son to get off the couch and get a damned job.
So yeah, Gwar gives us a full on different interpretation of Carry on Wayward Son, but it’s exactly the type of cover you expect from Gwar.
Cover Version – John Elefante – 2014 et al.
Earlier I mentioned John Elefante was the lead singer of Kansas for a time in the early eighties. I may have implied that he never quite got over this fact, and so so of course he does his own version of “Carry On Wayward Son” as part of his act. But maybe, just maybe, I’m a little too hard on Mr Elefante.
I picked a video from 2014 to show Elefante’s style on his Carry On Wayward Son cover, mainly because of the professional quality of the recording. As an added bonus, however, this specific recording shows just how much fun Elefante has while singing this specific song. Sure, Elefante’s version is pretty straightforward and does not really deviate from the Kansas version too much. This is exactly what I would expect from Elefante, or any member (both former or current) of Kansas. But somehow Elefante tapped into the fun of the song. Elefante found what everyone who sings this song in karaoke bars, in the shower, and in their cars at full blast found. Carry On My Wayward Son is just a freaking fun song to sing.
Does this deviate from the message of the song? Maybe a little. However, I feel like forgiving this deviation. After all, a song that people sing over and over and over can pretty much force its message on that person. A fun song is a song that’s both heard and loved.
Cover Version – Anthrax – 2017
Anthrax, one of the few true metal bands of the 80s, gives us a rocking good cover of Carry on Wayward Son. Anthrax’s cover is more rocking than Stryper’s, (thought less rocking than Gwar’s). The Anthrax version might as well call itself Goldilocks, as it is just the right amount of rocking.
What really makes the Anthrax version of Carry On Wayward Son rock? They push the guitars on the bridges and on the coda. The bridges and coda push more so than Kansas, Stryper, or any other cover thus far save for Gwar. So, why does this cover rock more than Gwar’s? Simple. Gwar pushes their style and forget’s the style of the original. Anthrax however blends their unique thrash metal style with the style of the song, thus producing an interesting hybrid version of Carry On Wayward Son.
Another interesting feature of the Anthrax version – they replace the electric piano with what sounds more like a baby grand piano. This gives the listener an ethereal feeling as they listen. Also, let’s be honest – the original’s electric piano sounds a bit dated.
Of course, aside from a note here and there, Anthrax really didn’t change much else about the song. However, the small changes Anthrax makes to Carry On Wayward Son really puts their version over the top.
Let’s be honest most of the Carry On Wayward Son covers win.
With the exception of a few versions, such as the Gwar version, the Dream Theater Version, and the Oak Ridge Boys version, I feel like every version presented gives something unique to Carry On Wayward Son. Choosing a best version is futile. The best version of Carry On Wayward Son blends the best attributes of every version.
Firstly – you take the structure from the Kansas version. Any Carry On Wayward Son cover has to have the structure, or it’s crap. You also take the choral vocals from the Kansas version. Really, they seem to sound the best. Next, you take the instrumentation of the Anthrax version. Again, more guitar than most, but not over the top like Gwar. As far as the lead vocals, a duet between Michael Sweet of Stryper and Cheryl Jewell’s would sound incredible. Finally, you take the fun and the energy presented by John Elefante. And that, dear friends, is how you get the best version of Carry On Wayward Son.