21. Happy the Man, Crafty Hands
Prog rock was still a very viable music genre in 1978, even if it was fighting a losing battle against disco for privilege of primacy among pop diversions into excess. (One year later, disco would have its own fiery defeat on the green grass of Comiskey Park.) The genre was briefly big enough to make room for upstart bands such as Virginia’s Happy the Man. Formed by a couple of American kids who met an army base in Germany where their respective families were stationed. In the early nineteen-seventies, the European locale gave them–guitar player Stanley Whitaker and bassist Rick Kennell–exposure to acts that hadn’t quite broken in the United States yet, such as Genesis and Yes, as well as those that would never make more than the smallest impact there, like Gentle Giant and Van der Graaf Generator. Those influences shaped the music of Happy the Man, and they were of the moment enough to get them signed to Arista Records.
On the basis of their sophomore album, Crafty Hands, the band was more prog than rock. As opposed to some of their contemporaries who reveled in powerful guitar bombast, Happy the Man defaulted to the side of the prog rock spectrum that favored quasi-jazz arrangements and pingy noodling. The track “Morning Sun,” for example, is surprisingly twee, sounding like a music box that might have been custom built to stand beatifically under a ray of light at Keith Emerson’s house. The same is true of “Open House,” which comes across as the soundtrack to a futuristic Renaissance Fair. Much of the music slides towards fusion jazz, with all the sense-dulling impact that implies. They get a little more interesting when the pace picks up, as on late album track “I Forgot to Push It,” but even then it seems more like they’re trying to provide an inoffensive radio production soundbed than Songs that will lock in the memory. Still, instrumentals of no note may be a better outcome than the band’s attempts to pen lyrics, as heard on the song “Wind Up Doll Day Wind,” which includes lines like “We barter images on the matrix,” suggesting a little too much immersion in the counter-culture consciousness-boosters of the day.
Whatever appeal Happy the Man had, they didn’t sell enough records to satisfy the overlords at Arista. They were dropped after Crafty Hands, releasing a subsequent live album and cobbling together studio time to record a third proper album which took around four years to find an avenue to distribution. Somewhere in the midst of all that, the group reportedly auditioned to be the backing band for Peter Gabriel after he sprung himself from Genesis. Happy the Man was turned down for the gig because they sounded too much like Gabriel’s former outfit. Weirdly, they did what they did too well to actually get anywhere with it. Happy the Man officially dissolved in 1979, with multi-instrumentalist Kit Walker’s decision to jump ship to the band Camel considered the deathblow. They played their final show at James Madison University. Or at least it was their last show until a highly unlikely reunion gig at the 2000 NEARfest, in Bethelehem, Pennsylvania. Perhaps even more unlikely, that was followed by a 2004 reunion album, offering further proof that practically every band that was ever gifted with a vinyl release has a chance to endure forever.