Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Styx-ing it to ya!

I’ve been on a major Styx binge lately, both in terms of listening to their music and learning more about their history.  I recently read bassist Chuck Panozzo’s autobiography, and it was quite good, but not nearly as in-depth about the band itself as the book I’m about to finish by Sterling Whitaker called The Grand Delusion-The Unauthorized True Story of StyxDelusion (which just came out last year) tells the story of the band via interviews with various crew members, band managers, music execs, band relatives, fellow travelers and a few of the band members themselves.  Guitarist Tommy Shaw is the only mainstay from the original group to participate directly here, thus keyboardist Dennis DeYoung and guitarist James Young along with Panozzo are quoted from other interviews back in the day.  I’d known for years that there was a major rift between DeYoung and the rest of the band, but I had no clue how deep and how far back it went (way further back than just the Kilroy fiasco, to my surprise), much less how dysfunctional this band truly was/is.  It seems only fitting that their greatest album was called The Grand Illusion because these guys were/are masters at putting up a united front for the paying public even while in turmoil.  And we thought the Van Halen/David Lee Roth feud was bad…

Like a lot of people, my first exposure to Styx was their classic “Lady”, which was a late-bloomer of a hit that languished in obscurity for over two years before finally taking off in late 1974.  I assumed Styx was British because of the way DeYoung sounded vocally, an assumption he reinforced by the way he sang “telly-phone” and "celly-brate" on their next big hit, 1975’s “Lorelei”—imagine my surprise when I found out these guys were mostly from Chicago!  When I made the transition from Top 40 AM radio to Album Rock FM in late 1977, the Grand Illusion album was getting beaucoup airplay on KY-102, and I became instantly hooked on “Come Sail Away”, and that album remains my favorite Styx LP ever.  Pieces Of Eight followed the next year and wasn’t quite as good (although Shaw’s “Blue Collar Man” and “Renegade” were standouts), and in the meantime, I bought their two previous releases before IllusionEquinox and Crystal Balland they weren’t bad at all.  I particularly liked Equinox, beyond just the hits off it like “Lorelei”, “Light Up” and “Suite Madame Blue”—go a little deeper and you’ll find some good stuff like “Mother Dear”, “Lonely Child” and “Born For Adventure”.

Apart from the tracks “Never Say Never” and “Borrowed Time”, I found their 1979 album Cornerstone to be very mediocre, and it of course included the song that began to drive the wedge between the band and Dennis DeYoung, DDY’s treacly ballad “Babe”.  DeYoung was adamant about putting it on the album and releasing it as a single, while Shaw, JY and the Panozzo brothers balked at it, preferring to not alienate their core fan base by doing a wimpy ballad.  “Babe” is a nice song and all in the same vein as Kiss’ “Beth”, but many Styx fans (me included) would prefer it had been a hit for someone else (like, say, Air Supply or Toto!), and to this day, Dennis DeYoung still doesn’t get that.  Yes, it was a number one hit, but was it worth the price of splintering the band?  In spite of all the internal rancor, Styx bounced back in early 1981 with another excellent album, Paradise Theater.  By this time, they were the hottest concert ticket in this town (and many others), and were easily the most popular band at my high school.  The Paradise Theater tour was clearly the band’s crowning achievement and one of the ten best concerts I ever attended.  Styx became the first band to have four straight triple-platinum albums and they were at the high point of their career in 1981.  Then it all went to hell two years later in a handbag with the name Kilroy on it…

Not unlike The Who’s Pete Townshend during his solo career, Dennis DeYoung became obsessed with making “concept” albums as Styx became more successful.  It seemed innocent enough beginning with Grand Illusion through the next three albums, which were all loosely-conceptual, but not to their detriment.  Then, after Styx was accused of “backward masking” satanic messages on the track “Snowblind” from Paradise Theater, DeYoung took it all rather personally and concocted the story of a repressive totalitarian society where Rock music was banned and machines called Robotos were doing everyone’s work for them, thus Kilroy Was Here was born.  Might’ve made a decent full-length flick on the silver screen (in fact, there were plans for one at the time) that a Dennis DeYoung Kilroy solo album could’ve served as the soundtrack for, but as a Styx record, it was just plain wrong.  Then to try and pull this Broadway-style musical off for a Rock concert crowd was sheer lunacy.  Watch the Styx concert DVD Caught Live In The Act and you’ll see what I mean—Broadway theater and Rock ‘N’ Roll are a bad mix!  By this time, Tommy Shaw could take it no more and left the band in 1984 for a moderately-successful solo career, and Styx subsequently more or less ground to a halt.

Drummer John Panozzo’s downward spiral with alcohol and eventual passing in 1996 were well-chronicled, but another member of the band suffered a similar fate.  Rather sadly, the forgotten man in Styx is Tommy Shaw’s predecessor, late guitarist John “JC” Curulewski, who not unlike original Rush drummer John Rutsey, left the band before the gravy train arrived (although in Rush’s case, Rutsey's replacement, Neil Peart, was the gravy train).  JC played on the first five Styx albums (that’s his 12-string acoustic solo on “Prelude 12” on Equinox), and was generally regarded as pretty good guy, although he had his quirks and seemingly threatened to leave the band on a monthly basis, only to be talked into staying.  He was more into progressive music and clashed with DeYoung creatively (who didn’t?), plus he was torn between being a Rock star and spending time with his wife and son, thus he chose the latter not long after Equinox came out.  Seeing the band go on to be a mega-success without him couldn’t have been easy for JC, and he pretty much drank himself to death in early 1988.

In 1990, Styx reunited without Tommy Shaw (who had moved on to Damn Yankees the year before) for the semi-successful Edge Of The Century LP with lefty guitarist/songwriter/singer Glen Burtnik replacing Shaw.  Shaw finally returned to the band in 1996 for the very successful Return To Paradise tour—which more or less re-created the Paradise Theater sojourn—with upstart drummer Todd Sucherman replacing the dearly departed John Panozzo.  The live double-CD from that tour sold well enough to warrant another tour in 1997, and by all outward appearances, the band seemed to be getting along well when I saw them perform at Sandstone that summer.  But such was not the case, as yet again, DeYoung managed to piss all over the proceedings with his ego and micro-managing of things behind the scenes.  Finally, after releasing the very uneven studio album Brave New World in 1998, Tommy and JY decided they’d had enough of DeYoung’s tyranny and kicked him to the curb, replacing him with kinda-sorta sound-alike singer/keyboardist Lawrence Gowan from Canada.

Some of the drama within the band was exposed in 2000 on VH-1’s “Behind The Music”, but after reading this book, I can see that they left out a lot of stuff—VH-1 shoulda made this one a two-part episode!  I used to think the whole rift between DeYoung and Tommy, JY and the Panozzo brothers was a lot of petty bullshit and that both sides were wrong, but based on what I’ve read, I now side firmly with the latter faction, as regrettably it would appear that Dennis DeYoung is a high-maintenance horse’s ass with an insatiable ego.  Hate to say that about him because I always liked and respected him as a musician—he’s a very talented man.  In baseball parlance, Dennis would be what they call a “five-tool player”—great singer, keyboardist, songwriter, performer and producer.  Unfortunately, the more the band became successful, the more it went to DeYoung’s head, and things became very one-sided with him calling all the shots and the rest of the band kowtowing to his whims and lofty ideas (including the really bad ones).  With DeYoung, it was no longer a case of “we”, but rather “I, me, mine” as one interviewee in the book recalled.  A classic example of DDY’s ego run amok:  He sent a paying audience home without performing the show they arrived for on the Kilroy tour all because the projector wouldn’t work that presented the little pre-concert film.  Nice going, Doc—they paid to see a concert, not a movie!  To make things worse, his insufferable control-freak wife Suzanne (aka “Babe”) had a Yoko Ono complex in her, and quite often interfered in the band’s business, further exacerbating the existing hostilities.  What a shame that such a fine musician is such a total douche to nearly everyone he works with.

DeYoung tried to file a lawsuit against Tommy, JY and Chuck when he was fired from the group in the late ‘90s, claiming he had the rights to the band name, and the whole mess was settled out of court for who knows how much money.  The band still performs today as Styx, while DeYoung is forced to use the moniker “Formerly of Styx” or “Performing the music of Styx” in billing his infrequent concert appearances, and they all live miserably ever after.  A rather ignominious coda for a band that was at one time on top of the Rock world.

My All-Time Styx Top 20
20) Mademoiselle (1976)  Tommy Shaw’s first lead vocal on a Styx record.  I’m surprised this wasn’t a bigger hit single than it was.
19) Cold War/Heavy Metal Poisoning (1983) [Tie]  Far and away the two best songs from the Kilroy Was Here debacle.  In the former, Shaw takes aim at TV evangelists and scores.  Best line is, “You talk talk and you almost make sense—and that’s what scares me the most…”  The latter song provided some comic relief during the Kilroy concert, complete with its rather amusing song-and-dance routine featuring JY (aka “Dr. Righteous”) and the Panozzo brothers.  That’s Dennis DeYoung’s daughter Carrie Ann giggling at the very end of the track.
18) Not Dead Yet (1991)  One of the rare times Styx employed a songwriter from outside of the band, another Chicago native named Ralph Covert.  Funny song in places, especially the line “Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother’s on the loose.”  Easily my favorite off Edge Of The Century.
17) Put Me On (1976)  A tad contrived in places, lyrically, but most of the song rocks out in typical JY style.
16) Renegade (1978)  I give Tommy extra credit for having the guts to sing the first part of this Acapulco…
15) Snowblind (1981)  Oh, those crafty Stygians—corrupting all those impressionable young listeners with their wicked backward masking.  Heathens!  No, really—it’s a cool song.
14) Great White Hope (1978)  Exciting lead-off track that promised great things on Pieces of Eight.  Unfortunately, I thought the rest of the album was rather so-so, apart from "Renegade" and "Blue Collar Man".  For what it’s worth, Dennis DeYoung made a fine ring announcer, though…let’s get ready to rumble!
13) Blue Collar Man (Long Nights) (1978)  T. Shaw’s tribute to the working man.  One of the rare times you’ll hear an organ (the kind with keys) cranking out the opening riff to a Rock song.
12) Mother Dear (1975)  This might’ve been the late John Curulewski’s finest moment with Styx.  He co-wrote this one with DeYoung and you can hear him on the backing vocals as well.  Sounding rather Moody Blues-like in places, it’s one of Styx’s trippier songs.
11) Suite Madame Blue (1975)  A song that’s grown on me a lot over the years, especially this past decade with my growing discontent over the direction this country has been headed.  Let’s hope Mr. Obama can indeed “lead us away from here…”
10) Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man) (1977)  According to the Grand Delusion book, Tommy Shaw’s classic song was actually written about Dennis DeYoung, of all people.  As many times as I've shot myself in the foot in life, this song could’ve easily been written about yours truly…
9) Borrowed Time (1979)  My favorite song off the mostly-flaccid Cornerstone album, and about the only one from it that rocked, apart from JY’s “Eddie”, a cautionary tale aimed at Sen. Ted Kennedy.
8) Lonely Child (1975)  A very underrated song from Equinox that might’ve yielded a hit single if Styx had been better-known at the time.
7) The Grand Illusion (1977)  “Don’t be fooled by the radio, the TV or the magazines…”  Words to live by in this day and age.  You could add the Internet to that line, too.
6) Miss America (1977)  James Young is by nature very analytical about things he observes, and like me, he’s an astute hypocrisy pointer-outer, thus “Miss America” rates high in my book.  Plus, JY’s songs usually rock out, which also rates high in my book.  Love the last line of the song, “Next year—what will you do when you have been forgotten?”
5) Come Sail Away (1977)  Eric Cartman’s favorite song, and definitely a Classic Rock staple.  My favorite part is the Who-like middle section where JY pays homage to “Won’t Get Fooled Again” on the ol' ARP Odyssey machine.
4) Rockin’ The Paradise (1981)  Perennial Styx concert opener, and a mighty fine one to set the tone of the evening with.
3) Lorelei (1975)  Man, that Lorelei chick sounded like real hottie, the way DeYoung sang about her.  Great early example of Styx’ trademark three-part harmonies.
2) Lady (1972)  As Dennis remarks on the Return To Paradise CD, this one “started this whole train a-rollin’.”  Wonderful love song indeed, until some “American Idol” wanna-be butchers it on Karaoke night, anyway…
1) Too Much Time On My Hands (1981)  Lyrically, this almost sounds like a John Hiatt song.  It’s about the only Styx song I sound good singing along with...


TDub said...

Hey Brian,

Excellent job distilling this band's history and internal struggles. I didn't know that Curulewski had died in such a manner. It's sad. You should go back further and check out Styx's earliest recordings on Wooden Nickel - very different stuff than what came later. Look forward to reading more.

Brian Holland said...

Muchos gracias for the comment! As a matter of fact, I'm currently on a quest to find a good sampling of the Styx Wooden Nickel era on CD. Ironically, I've had 'Styx II' on vinyl for years, but nothing to play it on at the moment. I've heard that the song "Best Thing" from 'Styx I' is pretty good, but have never actually heard the song. Will be interested to hear more of the early Styx stuff.

Sadly ironic indeed that the two Johns (Panozzo and Curulewski) more or less died of the same thing--they were both gifted musicians, too.