Death by Power Ballad: Tommy Shaw, “Lonely School”

Written by Music, Power Ballads

Maybe eight or ten years ago, if you’d wanted to make some pretty decent money on a minimal investment, all you had to do was find a CD copy of Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw’s 1984 solo debut, Girls with Guns, at a yard sale or in the used bins at your local strip mall record store (you remember them, don’t you?), then turn around and put the copy on eBay.  I once saw a one go for upwards of $200, and it made me longingly recall the time I saw a $10 used GwG at the Keystone Music Exchange and didn’t pull the trigger on the purchase.  And my fists shake with rage at the memory once again.

“Lonely School” was the second single off the record, a follow-up to the album’s more raucous title track, and it’s notable for containing just about every element that Shaw hated in Dennis DeYoung’s music, the primary reason he left Styx.  It’s a keyboard-heavy tune, for one thing; the guitars (Shaw’s stock in trade) mainly provide bits of color here and there, until the solo break after the second chorus.  There are key changes aplenty — into and out of every chorus, to be exact — which serve to adhere the verses to the chorus with a kind of musical Elmer’s or Scotch tape.  The background vocals —”ooh’s” and “ah’s,” mostly, give the overall track a kind of Mr. Mister-ish feel (a full year or two before any of us had heard of Mr. Mister.  Then again, I’ve never seen Tommy Shaw and Richard Page in the same room.  Hmmm …).

(Oh, and ignore the tom-tom percussion that opens the song; no one in rock should be allowed to use the things, with the exception of Neil Peart, who makes them sound like a hailstorm, a headhunter block party, and the march of an advancing army, because he’s Neil-fucking-Peart.)

In truth, “Lonely School” lacks any obvious full-on rawk bombast, the kind Shaw was exposed to daily in Styx and would absolutely master with Damn Yankees (“High Enough,” anyone?  Huh?  No takers?  Bummer).  Indeed, one might be tempted to wonder what’s so powerful about this particular ballad.

In one word: potential.

“Lonely School” has all the components of a spectacular power ballad — the pleading verses, the anthemic chorus, the key changes, the classic chord progressions, and a cool solo — but the volume’s turned down.  The sturm and drang we typically expect from these things is dialed back — way back.  It’s almost subliminal.  There can only be one explanation — Shaw intends to leave the bombast to the listener’s imagination.

It’s a concept worthy of Kilroy Was Here — just because you can’t hear rawk doesn’t mean the rawk isn’t there.  Sure, there are places where no rawk exists—”Mr. Roboto,” for example — but Shaw cunningly created a musical strategy that enabled the power to emanate from his song without any power being obviously present.  It’s … it’s power balladry of the mind.

It’s no wonder he had to leave Styx — Dennis DeYoung is all about the grand gesture, the theatricality, the dancing robots and gathering of angels appearing above his head.  Shaw had no time for that — he knew he could create power in his music by absenting power from his music.  “Lonely School” was the first example of his gift; his solo albums are shot through with many other examples.  It’s how he and Jack Blades could cover Seals and Crofts with a straight face.  It’s how he could play “Come Again” with Ted Nugent on a Damn Yankees tour and not be afraid of becoming a taxidermy experiment.

Power balladry of the mind.  ‘Tis a grand illusion, indeed.

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