Here’s Something Else!: Sorting Through The Curious Mysteries of Styx

A band suspended forever between the formalism of Dennis DeYoung’s Broadway pretentions and the harder-edged banalities of James Young and Tommy Shaw, Styx sounded different every time it came on the radio. Yet, critics insisted, somehow the same: Mediocre.

They were, by turns, soft-prog keyboard-tweaking intellectuals, CroMagnon guitar shredders and dorky show-tune pompsters … though with very little circumstance. Every gesture, as Lester Bangs once wrote, is writ huge — to the point of flatulence. (DeYoung knows he’s not English, right?) That makes them easy to hate, or love, or whatever. They were, at once, everything … and thus, to many, nothing.

Yet … how many times have we turned this stuff up? Your friends over at SomethingElseReviews.com have sorted through it all — the adult-contemporary crap, the hair-sprayed arena rock, the robot thing — to uncover a few clues to Styx’s enduring fame …

“MISS AMERICA” (GRAND ILLUSION, 1977): Love ’em or hate ’em, Styx was part of many an American boy’s soundtrack of the late 1970s and early ’80s. When I think of arena rock, the first two bands I think of are Journey and Styx; both bands encapsulated everything that was good and not so good about that style of rock.

Chicago-based Styx hit its chart stride slightly before Journey, when guitarist Tommy Shaw’s entry into the band in 1976 added another songwriting voice to guitarist James “JY” Young and keyboard player Dennis DeYoung. The following year they had the breakthrough hit album The Grand Illusion and DeYoung’s “Sail Away” and Shaw’s “Fooling Yourself,” introduced their brand of big sound, bombastic rock to millions of young listeners who were having none of the punk or disco emerging at the same time.

Now, there are Styx songs I am sick to death of (“Too Much Time On My Hands”; more on that in a moment) and some I never did care for (“Babe,” which I just heard somewhere the other day. Bleh). And then, there’s a few I just can’t hear enough of, such as Young’s hard-rockin’ entry in The Grand Illusion, “Miss America.” There’s a real simple reason why I like “Miss America”: it’s that dope guitar riff. A good, straight, down-the-line, butt-kicking head-thrashing American riff.

That aggressive galloping riff, performed by Shaw, goes hand-in-hand with JY’s snarling vocals, as he sneers at the facade of the USA’s most famous pageant (“well it’s true, just take a look/the cover sometimes makes the book”), and after one of DeYoung’s surging synths, Young takes a solo. He’s not a terribly original guitarist, sounding more than just a little bit like Jimi Hendrix (which, admittedly, is what most rock guitarists sounded like in 1977), but it’s as nasty as his vocals. In this case, his cover does make the book.

“Miss America” was one of those moments when Styx was actually great, putting that dual lead-guitar attack to some good use. They didn’t do that enough for my tastes, but when I go back and play the high-school soundtrack of my memories, this is the Styx song that gets the airplay on my mental radio. — S. Victor Aaron

“TOO MUCH TIME ON MY HANDS” (PARADISE THEATRE, 1981): Maybe the most successful of Styx’s half-measure mixture of prog-rock ideals and AOR musicality, Paradise Theatre was based around a loose concept: The story of a Chicago movie house, from opening to closing. That was a metaphor, I think, on the swift changes sweeping the country at that time. OK. But there was also this, Tommy Shaw’s propulsive, synth-driven slice of bitchy modern-day paranoia.

It didn’t fit, really. But I liked it anyway. They played it on the radio too much. And Shaw’s stuttering tah-tah-tah-ticking-away line was like a bullet rattling around in your skull after a while, too. I liked it anyway. That phrase about jet-fuel genius was smart. And an album of often too-grandiose piano pieces certainly needed the kick in the pants that this song, the anti-drug screed “Snowblind” and the rumbling “Half-Penny, Two-Penny” provided.

“Too Much Time” zoomed all the way to No. 9 on the Billboard charts, becoming Shaw’s lone trip to the Top 10 and helping the band to the fourth of what would become a record five consecutive triple-platinum sellers. Despite their best efforts, and some efforts that weren’t very good at all, Styx was a singles band, and this one remains one of their catchiest. — Nick DeRiso

“SHOOZ” (CRYSTAL BALL, 1976): The new addition of Shaw, after original guitarist John Curulewski’s sudden departure, further defined one of Styx’s many penchants — this time, for the heavy-blooze number.

Writing with James Young, Shaw quickly puts his stadium-rattling growl to use, tearing through a slide solo before giving way to Young and his best melty Hendrix. (All loose and merry, Young even name drops a hometown spot, as they happily howl “way down there in Chicago, down along Division Street.”) I remember listening to Crystal Ball the first time, and thinking this was a throwaway. That was before Styx trapped us all in the gauzy grasp of snoozers like “Babe” and “Show Me The Way,” not to mention the robot thing. “Shooz,” crisp and attutude-y, sounds like a lost gem, these days.

The transitional Crystal Ball, dragged almost to a standstill by a piece of Debussy-on-meth claptrap called “Claire de Lune,” could get no higher than No. 66 at first, but later went platinum after The Grand Illusion went supernova. — Nick DeRiso

“LORELEI” (EQUINOX, 1975): “Lorelei” was one of Styx’s first hits — reaching No. 27 on Billboard’s charts — although a pretty minor one compared to those that came later. Grand synthesizer sweeps, crashing dual guitars and, of course, Dennis DeYoung’s over-emotive singing all wrapped up in a pseudo-prog song structure — ingredients that later pushed the band to the upper echelon of arena rock bands by the end of the 1970s. All those things were already present in “Lorelei.”

There were a few other things that made it a little more notable: the topic of a girlfriend about to shack up wasn’t all that uncommon in 1975, but it might have been a little out there to sing so openly and enthusiastically about it on a radio hit. And then, those soaring, overlapping vocals at the ending chorus put the exclamation point on a song that’s a lot like an American muscle car: Bigger and louder than it really needs to be, but they’re the very things that make your heart beat faster. Because, dammit, it’s made in America.

Tommy Shaw wasn’t in the band yet (he would soon be), but this song put them on their way to sold-out stadium shows. Bombastic, over the top, and a little thrilling, it’s the kind of song you’d like about Styx, if you ever liked them at all.

Oh, and DeYoung dances worse than Elaine Bettes. — S. Victor Aaron

“MR. ROBOTO” (KILROY WAS HERE, 1983): Part of a blindingly self-flattering “rock opera” about a world without, you know, rock that features a character named Robert Orin Charles Kilroy (ROCK, right?), “Mr. Roboto” makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Styx seemed to cop to this on the resulting tour for the album Kilroy Was Here, airing a lengthy and quite boring preamble video that outlined a plot centering on this performer imprisoned by an anti-rock-and-roll group called the Majority for Musical Morality, and its founder Dr. Everett Righteous. Kilroy escapes by overpowering a robot prison guard, sneaking away inside its metal shell.

There’s more. But nevermind. It was a master’s thesis on tedious faux-Orwellian bugaboos. And that’s leaving aside DeYoung’s teeth-splintering mispronunciation of the word “modern.”

To the surprise of absolutely no one (except, I guess, Dennis), the tour was a disaster — both artistically and commercially. Yet, the album sold more than 2 million copies, peaking at No. 3 in America. Mainly because this confusing-but-what-the-hell earworm was so inescapably, hilariously memorable — from its crunchy synthesizer riff to its mid-century B-movie-inspired video to its zeitgest-shifting catch phrase. It’s cheese. But cheese, you’re reminded, tastes so good.

For that, and some would say for only that, I must say: Domo arigato, Mr. DeYoung. — Nick DeRiso


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Something Else! Reviews
Writers from the Something Else! Reviews webzine have also been featured on AllAboutJazz.com, Rock.com, Jazz.com, NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, Blues Revue Magazine, and the NoDepression.com Americana site, among others. We focus on a diverse amalgam of musical obsessions from outposts in Texas, South Carolina, New Hampshire and elsewhere. Contact us at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.