By Martin Popoff
The Midwest prog-rock band known as Styx has a history that looms so large, the band always found it hard to put new music over all of its hits of yore. It’s not fair at all, because the records have been more than solid, not surprising given the songwriting talent in the band, starting with guitar duo Tommy Shaw and James “JY” Young, and continuing through the Canuck force on the keyboards, Larry Gowan, a respected solo artist in his own right.
But in the spirit of giving the fans what they so richly remember as a magic spot in their lives and in music in general, Styx has gone straight at the goods like a locomotive, crafting the plush DVD “The Grand Illusion/Pieces Of Eight Live.” As alluded to in the title, what we’ve got here is a celebration of both albums in their entirety, captured on tour in 2010. And what a one-two punch: “The Grand Illusion,” released in July 1977, and “Pieces Of Eight,” issued in September 1978, both went triple platinum in the U.S., with the carryover causing “Cornerstone” to go double platinum, “Paradise Theater” to reach triple platinum and “Kilroy Was Here” to attain platinum status before the band collapsed and took a long hiatus. Acrimony with previous keyboardist Dennis DeYoung spilled into the courts, and the band never completely recovered.
“We obviously had finally figured out who we were and what we were supposed to be doing,” muses JY, asked to give us a glimpse into the band’s past, specifically, why these two records hold such sway within classic rock legend. “Tommy had just joined the band, with the departure of John Curulewski after the ‘Equinox’ album. Tommy was the replacement, and ‘Crystal Ball’ was him getting to know us and us getting to know him — very talented guy. And it all came together for ‘Grand Illusion,’ which was our biggest-selling record. On that record, we were more in sync, personally and professionally as individuals, than we ever were before or after. I think it really shows. And then ‘Pieces Of Eight’ has, I think, the two best rock songs that Styx ever did in ‘Renegade’ and ‘Blue Collar Man.’ And then for this, our manager sort of polled our fan club base and what have you, and we looked at the songs that were still in our set that we enjoyed playing, and that get a great response. And, I mean, those two albums held the bulk — not all of them, not everything, certainly — but a large chunk of songs we play every night are from those two records.”
Both records are loose concept albums about integrity and creative ideals, with “Pieces Of Eight” introducing the lure of money into the mix. The economic malaise of the late 1970s was part of it, too, something that resonates when Styx plays some of these songs today.
“Certainly ‘Blue Collar Man’ is kind of ironic,” Young agrees. “That song is based on a friend of Tommy’s who desperately wanted to get a job and couldn’t find a job and hated being in the unemployment line, and he sort of related these things to Tommy. So, lyrically, it was inspired by a friend and his trials and tribulations, in the sense of being unemployed and how that made him feel. And so, unfortunately, it seems like the typical nature of the economy, that it’s going to go through good and bad phases, and we’re clearly in a downturn here. I mean, you can’t count on these things. You don’t even really think about it sometimes. You’re performing in front of an audience, and you see how they respond to it, and I think we’re doing a great job of performing it. But, yes, I think one of the reasons the crowd is responding to it is that it’s a resonant thing now. The money is not there, and the search for the money tree is just something that gets in the way a lot of times in a capitalist situation or in any situation. So there’s a certain resonance, yes.”
“Grand Illusion” has taken on a different type of resonance, “because it’s an escapist album in a way,” Young says. “ ‘Come Sail Away,’ anyway, is certainly an escapist song. But ‘Grand Illusion’ as a whole is certainly talking about everything you see on the television. Now, more than ever, with the Internet and everything going viral immediately, there’s more communication across the planet than there’s ever been. But all that fame-based stuff that is flying by you at light speed on your television, on your smartphone or what have you, isn’t necessarily a substantive thing.”
But for all the lyrical heft placed over irresistible hooks, high-fidelity production and dramatic performances, back in the late ’70s, Styx had to get out there and sell the band’s music, just as it is doing so capably now, duking it out on the road with some of the greats of classic rock. The band found itself gamely competing with Thin Lizzy, Journey, Rush, UFO, Blue Öyster Cult and Ted Nugent, to name a few. But there was one band that really forced Styx to step up its game.
“Aerosmith was a band I definitely looked up to, that I thought had really gotten out ahead of us,” Young explains. “I really dug the toughness of the guitar-bass nature of their sound. And the true irony was that they were sort of going through their first meltdown when our ‘Grand Illusion’ album was peaking on the charts, and we were put on as an opening act on a tour with them in the Northeast. And we were loaded for bear. The guys from Extreme, who are from the Boston area, they said they went to that show, and Styx just came along and killed everybody in their opening 60-minute set. And Aerosmith came out, and they were fighting on stage and all drugged out; we kind of stole the night pretty much every night back then. I don’t know; we were five young men that definitely were willing to go far out of our comfort zone to find the pathway of opportunity, and we managed to do some great work.”
“And the soil was very fertile then,” he continues. “Radio was very fertile, on a number of different angles. A song like ‘Renegade’ now is being used by the Pittsburgh Steelers, has been for the last 10 years, to fire up their fan base at Steelers home games. But that was an era when there was great opportunity and there was a lot of radio. It was a time when Top 40 radio or pop radio went from playing three-minute songs that were sped up, to all of a sudden embracing a six-minute ‘Come Sail Away.’ And for us, it was a magical time, because that creative thing that started in the ’60s, with the British Invasion with bands like Cream and what have you, ultimately became mainstream, in kind of a crazy, wonderful way.”
Give credit to radio, because it was actually quite hard to classify Styx. In the context of the day, the band was considered quite hard rock, and also somewhat a part of the small progressive-rock fraternity (anchored by Kansas), until it was decided that the band would spearhead a new genre: pomp rock!
“Well, I suppose that there was an element of pomp,” laughs James. “I mean, ‘Lords Of The Ring’ (laughs), I think is the peak of our pomposity. We’d never played it live before until last year, for this live DVD, and it came out great.”
For the record, Young says “Castle Walls” and “Superstars” were never played live, either — until now.
“I was very satisfied by it,” he continues. “For the visuals, we’ve got kind of a mini-Pink Floyd-ian type thing put together by a college buddy of mine. I went to the engineering school, he went to the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute Of Technology, went on to make feature films. But he was an animation director for a while before making features. And he did some wacky, wonderful stuff in that ‘Lords Of The Ring’ segment. But yeah, pomp … we were always a bunch of different things, with different sort of battling forces within the framework of the band. Because I very much wanted us to be a harder band, a Deep Purple-y kind of thing, but we didn’t really have a vocalist for that, in a sense. I mean, Tommy can sing ‘Renegade’ and ‘Blue Collar Man,’ and he’s a rock singer with the best of them, but he’s got other sides to him, that, when he tends to write, he tends to not write rock songs; he tends to write more melodic, introspective-type things. Tommy has a very broad range of things that he’s capable of writing, that he’s motivated to write, and the writer has to just go with where the muse takes him, in a sense.”
Even further afield from JY’s six-string tendencies was the notorious writer of “Babe.”
“Dennis was much more of a mainstream writer,” Young says. “Dennis was always geared more toward … even toward theatre, way back in the early days, the softer, ballad-y thing, and he sort of got dragged kicking and screaming into the rock thing by me, in a sense. I was clearly more of a rock ’n’ roll guy; I wanted to rock up everything those guys came up with, and Tommy would sort of go back and forth. I mean he’s very happy … He just did a bluegrass record, which I think is just an aside for him. So these labels put on us … I think the most difficulty we had, we succeeded mightily in North America, and then the manager and the record company said, ‘Well, let’s take this thing to Europe now,’ and we were at the wrong part of the cycle over there, because over there, it was Johnny Rotten time when we arrived, and everybody was saying, ‘Well, this pomp rock or prog rock you guys are doing, that’s yesterday’s news.’ Britain was all about New Wave. That was brought about by economic circumstances, perhaps, more than anything else, but the Brits tended to be slightly ahead of the curve in a lot of ways. Certainly in the ’60s they were ahead of the curve, and then in the late ’70s, they came to be looking for something else.”
“So yeah, I have no trouble being called a progressive band; I think it’s probably the best characterization of our body of work. But the original three or four writers — if you include John Curulewski, because he played a role in shaping the sound of the band, when he was in the band for the first five albums — it’s kind of scattered all over the place. I would almost say — not exactly, I don’t want to make the comparison — but you can look at George Harrison in this latest Scorsese thing. George was kind of his own guy, off in a different spot, and Lennon and McCartney were clearly very different from each other, but they just had a way of making stuff happen. To write an album, they’d do a song a day (laughs). That’s what McCartney was talking about in this Harrison thing, and you’re thinking, ‘Wow, on your week off, you’re going to write a song a day’ (laughs).”
The albums that changed James Young's life
As for the future, well, we’re back to the original premise, this idea of Styx’s past being so fertile and fun, so full of opportunity, what’s a guy to do, especially when reaching the age when most folks retire. So what’s next?
“I’m not sure,” Young says hesitantly. “It took a whole year to post-produce this. We really have a busy touring schedule, and everybody in the band is scattered across North America. It was easier to get together and do things when we were in the same city, and now it’s hard to get together and do things. The last time we had a studio album goes back to 2003. Well, 2005 was ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ but neither one of those got tremendous traction in any way, shape or form. The record company side of it has just gotten that much more nebulous. You know, I think we’ve been somewhat befuddled about, well, if we do a record, how shall it be released? Who shall promote it? And what record company would we like to do it? And then there’s just no good answers, because I don’t think anybody really knows. It’s simpler to just sort of continue to tour and have our audience build this way, do a track here, do a track there.”
“But the DVDs we’ve done have had a profound reaction,” he adds. “The one we had in 2006 with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra from Cleveland — and I’m not saying it’s changed our lives, partly because we’re not going to go out there and play with youth orchestras as a way of making a living, or even touring — but there was magic captured that night, and I would not let it leave until I felt that the audio was the finest we could possibly make it. And 96 tracks of audio was a daunting challenge. Unfortunately, we only had about six cameras, and some of them didn’t work at some points in time, so we spent a lot of time really fine-tuning that thing. And we’ve done a similar thing with the new “Grand Illusion/Pieces Of Eight” thing, but I think we did a better job capturing it than the last time. But I like making new DVDs. We’re going to figure out another project, I think. I mean, we need to make a new record at some time, or at least make a serious attempt to go write four or five new songs and put out an EP. There are so many questions that we don’t have answers for the moment, and when those answers become a little more obvious to us as a collective, we’ll take action on them. But right now, I’m not … I don’t have the energy to go start a new project. I’m sure Tommy will come up with something, and I’ll jump on that bandwagon (laughs).”