Stalinist Styx?

John Panozzo, James Young, Tommy Shaw, Chuck Panozzo, & Dennis DeYoung

I’ve been in the process of taking my over 200 vinyl LPs and putting them onto CDs.   Admittedly both forms of music storage are obsolete, but at least I have access to the music on CDs.   I’ve been really enjoying the early Styx albums: Styx I, Styx II, The Serpent is Rising, Miracles (a re-release of Man of Miracles, with the track “Unfinished Song”) and Equinox.    They generated surprisingly good, early 70s American progressive rock, standing out from the start with tremendous vocal harmonies and solid musicianship.

I decided to go to the Styx website.   Now, I’m not one to take sides when a band splits.   They have their reasons.   I really like the album Cyclorama, which came out after Dennis De Young left the band.   Tommy Shaw is probably the best pure songwriter on the band, though De Young had more vision and better lyrics.   I am perfectly content accepting a new Styx line up.    At least, I was until I visited their website.

In telling the history of the band, Dennis De Young’s name is completely absent.  They do not mention the LP Kilroy Was Here, or their 1990s albums Edge of the Century and Brave New World.   In a way reminiscent of how the Communist party in Stalinist Russia would remove people from photos and rewrite history to “erase” a figure who had fallen from grace, they simply wipe De Young out of their history.

To be sure, they mention some songs.   They note that Lady was their break out hit, but even in describing their successful years they downplay anything related to De Young, casting the history of the band as something less than it was.   That causes me to lose respect for the band in its current incarnation.  Are they so sensitive and defensive that they can’t even admit their past was shaped in large part by a singer/songwriter they had parted paths with?   Without De Young, Styx probably would have a history that would read like the history of Head East!

De Young’s songs include Lady, Come Sail Away, Mr. Roboto, Babe, The Best of Times and Show Me the Way, among others.  These were the hits that propelled the band into mega-super stardom with four straight triple platinum LPs and sold out arenas.   These hits are the reason a band using the name Styx can still draw crowds.

To be sure, Dennis De Young could not have done it without Styx.   The band’s sensibilities were a force that helped guide his songwriting — his solo work is good, but having to satisfy the band brought out the best of him.    Moreover, it was a group effort, even early on.

The band formed on the Chicago south side back in 1961 when De Young joined Chuck and John Panozzo (they were about 14 at the time) named Tradewinds.    Later John Curulewski and James Young joined, both excellent singers whose voices combined with De Young’s to create the strong three part harmonies that defined the band from the start.  By the time they signed with Wooden Nickel records (a subsidiary of RCA) they had become Styx, cultivating a working class progressive rock sound that permeates their career.   When “Lady” hit the charts big time, their identity crystallized.   The song was from the album Styx II, but didn’t hit until after the release of the fourth album, Man of Miracles.   With a hit and knowing they had a chance to reach the next level, the band left RCA to join A&M (resulting in law suits) and releasing the album Equinox.    “Suite Madame Blue” emerged from that effort as a bi-centennial reflection on the US that hinted at De Young’s power in writing  seductive songs with social commentary.  The song was a huge hit in Canada, but in the US Equinox was a commercial disappointment.   With only one true hit and increased pressures, Curulewski left the band just as they were about to go on tour.

This created a crisis for a group so close but yet so far from hitting it big.  Curulewski was integral to the harmonies and had been the most progressive influence.   The band did a quick search and found the missing link to big time success — a southern rocker named Tommy Shaw.   Tommy was attractive to girls (the band had lacked that), had an excellent voice (he would actually improve the harmonies) and was a superb songwriter.  His guitar work was above Curulewski’s, but the next album Crystal Ball still failed to attract a larger fan base.

The break out album was The Grand Illusion, with the hit Come Sail Away hitting number 3 on the charts.   From then on the band filled stadiums and released three more triple platinum records, Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone, and Paradise Theater.   Derided by the critics as being too mainstream and pop oriented, Styx nonetheless spoke to a generation of fans who didn’t want the cutting edge “strange” stuff that critics admire, preferring instead a combination of power and grace, accessible melodies with strong lyrics.

De Young’s lyrics showed him to be a cynical critic of the emerging consumer society in Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight and his the powerful commentary about America in decline in the concept album Paradise Theater is as relevant now as it was in 1980.     James Young could concentrate his writing on contributing one solid rocker per album (highlights are Miss America and Half Penny Two Penny) and Shaw’s introspective and well crafted songs created a perfect chemistry.

Alas, that tore the band apart.   The breaking point was De Young’s insistence on visionary concept albums like the theatrical Kilroy was Here.    De Young’s vision for Kilroy may have been an over-reach, though he deserves respect for pushing the edges at the start of the MTV era.   Mixing music and drama was at the core of Styx’s success.    It seems that Shaw and Young resented the fact that their artistic drives were being muffled in order to give De Young’s vision life.   That lead them to resent the power ballads that meant they could live lavish life styles.   De Young probably did not fully understand how much his success came from the dynamics of the band.   In 1984 they parted ways.

Styx came back for Edge of the Century  in 1990, but without Shaw.   Shaw, Young and De Young were back in the 1999 album Brave New World, but they did not collaborate in a manner that created success in the past.   In different studios they patched together music that sounded more like their solo efforts than Styx.   John Panozzo died of alcoholism in 1996, while Chuck became sick with AIDS, coming out as gay in 2001.   The new Styx still has Young and Shaw as its core.   Others, notably Glen Burtnik, have come and gone in the interim.

All this is well and good.   If they’d stayed together they could not have continued their triple platinum success.  Their sound defined an era, but eras shift.    They’d have had a few more chart toppers, but time would have claimed its prize in any event.   While I enjoy and recommend Cyclorama, the only studio album without De Young, it didn’t seem like a real Styx album with him absent (though Shaw has become a better and more compelling song writer over the years).

What I don’t get is the effort to deny obvious reality and write a history of the band on their website that ignores a founding member who has been part of all but one of 14 studio albums and who penned the hits that gave them lives as successful rock stars.   They don’t have to like him.   They can resent him, be angry with him, and consider him a jerk.   But to simply wipe him from their history reeks of a weird Stalin-like attempt to re-write the past.   They can’t of course — for a generation De Young is the voice of Styx, a web site can’t change that.

Which is a shame.  I want to be a fan of both Dennis De Young in his solo career and the current Shaw-Young based Styx incarnation.  Shaw is a great song writer, Young brings intelligence and power.   But the website leaves a bitter taste; if Styx comes to Maine I probably won’t trek down to see them.

  1. #1 by Lee on July 1, 2011 - 23:13

    I can’t wait to share this post with my wife! She is a mega Styx fan and I remember the “Grand Illusion” blasting through our house back in the day!

    • #2 by Scott Erb on July 1, 2011 - 23:55

      Grand Illusion is still perhaps my favorite LP of all time. Let me know what she thinks of the post!

  2. #3 by pino on July 5, 2011 - 14:03

    GREAT post on Styx. I’ve long been a massive Styx fan but have to admit that most of this history was new to me.

    I agree with you that I wanna be a fan of both Tommy Shaw and Dennis DeYoung. They both contributed in their own way to make Styx what it was. I lost much interest after the breakup and can’t comment so much on each career after that. Suite Madame Blue is a fantastic song, but perhaps my favorite song they recorded may be Prelude 12.

    Great albums.

    Did you know that they played the Fairmont Prom one year?

    • #4 by Scott Erb on July 8, 2011 - 03:54

      Fairmont, MN? That’s where my mom went to high school (though back in the days of Elvis, not Styx). Prelude 12 was by John Curulewski before he left the band. He had some really good contributions before lef left the band. I also agree on Suite Madame Blue — though Grand Illusion remains my favorite LP.

      • #5 by pino on July 9, 2011 - 05:59

        Fairmont, MN?

        Yes. Remember, I went to high school in St. James. My senior pictures were taken by a photographer in Fairmont and we got to talking about music. He was at the prom they played.

        As an aside, my fifth grade teacher’s cousin was married to JY. All we listened to was Styx!

        Good times; damn good times.

  3. #6 by TitforTat on July 11, 2011 - 14:14

    Im still amazed at how long some people will hold grudges. That being said, Styx was an awesome band. I am a fan of ‘Man in the wilderness’ but my all time fav is ‘Crystal Ball’, that to me is one of the best power ballads ever. Great post!

    • #7 by Scott Erb on July 11, 2011 - 19:06

      I’ve never been capable of holding a grudge, so I find that kind of thing really silly. Crystal Ball really deserved more attention than it got — both the album and the song. And Pino – thanks for the ‘degrees of separation’ to Styx. I know Pino through blog posts, Pino’s knew a fifth grade teacher whose cousin was married to JY. Four degrees of separation! Cool!

  4. #8 by Scott Erb on July 11, 2011 - 23:36

    Also, I’ve been listening to the first four albums constantly in my car the past couple weeks. Styx I and Styx II are surprisingly fun and interesting. The Serpent is Rising is a little weird, but the kids love (and have memorized) “Don’t Sit on the Plexiglass Toilet.” Man of Miracles is really good. I mean, the production isn’t great, you can tell they’re still looking for an identity, but I’m enjoying the early stuff!

  5. #9 by Rondi on July 30, 2011 - 19:22

    Does anyone remember Styxx playing at the Martin County Fairgrounds in the 70″s? I’m trying to remember the other bands that were there.

  6. #10 by Ron Cloninger on August 23, 2011 - 17:38

    You should give Dennis Deyoung’s 100 Years From Now a listen. It is awesome.

    • #11 by Scott Erb on August 23, 2011 - 18:01

      I have the Canadian version, but I hear there are some new tracks on the US version, so I plan to get that too. It’s excellent, even my eight year old son asked for a copy after hearing it play over and over on my car’s CD player!

  7. #12 by Harry Brown on July 26, 2012 - 23:37

    What really blows me mind is no one talks about who replaced the great drummer John Ponozzo!!! You are Rockin with one of greatest drummers of our time Todd Sucherman. Sorry I’m a Drummer.One more thing Lawrence Gowan was a wonderful move To replace De Young,who was a big voice in the band witch some times can be disruptive.Remember you can always be replaced.

  8. #13 by Matt on October 21, 2014 - 15:04

    It’s a real shame because I think JY is the one who’s behind a lot of this. What band goes out of their way to write up their history so they exclude a major member of the band? No name mention, no photos, etc. It’s like he never existed!

    I love Styx, seen them 7 times without Dennis (seen and met Dennis once) but come on. Styx has put out 1 studio album, 1 cover album and an album where they re-recorded two of their most successful albums with the current lineup. Throw in 3-6 more live albums and that’s the Styx history for the past 15 years. Touring 250 casino’s, state fairs and other venues which hold no more than 10,000 people every year… releasing counless, unnessecary live albums and re-visiting the past so you can further “erase” a founding member from the history of the group.

    It’s very, very sad.

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