Styx: The Wooden Nickel Era

Between 1972 and 1974 a struggling Chicago rock band named Styx released four albums on an RCA subsidiary named Wooden Nickel Records.   Wooden Nickel was a creation of Bill Traut and the now famous Jerry Weintraub, focusing on Chicago area bands.   Even before Styx was a hit, it was their biggest act, a popular Chicago band that they hoped could break through to the big time.  After Styx went to A&M records in 1975 Wooden Nickel disbanded in 1977.   The only other “names” they had were Exile (before it became a country band) and Jaggerz (after its one hit “The Rapper.”)

None of these four albums was a success upon release; only Styx II went Gold, and that was after a late break of the hit Lady, which reached number 6 on the charts after Styx had already released two other albums.  That Dennis De Young standard launched their career and after a line up change and two moderately successful albums with minor hits the band broke big with their seventh album, The Grand Illusion.

I am not a music critic, but for much of the summer I’ve been listening to the first four albums over and over, recorded to CD from my album collection.   I’ve come to really enjoy them, and realize that even before the classic Styx era, the band had real talent and enjoyable music.   So as a change of pace, I’ll critique/review these four albums.

The lineup:   Styx at that time included the original three that went way back to a band called Tradewinds:  Chuck Panozzo on bass, his fraternal brother John Panozzo on drums, and Dennis De Young on keyboards.  After changing their name to TW4 (since another group named Tradewinds had a hit) they added John Curulewski on guitar and finally guitarist James Young, who came to the band via a hard rock act named Monterey Hand.   Young added a hard rock edge to what had been a popular cover band focusing on pop (the Beatles, etc.), and soon it was one of the most popular bands in the Chicago area.   Wooden Nickel’s President Bill Traut signed the band, impressed by the three part harmonies of DeYoung, Young and Curulewski.

The Wooden Nickel albums represent a fusion of those three styles.  De Young was pop oriented, focusing on melodies and showing off his distinctive powerful tenor.  Young was a fabulous guitarist who preferred harder rock, while Curulewski hoped the band would take a progressive ‘art rock’ direction.   At its peak (after Curulewski left) the tension between different styles (Tommy Shaw would bring a blue grass/acoustic style) lead to awesome music; during the Wooden Nickel days it led to some fantastic music, but a confused identity.

Styx (1972) Debut album.

The debut albums includes cool cover art, quotes on the back from Dante’s Inferno (about the river Styx) and from Mayor Richard Daley, and is a decent first effort.    Styx opened with a 13 minute “Movement for the Comman Man,” including Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man.”   The first song, “Children of the Land” was penned by James Young, and demonstrates the kind of straight forward rock n’ roll that had given the band its reputation.  Young and De Young would also team up to write “Best Thing,” which peaked at number 82 on the Billboard charts, a song that fuses Young and DeYoung’s influneces in a manner that holds its own to this day.   The two also wrote “Mother Nature’s Matinee,” the close of the four part ‘Movement.’  It introduced listeners to DeYoung’s famous voice, with hints of what was to come.   The other very strong song is “What Has Come Between Us” by Mark Gaddis.   It has the quintessential Styx sound to it, with DeYoung’s melodic vocals making it one of my favorites on the album — even thought it was not written by DeYoung.

In all the album sounds good — one can imagine rocking to it in Chicago in 1972.   Although Bill Traut picked songs he thought fit the band — they show off James Young’s guitar work, the harmonies, and rocking style — the band sounds like its covering songs written by others.     Still it was a solid debut and gained them recognition outside the Chicago scene.

Styx II (1973)

The cover art was less impressive (though the back side depicts the river Styx), but this album that broke late and ultimately went gold is the best of the Wooden Nickel era.   Dennis DeYoung wrote five of the seven songs, the other two came from John Curulewski.   Side one is near perfection.  It opens with James Young singing the DeYoung penned “All You Really Need is Love,” a catchy early seventies nod to the vibe of the Beatles with a rock edge.   That gives way to “Lady,” the standard that launched Styx’ big time career.   From there it shifts to “A Day,” a beautiful, progressive sometimes haunting eight minute song by John Curulewski.   It’s Curulewski at his best, shifting styles and adding something that Styx lost when he left.   He followed that with a humorous tune “You Better Ask.”

Side two starts with a classic moment – DeYoung performing Bach’s “Little Fugue in C,” on the Cathedral at St. James Pipe Organ, morphing into a powerful progressive rock tune “Father O.S.A.”   This hinted at DeYoung’s later work as well.   “Earl of Roseland” is a solid tune about the band’s Chicago roots — DeYoung looking back at their earlier days even before they hit the big time.  The concluding song, DeYoung’s “I’m Gonna Make you Feel it” (sung by James Young) is perhaps the weakest song, but still catchy and has the sound of what could be a good live tune.   The band also worked in virtuoso individual bits of musicianship creating an album I think stands alongside even their multi-platinum work for worthwhile listening.

The Serpent is Rising (1973)

When Lady originally failed to chart and Styx II appeared a failure, the band decided to shift gears, with John Curulewski taking a creative lead.   This album — a concept album about sex (the serpent is rising means what you might imagine it to mean) is more progressive, stranger and less accessible than the other three.   It begins with “Witch Wolf,” a James Young song that sounds more like his later Styx work.   Dennis DeYoung’s solos are missing, save the solid “The Grove of Eglantine,” supposedly about a woman’s vagina.  It’s a decent song, though DeYoung later said he was pushing himself to write in styles that didn’t feel natural, thinking that the failure of Styx II was a rejection of his song writing.   DeYoung also wrote “Jonas Psalter” and “Winner Take All,” though James Young sang them.  About a pirate, Jonas hints at DeYoung’s later theme of success not bringing satisfaction.

The album really showcased Curulewski’s avante garde sensibilities.  My kids love the “coda” to “As Bad as This” (the weakest song on the album), which is a delightful tune called “Plexiglass toilet.”   With lines like “mama says don’t belch and fart” and “wipe the butt clean with the paper, make it nice for everyone,” it was a hit with my eight and five year old sons.  It’s got a fun and humorous edge, a bit Zappa like, and apparently was often requested on Dr. Dimento.   Strange, but Curulewski’s humor added something the band needed at the time.   Curulewski’s “22 Years” is a solid rocker, and the sound effects on the spoken “Krakatoa” are interesting if not exactly commercial.  The album ends with Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” symbolizing a sexual climax and interestingly being the second album in a row with a nod to classical music.

My take is that while interesting, humorous at times, and experimental, Curulewski’s vision didn’t fit the strengths of the other band members.   They needed commercial success and this flopped.  They weren’t good enough as a progressive band to live off experimental work — only Curulewski had his soul in that, it seemed.    The cover art was cool though!  The quickly put out another album.

Man of Miracles (1974)

Man of Miracles marked a significant improvement over The Serpent is Rising, and the band clearly started to mature as song writers and studio artists.   I enjoy this album almost as much as Styx II, and in terms of style and performance I think it actually is their best Wooden Nickel album.   Dennis DeYoung is back, though the original album rejected one of his best tunes, “Unfinished Song” in favor of “Lies,” a cover.  “Lies” flopped and “Best Thing” (from Styx I) later replaced it.  In a 1980 re-release “Unfinished Song” finally made it — it might have been a hit if put on the album!  DeYoung’s “Song for Suzanne” is haunting and shows stylistic growth, while “Golden Lark” really shows off what would become ‘the voice of Styx.’   He also added “Evil Eyes,” a strong, haunting rock ballad, and “Christopher, Mr. Christopher,” one of my favorites.  It’s lyrically compelling, based on the story of St. Christopher, his apparent lowered status in the 60s, and a look at the role of faith in the life of an average woman.  Curulewski and Young teamed up on some good rockers, “Rock & Roll Feeling,” and “Havin’ a Ball.”  Curulewski’s humor and progressive influences waned, and Young and DeYoung’s title song showed the kind of dramatic edge that would give the band later success.

The album flopped, despite some strong moments, and it appeared Styx was going to be another one of those bands that “got close,” but couldn’t quite find the right song or chemistry to break through.   They had made quality albums, but hadn’t found their identity.   Or so they thought.

When Lady broke after the release of “Man of Miracles,” the album Styx II suddenly went gold and hit # 20 on the billboard album chart.   DeYoung and the band had thought that his style of song writing had been rejected, but in reality it hadn’t really been noticed.   “Lady” was a number one hit, though it’s late break out meant it peaked in different markets at different times, topping out at # 6 on the charts nationally.   Styx left Wooden Nickel (causing a law suit) and signed up with A&M.   Although there would be two other albums before they broke out big time, Equinox and Crystal Ball would show a more polished and focused Styx, a band that knew who it was.

Curulewski would leave after Equinox, the band was drifting away from his vision and his substance abuse was a problem.  Tommy Shaw would replace Curulewski’s humor and avant garde with ‘good ol’ boy’ blue grass and acoustic influences.  He also was attractive and charming, a missing element from the original lineup.

Still, as I listen to the Wooden Nickel recordings over and over, enjoy the cover art, and appreciate what that struggling band created, I find I enjoy their blockbusters that much more.  The band worked hard, paid its dues, struggled to find its identity.   It also reinforces the fact that Dennis DeYoung is the soul of Styx, while James Young is the body.  Young’s guitar and drive, DeYoung’s voice and lyrics were a dominant force from the start.   More than anything else, Styx was a marriage of James Young and Dennis DeYoung’s styles and attitudes.   Two Chicago rockers creating a legend.

It’s too bad that marriage ended in divorce.   I still hope for reconciliation.

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  1. #1 by Ajax on November 20, 2012 - 17:40

    Nice roundup of the Wooden Nickel years! Though I like Serpent the best because it’s so out-there.

  2. #2 by Brett Vice on May 21, 2014 - 18:23

    Nice article. I enjoy learning new things about my favorite group. However, you got two of the song titles wrong: “All You Really Need Is Love” is actually “You Need Love”, and “Little Fugue in ‘C'” is supposed to be “Little Fugue In ‘G'”.

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