February 28, 2021

FTV: Styx in Three Acts


     Warning:  I like Styx.  I have always liked Styx.  What happened to make them fragment, reassemble, and separate again into two distinct ‘camps’ the way they did was never quite clear to me.  The memory of where and when I first heard Lady on the radio, however, pops into my head everytime I hear the song.  When the ‘Stereo 100’ FM format was big in Marquette during the spring of 1975, they played such a tight rotation of songs that one could set their watch by it.  The timing was such that I heard Lady at the same spot (somewhere between turning off Fourth St. onto Fischer St. or just after turning off Fischer to cross the US 41 By-pass at Altamont St.) while motoring to Bothwell Middle School where I was doing my student teaching.  Every single day!  Reading Sterling Whitaker’s fine 2007 book The Grand Delusion – The Unauthorized True Story of Styx, it became apparent that my entry into Styx-world was somewhere during Act Two.  How the band ended up where they are today (which we will call ‘the Epilog’) makes more sense now that I have read more about Acts One and Three.  We can track the intermissions between these acts by noting the albums they released across their whole career.

     In the forward (Styx Was Never Cool), one time band member Glen Burtnik notes that Whitaker’s book chronicles, “[A band] that was an uncool, unhip, unfashionable, un-sexy, multi-platinum success story.”  As part of Styx from 1990 to 2004, Burtnik knows how the Acts were stitched together because he understands musical theater:  The left-handed Burtnik was ‘Paul’ to Marshal Crenshaw’s ‘John’ in the original production of Beatlemania.  Burtnik mentions that he had not yet read the book at the time he penned the Forward, but he ends his contribution by saying, “[The book] is the tale of an American rock band finally worth telling to music fans unhip enough to be interested.  I just hope Whitaker makes me look cool.” (Spoiler alert – he does).

     ACT ONE:  The core of the band that would become Styx began like so many others.  Dennis DeYoung heard the sound of music coming from an open window as he walked down the street in Chicago’s Roseland section.  It was 1962 and “hotter than hell, and I heard the sound of a little band,” DeYoung recalls.  The then fifteen year old stuck his head in the window and discovered the twelve year old twin Panozzo brothers (John and Chuck on drums and guitar, respectively) playing with another kid on accordion.  DeYoung, often characterized as being the ‘take-charge self-confident’ type, invited the Panozzo brothers to his house to play music.  Having played accordion for eight years, Dennis was more accomplished than the kid he deposed, and thus began a little band that would eventually play gigs under the name of The Trade Winds.  Their reputation grew as supporting members came and went.  The Beatles first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show turned them away from the usual wedding reception repetoire they were pumping out.  When another band called The Trade Winds released a record, they changed their name to TW4 (which stood for There Were 4).  After TW4 gained two new members (guitarists John ‘JC’ Curuleswski and James ‘JY’ Young), DeYoung traded in his accordian for a Farfisa organ, and the band morphed into one of the most popular cover bands in the ‘burbs.

     As their reputation grew, they were signed by a young booking agent who eventually got them their own record deal.  The band was given material to record and one of the few original tunes on the album (Best Thing) actually cracked the charts at #82 in 1972.  The band did not especially like the songs they were told to record (or how they sounded on record for that matter), but when their first single charted, they thought, “Wow, that wasn’t hard to do.”  The next week, Best Thing dropped to #88 and three weeks later, it was gone from the charts.  Having been told they needed a new name, they settled on Styx after their record label boss hit up one of his ‘hip’ friends for a list of fifty possible band names.  Of the five given to the band (that also included ‘Kelp’ and ‘Torch’), Styx was the only one that everyone in the band agreed on.  After the Styx album more or less sank from sight, the band convinced their boss at Wood Nickel records to let them write their next album.

      While there were some highlights, Styx II made barely a ripple in 1973.  Live, they had a killer sound but it did not translate to vinyl very well.  Even the first song DeYoung wrote and sang (Lady) failed to catch any radio play, but the band now looks back and sees what was not obvious to them as ‘newbies’ in the music biz:  The label spent $161 mailing promotional copies to radio stations.  That was the extent of the push given to the LP and it wasn’t enough to get it aired.

     ‘JC’ Curulewski wanted them to become a more experimental band ala King Crimson.  He was also the one band member whose substance intake and (normal) negative attitude began to wear on the rest.  His last major contribution to their recorded output was on their other 1973 release The Serpent is Rising.  When none of these albums generated big numbers, RCA reduced their financial commitment to the band.  By their fourth offering, (Man of Miracles  in 1974), tensions were building.  When I bought my first Styx album in 1975 (Equinox), I also picked up their last Wooden Nickel disk, a collection of their best tracks for that label titled The Best of Styx.  For Equinox, the band had signed with A&M Records.  ‘JC’, having added ‘alcoholic’ to his list of vices, was in the process of exiting the band, thus marking the end of Styx – Act One.

     Act Two:  I was excited to pick up their second A&M album in 1976 (Crystal Ball) but  unaware of the friction that had lead Curulewski to depart.  ‘JC’ was replaced with a new kid from Georgia, Tommy Shaw.  Shaw’s song credits and vocals were immediately recognized as an upgrade in the band.  The next ten albums (Crystal Ball through 1999’s Brave New World) would be their most prolific and successful period.  One could not turn on the radio (and later tune in MTV) from 1977’s The Grand Illusion to 1983’s Kilroy Was Here without hearing hit song after hit song.  They were a hit making, hard working blue collar band from the midwest, but as Burtnik reminded in the Foreword, they were never considered ‘cool’.  Popular culture seemed bent on using Styx as a punchline but those fans living in ‘Styx-world’ paid the doubters no mind.  When Paradise Theater was released in 1981, it proved to be one of their most creative albums.  The whole band liked the concept  about a defunct landmark theater.  The group vibe helped produce not only a great album, but also an allegorical tale about the economic and social problems that were troubling the country at that time.

     DeYoung decided that the next step was to combine theater and music (as opposed to music about a theater) and take the band to the next level.  Although Kilroy Was Here (1983) racked up big numbers behind the hits Mr. Roboto and Show Me the Way, the tour mounted around the concept killed the band.  Unlike Paradise Theater, Kilroy was less of a band effort.  The other members viewed it as DeYoung’s baby all the way.  Putting up with the main songwriter’s mood swings was easier when the band was making hits and enjoying the ride.  The ‘we are all in this together’ brotherhood feel began to wear thin when  DeYoung thrust the others into unfamiliar roles ‘acting’ out the story of rock rebel Kilroy.  It was a piece of musical theater ahead of its time, but it brought down the curtain on Act Two of Styx.

     As they say, ‘hindsight is 20/20’, so we can now see that they made some mistakes with the production of Kilroy Was Here.  The first iteration was staged at the Pantage Theater for a week and luminaries who flocked to see it (like Sting) pronounced it a work of genius.  Touring the production to small halls (to make it more intimate) proved to be a losing proposition moneywise.  When the opening film segment could not be run at one theater gig, DeYoung made the mistake of canceling the whole show.  Had the band simply made apologies by playing a ‘normal’ band set, it would not have damaged the band’s reputation the way sending the audience home empty handed did.  Staging it in stadiums was a bigger mistake.  With the film intro and stage dialog consuming a great deal of time before the band ever started playing music, Styx garnered more negative reactions, widening the divide between DeYoung and his bandmates.  Shaw noted, “I am a rock guitarist and I spend the first half an hour on stage without a guitar saying lines that make me sound wooden?  Not my cup of tea!”  After a disastrous show at Texas Jam, Tommy made it known that he was leaving the band at the end of the tour.  Shaw did leave  the group as promised and spent the next decade performing with his own band, in a band with former Night Ranger bassist Jack Blades (as Shaw/Blades), and in a supergroup that added Ted Nugent to the Shaw/Blades mix (Damn Yankees).  He was replaced by the aforementioned Glen Burtnik.  The Burtnik area was more of a Coda to Act Two than an introduction to Act Three.  Album sales were okay, but not great.  The band continued touring, only now they were not filling arenas as they had with Shaw in the band.

     There were other things that led up to Shaw’s departure.  It isn’t widely known that at the cusp of Crystal Ball, their most successful album to that point, Dennis DeYoung let the pressure get to him.  He had a breakdown and hospitalized himself for a brief period.  He became enough of an intolerable tyrant in the studio that he was actually fired from his own band.  After a half hearted attempt to replace Dennis, they asked him to come back.  DeYoung did, but with conditions.  First, he wanted to do no more than four or five shows in a block so he could spend more time with his family.  Secondly, he brought his wife and kids on the road, adding a new dynamic to the band’s inner workings.  There was a small dust up between Dennis’s wife and the manager who had orchestrated their career into the big leagues.  He was let go.  The band became more fractured in the wake of these developments.  Crystal Ball had been created with minimal input from the ailing DeYoung, but once he came back and hit his stride, they pumped out four consecutive triple-platinum albums beginning with The Grand Illusion (1977) and ending with Paradise Theater (1981).   For Shaw, the final straw was the Kilroy Was Here tourIt pushed him over the edge and out of the band. 

     Act Three:  There was no defining curtain between Act Two and Act Three, just a succession of events that changed the band’s chemistry.  Shaw departed first.  The band had recorded their first live album Caught in the Act but broke up before the album was released.  With Burtnik replacing Shaw, the band reformed to record Edge of the Century in 1990.  It would be the last record featuring drummer John Panozzo who passed away in 1997 from liver damage caused by his abuse of alcohol.  Grunge interrupted plans to record an album tentatively called Son of Edge and the band broke up again in 1991.  A second reunion was mounted in 1995 with Shaw back in the fold but with drummer Mike Brady subbing for the ailing John Panozzo.  The double live disk Return to Paradise (1997) was a surprise success.  The follow up (Brave New World – 1999) would be DeYoung’s last contribution to the band.  Arguments over material and a viral illness Dennis contracted (making him light sensitive) led to the band touring without DeYoung.  He was replaced by Canadian musician Lawrence Gowan who has remained with the band ever since.  When bassist Chuck Panozzo’s own health problems sidelined him in 1999, Burtnik returned to the band as his fill in.

     Styx has spent the last twenty years with Tommy Shaw in the driver’s seat.  When Burtnik left in 2003, he was replaced by former The Babys and Bad English bassist Ricky Phillips (Panozzo still makes guest appearances from time to time).  Session player and lifelong Styx fan Todd Sucherman took over the drum throne from Brady in 1997 and has become one of the most dynamic drummers in the rock world.  With the core of JY, Shaw, and Gowan still in place, Styx has continued to be a concert draw on their own and in collaboration with orchestras like the Contemporary Youth Orchestra (CYO) from Cleveland.

     Dennis DeYoung finally recovered his health and though he could live comfortably on the royalties from his past hit songs, he is still creating new music.  He has nine solo albums to his credit dating from 1984’s Desert Moon to his most recent disk, 26 East, Vol 1 (released in May of 2020).  Touring with a project called Dennis DeYoung and the Music of Styx, he has performed with a five-piece rock band, often accompanied by a full fifty piece orchestra.  For a period in the early 2010s, DeYoung formed a new band whose members were chosen to not only sound like the original Styx, but actually resemble them.  That is one way to revisit the past.

     Will we ever see Dennis DeYoung perform with the current Styx band?  Only time will tell.  It is obvious from the stories they all shared with Whitaker that there is still a tremendous amount of professional respect that flows both ways.  Like any dysfunctional family, bands sometimes need time to look back and cringe at the things that drove them apart in the first place.  Whether they meet in the middle again or not, the music of Styx is reaching new ears.  As long as both camps are still performing and Classic Rock radio continues to spin their hits, the Styx brand will remain alive and well.  Let us hope 2021 will give everyone the opportunity to again hear their music played in a live setting as we get ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic.  My overly optimistic hope were recently dashed:  DeYoung was scheduled to perform at the Island Resort in Harris, Michigan in the spring of 2021, but the show was canceled due to on-going COVID-19 concerns.


Top Piece Video:  Rockin’ the Paradise – Styx on top of the world . . . then comes the crash!