In Sickness and in health, Styx take no prisoners on their romp to the top.
“Styx is the Second Coming of God in St. Louis,” says an A&M label insider. “They’re incredible in the Midwest- they packed 30,000 fans into Busch (St. Louis) Stadium. They’re the most professional band I’ve ever worked with. They know what they have to do and they do it. They could fart and it would go Top 10!”
The Styx paradox is that without becoming household faces, the five band members have sold over twelve million LP’s since 1970. As keyboardist Dennis DeYoung puts it, Styx “can draw 22,000 people in a totally depressed market, sell out Madison Square Garden, and be the closest thing to Beatlemania in Philadelphia that you’ll see in your life.” What about Styx attracts such devoted crowds-their music or their sorcerer-like appeal to fans’ imaginations?
“People like us,” a tired and jean-clad Tommy Shaw explained to the press on Long Island, “because we ham it up and have fun. The band would rather be human than chic, hip and ultracool.” Shaw thinks this approach may repel writers and other musicians (label-mate Joe Jackson publicly disparaged Styx at a St. Louis gig in October), while helping to draw stadiums full of young fans. He claims it’s the diversity of Styx’ music that sell so well, and insists that while the band may not have identifiable magazine faces, each member has a distinct stage image.
When Styx huddled backstage recently at Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum, the crowd was still roaring, but four platinum faces were grim. Only blond guitarist James Young looked unperturbed. The Chicago-based quintet had just played the first of two headline dates at the venue in support of the Top Five A&M album Cornerstone, even gliding through an eight-minute encore. What unspoken woes had plunged the act into such stygian depths of spirit?
“As much as you know the show must go on,” Styx front man Dennis DeYoung was saying to a reporter, “there are limitations to your mental well-being.” Only six weeks into its ongoing five-month tour, Styx-a restive band that often seems on the verge of break-up – had already run into enough illness to fill an emergency ward. Drummer John Panozzo had a fever of 102. The tweedy DeYoung had stomach problems and the added worry of a pregnant wife. The face of munchkin guitarist Tommy Shaw was lined with a lived crescent marking the place his horse had kicked him; his dejected girl friend, who until 5 AM had been bleeding at the hospital, sat in a wheelchair flanked by half-empty bottles and cans of Heineken and Dr. Pepper. Roadie Tom Short, suffering from an un-named ailment, had checked in with a Hempstead physician. Dark-haired bassist Chuck Panozzo stood quietly aside, “JY” alone, chatting with businessman about investments and interest rates, seemed the sole approachable member of Styx.
The concert had gone well despite the bands infirmary looks. Parading before a mob of Frisbee-clutching rock fans, Styx delivered a 100 minute set highlighted by JY’s musical warning to Ted Kennedy, “Eddie (Now Don’t You Run),” Shaw’s tuneful “Crystal Ball,” and DeYoung’s theatrical “Suite Madame Blue.” Singers DeYoung and Shaw dashed around the stage, playing off each other’s personalities like Captain Hook and Peter Pan. JY soloed with the aid of a new synthesizer pickup mounted on his sleek, black Yamaha guitar, and roved the boards in his peculiar fey style. The twin Panozzo brothers anchored the beat with more gusto than they show on any Styx album. Only a gratuitous drum solo, an out-of-tune keyboard synthesizer and DeYoung’s ludicrous rising grand piano marred the show’s professionalism.
Only two years ago these slick headliners were opening for the likes of Be-Bop Deluxe in 3000-seat halls, and irritating warm-up bands obviously impatience to reach stardom. “I used to hate them,” a guitarist from one such band told Circus Magazine. “Styx had special guest star billing, and I think they were fed up with not really making it, and took it out on the opening bands.”
“Styx tried to dump on us for the first gig we played with them,” says the drummer of a multi-platinum progressive band which used to appear with Styx. “Their road manager pulled out singer’s organ plug right out of the wall.”
Stardom eluded Styx for nine years. In the late ‘60’s, before Tommy Shaw had ever met the others, Styx was called the Tradewinds and included a different 12-string guitarist, John Curulewski. Regulars on the Chicago rock circuit, the Tradewinds scored a recording contract with Wooden Nickel Records in 1970 and became Styx. Recalls Young: “It was one of the hundred names we tried, and it turned out to be the only one that none of us hated.”
After moving to A&M and releasing its fifth album, Equinox (1975), Styx lost Curulewski on the eve of a major tour. Alabaman Tommy Shaw, who’d been living on the road with a Nashville band called M.S. Funk and playing country rock in bowling alley lounges, was whisked into Styx, learned the band’s repertoire, and began to pen typically haunting songs for the bands four subsequent records: Crystal Ball, The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight, and the self-produced, raw-edged ninth album Cornerstone. Rocketing to number three in less than five weeks, Cornerstone features the hit ballad “Babe,” the folksy “Boat on the River,” the Alan Parsons-inspired, “Why Me” and “Love in the Midnight,” and Styx’ autobiographical showstopper, “Lights.”
A joint effort by Shaw and DeYoung, “Lights” points up the need for relief from career pressures Styx often feels these days, and the conflict between that need and the nearly ceaseless drive it takes to stay on top:
Why not sit back and relax
Go the Islands and forget it all
Slow down, you’re moving to fast
You seem afraid it won’t last
The lyric could be DeYoung addressing Shaw, Dennis nearly quit last January, figuring that when it comes to albums eight is enough. “There’s no need to go out and kill ourselves,” he has said. Styx plans to compromise and take five months off as of February, just enough time off to make Tommy Shaw nervous.
If the outfit were to take a longer sojourn, “We’d probably rust, a band has to tour to be a band.”