Dennis DeYoung takes Styx to Paradise
by Bill Paige
"We've tried in our music to say, 'We love to have a good time, we love what we do for a living,' " says Dennis De Young, whose Paradise Theater concept album has put Styx at the very top of the rock 'n' roll game. "But don't forget that behind all this glamour there's an awful lot of hard work." Far too many people, it seems, think rock 'n' roll is all illusion and fantasy. But. for every band making music—from four high school kids pounding three chords in a basement, to five wealthy showmen blasting songs across a sea of 20,000—the reality of rock 'n' roll is years of dedication.
"That idea pervades a lot of our music," says De Young. "We're saying, 'Hey, we're not much different than you people. The difference is that we've applied ourselves and look where we are. We've been able to get there because we believed in ourselves and worked at it."
In August 1972, Tom Popson perceptively wrote in the Chicago Tribune: "While Styx' basic style is high-energy rock, it's not an unrelenting decibel assault. They move gracefully from grand, soaring passages or hard-as-nails rock to more placid moments, occasionally getting down to little but an acoustic guitar. And they manage to knit the various moods and intensities together so that almost nothing seems out of place."
No doubt Popson wouldn't change a word of that evaluation today, eight albums after the quintet released Styx on the rocky Wooden Nickel label. The band is still a solid American band with British overtones. And each member (De Young, James Young, Tommy Shaw and brothers Chuck and John Panozzo) contributes his own style to give Styx the kind of diversity that can keep a lot of fans interested for a long time.
"Our audience is varied," offers De Young. "I tend to think it's pretty spread out—between 14 and 40. When you're able to sell more than 3,000,000 records—three times in a row—you know that you're selling to a lot of different kinds of people. I think that's the best part of what we do.
"We're the hottest ticket around, concert-wise and album-wise," says DeYoung with pride. "No one's competing with us. In 1977 we broke through, sold three and a half million records and did a sold-out tour; when Cornerstone was released, same thing, another 95% sold-out tour. Paradise Theater is less than two months old and is already at about a million and a half copies and we've only played 20 out of WO concert dates.
"The fact is this," he concludes. "We've sold out every show we've played since 1977. What other act has done that in the last three years?"
There's no answer to DeYoung's rhetorical question, and the statistics for the Paradise Theater tour back the claim. At a cost of $4 million, Styx will play to about 1.5 million fans owe theIr 140 ds, ~ records of 1.2 and 1.3 million set by Z. Z. Top and Fleetwood Mac, respectively. Those are big numbers in a time of generally soft concert sales, but DeYoung doesn't seem surprised.
"Our audience likes us because we're good live; we've done it time and time again," he explains. "When we play, people are smiling. When we're finished, they go away feeling exhilarated and that they've gotten their money's worth.
"With the way the world is today," says De Young, "if I can go someplace and know I'm going to feel good when I come out, I'm ready to go. If people walk away from our show and they haven't gotten that feeling, it isn't because we didn't try."
Hundreds of colored lights blink and flash, the sound is crisp and the band's moves studied and deliberate onstage. But when you do any job long enough, spontaneity gets harder and harder to come by—there's only so many steps to be taken on a 50-foot stage.
For Styx, that familiarity breeds a kind of confidence and security that makes them easier to listen to than someone really trying to fill up space. Next to Styx, lots of bands look stiff and uncomfortable onstage, trying to force the music out of their instruments instead of their hearts.
Styx wants to give its audience something to take home with them besides ringing ears. Maybe the idea they can make a difference. Maybe a sense of pride they don't get from their parents or teachers. Maybe a brief glimpse into a world where it's what you do that counts, not what you appear to do.
* * *
From humble beginnings at clubs like Papa Joe's in Park Ridge and more Dex Card's Wild Goose appearances than they probably care to remember, Styx always has presented an interesting stage persona.
At one end, DeYoung's dramatic sense of wonder and romance nails down the band's dedication to serious music. Yet his warm gaze reaches into every corner of a large stadium. J.Y.'s scowling, towering power is aggressive and mockingly fierce. His wicked smile says, "Turn it up!" Tommy Shaw is the group's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; his boyish good looks belie an intense, stunning technical ability to perform. All are very fine singers. And the Panozzos are willing to give the stage over to the showmen, knowing that without the rhythm section, the soloists would die.
There's no question about Styx being one of the top-selling groups and main concert attractions in the U.S. But who is buying all those discs? A recent reader's poll in Creem listed Styx among the Top Ten Worst Groups yet they failed to place in the Top 20 Favorite Groups.
"In order to appear in those kinds of polls," explains De Young, "you have to appear in the magazines on a regular basis. That's how those things work, and we have never actively sought the press out."
In fact, Styx has only had a press agent (record companies always have departments to handle publicity; A & M's is one of the best so Styx never really needed outside help) for the last few months. De Young says the band is finally a bit interested in blowing its own horn.
"To talk about (our music) openly is a help," he says. "It gives people more of an understanding about what we're trying to say."
As for who's buying all the records, De Young quips, "Six, maybe seven kids in Pomona. You know what they did? They went out and each bought 700,000 copies of the last few records and keep 'em in a warehouse."
De Young and Styx have needed that sense of humor over the last nine years, for indeed, their encounters with the press are not always what one would call love affairs. "I'm very sensitive about the press in Chicago. I always have the feeling people are trying to shoot holes in me. Other places I'm a different person; it doesn't matter. But my parents live in Chicago and so do my friends.
"It's very difficult to live in the city that you love and not get the appreciation back," he laments. "Here we are, the winners of Chicago, and we have to come to Los Angeles to do five sold-out shows. You know who does five sold-out shows in L.A.? The Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Rod Stewart and Styx. That's it."
Styx still in platinum paradise
As is the case with many successful commercial rock 'n' roll bands, Styx was roundly drubbed for alternately being "too dramatic," "too shallow," "too soft" and "too negative." DeYoung adds another oft-used dig:
"If anything, the criticism about us has been that we're too positive," he says with some dismay. "You can point out the negatives, but there should be another side to it that says there is hope for humanity and for everyone in our audience.
The most obvious example of what DeYoung speaks is Shaw's "Foolin' Yourself" on the Grand illusion LP. Like a chorus of cheerleaders, the band exalts, "Get up, get back on your feet/You're the one they can't beat and you know it."—But it isn't easy. The title song on the album, written by Dennis, sums it up simply: "America spells competition."
"I think we give people the feeling they can achieve something in their lives," says De Young. "I'm real proud of that. We're all very proud of it."
* * *
Until Paradise Theater, Styx has never really identified itself in song as a Chicago band. Except for Shaw, who emigrated from Alabama to first play in Chicago with M. S. Funk, all the members of Styx are from the South Side's Roseland and Pullman communities. That they still love the city is evident in the fact they still record in area studios, and have chosen a forgotten landmark around which to build the latest story of their skyscraping career.
"I saw a photograph of the Paradise about two years ago," says De Young. "It was taken just before the building was torn down in 1958, and there was a sign on the front that said: 'Paradise Closed.' That meant something to me."
Since 1975, and the Equinox LP, Styx has been turning away from the theme of love to one of exploring a self-destructive world and how it might be revived. "Suite Madame Blue," an allegory for America, was written by DeYoung in the pre-Bicentennial fury which immobilized people's ability to question whether the U.S. was headed in the right direction.
"Paradise Theater is an extension of that idea in 1981," he explains. "America is at a crossroads in its history. She refuses to see any image but that image she wants to see. ("Red, white and blue/Gaze in your looking glass/You're not a child anymore.") Either we're going to move forward and get it back together and see the reindustrialization of America, or we're going to go into a decline, into a new depression.
"We have to get away from this idea that we can use everything up in ten minutes and then throw it away," he adds. "We should try and make things last."
From "The Best Of Times" to "Nothing Ever Goes As Planned," Paradise Theater rides the fine line between hope and despair. The "up~~ inspiration of "Rockin' The Paradise" is dampened by the line, "To tell you the truth/We've all seen better days." Later, the chorus to the snide, snarling "Half-Penny, Two-Penny" states, "Yes, I'm gonna shake myself loose/Back home across the sea/Where I know that I will be free." Styx takes both sides of The Great Debate, but like the rest of us must wait a long time to see the final outcome.
"We have provided some sociological in sight into the American way of life," admits De Young. "Not always—not in every song—but then, we're not the kind of band that feels the only thing we have to offer is some sort of preachy message."
Styx' positive idealism wonderfully coexists in a musical community that too often lauds the cynic and boos the booster. The questioning and challenging of social and political systems always has been welcome in song, but few artistes ever come up with an alternative. Styx' criticism of the world condition is usually metaphorical, and consequently less hard-hitting than their detractors might want. But what's so funny 'bout baseball, a strong dollar, and America First?
More Paradise Theater still to come from De Young and Styx
With such a successful track record on the road, it's surprising Styx has not yet made the de rigeur live LP. "Pressure from management and record company has been for a long time for us to do a live album," says De Young. "But I see a live album as a dead end, because then I'd have to do a tour to promote it and play all the same songs.
"The thing that allows you to go out and tour in the first place is the idea of taking chances and doing something new. A live album doesn't really offer that.
"We think a live album should come at a point when you've run out of ideas; when you need time off to renew the creative spirit. I think our live album would do very well, but as long as we can keep having ideas...
"We really believe in the idea that music should be fun," he stresses. "It should be entertaining. There's a strong feeling of entertainment value to our live shows which I think is very important to rock 'n' roll."
DeYoung hints the Paradise Theater concept may not yet have run its course. "Hopefully, it's going to be turned into a real theatrical production with a story line," he says. "I would like to see it go to Broadway and then maybe do a tour of 20 cities; I'd like to come into Chicago and take over the Auditorium Theatre for three weeks. It will be a real multi-media production, with a live rock band which will be us, set between 1970 to the year 2000."
Until then, Styx has a long road ahead, bringing a message of positivism to its fans around the world. Asked if he gets depressed by the usually-painted picture of today's drug-crazed youth, De Young says, "I've been doing this a long time, and I've seen the audiences change. Our crowds are looking more polished and scrubbed and less zoned out."
The message from Styx is loud and clear—apply yourself and desire to make your life better, and you will be rewarded. After all, that's the American way.