Styx makes a statement
The band Styx, which climbed to the top of the charts via the suburban high school and college circuit, is returning to the area this month as one of the biggest rock acts in America. The band's latest and most ambitious album, "Kilroy was Here," advances Styx's reputation as a socially conscious group.
By Dave Hoekstra
Dennis De Young (from left), John Panozzo, James Young, Chuck Panozzo and Tommy Shaw will return to the Chicago area April 25,26,28 and 29 with their "Kilroy Was Here" rock show. (Photo by Paul NatkinlPhoto Reserve)
Styx, one of America's hottest rock 'n' roll bands, is made up of five musicians with distinct opinions. But they won't rap the oft-maligned suburbs. After all, Styx was made in the "sticks."
The Styx musical style evolved in the mid-70s when the South Side band played for thousands of pubescent rockers in almost every Chicago-area suburban high school gymnasium and college auditorium. Ten years later, statistically speaking, Styx is the biggest rock act in America. The band has scored an unprecedented string of three triple-platinum al bums (that's 9 million sales) and its 1980 tour was seen by 1.5 million fans — the most people ever to see an American rock band. Styx will be coming home April 25, 26, 28 and 29 for four sold-out shows at the Auditorium Theatre In Chicago.
"Styx never played in bars, we always did the college and high school circuit, and our strong suburban following helped 'Lady' (the group's first hit in 1972) break as a hit," says guitarist and vocalist James "J.Y." Young.
"People from Downers Grove to Wheeling bought the record and kept calling WLS to play it. The program director started having the record played, and that became our first big break," he says. "We owe a lot of that to the suburban schools."
Drummer John Panozzo says high school and college concerts allowed the band to experiment with its music.
"We were able to develop our own style," Panozzo says. "If you were playing in a bar, you were expected to play songs like 'Soul Man' to keep the people dancing and drinking. We were able to play album-oriented material and original material. We didn't have to play what the club owners insisted."
Over the years, Styx members have remained true to their roots. Young, Panozzo and lead singer Dennis DeYoung live in the southwest and west suburbs. Panozzo's twin, Chuck, lives in downtown Chicago. Guitarist Tommy Shaw lives on a Michigan farm.
"We're a bunch of guys from the South Side (except for Shaw, band members wereraised in the Roseland and Pullman communities on the South Side of Chicago) who are still looking at the things we grew up with," Young says.
Styx records at Pumpkin Studios in Oak Lawn. and the band rehearses at the Rialto Theater in Joliet. Still, band members feel neglected on their home turf at times.
'It's a two-edged sword," Young says. "We are a hometown band, and at the beginning there was a good, peer-group feeling and people believed in you. All the critics were in our favor.
"Then the idea of 'they had their chance' creeps in, and no matter what it is, you can find fault. It seems that in Chicago, we were big, there was a dip and now we're getting big again," Young says.
Styx is planning a big extravaganza for their hometown fans.
Chuck Panozzo delivers the bass line for a Styx song. Panozzo says the group is covering new ground in its "Kilroy Was Here" tour. "We have taken a step beyond 'Paradise Theater' with 'Kilroy Was Here,' the musician says. " The concept and stage presentation will leave little doubt to our tans that indeed 'Kilroy Was Here' and Styx was here." The group's four shows at the Auditorium Theatre sold out in two hours. (Photos by Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve)
"We're going to lose money in Chicago, but we haven't played the Auditorium for five or six years, and we wanted to give our fans a chance to see us," Young says.
DeYoung says, 'Rock-and-roll fans have been good to us for years. Now we want to give something back to them."
The elaborate (and expensive) Styx road show is a marriage between music and film, detailing the story of Robert Orin Charles Kilroy (ROCK). The plot behind the show (and the latest Styx album "Kilroy Was Here") centers around Kilroy, a famous rock star, and Dr. Everett Righteous, founder and leader of the MMM (the Majority for Musical Morality). Righteous spoke about the evils of rock music through his own cable TV network, and eventually the MMM had rock 'n' roll banned.
As the new anti-rock law was passed, Kilroy and his band were finishing a national tour. Their last performance (at the Paradise Theater in Chicago, which actually has been torn down) would serve as a test case for the law. On the night of the concert, the MMM marched into the packed house and stormed the stage. When the smoke cleared, an MMM protester was dead and Kilroy was convicted of murder.
He was sent to a prison ship with other rock misfits (no doubt with the likes of ex Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten). The prison is run by Japanese robots, all called Mr. Roboto. While Kilroy is in prison, a young rocker named Jonathan Chance starts an underground movement to bring back rock. Kilroy hears about this and escapes from prison, returning to the Paradise, which has been turned into Dr. Righteous' museum of rock pathology.
An 11-minute film produced by Styx and directed by Brian Gibson (who directed the film "Breaking Glass") details these events at the outset of the concert. The band appears on stage when the film is over and when Kilroy escapes from prison.
The film footage is projected by three 4,500-watt digitally controlled and programmed Xenon projectors and 300 individually motor-driven lights controlled by a memory computer.
The band members assume the character roles. Young is Dr. Righteous, De Young is Kilroy, Shaw is Jonathan Chance, John Panozzo is Col. Hyde and Chuck Panozzo is Lt. Vanish.
Styx began their "Kilroy" tour on the West Coast in mid-March. Young says the audience response Is similar to that for 'the Rocky Horror Picture Show."
"I've been surprised how quickly the audience responds," Young says. "It's like 'Rocky Horror,' where the audience starts - booing the bad guys and cheering the good guys. It's a delight to see the response from someone else besides your family and friends."
Young adds the audience isn't alienated by the unusual multimedia approach to ward a rock concert, and for that matter the exoticism of the band's bizarre single, "Mr. Roboto."
"People know that 'Roboto' isn't the traditional Styx single, but we want to bridge the gap between the '70s and '80s,"
"And, we've done that," Panozzo adds.
"This comes very close to rock theater, and that's very exciting for us," De Young says. "I feel like we've earned a lot of credibility over the past few years. We don't want to squander it. We want to build on it."
The entire Kilroy concept is a direct response to the new conservatism that has developed over the past years. Styx band members will tell you about an Arkansas Senate bill passed on Feb. 3 (by a vote of 86-0) requiring that all re cords containing "backward masking" be clearly labeled by the manufacturer. (Back ward masking is a process some religious fundamentalists claim rock acts have used to bury satanic messages in their records). Along with the Beatles and Pink Floyd, Styx is a group that stands accused.
"Kilroy was developed as a response to the false accusations made about our song 'Snowblind,' says Young, who wrote the song as well as co-designed the Kilroy concept with De Young.
"The lyrics say, 'I try so hard to make it so,' but when played backwards we've been
Styx brings Midwestern rock back home
accused of saying, 'Oh, Satan, move this.' Now, that's gibberish. I personally take offense to some nut playing our records backwards and pushing out these words.
"If we want to make a statement, we'll do it in a way that people can understand us and not in a way where you have to go out and buy a $400 tape player to understand us," Young says.
The promotional material for the Kilroy tour asks, "Is the notion of a demagogue who uses the issue of morality to restrict freedom of expression just a rock-and-roll band's daydream?"
"It seems over the last 20 or 30 years there's been a movement to take away freedom of expression," Young says. "Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but people shouldn't be guilty until proven innocent. This attitude (neo conservatism) isn't something that is new, it's been around for thousands of years. Elders always have been chewing a cigar with their cup of coffee, telling the young ones to straighten up."
During recent years Styx has garnered the reputation as a band with a social conscience. "Kilroy Was Here" seemed inevitable.
"The social process began with 'Sweet Madame Blue' off the 'Equinox' album (a 1976 song that metaphorically dealt with the decline of America's power in the face of world forces like OPEC), when we started writing from the heart and writing what people wanted to hear," Young says.
The process continued with the 1980 release of "Paradise Theater" which exhorted this generation to reverse America's decay by replacing the quest for short-term gratification with hard-working, long-term goals.
"Besides, how many times can you sing 'Rock all day and party all night?' Our songs had to get more sophisticated," John Panozzo says.
Engineer Gary Loizzo of Palos Hills says, "They seem to have a grip on where they are going. They are able to grow with the times."
The social values go beyond record albums and concert appearances. The band members contribute to different private charities, but the one cause they all agree on is energy conservation.
The "Kilroy Was Here" record was partially recorded with solar power. Young spearheaded an effort to design and build a 6,000-pound solar device capable of providing electricity to power a complete rock concert or recording studio. The unit was driven from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Gary Loizzo's Pumpkin Studio in Oak Lawn. The unit was used to power the amplifiers, recording devices and control units Styx used in the final stages of "Kilroy."
Young thinks the band's Midwestern roots are responsible for the values and the success of Styx — a success story that began 23 years ago.
"It's difficult to appraise yourself, but musically we've always had good melodies and harmonies," Young says. "And as musicians and writers, we've been in touch with the average American."
Loizzo tells a story that illustrates the down-to-earth Styx approach. "Dennis (De Young) wanted to record 'Babe' as a birthday present for his wife, and I told him to come on in the studio and we would do it as a freebie.
"Chuck (Panozzo) came in to play bass, John (Panozzo) played drums, I sang background and we put down the tracks in one day. It was such a pleasant session because it came so much from the heart," Loizzo says.
De Young gave the recording to his wife and the session was forgotten — until Styx came up a song short for the album "Cornerstone." De Young had played "Babe" for the band, and the group liked the song so much they decided to include it on the album.
"When it came time to record, Dennis just couldn't sing the same or do the piano part the same. He just didn't have his heart in it again," Loizzo says. "So, we took the original demo, resang the backgrounds, added a solo and put it on the album." And "Babe" turned out to be a hit single for Styx.
"We are down-to-earth individuals," Young says. "Nobody has died of a drug overdose. We're professional performers and we're all dedicated.
"Maybe it's that strong, Midwestern work ethic."