Styx: There's Nothing Like Triple-Platinum

by Raj Bahadur

Dennis, John, JY, Chuck, TommyHere's a not-so-trivial trivia question: Name the only group ever to have racked up four triple-platinum albums in a row on this planet. Stumped? Perhaps a clue is in order. The band's members are Dennis De Young, James Young, Tommy Shaw, John Panozzo and Chuck Panozzo. Still stymied? Understandable, It's Styx.

Even if you weren't baffled, the point is that never has one act sold so many records yet received so little recognition in return. Nor has a time-tested concert draw ever scaled such heights yet failed to establish a definable image in the mind of the public.

How come? That's not an easy question to answer. Matters dealing with public taste rarely are. In theorizing the reason for Styx' longevity, James "J.Y." Young (guitars and vocals) may have inadvertently closed in on an explanation. "The fact that there are three songwriters, five very different personalities on stage, gives us a depth and a strength which few groups possess. We can go from Tommy singing "Too Much Time On My Hands" to Dennis singing "Come Sail Away" to me singing "Miss America." You have a shift of focus with every song so that no one gets bored. The same goes for our albums. That we've had success with each musician's material has brought in a wide range of fans and has prevented people from tiring with what we do."

Those shifts of focus'll getcha every time. In Styx' case, the diversity may have nullified the possibility of one sound or one personality emerging as the band's trademark. Which is something they'll just have to live with. Currently in contention for their fifth triple-platinum album is KILROY WAS HERE, a conceptual story about the last rocker in a rockless society. More than that, the LP represents an opportunity for Styx to make a statement.

"KILROY can be interpreted as a group of artists commenting on what they see around them, the political and social climate," states Young. "Last year, the California Legislature along with some pressure groups decided that there were rock songs with Satanic messages when played backwards. In our case, a song I wrote called "Snowblind" was called into question. KILROY was meant to answer those charges, which are definitely false.

"In the last twenty years, it seemed like people were getting more rights. But since Reagan took office, things are regressing. So we absolutely identify with KILROY."

Musically, KILROY stands as a form of risk-taking for Styx, not to mention being their most ambitious project to date. Says Young, "Dennis had the idea for the concept. He envisioned a stage presentation that had a film with us portraying various characters, and a live concert that would also have a storyline. Stylistically speaking, we kept one foot planted where we've always been, but inched out with the other one. "Mr. Roboto" is obviously a diversionary tactic for us with the Japanese lyrics and a techno-rock feel to the tune."

Working within the framework of a specific plot can be hampering for some, a necessary guideline for others. Young unabashedly leans toward the latter view. "The music is usually what I create first, then the title, then the lyrics. But because literature is not my main field of endeavor, the lyrics are what I'm least confident about. A concept tends to channel my ideas in a certain direction. It doesn't particularly cramp my style, and in some ways, it helps."

As for the aforementioned film which opens the show, that was directed by Brian Gibson (BREAKING GLASS) with Stephen Goldblatt (OUTLAND, THE HUNGER) responsible for the cinematography. According to Young, "We wanted the kind of look Stephen and Brian were capable of producing. Brian wrote the screenplay from Dennis' ideas. Making the film was like making an album, except that we had less control since we weren't in charge. It was hard work, but it was a learning experience as well. Rarely do good things come without hard work."

Hard work has been the name of the game for Styx since their early Seventies inception. Actually, the brothers Panozzo and DeYoung have been playing together for the last twenty years. The present lineup dates back to November, 1970. Recalls J.Y., "There were many tough times in the early days when we had no record success and were deficit spending just like the major governments of the world. But it's always darkest before the dawn. When "Lady" became a hit, that was our big breakthrough. It gave us the credentials to go off and get a different manager and a new record company." 

In 1975, Styx signed with A & M, where the opportunity to chart their own course expanded considerably. " A & M pretty much left us to our own devices. We couldn't find anyone to produce us that they liked, so we ended up producing ourselves. And the product speaks for itself. EQUINOX is the first LP the band ever produced on its own."

Another impressive accomplishment - along with the record sales, box office statistics and self-production - is Styx' continuance in the area of theater rock, especially in an era when the economy is forcing groups to scale down their stage presentations. Explains Young, "The KILROY production is far and away the most expensive thing we've ever done, even if you don't include the film. But the type of concerts we do, or like Pink Floyd does, for example, is going to remain something only a supergroup will dare attempt.

"There are avant-garde theater bands that try to get into a rock theater kind of production, but few can pull it off. The Tubes did it a while back, but it killed them financially. So I think it'll be a rough road for theater rock in the future. From time to time, somebody will do something great that deserves the treatment we've given KIlROY. But it will be the exception rather than the rule."

Still, despite the popular acclaim, Styx has failed to muster widespread acceptance in the press, a situation J.Y. readily acknowledges. "Anyone who is in the public eye would like to be seen in a positive light, and would like people to say nice things about them. Unfortunately that doesn't always happen. There are moments when criticism hurts, but you develop a thick skin. What's important for me is that people enjoy our music and when they come to see us in concert that they leave feeling like they've really seen something. I think we accomplish that, so if someone criticizes us for what we do, then that critic is not in tune with the audiences which come to our show. Critics like to lead their flock and are entitled to do that. But we've gotten used to it." 

There's nothing like all those triple-platinum albums to help you get used to it, too. 

Scene, July 7-13, 1983

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