Dennis DeYoung on his legacy with Styx, and that ill-fitting ‘Mr. Roboto’ mask

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Styx fans remember well the year 1979 and Cornerstone, an album that began a decisive turn away from prog rock for the band — with its capstone moment being the epic ballad “Babe.” From there, it seems, the group was on a collision course with the pop showman Dennis DeYoung on one side, and the hard-rocking duo of James “J.Y.” Young and Tommy Shaw on the other.

The flash point came a few years later, with the DeYoung-conceived Kilroy Was Here, a rock-opera concept album that tore the band in two.

DeYoung made an impassioned argument for Styx’s move into the mainstream recently, even as he asserted that too often he’s been painted as the villain by his former band mates and Styx fans — when he says their projects were always collaborative affairs.

“I just believed in 1979 that prog rock was finished,” DeYoung told, just before a scheduled solo appearance in Florida with a full orchestra. “I just saw the handwriting on the wall. And I believed that if we continued in that direction, our career would be finished. So I kind of led the band to making Cornerstone, which is an album from my point of view which was not trying to be necessarily softer, but more natural.”

Cornerstone would become propel Styx to its first U.S. Top 5 ranking, on the strength of the chart-topping “Babe,” written for DeYoung’s spouse Suzanne. Whatever the complaints from some corners about its stylistic changes, the album has sold some 3 million copies in America alone.

“What people fail to realize is that any album we did, really, 90 percent of it reflected the songs people brought in,” DeYoung said. “If someone had brought in two great rock songs for Cornerstone … they would have been on that record. ‘Babe’ was never supposed to be on that record. It was a song I wrote for my wife as a present, never intending for it to be a Styx song.”

Even with the success of “Babe,” DeYoung remains proud of the band’s complex musical vision: “Here’s what I always say to people: If I just brought you from another planet and set you down and you knew nothing about Styx, and I played three songs for you — I played “Babe,” “Renegade” and “Mr. Roboto” — what would you say those songs had in common? Nothing! You’re a fan of my vision, which was I wanted Styx to be the band that lots of different people could come to the same party in. You’d all meet at the same place. That was my dream for the band. It wasn’t to be some one-trick pony. Styx in my mind was never intended to be one thing.”

As for regrets about Kilroy Was Here, which shot to No. 3 in the U.S. but saw its supporting tour devolve into a financial disaster — all while creating a rift that hurtled DeYoung into a solo career?

“I’d have had that Roboto mask made larger,” DeYoung said, after a lengthy pause, “because it didn’t sit right on my face.”

Here’s a look at previous thoughts on Styx. Click through the links for complete reviews …

STYX – THE GRAND ILLUSION/ PIECES OF EIGHT LIVE DVD/Blu-ray (2012): At the moment of Styx’s earliest breakout successes, as it achieved these first- and second-ever triple platinum-selling albums, the band was already starting to go its separate ways. 1977’s Grand Illusion was the first to fully spotlight the trademark elements of both Dennis DeYoung and relative newcomer Tommy Shaw, and already you could see where Styx would eventually come to a fork in the proverbial road musically. Tracks like “Miss America” were brawny, six-string rockers, yet you also had the title track and the opening stanzas of “Come Sail Away,” Styx’s second Top 10 hit, which became showcases for DeYoung’s preening Broadway affectations. At the time, this seemed like the kind of creative tension that might keep the band working at a high level. In truth, the center could not hold.

ONE TRACK MIND: STYX, “DIFFERENCE IN THE WORLD” (2011): There’s a world-weary melancholy, a hard-won realism, to Styx’s new song that didn’t exist in Tommy Shaw’s fun-rocking “Renegade” days, and that points the way out of the band’s more recent habit of backtracking. It’s not just the rest of Regeneration, Vols. I and II, which finds Styx rerecording some of its best-known tracks with next-generation singer Lawrence Gowan. In fact, since the departure in 1999 of Dennis DeYoung, Shaw and Co. have issued five concert recordings and — in the last four years alone — at least seven best-of packages. Styx’s most recent original long-player was Big Bang Theory from all the way back in 2005, leaving many to wonder if the group was spent creatively. Fast forward to “Difference in the World,” as Shaw, over a plaintive guitar shape, admits: “It’s hard to keep from giving up. It’s hard to make a difference in the world today.” But, through the course of a complex and involving musical soundtrack, Shaw rouses himself to try again — in a nice metaphor for the band itself.

SOMETHING ELSE! FEATURED ARTIST – STYX: A band suspended forever between the formalism of Dennis DeYoung’s Broadway pretensions and the harder edges of James Young and Tommy Shaw, Styx sounded different every time it came on the radio. Yet, critics insisted, somehow the same: Mediocre. They were, by turns, soft-prog keyboard-tweaking intellectuals, CroMagnon guitar shredders and dorky show-tune pompsters … though with very little circumstance. Every gesture, as Lester Bangs once wrote, is writ huge — to the point of flatulence. (DeYoung knows he’s not English, right?) That makes them easy to hate, or love, or whatever. They were, at once, everything … and thus, to many, nothing. Yet … how many times have we turned this stuff up? Here, we sort through it all (the adult-contemporary crap, the hair-sprayed arena rock, the robot thing) to uncover a few clues to Styx’s enduring fame — from ‘Equinox,’ ‘Crystal Ball,’ ‘Grand Illusion,’ ‘Paradise Theater’ and, yes, even ‘Kilroy Was Here.’

DEEP CUTS: STYX, “MISS AMERICA” (1977): There’s a real simple reason why I like “Miss America”: it’s that dope guitar riff. A good, straight, down the line, butt-kicking head thrashing American riff. That aggressive galloping riff, performed by Shaw, goes hand-in-hand with JY’s snarling vocals, who sneers at the facade of the USA’s most famous pageant, and after one of DeYoung’s surging synth surges, Young takes a solo. He’s not a terribly original guitarist, but it’s as nasty as his vocals. “Miss America” was one of those moments when Styx was actually great, putting that dual lead-guitar attack to some good use. They didn’t do that enough for my tastes, but when I go back and play the high school soundtrack of my memories, this is the Styx song that gets the airplay on my mental radio.

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