Although remembered for pop hits like “Come Sail Away” and “Babe,” Styx began as the Midwestern answer to Yes or King Crimson. Formed in Roseland neighborhood of Chicago in the mid-1960s by singer/keyboardist Dennis DeYoung and twin brothers Chuck (bass) and the late John Panozzo (drums), Styx added guitarist John Curulewski in 1969, who has also passed, and then second guitarist James “JY” Young in 1970. They signed with a local label, Wooden Nickel, and between 1972 and 1975, released four albums that fused mainstream and progressive rock.
Although “Best Thing,” from their self-titled 1972 debut made it to No. 82 on the Billboard charts, the band didn’t have its first hit until “Lady,” two years after the follow-up Styx II was released in 1975. [Stream it: “Best Thing,” by Styx.] After Equinox, their initial project for A&M, Curulewski quit. He was replaced by guitarist/songwriter/vocalist Tommy Shaw, an Alabama native who had just left another Chicago band, MS Funk. He could hit the high notes on “Lady” — and his blond good looks gave the band a bonafide pin-up.
Crystal Ball, the band’s first album with Shaw, received good reviews and sold well, but not as well as Equinox. The next album, Grand Illusion, proved to be the Styx’s enduring masterwork — with the title cut, “Come Sail Away” and “Foolin’ Yourself (Angry Young Man)” now classic rock staples. Styx’s follow-up to Grand Illusion, the Easter Island-themed Pieces of Eight continued in the same vein as its predecessor. Shaw’s working-class edge provided the counterpoint to DeYoung’s majestic pomp-rock. This filled in the missing puzzle piece in the Styx formula, and the next two albums, the pop-oriented Cornerstone and the concept album Paradise Theatre, also hit the top of the Billboard charts.
After four multi-platinum albums in a row, however, the ill-conceived Kilroy was Here effectively put an end to Styx for close to a decade. While “Mr. Roboto” did have a kitschy charm, it alienated longtime fans. Between that, intra-band hostility and new wave’s impact on arena rock, Styx splintered. DeYoung, and Shaw released solo albums with varying degrees of success.
After a successful comeback tour in the mid-1990s and one last album of original songs featuring DeYoung (1999’s Brave New World), irreconcilable differences once again put the kibosh on any long-term prospects for the classic Styx line-up. Let’s just say it did not end well. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the terms of the Styx divorce settlement, Dennis DeYoung now performs “The Songs of Styx” with JY and Tommy soundalikes and/or a symphony orchestra. He wrote a musical, Hunchback of Notre Dame, which won the Joseph Jefferson Award for best Chicago musical production in 2007. The album One Hundred Years from Now also released in 2007, leaned toward a heavier sound than his later-era work with Styx.
Shaw and Young retained the Styx name and tour extensively with singer/keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, drummer Todd Sucheman (Panozzo passed away in 1996), bassist Ricky Phillips, with occasional appearances by original bassist Chuck Panozzo. The 21st century Styx is a hard-rockin’ band with a fun, high-energy live show. They’ve released several albums since 2003 — five live albums, one album of original material (Cyclorama), a re-recorded hits package with one new song and a covers album, Big Bang Theory.
Yet while some remember them solely for “Babe,” “Mr. Roboto” or — moving forward into a new generation — Cartman’s version of “Come Sail Away,” there’s much more to Styx. Join us as we delve into a handful of deep cuts that just might give you a whole different perspective on this underrated band …
“QUEEN OF SPADES,” (PIECES OF EIGHT, 1978): Written by Young and DeYoung, this cautionary tale about evils of gambling, features one of DeYoung’s hardest-rocking vocals.
“A DAY,” (STYX II, 1973): Original guitarist John Curulewski wrote this trippy eight-minute jam that swerves from pretty melody into soaring guitars and then back to a dreamy early-King Crimson-like aural tableau. Curulewski worked as a music teacher and played with several local Chicago bands after leaving Styx. He died in 1988 after suffering a brain aneurysm.
“MIDNIGHT RIDE,” (EQUINOX, 1975): This straightforward rocker, written and sung by JY, fits right in with the unabashed string-bending of Ted Nugent and other late-1970s guitar slingers. Young’s contributions to Styx tend to be overlooked in favor of DeYoung’s ballads and Tommy’s MOR rockers. But if you are into no-frills hard-rock, check out some of JY’s other Styx songs — including “Great White Hope” from Pieces of Eight, “Miss America” from Grand Illusion and “Half Penny, Two Penny” from Paradise Theatre. During memorable performances like a 1976 stop at Winterland in San Francisco, JY and Tommy offered a precursor to the arena-rock guitar duels to follow. [Stream it!: “Midnight Ride [Live]” by Styx.] Note the glam rock-inspired stage wear, with JY in space-age platform boots, Tommy in a silk jumpsuit and Dennis wearing what appears to be one of his wife’s peasant blouses.
“DON’T SIT DOWN ON THE PLEXIGLAS TOILET,” (THE SERPENT IS RISING, 1973): Styx included this hidden bonus track on their third album. A goofy little number written by Curulewski and the Panozzo brothers, “Don’t Sit Down” was featured on Dr. Demento’s radio show in the mid-1970s. Seems the band managed to sneak this one through without the straitlaced DeYoung catching on until it was too late.
“SHOOZ,” (CRYSTAL BALL 1976): This sexy blues-rock shuffle, written by Young and Shaw, has some tasty slide guitar work. The blues-based rock that had always bubbled under the band’s sound could be fully explored now that JY had a like-minded bandmate in Shaw.