Styx: The local boys roll on to new rock heights
By Lynn Van Matre, Rock music critic
Styx members John Panozzo (from left, above), Chuck Panozzo, James Young, Tommy Shaw, and Dennis DeYoung: "We deserved attention and we never got it, and I think that's more likely to happen (in Chicago) than in other places around the country. Now things are changing... But when we started out in 1972, it was much different."
For Dennis DeYoung life "hasn't changed really all that much " since 1975, the year Styx — thanks to a song called "Lady," which hit the Top 40 two years after its original release — said goodbye forever to the South Side Chicago high school gym circuit and barged on toward the big time.
"I've always been a pretty cheap s.o.b.," notes the keyboard player and vocalist for one of rock's biggest concert draws, explaining his lack of lust for such typical pop star indulgences as a fleet of classy cars, outrageously costly clothes, or million-dollar digs in Beverly Hills.
"I spared no expense when I built my house, and I spare no expense when I'm on the road, because I bring my family with me," adds DeYoung. "That's about it."
He is still married to the woman he wed 11 years ago, around the time the band changed its name from TW4 to Styx. Offstage, he still doesn't get recognized all that much. And he still lives in Chicago, a fact that may surprise a lot of folks.
"Everyone thinks we moved to Los Angeles," says DeYoung, who, along with drummer John Panozzo, still lives on the South Side. (Singer guitarist James "JY." Young lives near Hinsdale, and John's twin, bassist Chuck Panozzo, lives in the downtown Chicago area. "Our management's in Los Angeles4~j~t~ all ba~*t.yed around here except ~ who came from Alabama in the mid-'70s to play guitar with Styx), and he never did live in Chicago. I don't know why people think we left, except that people assume that there would be no reason for anyone to stay in Chicago unless they had to. I mean, what's its claim to fame?"
In the rock-group-made-good category, the answer to that question is Styx. In a 1979 Gallup Poll taken among Americans 13 to 18 years old, the quintet was chosen top rock act. "We are," agrees DeYoung, "absolutely the best live rock and roll band in the world, that's for sure." Their hit single, "Babe," won a People's Choice Award as Song of the Year in 1960, and the band's current tour is being trumpeted by its record company as "the largest in rock and roll history." The tour, which coincides with the release of Styx's new album, "Paradise Theater," is expected to reach more than 1.5 million people, cost $4 million to mount and keep rolling, and includes 140 performances in Europe and the U.S. (The band will begin a three-night stand at the Rosemont Horizon Thursday.)
It has been, for the most part, a long, quiet, slow, and steady climb to the top for the group, which started its recording career with the local Wooden Nickel label in the early '70s and eventually moved on to A & M. And while DeYoung will discourse at length about the difficulties of a band trying to make it big out of Chicago, he has little patience with those who complain that it can't be done. "You can make it out of a hat box, if you want to," he snaps. "Quote me.
"But it's not easy," he adds, "because Chicago has a bad habit of not supporting its own. In Chicago, we've always been like Jesus was in Nazareth. He was a carpenter, right?
"Up until recently, Chicago radio stations — outside of WLS — never treated us with the respect that we were due. I know that I'm going to have all kinds of people knocking me for saying that, but it's true. I'm not saying that you have to support every aspiring artist on the street, but I think that if you have a group or an artist who has a record contract, then the local radio stations have an obligation to support them.
"They don't have to say that the band is the greatest thing since the invention of the wheel, but they should play their record. We had a song called 'Lady' that was ignored for two years," adds DeYoung, referring to the fact that the song became a hit only after its re~t ea' and subsequent airplay on WLS. "It was a huge record, but there was very little or no support in Chicago for that song in the beginning. It's not just us; it happens to other bands as well. But what I'm saying is that we deserved attention and we never got it, and I think that's more likely to happen here than in other places around the country."Now things are changing," he acknowledges. "In the last couple of years, I've seen people get behind Cheap Trick and Off Broadway and Shoes. But when we started out in 1972, it was much different."
Nevertheless, DeYoung denies any lingering resentment about the whole business. "Am I bitter? Not in the least. If I was bitter, I would have moved away. It's just, hey, that's the way it was. But let's talk about something else now," he suggests. "Everyone's so sensitive about that particular subject."
Airplay, of course, is no longer a problem for Styx; both "Paradise Theater" and "The Best of Times," the single from the album, are already in the Top 10. The album, a concept affair in which a once-splendid movie theater on the skids serves as a metaphor for a troubled America, was inspired by Chicago's Paradise, which was torn down in 19t8. The front of the album jacket pictures the building as the hub of a night life scene in elegant flower; the back of the album depicts a Paradise gone to seed.
"The builders had this slogan, 'Not for today, but for all time,'" says DeYoung, "and the place only lasted 30 years. They screwed up from the beginning. They built this monstrously lavish theater in 1928, the year before talkies really came in. Except they didn't know that talkies were coming, so they didn't pay any attention to the acoustics — which were so bad that people preferred to go to their little neighborhood theaters where they could hear better.
"I never went to the Paradise, but I saw a picture of it in a newspaper article about old theaters in Chicago that had been torn down, and it struck me as symbolic of what's happening in this country. We see America at a crossroads right now. We see the album as either a statement on the reindustrialization of America with the people regaining their spirit and going forward — or as an album for the new Depression."In retrospect, when we were doing the album I thought that the songs were hopeful in many ways," says DeYoung. "They presented the negatives, but there was a glimmer of hope. Now four or five months later, I see that it's a more negative than positive. But I don't think were aware of that when we were recording it." According to DeYoung, a longtime history buff, America started going downhill in 1967. "That when it really became apparent," he says. "'The Lyndon Johnson administration set up a lot social problems that caused the inflation rate go bizarre, and the Viet Nam War divided the country along rich versus poor lines. Today, I think that poor management is the biggest problem in America. I don't blame American workers as much as I blame management for things 1 lack of appreciation and lack of motivation."
Clear-cut solutions to such problems, of course, are hard to come by; still, DeYoung believes that American business could benefit by taking a cue from Styx's style of operating, which is heavily oriented toward long-term gains.
"Our entire career is a perfect example of role model for American business," he says, "in terms of the way we've conducted ourselves. We're not against making money, but we don't feel that making the money is the most important thing. The most important thing is longevity.
"Take the tour we're on now. We didn't have to spend the amount of money we did on this show doing a theatrical presentation. We could have gone around the country doing a scaled-down show and charged $12.50 and $15 to get in and would have been OK, because kids will pay any price to see us now. But instead, we kept ticket prices down (to $11.50 and $10.50), and invested a great deal of money in the show. We feel that's the best way to operate over the long term, and we're looking to the future, rather than trying to get all the money we can as fast as we can at the expense of the people who buy our records and concert tickets.
"This isn't anything new with Styx," he continues. "We've been talking about these things for the last four or five years in our albums. 'Grand Illusion' was about the negatives and positives of success and how the media present a false image to Americans about how their life styles should be. And 'Pieces of Eight' was about how there's no point in making money just to make money. We've been addressing these problems for years, but not that many people know about it — because the way people find out about these things is through newspaper and magazine articles, and we've never talked to the press much before. We never even had a press agent until a month ago. Now we do, because we feel we have some positive statements to make that are relevant to a lot of people."
And that doesn't mean, DeYoung hastens to add, just the 13-to-18 crowd. "Obviously it's the teens that go to the concerts in the big halls. But we sell around 3 million albums each time that we release one, and the teen audience is simply not that big. If you're selling just to teen-agers, the most you could sell would be around 1 million. So there are 2 million other people out there buying Styx records.
"I'm 34 years old, and the kinds of things I'm saying are coming from the point of view of somebody who lived through the Kennedy years and saw the Viet Nam War firsthand. And there are people who are identifying with that. Yes, we are popular with teens, and we are grateful for that. But we're also popular with other people, too."
Occasionally, the feedback from fans is over whelming. "I hear things like, 'This song of yours saved my life,'" says DeYoung. "I've heard things like that so much, I shy away from listening. It's a little too much of a responsibility. People take what we say very seriously, and that can cause you to withdraw sometimes.
"But people don't recognize us offstage all that often," he adds. "It happens maybe once in a while, which is fine. And living in Chicago helps. People never expect to see me here, because most people don't think we live here. Whenever somebody does recognize me, his first question is always, 'What are you doing in Chicago?'"
Last edited by Kristi Wachter, Racer Records, December 11, 1999.