There comes a time in practically every band’s lifespan that one member or another decides to move on. Sometimes it’s willingly as when Bill Berry decided to leave his post as the drummer of REM over a decade before they finally broke up or when longtime Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman stepped away after thirty one years with Mick and Keith in 1993.
Having survived 31 years as a Rolling Stone or even 17 years as a member of the far less lethal REM is quite an accomplishment. There are other times of course when a members departure, or dismissal, is not so smooth and comfortable. The on again, off again David Lee Roth and Van Halen saga is perhaps the most famous with Steve Perry and the Journey guys coming in at a close second. There was however another parting of the ways in the 1980′s of a long time and quite prominent band member that was not quite so shocking, at least for us in the audience, as it was to the guy in question.
All the way back in 1961 three young guys from the South Side of Chicago got together and started making music. With the average age of 14, it would be some time before they made their mark on the music world, but working all through the 60′s and into the early 1970′s brothers, Chuck and John Panozzo and their friend Dennis DeYoung managed to hang on long enough to add James Young and John Curulewski to the band known as TW4.
Now TW4 never really made much of a mark outside of their home turf in Chicago but after signing with Wooden Nickle Records in 1972, they also decided to change the band’s name.
Now known as Styx, the Chicago prog rock powerhouse was ready for a national audience.
That came along slowly. More slowly than could ever had happened in today’s one shot and you’re out music business. Styx released four albums in the next two years and all of them went exactly nowhere. That is until 1975 when Styx had already decided to move on to A&M records a local Chicago radio station picked up the single “Lady” from their second album Styx II and soon it became their first national hit setting the stage for their first A&M release, Equinox.
Why does all this matters to our bit of little Green Cheese? Well because the creative force behind Styx all through those early years was none other than Dennis DeYoung. He was the primary lead singer, keyboardist and songwriter. He also made it clear that he was the boss.
Now that worked well enough for the first five albums and all those years learning their craft but also in 1975, lead guitarist John Curulewski decided to leave the band just as they were becoming a huge success. His replacement was a young guitarist from Alabama named Tommy Shaw.
Shaw’s impact on the band was immediate. The strength of his songwriting and singing voice gave Styx a harder and more commercial sound which launched the band, dare I say, to the moon? (Or at least to the top of the charts.) In fact the first album with Shaw was titled Crystal Ball after what would be the first of many Shaw’s rocking progressive songs.
And yes, I mean rocking progressive songs. An alliance of sorts soon sprang up inside of Styx between Tommy Shaw and James Young wanting to push Styx further away from the truer progressive rock sound that defined the band at that time to a more solid rock and roll sound. DeYoung for his part, was drifting further and further towards a more pop oriented prog rock sound with singles like “Babe” and “The Best of Times.”
The creative tension was so bad at one point after the Pieces of Eight album and tour, DeYoung was actually fired from the band. Shaw, with his more rock oriented approach, had after all produced all three of the albums hits; “Blue Collar Man,” “Renegade” and the charming “Sing for the Day” while DeYoung’s music failed to make any radio entry. This was soon patched up of course and DeYoung came back with the band’s only number one hit, “Babe” giving him a reprieve of sorts.
Things remained on an even keel through the Paradise Theatre album and tour but when it came time for the next project, what would become the Kilroy was Here concept album, it became clear that there was a battle between two different styles of music going on.
While there are many good and even a few great songs on Kilroy was Here, the entire concept was tortured and incoherent. A flimsy story about how rock n’ roll music has been banned by an influential evangelical minister while a young rock rebel fights his way to freedom while holding his guitar is really as silly as it sounds.
Being DeYoung’s concept, with his recent number one single in his hand, the other band members very unwillingly went along. While the album itself may not have been a disaster, the tour certainly was.
In the era of huge stadium concerts with fifty thousand screaming fans, DeYoung’s magnum opus didn’t have a single note of music for the first forty-five minutes! It was rock opera run amok. Tommy Shaw and “cast members” would be roaming the stage producing only DeYoung’s dialog of his rock n’ roll triumphs all story while the crowd not only doesn’t understand what’s going on onstage, they don’t care!
They want Rock n’ Roll music! Not a badly written play performed by the obviously uncomfortable Shaw, James Young and the Panazzo brothers. The only one seeming to enjoy this, was of course, Dennis DeYoung.
Shortly after the tour, (which thankfully for all concerned, dispensed with the dialog after several audiences nearly rioted,) DeYoung was fired from Styx by the other members.
DeYoung, to his credit, soon went out and made the album he’d been wanting to make. His first solo album, Desert Moon, did very well in the middle of the MTV era with the album reaching the 24th spot and the single, “Desert Moon” becoming a number ten hit – on the pop charts.
“Those summer nights, when we were young
We bragged of things, we’ve never done
We were dreamers, only dreamers
And in our haste, we’ve grown too soon
We loved our innocence, on desert moon
We were dreamers
On desert moon
On desert moon
On desert moon
While Dennis DeYoung’s “Desert Moon” is not likely to end up on my iTunes playlist anytime soon. It’s not a bad song really. DeYoung has always been a wonderful singer who actually does quite a bit with not all that much voice. And he certainly has written some great songs over the years as well. “Lady,” that got things going for Styx as well as “Come Sail Away” which made them stars. But as DeYoung moved more and more in a pop direction while Shaw and Young moved towards hard rock, this wasn’t going to last.
But, for while it did last, the creative tension between the two camps produced some great music until those forces just couldn’t exist any longer in the same space.