Mission: Possible
Styx Mixes Old Favorites with New Progressive Concepts

By Lee Valentine Smith

Styx debuted in Chicago in 1972 at the height of the progressive rock movement. As the '70s passed, the band began to incorporate pop elements into the mix. By 1981, they were one of the most successful bands in the world, eventually charting 16 Top Forty singles including "Lady," "Come Sail Away," "Babe," and "Too Much Time On My Hands."

This month, music fans can hear two different versions of the band's greatest hits at area amphitheaters. At Chastain, the current band - featuring co-founder James "J.Y." Young and guitarist Tommy Shaw - offer selections from their catalog and tracks from The Mission, a concept album that echoes the best of the bands' '70s experimentation. Across town, original lead singer Dennis DeYoung will bring his "Music Of Styx" show to The Fred.
Guitarist/vocalist/songwriter James Young spoke with INsite by phone from his home in Illinois.

Now that you've had a couple of years to live with it, what do you think of [2017's] The Mission in retrospect?

I like it. We hadn't done a new record in 14 years at that point. But a writer writes and Tommy likes to write. Our record company Universal - which had swallowed up Polygram, which had swallowed up A&M where we were for our heyday - said we should go forward and make another one, so we did. Now we're actually starting to write the next record.

You finally did a full-album performance of it not too long ago.

Yeah, we did it back in January at a fantastic venue, The Palms in 'Vegas. It had been a year and a half since it came out at that point. It went really great and we had these big visuals to go with it.

How'd the crowd react? With the industry the way it is now, half the crowd might not have heard it yet.

It was huge. It wasn't at a 20,000-seat hall, it was a 3,000-seat hall, but it got an amazingly powerful reaction. It was reinforcing for us - after making records for all this time - that something new can generate that kind of response.

It's very encouraging that with today's single-track mindset, you've issued a good, old-fashioned concept album that's actually worthy of extended attention.

Tommy had a great idea for it and our manager embraced it. Once the record company heard some of the music, they embraced it. I wasn't... well, my name is not Thomas but I was a bit of a doubter. I mean, concept records? Our last one [2003's Cyclorama] just dropped like a lead balloon.

Times, tastes and the industry were all very different, even then.

That's true. Now everything is kinda available to everyone. It's not like you're looking to your local radio station to play your new music. There's satellite radio with so many choices at any given moment of the day. I think, even though there's more music available, people can have an easier time finding what really appeals to them. For us, being really out of the race for so long, now all-of-a-sudden we're back in the horserace. We're not selling records like any of the current young bands do, but it's very reinforcing after this many years of making records. We started in '72, and if we make it to the 50-year mark, it'll be 2/22/22!

Any plans in the works for that incredible anniversary?

Not yet. There's a lot of things we could do. But right now we are focused on 2019 and '20.

One thing I really like about The Mission and the best of the Styx oeuvre is that it's powerful, progressive music - but this one doesn't have a sweet little pop song that jars you away from the story arc.

Ah, you're a rocker. That's where I come from, too. In the original make-up of the band, we were all very broadly placed. But if you look at The Beatles, McCartney was a balladeer but he also did a lot of rockers. You know, like doing a Little Richard song and making it sound legit. So we've had the range to do that but the choices could be confusing. There'd be the sweet pop ballad in there from Dennis DeYoung and then a hard rock song from me and then something sort-of in-between from Tommy. But the good thing about us is we've gotten away with never really being pinned down. The Beatles did that, too. Not that I'm comparing us in any way, shape or form to them - except for the fact that our musical palate is very broad.

Yet there's still a band sound, which is very hard to achieve with such varied songwriters.

Yeah, knock on wood. I certainly didn't agree with everything we did, but now in hindsight it looks like genius! (laughs). Collectively anyway, so I'll go with that.

I've always enjoyed your songs on the albums because it was like the Keith Richards moment of the collection.

Well I've probably the most inspired by the blues of all of us. I grew up with the offspring of Willie Dixon and Bo Diddley, they're good friends of mine. I went to high school with Jimmie Reed's son in Chicago.

Chicago has always been such a hotbed of rock'n'roll and R&B.

Yeah and the jazz scene was big, too. Of course, New York had its moments, but a lot of great jazz came from Chicago. And a lot of good pop bands from the '60s, of course. The Buckinghams, The New Colony Six, even The Shadows of Knight. Just a wealth of good music of all kinds.

You can definitely hear those threads within your stuff.

Everything is definitely influenced by what preceded it. As a child, I was exposed to all kinds of good music on the radio in Chicago.

When Styx came along, '70s Prog was at a commercial peak.

Oh yeah it was really going with people like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. We kinda hopped on that bandwagon and then Kansas followed and a host of others after that. It was our bread and butter and people still love hearing "The Grand Illusion" and all the big bombast from Styx.

It's not easy to cross prog with pop, but you managed to do it right.

Well we'd bring fans in with one record and then alienate part of them with the next one. But we were the first band to have four three million sellers in a row. It's been superseded since then of course, but we managed to be the first with a few things.

There was a time that Styx was inescapable on the musical landscape. What was it like from the inside?

Yeah, in 1981 we sold out 110 arenas across North America. It was wild and crazy and wonderful. We went to Japan right after that North America tour. The first and only time the heyday line-up went there, we sold out six arenas, including The Budokan.

What did you think of the Japanese audiences?

They weren't as Americanized as they are now. We'd play a song and they'd applaud wildly for ten seconds, then they'd be absolutely quiet. Every song. We thought we were bombing! The promoter said no, that's how it is. The Japanese audiences were taught to be polite and respectful and you wait for whatever the next offering the revered artist has to offer. It was a definite learning experience for these idiots from the United States of America.

You'll finally be back at Chastain for the upcoming show. But the audience won't be as quiet as at The Budokan.

No, but we definitely have fond memories of that place. We played there with the Atlanta Symphony back in the mid-'90s. And we played there with Kansas and again with Foreigner but we haven't been in quite a while. We're really looking forward to it.

For this leg of the tour, is the entire Mission album in the set?

No, but we are doing a healthy offering from it. Five or six songs from it, at least. What we've been doing is basically a two-hour show with a twenty-minute intermission. There's a lot of songs we want to play. We can't play all of them, but we try to include something for everyone.

A lot of classic bands are doing full-album 40th anniversary shows. That would place Stix somewhere between Pieces of Eight and Cornerstone at this point.

If we had no new music we might do that, but the fact that we do have new songs to play means we have a lot to choose from now. I'm focused on the new music and digging back into the vault of classic favorites, so maybe you'll hear one or two that we haven't played for you before.

Styx plays Sunday, May 26 at Cadence Bank Amphitheater at Chastain Park and Dennis DeYoung plays Friday, May 17 at The Frederick Brown, Jr. Amphitheater. For more information, please visit chastainpark.org.



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