The May 2004 release of Come Sail Away: The Styx Anthology—dubbed “the most complete career retrospective that’s been done on us” by founding guitarist James (JY) Young—comes with a bit of irony attached for lifelong fans of the megagroup. The project’s title is named for the trademark anthemic hit written and sung by Dennis DeYoung, who was replaced by soundalike Lawrence Gowan in 1999, brought a (now settled) lawsuit against Young and Tommy Shaw over the use of the band’s name, and is still in Styx exile. When he’s not working on solo projects these days, he can join thousands of loyal fans in listening to Paradise Internet Radio, which streams hundreds of Styx tracks (including live bootlegs and early rarities) by request.
Emerging as a progressive rock band, Styx ultimately transformed into an arena rock prototype by the late 70's/early 80's. While casual heyday fans can no doubt sing every word to “Rockin’ The Paradise,” the true believers know the Styx story begins with the Tradewinds, a late 60s’ Chicago band which featured the Panozzo brothers, Chuck (bass) and John (drums), as well as DeYoung. By the early 70s, they were called TW4, had a new lineup featuring Young and guitarist John Curulewski, and secured a contract in 1972 with RCA subsidiary Wooden Nickel Records. The name Styx came from a Greek myth about a river which ran through the land of the dead in the underworld.
From 1972-75, Styx’s pre-superstardom recordings were very much reflective of the Emerson, Lake & Palmer/Moody Blues vibe and earned the band a strong local following. WLS-FM’s late discovery of “Lady” (from Styx II) in 1974 helped break the band nationally, and the album went gold as the single hit the Top Ten. Signing with A&M, the band released Equinox and found their greatest stardom shortly thereafter when Curlewski—who died of an aneurysm in 1988—left and was replaced by Tommy Shaw. Shaw’s youthful energy and wild guitar performances helped define the arena rock era and contributed to a series of multi-platinum albums, including Crystal Ball (1976), The Grand Illusion (1977), Pieces of Eight (1978) and Cornerstone (1979). They also became a classic rock hit factory with eminent singalongs like “Come Sail Away,” “Renegade,” “Blue Collar Man,” “Fooling Yourself” and every high school boy’s favorite crush song, “Babe.”
The mushy power ballad was a monstrous hit but led to endless tension between the theatrical minded DeYoung, its composer, and Shaw, who wanted to move the band in an edgier direction. DeYoung left for a split second, then came back for Paradise Theatre, a hugely successful concept album that combined both approaches. Selling three million copies did nothing to stop the infighting, and Shaw bit his tongue while recording another concept project, 1983’s sci-fi gem Kilroy Was Here. Its big hit “Mr. Roboto” was used in a humorous car ad in the late 90s, exposing the group to a new generation, but at the time, it couldn’t prevent the band from splitting up after the release of a nondescript 1984 live album, Caught in the Act.
The 80s found each member doing solo projects to varying degrees of success. As Shaw was hitting his stride alongside Ted Nugent in the hugely successful but short lived mega project Damn Yankees, Styx reformed (with Glen Burtnick replacing Shaw) for 1990’s Edge of The Century, which became a hit on the strength of “Show Me The Way.”
A new version of “Lady” (dubbed Lady ’95) was recorded for a compilation and the subsequent tour brought the Shaw back into the fold. John Panozzo’s long battle with alcoholism had taken its toll (he died in 1996), and he was replaced by drummer Todd Sucherman. Styx released the 1997 live disc Return To Paradise and did a follow-up studio album in 1999 (Brave New World) before yet another split—this one caused by DeYoung’s viral ailment. He eventually recovered, but by then Shaw and Young had hired Lawrence Gowan. Then, Chuck Panozzo announced that he had contracted AIDS, but was battling it successfully (he currently performs half sets with the band on tour). 2003’s Cyclorama represented this new lineup, along with Burtnik and guest spots by Brian Wilson, John Waite and actor Billy Bob Thornton.
Of the new touring lineup, Young says, “Well, it's myself and Tommy Shaw. The blonde leading the blonde, the alpha dog tagteam. For me, this is the best lineup that's ever taken the stage in this band. Looking back, we were voted the most popular band in America in a survey of teenagers in a Gallup poll in 1979. We've had an incredible career, and we can play concerts for the rest of our life.”