Behind The Grand Illusion
Styx once played on the old saw "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times" and garnered a top 40 single out of the deal. But the days of the Paradise Theatre are long past. The process of recording and touring to promote Brave New World (CMC International), the first studio album to reunite lead singer-songwriters Dennis DeYoung, Tommy Shaw and James Young since 1983’s Kilroy Was Here, seems to have brought on the flip side of that single, creating one of the band’s "worst of times."
While press releases report that Styx’s decision to tour this summer without DeYoung due to health problems was made without enmity, the truth is, the band is divided into two camps. Shaw and Young haven’t spoken to DeYoung since the final days of readying the album, which was released in June. And while publicity is also mum on absence of another founding member, the fact is, bassist Chuck Panozzo has also chosen to sit out the current tour, leaving Young and Shaw to carry the Styx name around the country with an unknown Canadian singer, Lawrence Gowan,filling in for DeYoung, and Glen Burtnik (who filled Shaw’s shoes for a 1990 album and tour) handling Panozzo’s spot.
So what gives?
On the surface, the band is in the midst of a career resurgence. Styx brought CMC Records the label’s first gold record for the 1997 double live Return to Paradise "comeback" disc. They’ve had their hits "Mr. Roboto" used in a recent VW commercial and "Come Sail Away" was abused in a "South Park" episode while celebrated on the soundtrack and in dialogue in Adam Sandler’s Big Daddy movie.
Welcome to the Grand Illusion...
But amid this nostalgic success, the band’s most recognizable voice and leader, DeYoung, has been suffering from health problems linked to a virulous bout of the flu. The illness started following the Return to Paradise tour, and left the singer painfully sensitive to light and prone to uncharacteristic bouts of exhaustion.
"This thing actually landed in the nervous system of my face," DeYoung animately explains, "which has made me sensitive to light. My face gets hot, my eyes get bloodshot; it’s absolutely insane. This thing has ruined my life! I’ve been to 15 different doctors and they just say sometimes viruses do weird things to your system. And this weird thing happened to me."
The result is that Brave New World was not a normal "band" project. DeYoung worked up his share of the CD in his home studio while Shaw and Young worked with Damn Yankees producer Ron Nevison in L.A. Young shuttled tapes back and forth between the two studios. All seemed to be progressing well until DeYoung said during the recording process that he couldn’t, at that time, commit to a fall tour. Then Shaw allegedly threatened to walk.
In an Internet letter to fans, DeYoung explained, "When Tommy learned that I was not able to commit to a tour, he decided that finishing the album was not in his best interests. I disagreed and so did Tom Lipsky, the president of CMC Records. We worked together to make sure that the album [would] be completed for a summer release."
Pay the price, get your tickets for the show...
Brave New World was finished and released this summer despite deteriorating conditions among the band members, but to DeYoung’s chagrin, Shaw and Young decided to support it by touring without him — beginning even earlier than first discussed with a summer leg.
"We had to do this,"Young explains. "The record company wanted to get this album out on the heels of the release of the Adam Sandler film, so it had to come out at the end of June, and Dennis wasn’t prepared to go out on tour because of his physical problems. It was our decision to tour because with the Sandler film, the "South Park" episode, the VW commercial — there was a confluence of events that created a unique opportunity for us to gain a whole new audience."
Young says the band had to capitalize on the media exposure to take Styx "back to the people" by playing places they haven’t performed at in two decades, hopefully helping to boost the sales of their comeback disc to nab a precious metal award like most of the band’s other albums.
"I think this record will eventually be gold, but it has to find its way," he says.
Don’t be fooled by the radio...
While DeYoung agrees that this summer certainly has given Styx a media leg up, he also says that he asked the band and record label to hold back the album and postpone touring, because the music wasn’t quite ready yet. But his plea was declined.
"Unfortunately, I was not allowed any input into the final tracks, the album artwork or the song sequencing," DeYoung says. The result? "It’s an album of missed opportunities."
Brave New World briefly entered the Billboard Top 200 upon its release, but despite the summer tour — which put the erstwhile stadium rockers on the county fairground circuit — Young admits that "it hasn’t made the splash we’d like to make." He says touring the album hard — as the band did in 1976 when Shaw first joined the band — is the answer to building the band a new audience.
"Patience and persistence, that we can provide, talent we’ve got," says Young. "Luck is the other part of the equation and you create your own luck by being available and sticking your nose out there."
While two singles came and went over the summer without radio support — including "While There’s Still Time," a DeYoung ballad that would have been an easy Top 40 charter for the band a decade ago — Young says the CD’s leadoff track, the Shaw-sung "I Will Be Your Witness" is the fall single that the record company is banking on.
"And to quote Mr. DeYoung," he says, "there’s no deodorant like success."
Young says that the band still hopes that eventually DeYoung will be able to join the fall tour, which, at presstime, has yet to book a Chicago date, though Young promises they’ll play for the home crowd eventually.
"We’ve hoped that Dennis would call up and say he was ready to go," Young says.
But DeYoung says it’s not likely.
"At this moment, I have no plans to do any shows whatsoever," he says. "I asked the rest of the band to wait for me to get better before touring, but apparently it wasn’t meant to be."
Both admit that they haven’t spoken all summer. Will this rift mean the end of Styx? Will there be another Styx studio album?
"I don’t know," DeYoung says, sounding beaten. "And that’s the truth."
But Young is optimistic.
"Oh, I intend for there to be. If I have anything to say about it there will absolutely be a next time. I have no side projects. The James Young Group is great fun, but Styx is clearly the thing that I need to focus on in my career."
So if you think your life is complete confusion...
"There have been a lot of times where we’ve spent years apart," Young adds. "I don’t know what the future holds beyond December 1999. Dennis is not completely happy about us being out on this tour without him. Emotions are too high to talk about what current affairs are. But eventually, cooler heads always prevail. This is something that we felt, careerwise, we absolutely had to do now. And as far as I know, there are few, if any, fans that feel cheated by the product we’re putting on the stage. Some people are finding the fact that it’s a different thing, stimulating."
Young has a point — this is not the first time bad luck has hit the Styx camp during the heydays of reunion. The band regrouped sans Shaw in 1990 for Edge of the Century, and original drummer John Panozzo was unable to join the band on a subsequent reunion tour. His eventual death was memorialized in "Dear John," a Shaw-sung studio track from Return to Paradise.
Considering the splintered quality of the new album, and the fact that half of Styx’s remaining members are on the road while the other half are sitting it out in Chicago , there’s a good chance that John Panozzo’s eulogy is really the marker of the last true collaboration of Chicago’s top vocal rock band of the ‘70s.
One more ominous sign of that comes in DeYoung’s participation, sans Styx, in a Siegfried and Roy IMAX film, The Magic Box, opening this month [October 1999] in New York and L.A. The movie features a recording of "The Grand Illusion" with an 85-piece orchestra conducted by Alan Silvestri. DeYoung recorded the rock tracks for the orchestra here in Chicago while Styx was on the road. DeYoung also will get a solo career boost this fall when MCA’s Hipo label releases a best of Dennis DeYoung solo compilation. And Shaw has his own life after this Styx tour lined up as well — Damn Yankees are signed again and gearing up to record a new album for the revived Portrait Records.
But Young says not to worry. There are already songs written for the next album, and he’s banking on another go that will include both DeYoung and Panozzo.
"Chuck has had hard time with the departure of his brother from this planet, and then his mother passed away in January of this year," Young says. "I think when he saw that this tour was going to be a little bit different without Dennis, that he decided he’d sit it out himself. Glen [Burtnik] is someone he’s very fond of and he put his stamp of approval on Glen doing this tour. Ultimately I think Chuck will be back."
But someday soon we’ll stop to ponder...
All this uncertainty would be hard enough if the reunited band had produced one of its best works before running into problems. Unfortunately, the impact of DeYoung’s illness can be heard in the tracks on Brave New World as well as in his absence from the stage this tour. As Styx’s longtime concept album "visionary" and studio leader, DeYoung used to pull together the disparate rock styles of Shaw and Young with his own light ballad touch in coproducing previous releases. But with the decentralized nature of the recording and mixing of Brave New World, this CD sounds unfocused, fragmented. There are some fine Stygian moments on Brave New World, but it’s obviously not the work of a vibrant collaboration.
"We’re not the same people we once were," says Young. "Tommy’s been doing a lot of writing for many different things. Dennis has been profoundly effected by the death of his dad and hasn’t felt well. And his heart has been in musical theatre instead of in writing rock songs. So things were different this time. The challenge for us was to take the elements that people know and love about Styx, like the big harmonies, and still have something that didn’t sound like a rehash of a record we made in the ‘70s or ‘80s."
Young enthuses, however, that the process of making this album provided the band with more freedom than ever before.
"The professionalism that everyone brought into the studio was a wonderful thing. We’ve all worked individually with talented brilliant players in the interim between Styx albums. So to bring all that seasoned knowledge back to the table for a Styx record is a wonderful thing. "
What on earth’s this spell we’re under...
One would guess that recording the album in isolated studios, and bringing in, for the first time, an "outsider" in Nevison, also has something to do with the sonic difference that separates this from previous Styx records.
"This album was created in a variety of places under a variety of circumstances," Young admits. "Ron Nevison may have had something to do with deemphasizing the harmonies. But I think the divergence of the overall sound from what has been before has more to do with the writing than where it was recorded. We did a certain amount of searching, creatively, to find that next thing that either brings us back to where we were or to help us reach some new level of what we do."
Young says the band found recording technologies of the ’90s a freeing thing.
"In the past, we were limited by the physics of a vinyl record that only allowed you to record 40 minutes of music every couple of years. There was a real battle to get your stuff on the record. This time, it was all the material that fits!"
Of course, some might argue that it’s better not to include everything that fits. DeYoung admits that the album is currently weighted a little heavy at 14 songs and might have been a tighter production if a couple had been dropped. He also says if he’d been at the boards finishing the album, as he always was in the past, Brave New World would have sounded more like a Styx album.
"A lot of the sound has to do with the way the album was put together in separate places," DeYoung says. "If I had been able to do on this record what I always did in the studio, those disparate styles, I believe, would have come together better."
We made the grade and still we wonder...
If there is to be a future for this band other than a mining of nostalgia hits for movie and TV vehicles, DeYoung, Shaw and Young will need to closet themselves in the studio — all at the same time in the same place — to rediscover the magic that they had two decades ago — the gestalt that produced The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone and Paradise Theatre is painfully absent on Brave New World. The trademark Styx three-part harmonies are subdued or missing entirely, with Shaw’s and DeYoung’s tracks sounding like unconnected solo efforts shoehorned together to fill out one CD.
Who the hell we are...
DeYoung admits that his songs for Brave New World — which include "While There’s Still Time," (a ballad rescued from his 1997 Hunchback of Notre Dame musical), along with a quiet piano ballad and a lite reggae number — were not written in the classic Styx mold.
"Some of the things that I wrote for this album were less traditionally Styx-like, but as an artist, you can only record that which you’ve written," he says. "I’m not making excuses — I like what I’ve done. But if it isn’t like a traditional Styx record that makes people happy in that way, I can understand it, because it isn’t a traditional Styx record."
"If we had made the same record as we have in the past, we would have been criticized for that," says Young. "The writing on this record shows a little searching but I think we’ve nailed it on a number of levels. It doesn’t sound like the Styx of old, but we’re evolving...hang with us through the evolution."
That's provided Styx stays together to continue their musical journey.
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