In recent years, many of the top bands of the 1980s have had to forge a path without the recognizable voices that helped launch them to the top.
Journey’s Steve Perry has all but disappeared from the limelight (save an appearance at the band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction) while Kansas’s Steve Walsh and Foreigner’s Lou Gramm have both retired from singing, Gramm doing so after a brief reunion from the band he left many years earlier.
But Styx, which continues to tour decades after the departure of their lead singer, must contend with the competition that comes from Dennis DeYoung who continues to sing those same familiar songs long after he was essentially booted from the band he made famous.
Although the origins of Styx began in the very early 1960s, when the members were still kids, it was in 1972, upon the release of their debut album, that Styx began to cultivate a following.
One of several bands to emerge from Chicago and nearby areas in Illinois during that time — REO Speedwagon, Chicago, Cheap Trick, and Earth, Wind, and Fire among them — Styx developed a big sound that beautifully accompanied DeYoung’s distinctive vocals. They were both a presence on Top 40 radio, with hits like “Lady,” “Come Sail Away,” and “Babe,” and album-oriented radio with The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight.
But as the ’70s waned and the ’80s took the band in a slightly different direction, thanks in no small part to DeYoung’s theatrical sensibilities, there was growing friction in the band. The tipping point came in 1983 when the band released Kilroy Was Here, a concept album which included the hit “Mr. Roboto” and led to a staged show decidedly outside the conventions of a typical concert. The fallout from differing visions for the band’s future led to a series of solo projects with a full Styx reunion not taking place until the 1990s.
But differences still existed, and when DeYoung began battling a viral infection in the late ’90s, the band decided to replace him at vocals rather than delaying their tour.
Styx and Stones
To fully grasp how vitriolic that break-up was, it’s worth noting that tension is still present more than 20 years later, as evidenced in this interview with DeYoung in 2018.
“When did all of this start? It wasn’t in ’83,” he said to I’m Music Magazine. “We came back in ’91 without Tommy [Shaw] and had a gold record. Then, we did the right thing finally and in ’96/’97 we came back and had what I think would be considered triumphant return tours. Not a word was spoken about who wrote what, not a word was spoken about any of it. It started when I was replaced and the initial story that was told was not true that I had passed the torch and was retiring. I didn’t say that; they said that and then the Behind the Music thing. I go back to Behind the Music and watch it once every two or three years and I don’t know what I said in there outside of I did say that I was the President of a Democracy. I didn’t say I was the king”.
The ongoing battle between DeYoung and his former bandmates continues to burn pretty brightly and came to the surface again fairly recently when Styx, albeit grudgingly, acquiesced to fan demand for “Mr. Roboto” to be added to their setlist. To say DeYoung enjoyed the situation is to put it mildly.
“Vindication, redemption, exoneration...nah I’ve already seen the current spin cycle,” he said on Facebook last June. “It’s just two guys finally admitting the obvious. People like it. Can’t imagine how many times the boys were asked the question, ‘Hey, how come you ain’t playing ‘Roboto’?’ [Glen] Burtnik wanted to play it, Todd [Sucherman] and [Lawrence] Gowan wanted to play it, and millions of others wanted to hear it. But no, this song ruined the band. And so now, 35 years later nearly to the day, June 2nd 1983, Tommy quit the band on stage in D.C. because of Kilroy and ‘Mr. Roboto’ and now it’s resurrected. Hallelujah.”
Attracting new fans
While all of that has provided some salacious entertainment over the years, and DeYoung continues to get in some good licks along the way, he has also established himself as a successful and popular solo act, no longer needing to work within the complicated democracy he felt as a member of Styx.
His is free to enjoy his theatrical leanings and revel in everything from his compelling ballads to “Mr. Roboto” without conflict. And, as he told Ultimate Classic Rock in 2014, he keeps bringing in new audiences to see his show.
“You know, there’s maybe people in their 30s that have come to this show for some unknown reason or even in their 20s — God forbid, why they would do that? but they do — and they didn’t get a chance to see me ever,” DeYoung said. “If you figure that the last time that I was playing with Styx, what is that, 17 years ago? So if you’re 27, there’s a good chance that you didn’t come.
“Somebody just wrote about my stage persona now is ‘ersatz rock star,’ and I think it’s true. Because I am what I am. I am 67 and I do not try to look like I am 25. ... I do a million jokes throughout the show about being the age I am. To me, that’s who I am, and maybe I should pretend to be cool, but at 67, I just don’t feel that cool.”
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