STYX - Canadian Content

May 31, 2005, 14 years ago

By Carl Begai

feature styx

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you have to admit that Styx must be doing something right to have been around for over 30 years. The band that made a name for themselves in 1974 with the single ‘Lady’ and went gold a year later with the Equinox album haven’t had an easy time of it, however, having had to deal with extended breaks due to internal strife, the death of original drummer John Panozzo in 1996, and the messy ousting of founder/vocalist Dennis DeYoung in 1999, which was seen by many fans as the kiss of death. In spite of all this they’ve been playing to packed houses since then, living on their legacy and the success of the 2003 album, Cyclorama, and a new one, Big Bang Theory. Against all odds Styx is still a viable entity in 2005, all thanks to Canada and, oddly enough, a Beatles song.

Backing up to 1999, DeYoung was replaced following the poorly received Brave New World album – which came off more as a piecemeal compilation of solo material featuring DeYoung versus guitarists/vocalists Tommy Shaw and James “JY” Young – by Lawrence Gowan. While this meant very little to the world at large, for Canadian audiences this was a significant development in that Styx was a hit in Canada before the States caught on (that gold record in ‘75), and Gowan had been a huge name on the ‘80s pop rock scene with his Strange Animal (’85) and Great Dirty World (’87) albums. In fact, if you were living in Canada during this period it was next to impossible to get away from songs like ‘A Criminal Mind’ and ‘Moonlight Desires’. Being a Styx fan and having grown up listening to Gowan’s early material, it was more than mere curiosity on my part as to how these two very different worlds came together.

“Styx was playing in Montreal about a week after I was supposed to play a show there,” says Gowan, beginning the history lesson. “It was the same promoter for both shows, and I had a French record out (Au Quebec) that got into the Top 10 in ’97. Because of that I was on breakfast television, and the promoter realized he had Styx playing at the Molson Centre and thought it would be great to have me open the show since everyone knew me and my songs. So, I opened for them – just me on piano – and basically did my hits in front of 18,000 people. Tommy told me later that about half way through the show the band had come in and heard the audience singing all these songs, so it was like ‘Who the hell is this guy?’. I saw them gathering sidestage one by one, and when I came off Tommy shook my hand, told me he dug it and said we have to work together again. So, I gave them my number and went on my way.”
“I spent the next year going to England and doing four separate tours there, promoting a Greatest Hits package. The weird synchronicity of it is that, while I was in England, my publicist there suggested that maybe I’d been doing the solo thing long enough, that perhaps she could get me into a band. I thought it was a strange idea at first but I found myself considering it, and when I got home from England there was a message from Tommy waiting for me, asking if I’d be interesting in replacing Dennis in Styx.”

A surprise to say the least…

“I had no idea there was all this turmoil in the band,” Gowan admits. “I didn’t know they had tried to replace Dennis in the ‘80s and failed, so I learned all this stuff after I’d done about 25 shows with them. I had been in the band about six months when VH1 shot the Behind The Music special, and when it came on a few months later I really learned about the history of Styx (laughs). When I joined I knew I was joining an established band, but apart from the fact they had been extremely successful it wasn’t any different from the first band I ever joined. But, when I learned the history and realized that people are weighing that history against what they’re seeing now, that’s when I realized it was important.”

While some Styx purists no doubt slag Gowan as being a pretender to DeYoung’s throne, fact is the Toronto native has made classics like ‘Come Sail Away’ and ‘Lady’ his own.

“This is the best thing that could have happened to me,” he says, “because from the moment I walked through the door, never once did anyone imply that I should sing the songs like they were on the original records or suggest I copy Dennis. In fact, the first song I played for them when I auditioned was ‘A Criminal Mind’, and Tommy decided Styx could play it live, which we do. Obviously I’ve got to copy Dennis’ keyboard parts and make them sound right, but really, the guys were more concerned that the harmony blend was right. As fate would have it I have a similar range to Dennis, so I was able to slot my voice between Tommy’s and JY’s and it still sounds like Styx. If I tried to sound like Dennis I think the songs would fall apart and the fans would be really disappointed.”
“As a prototype, I think the time this sort of thing was the most successful in rock history was when Phil Collins started doing the Peter Gabriel stuff in Genesis,” Gowan adds. “People said ‘Phil Collins sounds like Peter Gabriel, yet he sounds nothing like him.’ That’s the highest compliment an artist can be paid, because he’s not detracting from the song. That was a testament to the fact that Genesis was so talented they were able to pull that off. I’m going to blow our own horn here and say that Styx are talented enough that there really isn’t one member that supercedes the sound of the band.”

Thus, with Gowan firmly cemented in the band, Styx released Cyclorama in 2003, heralded by many fans as the comeback album Brave New World should have been. A tour followed and in June 2004 the band was invited to perform at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in Dallas, Texas. They elected to play a cover of The Beatles classic ‘I Am The Walrus’ – a song Gowan had been performing during soundchecks – a move that ultimately spawned Big Bang Theory. Gowan explains:

“There are a series of dominos that led to this album having to be made. The reason we were invited to the Crossroads Festival was because we had just done a recording for Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. We went into Chess Studios in Chicago with Koko Talyor, Johnny Johnson, all these pioneers of blues and rock ‘n’ roll. With the kind of credibility that went along with it, I guess Clapton or whoever is involved in putting the festival together suggested getting Styx to play. That was step one. The thing about it was, we had just played Dallas two weeks earlier. The same venue, and probably a lot of the same people, so JY said we had to do something different to tip our hats to the blues tradition that was being upheld at the event. He decided to do Hendrix’s ‘Manic Depression’, Tommy decided on ‘The Thrill Is Gone’, and before I could get the words out of my mouth JY said, ‘Don’t do a blues number, do ‘I Am The Walrus’’ because he’d heard me doing it at soundcheck. We learned it the night before, and when we played it the following day it got a tremendous reaction from the audience. A week goes by and we play it in the encore in Chicago (Styx’s hometown), and the program director at WLUP (Greg Solk) who has known the band forever asked for a copy of ‘I Am The Walrus’ to put on the air. JY liked the idea so we recorded it while we were on the road, sent Greg a copy and one to KLOS in Los Angeles at his suggestion, and one to Q104 in New York. All three stations got a phenomenal reaction. This was six months before Big Bang Theory was a reality.”
“We saw the song as a one-off, but suddenly over 200 stations were playing it,” Gowan continues. “So, we decided we’d add it to our new studio record, which were getting ready to chip away at. But, Universal didn’t want us to do that because it didn’t make sense to them. They suggested we go in and record a bunch of songs that tied in with ‘I Am The Walrus’, and that was it. It was the path of least resistance, because if we turned around and said no we would have been cheating ourselves out of having fun doing it, and with the way the record business is right now, when a major label sees something that the public actually wants to buy, why would you say no? So, there was nothing premeditated about the album.”

Given that Cyclorama did rather well for Styx, and that Gowan is still relatively new to the fans, it’s easy to dismiss a cover album as being a sign of collective writers block or a cash grab regardless of its origins. That said, was there any apprehension going in to do Big Bang Theory?

“Tons,” Gowan admits. “And I know what you’re saying about the cash grab, but I can stand behind what I just told you because we didn’t go in and record a bunch of well-known hits. With the exception of ‘Summer In The City’ (Lovin’ Spoonful), there isn’t one song on the record that was a Top 10 smash hit from the past that we’ve decided to re-tread. ‘I Am The Walrus’ was never a single. These are all songs that people always knew were extremely cool songs and had a profound effect on rock music, but they weren’t shining beacons of the hit parade. If we had done ‘Hey Jude’, ‘Pinball Wizard’, ‘Satisfaction’ and a litany of songs like that it would have been boring as hell, and that’s where it would have been an obvious cash grab. People would have called it bullshit and that would have been a fair assessment of the record.”
“What we did with Big Bang Theory is offer impressions of the songs and put them together in a cohesive fashion. They had to be songs that we saw as having helped formulate the musical identities we all have and collectively as a band. So, that meant getting songs that pre-dated Styx – nothing after 1972 – and we made sure it was a wide array of songs that show off each individual’s influences. We each chose songs that we wanted to do, but there were a couple exceptions where someone would suggest a song for someone. Two prime examples of that are JY bringing ‘Wishing Well’ (Free) in for Tommy and Tommy bringing in ‘I Don’t Need No Doctor’ (Humble Pie) for me, and they both worked really well. I really like Humble Pie, but I never considered that song as something I would sound good singing. Sometimes another person has a far greater take on who your influences are. It’s like, ‘You think you sound like Mick Jagger but you don’t; you sound like Robert Plant.’”

Being 36 years of age and schooled on rock, I considered myself (somewhat arrogantly, I suppose) to be fairly knowledgeable on the subject of music. Big Bang Theory has poked some holes in my ego, having proven to be a real education.

“It depends on how you view this record,” says Gowan of my admission. “If you realize these are interpretations of integral cornerstone songs that helped to build rock ‘n’ roll and have stood the test of time, it could definitely be an education. ‘A Salty Dog’ (Procol Harum), for example, is a song for the ages. ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ (Blind Faith) is another one. These are timeless songs that came out in the rock era and should be heralded as such.”

According to Gowan, Styx will be touring for the good part of this year in support of Big Bang Theory, with tentative plans to have a studio record of original material out within the next 18 months or so.

“The thing is, in music it’s best not to look further than six months ahead,” Gowan suggests. “Maybe that’s a good philosophy for life, too, because you don’t know where the planet’s going to be six months from now. The next studio record will be out about a year from now and we’ll go out a tour for it, but six months ago nobody could have convinced us that we’d have a record out with these songs on it and that it would be received like this.”

Winding down, conversation turns to Canada’s reaction to one of their own being part of such a legendary band. Gowan still lives in Toronto and admits he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Playing his homeland is something very special indeed, he says, because the audiences are always peppered with Gowan fans.

“It’s been tremendous. It certainly doesn’t hurt that we put ‘A Criminal Mind’ into the show, and that’s an acknowledgement to the audience that grew up hearing my stuff. I haven’t abandoned that; I just joined a great band, and if the guys want to do one of those songs, that’s great. One day I’ll probably return to do a solo tour and be revisiting all those old songs again, but I don’t want to stop doing this right now because it’s just so much fun and it’s been successful. For people that love Styx, the main thing I have in my mind is that I hope they don’t feel their band has been wrecked. For those people that are just discovering Styx now, this is the only lineup they know and I’m very happy to be a part of it.”

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