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Ever heard of a band called Styx?

Stephanie DePrez | Tuesday, April 5, 2011

When you think of Styx, you are most likely going to imagine one of those classic bands that you know you like, even if you can’t remember what exactly you like them for. With songs like “Come Sail Away,” “Mr. Roboto,” “Renegade” and “Lady,” all of which are perennial radio standards, Styx is a band that has been burned into your psyche since birth — or at least since you began listening to the radio. They’re a staple of the large and encompassing beast that makes up the ocean of Rock Before Our Time, landing on lists where even the least pedantic of rock enthusiasts can find something to hold on to. If you’re a classic rock guru, you know them well. If you’ve ever forayed into progressive rock, they’re essential. If you couldn’t be bothered, you’ll probably like them anyway. Consider yourself dared.

Let’s face it — Styx is old. Rocking-in-the-seventies old. Your parents probably danced to Styx at their wedding. But after years of success, fifteen massive albums and multiple tours, they’ve earned their position as the Grand Old Band of Progressive Rock. Just ask singer and lead guitarist Johnny “JY” Young, who has been with the band from the beginning.

Come Sail Away

  “Our music has managed to transcend three generations,” Young said. “We see people in their teens singing all the words, loud.” This is due to a tour schedule that puts Styx on a stage 100 days a year. Though this could be a reaction to the state of the industry, Young and his self-proclaimed “wandering minstrels” do it out of the joy they get from being on stage. “Our joyful energy captivates us and our audience,” Young said.

Styx has remained in the American consciousness due to key references in movies such as “Big Daddy” and “Talladega Nights,” which is fine with them.

“In the Midwest, we are integrated into the fabric of pop-culture. References to the band in pop culture, we don’t control. It adds to the mythology,” Young said.

But their ties to the Midwest run deeper than that. Young himself lived in Niles, Mich., and Styx tour manager George Packers is a Domer. Young is no stranger to Notre Dame, and your dad might even remember him.

“We played there in 1975-76 in the Joyce center,” Young said.

Concert Renegades

Styx came out of the progressive-rock era. They formed in the late seventies and blasted their way through the eighties. As time went on, though, they began to abandon their original sound and pursue music in a lighter direction. But in 1996, the “prog-era” band began an incredibly successful tour in which they returned to the spirit of their original sound. This ability to cope with the changing music scene has led to a fair share of wisdom about the shifting face of technology and its impact upon musical artists.

“The internet and digital music killed the physical record industry,” Young said. “There are less papers and magazines, and TV is available to fewer musical artists. But Starship Styx achieved orbit many years ago, and we keep it going.”

So how does Young and his merry band beat out the Katy Gaga generation of starlets as a point of musical release?

“Music has to succeed in more than one venue,” Young said. “It has to sound good in a car, on a stereo, at home, on an iPod, and kill in the live setting. We pride ourselves on that. You cannot digitize a crowd of people at a rock and roll show.”

And that is exactly what they plan to give South Bend this Friday.

“We sound phenomenal in concert,” Young said. “Being in the recording studio is like homework. But live shows are pure, unadulterated joy for me.”

One aspects of Styx which even casual fans can enjoy is that their songs are immediately recognizable by their opening. The main riff is often at the beginning, which will then build to a verse and climax at a chorus with so much vigor that, if heard on the radio, you’ll catch yourself yell-singing along with it in the car even if you don’t know the words. This is the nature of their music – melodies that are catchy enough to be “pop hits” but hard enough to remain rock. This dual appeal, however, can be frustrating for life-long rockers like Young.

“There is no prog-arena rock band that’s into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” he pointed out.

Continuing the Grand Illusion

It’s a fine line that they’ve walked as a progressive rock band, along with Journey and Foreigner, as heralds of radio-ready singles that blend seamlessly into their full-length concept albums of yore. “Come Sail Away” was a hit in 1977, but remains as much of an “event” song for us college kickers as it was back in the day. Chris Daughtry sang Styx classic “Renegade” when he was on American Idol, underscoring the modern respect for their music.

In 2006 Styx did a live recording with Ohio’s Contemporary Youth Orchestra, titled “One with Everything.” This was an unprecedented event for the band – though they’d previously done a live show backed by a full orchestra, they’d never done one with an orchestra and chorus made up of high school students. Notre Dame senior and Irish cheerleader Colleen Valencia was there that night, right behind Tommy Shaw on the violin.

That’s not the only thing Styx is doing to make sure they remain relevant. Just turn to the number one place to get your rock-persona groove on — Harmonix’ X-Box based game, “Rock Band.” But this is harder for Styx than it seems, mostly because the original recordings of their classic songs “aren’t our property,” Young said. Their original label, A&M, became Polygram, which is now Universal.

“Our original multi-track recordings have disappeared,” Young said.

By re-recording their most well known songs, Styx is able to add the flavor of the new line-up.

“We’re owning our own masters,” Young said. “We will have control of our greatest records, as artists taking back their music.”

By having access to and control of top-quality multi-track recordings, Styx can license them for games such as “Rock Band,” which, as we all know, is about the most important thing you can do to get your music back into the millennial psyche (just ask Dragonforce).

In the end though, it’s about experiencing their music live. That’s where they make it count.

“We are all about making you forget the difficulty you’re having in physics class or econ class,” Young said. “Leave your troubles at the door, find joy in the moment and come get some loud, classic rock therapy at 103 decibels.”