Before I talk about the actual subject matter of this blog entry, let me pay tribute to Luke Spencer, a music critic who hosts the Rocked channel on YouTube (not to be confused with the long running character on the soap opera General Hospital).
Here’s an example of one of his best works, a track by track analysis of a particularly popular but also bad album.
Now is my turn to tear down an album I think was popular but bad and ironically it was by one of my favorite bands of all time: STYX!
This album went to number 3 on the billboard pop charts and went platinum. It was the last Styx album to be so successful and I will attempt to show here why it never deserved such success. But I must give a bit of background.
Dennis DeYoung was recognized as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. Most of the band’s biggest hits were by him, including their first, “Lady” and their first number 1 single, “Babe”. Dennis was also responsible for the concept behind Styx’s first number one album, Paradise Theatre.
THAT was a masterpiece. But the next album proved to be a disaster.
Why was it so bad, despite spawning two top ten singles and selling over a million copies? Because the two guitarists in the band, James (J Y) Young and Tommy Shaw, were opposed to the idea of the band selling out their standard hard rock sound to appeal to viewers of MTV. But because Dennis had led the band to such success in the past, he was given the green light by their record company to do the Kilroy project and the others had no choice but to play along and hope for the best.
For more details, watch this video:
Looking at the songs on the album, it is clear that there was a fundamental division in the songwriting……NO song had more than one writer (the last track doesn’t count). Dennis did his thing, Tommy did his, and J. Y. did his. The result was a disjointed mess of songs that really didn’t sound consistent at all.
|3.||“Don’t Let It End“||DeYoung||DeYoung|
|5.||“Heavy Metal Poisoning“||Young||Young|
|6.||“Just Get Through This Night”||Shaw||Shaw|
|8.||“Haven’t We Been Here Before”||Shaw||Shaw|
|9.||“Don’t Let It End” (Reprise)||DeYoung,
So now, we will go through this album track by track and see why it deserved to fail.
Track one: Mr. Roboto.
Robots? Disco sounds? Endlessly repeating the title? It sounds like Styx was trying hard to appeal to both viewers of MTV and sci-fi fans. This was indeed NOTHING like the hard rock formula that made Styx so successful in the 1970s. And didn’t Dennis DeYoung notice that disco as a genre was no longer so popular? Why did he do this?!
Even in a concept album, a song should have appeal and make sense apart from the album. This song doesn’t work that way! No one who has not listened to the whole album yet would have a reason to care about a robot as the subject matter of a song! The ONLY reason this song charted so high was because it was a Styx song.
Track two: Cold War
This song was written by Tommy Shaw. The title implies that it is about the ongoing conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. That’s not so; it was supposed to be about the conflict between the theocratic tyrant that was the villain of the story and the heroes, rock stars being oppressed by the tyrant. But in hindsight, it seems obvious that Tommy was slamming Dennis for making him take part in a project he didn’t believe in. And Dennis didn’t even notice that he was being dissed!
Track three: Don’t Let it End
Dennis wrote and sang this one too, but it goes to the opposite extreme from Mr. Roboto; it’s a generic pop rock song that any other band could have put on any other album. FAIL! No wonder Tommy and J.Y. said he was selling out! It also seems Dennis was making a subtle plea to the others in Styx not to quit. That plea would fall on deaf ears.
Track four: High Time
Another Dennis song, referring directly to the villain of the story, but also to televangelists and the so-called Religious Right that were so popular and influential in the time this album was released. This could indeed be an great song to criticize religion with if not for its association with the embarrassment that was Kilroy was Here.
Track five: Heavy Metal Poisoning
Here we see the villain, Dr. Righteous. played by J Y. Dennis played the hero, Kilroy, while Tommy Shaw played Johnathan Chance, one of Kilroy’s fans. If I had been casting this production, I would have made Dennis and J Y trade roles, because in real life it was Dennis who was the self-righteous and arrogant prick. And note that as far as music goes, Styx was never a heavy metal band. Ironically, an actual heavy metal band, Queensryche, would a few years later do another concept album of the same subject matter as this one and do a far better job. That album was Operation: Mindcrime. They indeed succeeded where Styx failed.
This is a truly terrible song to listen to, and it’s obvious that J Y was merely phoning it in.
Track six: Just Get Through This Night
A Tommy song, but its content is totally unexpected for him. It is more keyboard centered and softer than most of the songs he was known for. Was this a sign that he and Dennis were getting along well and trying to coordinate their songwriting? Given that Tommy was the first to quit the band at the end of the Kilroy tour, clearly not! The night he was trying to get through may have been the Kilroy project itself.
Track seven: Double Life
A J Y song, condemning the hypocrisy of religious bigots. This is one of the better songs on this album and it holds up well even today. Oddly enough, the guitar solo here was actually played on synthesizer.
Track eight: Haven’t We Been Here Before
Another Tommy song that seems to be a subtle criticism of Dennis’ control of the band. Dennis was so ignorant of the situation that he actually sang backup vocals on this song.
Track nine: Don’t Let It End (Reprise)
This final song shows the band had run completely out of creative energy because it incorporates elements of Mr. Roboto and Don’t Let it End. It would have been much better to make the complete version of Don’t Let it End be the final track and write two or three more complete songs to round out the album. But as Tommy would admit many years later, “I just came up empty; I just couldn’t write songs about robots.”
This is indeed the album that drove the Styx members apart by 1984, and the bad blood generated by it was never completely erased, despite Styx reuniting twice since then. Eventually, Tommy and J Y would have enough of Dennis and fire him completely from Styx in 1999, never to return.
DeYoung was responsible for the band’s greatest successes, but he was also responsible for its greatest failures. He really should have been a solo artist from the start, but his ego prevented him from taking responsiblity for antagonizing his bandmates. I honestly hope I never see him in Styx again; they would be idiots to give him another chance!
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Here’s a video made by an apologist for Dennis DeYoung:
No, Tommy and J Y didn’t need to construct a narrative to demonize Dennis DeYoung. I remember watching that episode of Behind the Music about Styx, and DeYoung’s own arrogant words about himself and his role in the band was enough to repulse me. Again, Dennis was too much of a control freak and really should have been a solo artist from the start. Or he could have just left Styx in 1979 (the year after Styx released that massive hit “Babe” that Dennis wrote) and there would not have been so much animosity in the band later.