Styx Was Here

Styx_Caught5b_72dpiStyx is a Chicago based rock band that released nearly a dozen records from the start of their most enduring lineup in 1972, through 1983’s Kilroy Was Here. Three multi-talented singer-songwriters Dennis DeYoung (vocals, keyboards, accordion), Tommy Shaw (vocals, guitars), and James Young (vocals, guitars, keyboards), backed by brothers John Panozzo (drums) and Chuck Panozzo (basses) penned a dramatic blend of rock and pop that placed them in league with stateside brethren Kansas and Journey. I caught the group on tour supporting the Pieces of Eight album on January 27 1978 at the Long Beach arena. It was an exciting, powerful presentation, featuring a tight performance that showcased the soaring vocal prowess and instrumental credentials of each principal musician. I will never forget DeYoung singing “women and whiskey” in repeated cycles with echoplex effects, Shaw nailing every note of “Renegade” and Young growling out “Miss America.” Somehow they never got as big as Kansas and similar acts – the arena had a curtain erected cutting off 30% of the seats towards the rear of the floor. Maybe it was the fact that their most popular work came a bit later in the 70s, as one can see by the marquee of their show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, they played just a couple of weeks after the Sex Pistols! Yet they have endured. As of the time of this writing Shaw and Young represent Styx on annual tours while DeYoung tends to his solo career. As to their concert history, several films of varying quality and interest capture the band during their initial tenure.

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Styx Live and In Concert (2011) Tommygun Video, 142 min B&W, 1.33:1

Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 11.10.52 AMThis unofficial release from Tommygun video presents Styx live on two tours at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, the Equinox tour April 2, 1976 and the Grand Illusion outing, January 28, 1978. The first includes eight songs at 48 minutes while the second, filmed in black and white has thirteen tracks at 88 minutes. The Grand Illusion set is the better of the two, and the DVD sports a crisp transfer with lucid, high contrast B&W photography and decent sound. Extras include 6 minutes of rare footage from 1972 & 1977, and an entertaining kitschy television advertisement for Styx live. It’s another excellent release from Tommygun, as they continue their important quest to preserve rare concert video.

Styx: Caught in the Act (2007), A&M Records, 142 min, 1.33:1

Styx_CaughtCover_72dpiIn addition to the Tommygun release, key for any fan or collector, the high resolution color film transfer on the official Styx DVD Caught in the Act (2007) remains the best official release by the band. Directed by Jerry Kramer and recorded for ‘In Concert’ by Westwood One, the main feature is a live performance from the tour supporting 1983’s Kilroy Was Here. This concept album about the demise and resurrection of rock ‘n roll music in a dystopian future led to a creative blending of rock and theater performed on tour. In fact, it’s one of the few examples of a rock opera or concept album that was presented live with actual staged interludes that incorporated a bit of acting and actual dialogue. The show begins with an opening video that establishes the concept, after which Tommy Shaw and Dennis DeYoung take the stage to act out the first two songs, “Kilroy Was Here” and “Mr. Roboto” sporting costumes designed by Ray Brown and Peggy Martin along with wireless microphones, freeing the players to traverse a stage full of props and lighting effects. Special effects luminary Stan Winston designed “Mr. Roboto” which is worn briefly by DeYoung. James Young reprises his role as “Dr. Righteous” the mouthpiece for the fascist regime, for the first of four additional tracks that include dialog and staging. These are interspersed with a number of Styx 1970s classics, most notably “Come Sail Away” from The Grand Illusion and “Renegade” from Pieces of Eight each delivered in tight performances that rival the original tours for those albums. Director of photography Daniel Pearl arranged a flawless multi-camera shoot (eight cameramen and eight assistants are credited!) that captured the band in perfect form, alternating pit and perspective camera angles to present the creative staging and rocking performances to the best possible advantage.

Styx_KilroyCover_72dpiOne wonders how comfortable band members were with DeYoung’s Kilroy concept, and the fact that they were obliged to act out parts of the story on stage with actual written dialogue, some of it admittedly a bit cringe-worthy. The official story is that band members were unhappy with the musical direction of Kilroy leading to a somewhat acrimonious split. However, any misgivings are not evident on film, as the musicians deliver their lines and performances with aplomb and dramatic intensity. Adding further credibility to the concept, DeYoung’s story about the criminalization of rock by the “Majority for Musical Morality (MMM)” ended up being somewhat prescient. Just two years after Kilroy’s release, in 1985 Tipper Gore, wife of future vice president Al Gore, led a campaign as part of the “Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC)” seeking to add warning labels to albums deemed to contain offensive content. At U.S. Senate hearings, artists as diverse as Frank Zappa and John Denver argued against the labels, protesting the attempt to restrict their freedom of expression. Given the lens of history, Kilroy was a very successful, unique way to blend rock and theater that ended up influencing rock musicals through to the current day. As the critics of the work say, maybe it is a bit too much “rock meets show tunes” or “Andrew Lloyd Weber swallowed a robot!” But looking back through a kinder lens, it’s a milestone event in rock lore that’s entertaining on A&M’s home video release.

The DVD release includes 54 minutes of bonus material consisting of twelve music videos, filmed between 1977 and 1983. The transfers on these videos are richly detailed, with clear stereo sound available in Dolby stereo and Dolby 5.1. It’s a reminder that the 70s-era Styx was the more successful incarnation, and that they split after the theatrical Kilroy work in 1983, just as the music video market, hungry for artists that worked with mixed media, was skyrocketing.

Film Strip: (top to bottom) (a) DeYoung’s disguise, demonstrating the film’s rich, vibrant colors (b) Young’s Dr. Righteous, caught with perspective (c) Shaw at mid range, one of eight camera placements (d) DeYoung at the grand piano, Young behind, from discreet on-stage cameraman (e) Band caught in the act

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