There was a time during my most strident punk rock phase when anything associated with “classic rock” was considered anathema. It was The Enemy, associated with pick-up driving jocks and the condescending beardos of my college’s wargaming club.
That all changed somewhere around the turn of the millennium, when a minor quarter-life crisis left me with a nostalgic longing for the days when a holy trinity of call letters — WCOZ. WBCN, and WAAF — ruled the suburban Boston airwaves and a holographic Led Zeppelin belt buckle was considered acceptable formal attire.
Now, as I steadily creep into my mid-forties, I find myself just as likely to flip to the satellite radio’s “70s” channel as to the more respectably hip “classic alternative” or “underground garage” stations.
It’s an odd reversal, but an understandable one. For my wife, it’s a flashback to the tunes emanating from her older brothers’ rooms during her primary school days. For me, it’s a mix of North Woburn nostalgia and a genuine fascination with a bygone subculture. The entire concept of “RAWK” could only exist in a realm free of self-awareness and cynical irony (from the end user, if not the artist), two quantities in which our present age has been running a surplus.
Few classic rock acts captured that weighty obliviousness as perfectly as Styx did. They were an otherwise typical bar band saved from the regional success cul-de-sac by frontman Dennis DeYoung, whose influences leaned more towards Andrew Lloyd Webber than to Jerry Lee Lewis.
It was a odd combination, but one that resonated in an era a baroque excess and schmaltzy novelty. While the other members of the band were willing to rake in the dividends from a successful run of hit releases, it eventually became obvious that DeYoung’s musical aspirations fell well outside the traditional rock template.
Making bank on a sappy ballad was one thing. Having to pantomime a concept album about robots and fascism in front of a festival crowd of drunk .38 Special fans was another matter entirely.
The video-amplified weirdness of Killroy Was Here may have been a bridge too far (see, because Styx was named after a mythical river and, uh, nevermind), but it did make sense in an anachronistic prog rock kind of way. It would have been hailed as a work of groundbreaking genius in 1974, but that ship (see, another aquatic reference!) but that ship had well and truly sailed by the time of its 1983 release. It sold like gangbusters, but mostly due to what amounted to a novelty single coupled with residual loyalty from the band’s fanbase.
(The technical term for that phenomenon is the “Tusk Effect,” If you were wondering.)
For me, though, Styx’s real “what the holy fuck” moment is “Rockin’ the Paradise” from 1981, when the band was a do-no-wrong titan of the “corporate rock” scene.
I can’t be the only person who listened to thing and immediately thought “song cut from Starlight Express and gifted to a troupe of community college theater majors who tour local schools with a revue aimed delivering positive advice to pre-teens,” right?
That part of the song that starts at the 2:09 above clip? That’s where a gangly dude with a white boy ‘for and Mork from Ork suspenders ought to be strutting across the stage in full jazz-hands-and-bandy-legs-mode, delivering a pointed warning about the the dangers of tobacco and alcohol…
…a message that would stick with your younger self right up until the moment your junior high best friend swiped a pack of Viceroys and a bottle of peppermint schnapps from their parents and offered to share them with you in the woods after school.
Oh, stop trying to look coy. You know exactly what I’m talking about.