Armagideon Time

Young Americans listen when

December 11th, 2015

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.

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5 Responses to “Young Americans listen when”

  1. sallyp

    It was rum and sprite actually. We were too naïve to use coca cola.

  2. CP Bananas

    Perfectly expressed, especially the Tusk Effect.”
    “M-wah!”
    (That’s the sound of me raising my fingers to my lips, kissing them, and pulling them away.)

  3. Zeno

    That hodgepodge of individual costumes onstage was only rivaled by a band like Kansas, which at anytime would simultaneously have on display such archetypes as the hayseed, the prom king, the jock, and of course, the wizard.

  4. Chris Wuchte

    As someone who grew up without cable (and therefore, without music videos), I didn’t get why my classmates kept making fun of the substitute teacher we had for full week of home ec class who did nothing but talk about all the Styx concerts he’d attended. After seeing that video, I kind of get why.

  5. Crowded House

    Literally everything about that video screams “1978 smash hit that fell through time and landed in the Reagan years, somehow.” I am simultaneously relieved and disappointed to know that I was born after this era and never got to experience it firsthand.

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