A friend and colleague of mine who lives in Texas recently persuaded me to give a listen to the latest studio album by the rock band Styx, entitled Crash Of The Crown.

Now understand that the friend in question is one with whom I have more agreements than disagreements when it comes to such things as music, books, movies, et. al. For the most part our tastes seem to be fairly similar, which for me is always gratifying because my personal tastes in general always seem to run counter to that of the masses. The main reason I went to see Star Wars a second time back in 1977 was that I was surprised when everybody else seemed to like it as much as I did; I wanted to make sure I had seen the same movie they had.

And there was a time when it would not have taken a friend’s efforts at persuasion for me to want to check out the latest Styx album. I would have been one of the first in line at my local record store. But that time, unfortunately, is long since past. The world has changed, I’ve changed - and the musical act which currently tours and records under the name “Styx” is, in my humble but heartfelt opinion, merely a pale imitation of the band that I loved all those years ago.

A word of explanation may be in order. Or, maybe not, I don’t know, but I’m going to offer it anyway:

I am a first generation Styx fan who in fact grew up just a few miles down the road from where the group originally formed in the Chicago area, and at whose high school the band regularly played sock hops and high school assemblies before they hit the big time. My best friend's older sister once interviewed John Curelewski - the member replaced by Tommy Shaw shortly after the Equinox album was released - for our high school yearbook two years before I started attending there myself. (In fact she may have been the last one to interview Curelewski before he quit, though I can’t say for sure.) 

Two albums later came The Grand Illusion and its hit single “Come Sail Away,” which was released the year I started high school and was really just starting to give serious thought about what I was going to do with my life; the song's lyrical use of sailing as a metaphor to achieve one's dreams struck a chord in me at the time, and here 44 years later its lyrics (“I think of childhood friends and the dreams we had”) touch a chord of nostalgia that can sometimes leave me misty-eyed if I’m not careful. 

And even after all these years, the song “I’m OK” (from the Pieces of Eight album) is as close to a personal anthem for me as I’ve ever stumbled upon, while “Boat On The River” (from Cornerstone) remains in my mind the most perfect melding of rock and folk ever recorded. 

To a lot of kids growing up in the Chicago area during those years - especially those harboring their own musical dreams - Styx was more than just a rock group. They were “hometown heroes.” The band first formed in 1961 when three kids living on the south side of Chicago - Dennis DeYoung and twin brothers Chuck and John Panozzo - got together in one of their parents’ garage to play their music. Two other members - the aforementioned John Curelewski and James (“J.Y.”) Young - eventually joined the lineup and the band paid its dues for a number of years, playing at a lot of local talent shows, frat parties and high school sock hops in the area. 

In 1972 they signed with Wooden Nickel Records to record the first of four albums for that label; several years after it was first released, a song off their second album - the classic ballad “Lady” - became a huge hit after a DJ at Chicago’s WLS-AM played it one night on a whim and stations across the country began receiving a number of requests for the tune.

Due to the belated success of “Lady,” the band soon jumped to A&M Records and released Equinox, which yielded a minor hit with the song “Lorelei” (a song I personally have always liked better than “Lady,” truth be told, but that’s a discussion for another day). The group was just starting to promote Equinox at its concerts (including the one they played that year at our high school) when Curelewski decided to jump ship. He was replaced by transplanted Alabaman Tommy Shaw, and Styx went on to record many hits - in the process becoming the first recording act ever to have four consecutive albums certified multi-platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. 

The group split up in 1984, staged a couple of reunions over the next decade, and in 1999 set about working on its first new studio album in almost a decade, Brave New World. But the album was not a success, due in no small part to long-simmering troubles between band members that finally came to a full boil. Disagreements over the album’s cover art and the order of songs were aggravated by the decision of Shaw and Young (both of whom had long resented DeYoung’s leadership role and musical tastes) to omit DeYoung’s vocals and keyboards from several of their tracks. 

In addition, DeYoung suffered a viral illness around this time that prevented him from joining the rest of the group on tour. Rather than grant his request to delay the tour in order to recover, Shaw and Young gave DeYoung the boot and replaced him with a Canadian musician named Lawrence Gowan. Shaw and Young have long claimed that fans can’t tell the difference between DeYoung’s vocals and playing and those of Gowan; I say anyone who can’t tell the difference isn’t listening very close. 

Musical talent aside, the fact remains that, in firing Dennis DeYoung, Styx lost more than one of its founders; it lost its strongest songwriting voice, its acclaimed tastefulness and its musical identity - the very qualities that propelled the band to success in the first place.

The albums Styx has released in the post-DeYoung era have ranged from mediocre to downright lousy; the first, 2003’s Cyclorama, contained several songs which were little more than thinly veiled personal attacks on DeYoung. (The song "Bourgeois Pig" in particular comes across as an incredibly nasty swipe at DeYoung and is about as petty and mean-spirited as anything I’ve ever heard.)

It is probably no accident that the only real hit single the group has had since firing DeYoung was its tolerable but pointless cover of the Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus.” For me there is a certain irony to be found in the fact that the 2005 album on which that song appeared, Big Bang Theory, remains the best of the post-DeYoung Styx albums; the record is nothing but a lackluster collection of new versions of old songs, ranging from adequate covers of “I Can See For Miles” and “Summer In The City” to a downright horrible redo of Styx’s own earlier hit “Blue Collar Man” that was not only unnecessary, but has to rank as one of the absolutely WORST recordings of all time. (The remake is so bad that it induces actual physical pain whenever I hear it.)

Further irony can be found in the fact that part of the disdain the other band members showed towards DeYoung towards the end reportedly stemmed from his penchant for concept albums, in particular the 1983 classic Kilroy Was Here… and then they turn around in 2017 and release a comparatively lackluster concept album of their own entitled The Mission, which tells the musical tale of a trip to the planet Mars in the year 2033.

I guess Tommy Shaw is a bigger fan of spaceships than he is of robots...

Still, even with all that, my love for the Styx I knew during the band’s glory days and my respect for the opinion of my friend in Texas were enough to prompt me to give the band’s latest album a listen. Unfortunately the experience proved to be just one more disappointment.

It pains me to say it - because I was such a huge Styx fan in my youth and I really, REALLY wanted to like this album - but Crash Of The Crown does nothing to alter my opinion of how far the group has fallen from its former glory. While a couple of songs almost come close to recapturing a little of the old magic, by and large the album is a tedious affair without a single track worthy of a place alongside the band’s best.

To those who like the album: That’s great, I’m happy it moves you and more power to you. But for me, the only thing Crash Of The Crown accomplishes is a sad reaffirmation of what I’ve been saying since 2003: 

The band isn’t Styx without Dennis DeYoung.

(Copyright © 2021 by John A. Small)