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Styxworld Exclusive: The Inside Story Behind “Too Much Time on My Hands”

Tommy Shaw and Styx on the making of Jimmy Fallon's favorite song.

By Mike Mettler

If you've been singing the lines, “I'm sitting on this bar stool, talking like a damn fool, got the 12 o'clock news blues!” over and over and over during the past 10 days or so, then you're in good company. Jimmy Fallon, the host of NBC's uber-popular The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, has been singing the lyrics and jamming along to the song on the show on a regular basis of late, culminating in a shot-by-shot recreation of the song's infamous 1981 video with actor Paul Rudd this past Friday, April 29, which you can view right here. “It's the best song I've ever heard in my entire life,” Fallon exclaimed about “Too Much Time” to guest Adam Levine on the previous night of the show — and who can blame him?

(We here at Styxworld have a feeling Jimmy will continue to literally sing the praises of “Too Much Time on My Hands” in the days and weeks ahead, for numerous reasons...)

In case you don't know, the facts are these: “Too Much Time on My Hands” was written and sung by Tommy Shaw. It was the second single from the band's 1981 triple-platinum chart-topping Paradise Theatre album (or Theater, depending on which part of the album sleeve you're looking at), and it reached #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles charts. “Too Much Time” remains a key song in Styx's live set to this very day, most often as the second song the band performs during every show.

And now, in a Styxworld exclusive, Tommy Shaw discusses how he wrote “Too Much Time on My Hands” on his way to the last day of album rehearsals, what specific location the song actually pays homage to, and how the song’s infamous video came to pass. Plus, other members of Styx along with some of the band's peers share their feelings about the song and its enduring legacy. The fun never ends as long as you-know-who is still buying… Is it any wonder why this song is Fallon's favorite?

Mike Mettler: Tommy, the story goes that the inspiration for “Too Much Time on My Hands” came to you while you were on the way to a rehearsal.

Tommy Shaw: Yeah, I remember that part, because it was the last day, and it wound up becoming the most monumental day to me. At that time, I didn’t have my rock song that I needed for the Paradise record. It just wasn’t coming to me.

I lived in Michigan, about 60 miles away from where we were rehearsing in Gary, Indiana. Every day, I would drive over there in my black [Oldsmobile] Toranado, this gigantic locomotive that had a built-in CB radio. (both laugh)

On that last day, as I got closer to where the exit was, I started to hear this “dun-dun dun-dun dun-dun-dun-dun.” I heard that in my head. I heard the whole first verse. It was like the whole song was playing in my head. I didn’t have anything to record it on and I was driving, but I was getting near the parking lot as it was all coming to me.

So I turned the car off and ran inside to rehearsal and gathered everybody around and said, “Chuck, play dun-dun dun-dun dun-dun-dun-dun. Do this, and go to this chord.” And it just unfolded. It was like it came in a package. We took it out and assembled it, and there it is.

Chuck Panozzo (co-founding Styx bassist): Tommy came into the rehearsal room one day and he said to me, “Can you play this audible?” And I went, “Audible?” And then Tommy plays, dun-dun dun-dun dun-dun-dun-dun...

The song ultimately started with synthesizers and more synthesizers, but I realized, “If we lose the rhythm of this song, we’re really going to lose it.” The song is about too much time — tick tick tick. We’re talking about time, so I better be right on it.

I needed to be more succinct and on the beat, but I didn’t have it at first. So I pulled to the side and I said to myself, “You can play this!” I went back over to Tommy and I said, “I want to re-audition for that part. I want to replay it.” It’s such a great part, and I almost gave it away. I’ll never do that again. No matter how insecure you are — try. No matter how frightened you are to play something, if you don’t try it, you’re an idiot.

James “JY” Young (co-founding Styx guitarist/vocalist): “Too Much Time on My Hands” came a bit late in the game. Maybe too much disco then, which I have nothing against, but it comes out as a rock song now.

Mettler: Tommy, what did you base the lyrics on? Where did they come from?

Shaw: There was a place near where I lived in Niles, Michigan, a little tavern right next door to the Catholic church. I don’t know if there’s some kind of law against having a bar next door to a Catholic church — maybe it was grandfathered in before the church came in there. I think officially it was called Mark’s Tavern, but everybody called it Mark’s Bar. It was the local watering hole.

The drinks were good, and the drinks were cheap. You could go in there with 20 bucks and be a hero, you know — buying rounds of drinks. And you’d always run into somebody you knew in there.

That was the basis of the song. It’s one of my favorite kind of songs. It had written itself before I got to it.

Mettler: In a way, it’s your “Piano Man.” You’re describing a scene you lived through. And you got it across in a way where the listeners could say, “Yeah, I’ve been in that bar” or “Yeah, I’ve been that guy.”

Shaw: Yes. And when we did the video, [Styx promotion guru] Jim Cahill and I worked with this guy, Jerry Kramer, who later wound up managing me after Styx, along with Ron Stone.

Mettler: Tell me about how you guys made the video.

Shaw: We had access to the gear, so we directed that video, recreating Mark’s Bar.

Jim Ladd [legendary longtime freeform 95.5 KLOS FM DJ in Los Angeles who’s now on SiriusXM’s Deep Tracks channel] is in it, and a girl who worked in our management office was in it.

It’s just goofy stuff. We did as much goofy stuff as we could. There are a few frames before the guitar solo where everybody in the band is at the bar, wearing shades and playing brass instruments. And we have Chuck opening up his jacket, and there’s all the watches. And the girl at the bar lighting my cigarette with hundred dollar bills.

The location for that video was on Santa Monica Boulevard, at a gay bar called the Manhole [inside the Mother Lode in West Hollywood]. There were some nude, explicit photos on the wall that all had to be covered up. And if I remember correctly, there was only one bathroom in the place. So it was an interesting kind of day there, but it was mostly us just having a lot of fun, shooting the video.

Mettler: It became a very popular video on MTV. I remember that clip being in heavy rotation.

Shaw: Isn’t that something? We came in at the very beginning of MTV, but didn’t do much of anything after 1983. We didn’t get back together until 1995. The big burst of MTV and the whole video thing happened during that time. When Damn Yankees came along [in 1990], there was still a little bit of that left.

Lawrence Gowan (keyboardist/vocalist): I remember hearing “Too Much Time on My Hands” up in Canada, and it just jumped out of the radio. It hit me immediately. I went looking for it, and I remember looking at that tremendous album cover. I loved the whole concept of it. The cover tied it all together. The dilapidated theater was a great metaphor for America falling apart — again — and coming back together, again. And now I’m on the stage with five other guys who are constantly in search of elevating the presentation of every song, especially that one.

Todd Sucherman (drummer): “Too Much Time on My Hands” had a little bit of a stiff, robotic thing to it, and I wanted to give it a little more grease and groove because, ultimately, that’s what makes hips shake, not just metronomic playing.

Like I’ve always said, I’m a different human being than John Panozzo was. [Original Styx drummer John Panozzo, Chuck's twin brother, passed away in 1996.] As would any drummer who would be in this band, or any drummer that would replace any drummer in any band, i’s impossible to play it exactly like that other person. It’s one thing to be able to play C, B flat, A — yeah, OK. With something as organic as drumming, which is as natural as a human heartbeat, it’s going to be a different thing. All I can do is try to make it feel as good as I can.

Ricky Phillips (bassist/background vocalist): I was driving and listening to KLOS [99.5 FM, the infamous long-influential FM radio station in Los Angeles] in 1981, and it was a Two for Tuesday. They played “Too Much Time” and “Snowblind,” and I remember liking both songs — a lot. And then going, “Hmm. I gotta pay more attention to this.”

The thing about “Too Much Time” is that riff that Tommy uses. (Sings the intro guitar riff) — the riff itself is just so catchy. It’s poppy and it’s rocky at the same time. Maybe it’s a little more poppy, but still, it’s just a cool riff. Guitar players and bass players like it.

Everybody gets in a good mood when we play “Too Much Time.” You can’t help feeling good about it. When you’re playing it, it’s a win-win. That song never does not go over well. It always goes over. Age doesn’t matter. Everybody gets it.

Rick Nielsen (lead guitarist of Cheap Trick, 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees): I've known Tommy Shaw a long time. I’ve always loved Tommy. Way-talented man. I think I know some of the other guys too, and they’re not too bad either. What's my favorite Styx song? “Too Much Time on My Hands.”

Gerry Beckley (guitarist/songwriter/co-founder of America, writer/singer of “Sister Golden Hair”): I’ve met Tommy more than a few times. And “Too Much Time on My Hands” — that’s such a great tune. I’d have to go with that one.

Jason Scheff (bassist/vocalist of Chicago, also 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees): Styx was a huge piece of my coming of age, basically. Being a kid of the ’70s, I came up when they were really hitting their stride. And “Too Much Time on My Hands” impacted me in the ’80s. If you can deliver onstage night after night like Styx does, people are going to continue to come see you take them there. When you put the work in like they do, it pays off.

Tommy Shaw: “Too Much Time on My Hands” is one of those energy things, with a big bottom end to it. Live, we always come charging out of the gate with “The Grand Illusion,” so when we get to “Too Much Time” next, it’s time to lock it into a groove. And that’s where Ricky Phillips comes in. He and Todd Sucherman have this great groove, right from Bar 1. That makes it easy for me to run and say hello to everyone on the stage and then go work the stage from the front, because I know that it’s gonna come back in and be rock-solid.