Three key reasons why February 22 is one of the most important dates in Styx history: 1) The band sign their first recording contract 50 years ago on this day in 1972; 2) Kilroy Was Here Turns 39; and 3) Damn Yankees Turns 32. Happy golden anniversary to Styx, y’all!
Text by Mike Mettler, resident Styxologist
Current band photos by Jason Powell
“To me, there is an arc to every artist’s career. First, you become known initially as a performer. And then you begin to establish yourself with new songs and new music. You may do a cover song here or there, but mostly you go with new material written by you or by others. That goes on for a while — and then you get signed.” — James “JY” Young
Hello friends! Today, we celebrate one of the most important dates in Styx history — namely, February 22. Three major milestones in the Styx universe all occurred on this most hallowed of dates, the very first and most important of which happened exactly 50 years ago to the day — so let’s tackle each of them chronologically, shall we?
IF I HAD A WOODEN NICKEL
First, and most important in the 2.22 trifecta, Styx signed their first official recording contract with the Chicago-based independent label Wooden Nickel Records 50 years ago today on February 22, 1972. The five co-founding members of Styx at the time of that most notable hometown Wooden Nickel label signing can all be seen in the above vintage of-era photo, from left to right: bassist Chuck Panozzo, drummer John Panozzo, guitarist/vocalist John “J.C.” Curulewski, keyboardist/vocalist Dennis DeYoung, and guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young. And, as JY himself confirms, “Within 14 months of my joining the band, we had our first recording contract.”
From there, Styx proceeded to create their first four studio albums for Wooden Nickel — Styx (1972), Styx II (1973), The Serpent Is Rising (1973), and Man of Miracles (1974) — before joining the well-respected A&M Records roster with December 1975’s Equinox. JY and I actually began talking about the band’s 50th anniversary at least five years ago, in fact, and perhaps it was three or so summers ago when he gave me the following quite prescient prediction: “I keep coming back to the idea that early 2022 is the 50th anniversary of us signing our first recording agreement, so I imagine we’ll do something special for that when the time comes,” he theorized in the most perfect, JY-like way possible.
Well, the time is now, the day is today, and the band’s Tour schedule proves it. Not only will Styx be honoring this truly special golden historical date themselves by performing in Tallahassee, Florida, later in the evening of February 22, but they will immediately follow that up the next night by doing another show in guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw’s hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, on February 23.
Cementing the Wooden Nickel contract was a pivotal point in JY’s mind, for it legitimized the groundwork Styx had been laying down in the local clubs they’d been playing in up to that moment. “To me, there is an arc to every artist’s career,” he explains. “First, you become known initially as a performer. And then there’s the arc of, if you’re a writer, will you write your own stuff? If so, then you begin to establish yourself with new songs and new music. You may do a cover song here or there, but mostly you go with new material written by you or by others. That goes on for a while — and then you get signed.”
Besides perfecting the art of live performance, Styx was ultimately able to master the recording aspect of their career as well, especially once the aforementioned guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw joined the band when he replaced J.C. in December 1975, a mere two weeks after Equinox had been released. “At that point, we had three very distinct writing styles and writers, and it was the middle ground where we all collaborated where there was magic,” JY recounts. “That said, every career seems to have an initial creative phase like we did. Our first one started in ’72, and ran through ’83.”
If anything, that first decade of existence vaulted Styx indelibly into the pantheon of great American rock bands who continue to have an enduring impact on a truly international scale — though perhaps nobody could have predicted back then we’d still be talking about it all to such a degree 50 years later. That said, JY’s co-founding compadre in arms, bassist Chuck Panozzo, is also quite eager to try 50 on for size.
Chuck and I spent a good amount of time talking about that very golden idea while we sat together on a black leather couch in the dressing room he was sharing with JY and Tommy at The Pearl at The Palms in Las Vegas back on January 20, 2019, just a few hours before the band performed the entirety of June 2017’s The Mission for the very first time in front of a live audience. (Interestingly enough, Chuck and I had a similar deep-dive conversation on that very same couch at The Palms almost exactly a year later to the day on January 19, 2020 — but that’s a story for another time.)
“As we’ve talked about before, I plan on being here for the 50th year, and whatever comes after that,” Chuck reiterated while we both were concurrently bemused at what I can only describe as a ginormous brownie cake on a wide white plate on the table in front of us. “I remember Johnny [i.e., his late twin brother, John, who sadly passed away in 1996] and me playing together in that basement in Chicago like it was yesterday, and I felt him with me while we were rehearsing The Mission. I worked really hard to learn my parts so I wouldn’t let anybody down. I love standing out there and playing with my brothers in the band every night.”
I then told Chuck I was holding him to being fully involved as Year 50 officially commenced, and if his triumphant appearance with the band in Las Vegas during their recent residency at The Venetian and in Pompano Beach, Florida, on February 18 are any indication — the latter being deemed a “hometown gig,” as he referred to it on Instagram the following day — we’ll be seeing Chuck out on the boards with his bandmates for many more years to come.
(Incidentally, Styx will be playing at least two full Mission sets this year — one of them will be at the Beacon Theatre in New York City on March 16, and the second one will be the following night at the Warner Theatre in Washington, DC, on March 17.)
Besides our two titanic founding members, I also spoke with all other current Styx bandmembers exclusively in order to garner their feelings about our favorite band turning 50 years young. Guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw, who came on up to Chicago from his bowling alley band gig in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1975 to replace J.C. a scant few weeks after Equinox was released, is forever grateful. “It’s been an amazing voyage. The music has stood the test of time, and it has grown over that time,” Tommy marvels. “I wasn’t there for those first few years, but I have been here for well over 40 years. When we walk off the stage, we feel like, ‘Well, we’ve done it again.’ And that’s the thing that keeps us suiting up — writing new material, recording new material, releasing it, going out and promoting it, mixing it in with the classic songs, and figuring out ways to continue to tell the story. I can’t imagine ever not doing this. You know, it’s still really nice to be here. And to think it all started with John and Chuck Panozzo — without them, we would not be having this conversation.” (Hear, hear!)
Keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan, who joined the band fulltime in 1999, recognizes the weight of the band’s long and storied history, night after night. “Styx celebrating 50 years is a momentous occasion, and I’m really proud and honored to be a part of this band’s legacy,” Lawrence says with much admiration. “It puts a big smile on my face to stand alongside JY, Chuck, Tommy, Todd, Ricky, Will, and all the musicians who’ve played a role in this group’s success since February 22, 1972. We are the culmination of the efforts of every member, past and present, and continue to hold ourselves up to that long-established high standard with each record we make, and every show we play. Half a century, and still rocking strong. Viva Styx!”
Drummer Todd Sucherman, who came aboard in 1995 to first record with the band and then joined fulltime in 1996 when John Panozzo became too ill to perform on the Return to Paradise Tour, echoes Lawrence’s sentiments with his own poignant commentary. “It’s great to be part of an organization that can have such an incredible milestone,” Todd observes. “I congratulate my musical brothers on this fantastic accomplishment, and I’m looking forward to playing many shows this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary!”
Bassist/vocalist Ricky Phillips, who joined the fold in 2003, got right to the heart of the matter. “Why has Styx lasted for 50 years? Everybody in the band does their homework — and that’s a really great thing,” Ricky notes. “It’s probably the first band I’ve ever been in where people treat everything with great care and great respect. The love we all have for each other is a brotherhood, and it’s not just when we’re onstage. We all get along, beyond all those musical reasons why we play so well together. Tommy calls it ‘a good hang,’ and that’s what we do together whenever we’re not performing.”
Finally, Styx’s newest bandmember, guitarist/vocalist Will Evankovich, who came aboard fulltime during the summer of 2021, adds his own unique perspective from the POV of someone who was born just six weeks after the band’s first recording contract was signed in 1972. “What’s remarkable about it is in the way it’s evolved,” Will points out. “In fact, the band is more relevant than ever, and I think that’s a testimony to the people who are empowered in this band — Tommy Shaw and James Young, the guys who want to see a vital, creative band. It would be one thing if the music wasn’t up to the standard level of the old, great records in the Styx canon. Tommy is always keeping an eye on making sure the thread is that the music always sounds like Styx.”
To borrow a line or two from Styx’s most recent, and most excellent studio album, June 2021’s Crash of the Crown, “A new day is calling.” Happy golden anniversary, y’all — and many, many happy returns!!
DOMO ARIGATO, Y’ALL
The second of our three 2.22 milestones occurred 39 years ago today on February 22, 1983, when Styx released Kilroy Was Here, their 11th studio album, on A&M Records, which also became the last studio album they’d release before taking an extended, decade-plus hiatus until they reunited in 1995 to first record an updated version of their very first hit from the Wooden Nickel era — duly redubbed as “Lady ’95” for their Greatest Hits compilation that was released that August — and then for the ensuing Return to Paradise Tour in 1996.
Kilroy Was Here spawned a large-scale concept-oriented tour of its own, went platinum, and reached No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart. Kilroy also graced us with two big hit singles: “Mr. Roboto,” which itself climbed to No. 3 (and begat a quite popular concept video), and “Don’t Let It End” made it to No. 6. (A third single, “High Time,” was only able to make it to No. 48.)
Since 1999, Styx had essentially shied away from performing practically any material from Kilroy Was Here, sans a few song excerpts here and there during the lengthy “Styx Medley” the band used to perform fairly regularly a decade-plus ago — but that all changed in an instant on May 30, 2018, when, at 10:38 p.m. Pacific time, they debuted a notable, muscularly recast “Mr. Roboto” as the first song of their traditional two-song encore at Five Point Ampitheatre in Irvine, California. This was the first full-band, full-song performance of “Mr. Roboto” onstage by Styx ever, as the song was originally performed live in a purely solo fashion by Dennis DeYoung to a backing track on the 1983 Kilroy tour. An instant fan favorite, “Mr. Roboto” has since become a mainstay in the nightly encore, and it’s always followed by the band’s show-closing perma-classic, “Renegade.”
“For one thing, it was an idea whose time had come,” Tommy Shaw told me that very afternoon in May 2018, just a few hours before Styx played it in front of the unsuspecting Five Point audience. “We’ve been working on it for a while, and we wanted to get it right. It was a lot harder to learn than I thought it would be. It’s a very original, unusual, unique track — and it’s not blues-based either — but I have a feeling it will only get better from here. Know what? We’ll probably be playing it for a long time to come.” (As we all well know by now, Tommy’s not-so-secret prediction that day has since turned out to be 100 percent correct!)
Adds Chuck, “When Tommy first mentioned the idea of doing ‘Mr. Roboto,’ I thought it was a great idea. I said, ‘Why don’t we own it? We know the song is great.’ And I knew Lawrence would do a great job with it.” It’s perhaps a bit of an understatement to say Lawrence takes on the lead singing/performing role with unadulterated verve and panache by truly inhabiting the Roboto persona every night the song is performed. “Did I ever think I’d get a chance to do it?” he muses when I pose him the obvious question. “I was fine to do it all along — I really was. I think the character in the song is larger than life. I’ve found it to be pretty visceral.”
As he now enters his fourth year of playing “Mr. Roboto” in front of audiences, Gowan reiterates another key reason why he likes singing it — namely, that it reminds him so much of the same persona he inhabits in “A Criminal Mind,” his signature 1985 solo song that has since become an occasional Styx setlist favorite as well. “I realized I like singing songs where the character has something they’re hiding,” he continues. “The ‘Roboto’ vocal is from the point of view of you’re hiding something, and you’re going to reveal it to this audience, but, in fact, they’re really getting a look inside your brain — and I really like taking that point of view.” (You can also hear the Lawrence-led live version of “Roboto” on Side 2 of The Same Stardust EP that was released in June 2021 for Record Store Day.)
As the song continues to gain more and more traction, other “Roboto” fans have made their voices known. “I heard it recently, and it was so interesting. It’s such an interesting thing,” Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen confided in me one day backstage before admitting, “I thought it was really hokey when I first heard it, but it sounded really great on the radio! What a great song!” (Domo arigato and himitsu o shiritai, as the lyrics go in Japanese. . .)
More recently, in January 2021, Tommy and I were discussing some of his favorite songs from Kilroy — and his renewed interest in revisiting them live. When I mentioned how much I personally love “Cold War,” a song that contains some of his most poignant, socially observational lyrics that continue to carry some serious weight to this very day of renewed international turmoil, Tommy replied with notable enthusiasm, “This band could totally play ‘Cold War’ live! In fact, I could hear us playing that one in my head just as you were saying that. And ‘Just Get Through This Night’ — wouldn’t that be something? We could also do ‘Haven’t We Been Here Before.’ Yeah, I love ‘Haven’t We Been Here Before.’ All we gotta do is keep waking up and put one foot in front of the other, and we’ll get there.”
(You’ll get no argument from these corners about such a great idea for live exploration, seeing how your trusty Styxologist would personally love to hear what Lawrence, Ricky, Todd, and Will could all do with the arrangements of those particular songs — especially considering they weren’t on the original Kilroy album themselves.)
Naturally, I’ve consistently semi-joked with JY that he should revive his “Dr. Righteous” persona that’s oh-so-perfectly on display in the fan-favorite Kilroy track “Heavy Metal Poisoning.” JY has yet to send me out of the room whenever I’ve brought up the thought — and he’s even quoted a lyric or two from the song back to me in that vaunted character’s voice, to boot — so, hey, you never know! (“A toxic wasteland in your ear canal,” indeed. . .)
Finally, the third 2.22 milestone signpost is that, 32 years ago on February 22, 1990, Damn Yankees released their self-titled debut on Warner Bros. Records. As most of you know, the DY supergroup configuration consisted of our man guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw, Night Ranger bassist/vocalist Jack Blades, guitarist extraordinaire Ted Nugent, and drummer Michael Cartellone (the latter of whom has played drums with Lynyrd Skynyrd since 1999). Damn Yankees has long been certified double platinum, and it reached lucky No. 13 on the album charts. “High Enough” reached No. 3 on the singles charts, while “Come Again” reached No. 50, and “Coming of Age” got to No. 60.
A few choice Damn Yankees songs have made their way into many Styx sets over the years — and, more recently, Tommy had consistently sung a few verses of “Come Again” before going into “Crystal Ball” before Crash of the Crown’s “Sound the Alarm” entered into the setlist. Not only that, but both “Coming of Age” and “High Enough” were re-recorded by Styx for inclusion on their 2011 Regeneration Volume II CD. (And please take note — both tracks also happened to see some key production guidance from none other than Will Evankovich.)
“High Enough” even made a fully unplugged acoustic appearance during the blackout half of Styx’s show at the Sunset Center in Carmel, California, back on January 16, 2019. And by now, you’ve likely seen Tommy’s totally galvanized solo version of “Come Again” as performed in his home studio in Nashville in mid-2020, a performance that was a main fixture during some of the set breaks and/or post-show codas that became intrinsic parts of some of the entries in the band’s popular Styx Fix YouTube concert series in 2020.
“I’ve always been a fan of both Tommy Shaw and Styx, and we did very well with the Damn Yankees,” Ron Nevison, the man who produced both Damn Yankees and their August 1992 followup, Don’t Tread, told me during our interview in June 2016. “I liked all of the original demos for songs like ‘Come Again,’ and ‘Coming of Age,’ but I thought ‘High Enough’ was the coup de grace. After I heard ‘High Enough,’ I flipped out, and I told the label I wanted to do the album.” (And who could blame him?)
THE ENDURING POWER OF 2.22
At any rate, the perfectly harmonious date of 2.22 also dovetails quite nicely in parallel with the pivotal release date of Styx’s seminal seventh album, The Grand Illusion, on 7.7.77 — just like they planned it! In the meantime, while you’re letting all of this super calendrical symmetry sink in, let us one and all raise a collective glass to toast 50 years of Styx — a true milestone in the history of our favorite rock band! Who knows what the next half-century will bring?