Join us in this celebration of Styx’s magically inspired covers album, which was released on May 10, 2005.
by Mike Mettler, resident Styxologist
Big Bang Theory, Styx’s rousing run through a baker’s dozen of celebrated rock and blues classics — in addition to a stripped-down makeover of one of their own benchmark hits — was released 15 years ago on the New Door/UMe label on May 10, 2005. “I felt we needed to re-imagine the band as much as we could, and move more toward where my heart was and where Tommy [Shaw]’s heart was,” explains Styx co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young. Adds guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw, “Being unpredictable is a great thing. Doing Big Bang Theory fit into being adaptable and flexible enough to go off the menu for what’s expected of us and do things we’re not really sure how they’re going to turn out until we work through them. It’s kind of who we are.”
On Big Bang Theory, which debuted at No. 46 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart, Styx encapsulated the range of their depth and eclectic taste, from Tommy’s heartfelt take on Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” (a personal favorite of Chicago-based vocal powerhouse Ava Cherry, onetime backup singer for both David Bowie and Luther Vandross) to JY’s impassioned update of Willie Dixon’s “It Don’t Make Sense (You Can’t Make Peace)” to keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan’s threading the nautical needle with Procol Harum’s “A Salty Dog.”
The one track that fueled the whole Big Bang was actually the key ingredient of Styx’s now legendary set at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival in Dallas on June 5, 2004 — an inspirational cover of “I Am the Walrus,” John Lennon’s surreal slice of psychedelic wordplay pie that was originally released in November 1967, in turn serving as a shining moment in The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour film and on the ensuing double-EP and full album. A classic Gowan tour de force, Styx’s version of “Walrus” became an instant hit on classic-rock radio, reaching all the way up to No. 2. (It’s also a song that occasionally makes an appearance in the band’s live rotation whenever Styx plays longer sets — and was also a special bonus addition to a recent Styx Fix Saturday night broadcast on YouTube.)
In a Styxworld exclusive, the entire band tells us the tale of how Big Bang Theory came to be, and they assess the album’s continuing legacy. Goo goo goo joob. . .
James “JY” Young (co-founding guitarist/vocalist): After we got the  Crossroads gig, I said, “What can Lawrence do? We can’t really do blues.” Then I said, “Well, [Eric] Clapton hung out with The Beatles, and Lawrence has been noodling on ‘Walrus’ since way back when.” It was probably back in 1999 when I first heard him singing it during a soundcheck. It jumped into my brain as we were driving to a gig where we were going to rehearse, so I said to him, “You know ‘Walrus.’ Why don’t we work up a Styx version of that song?” And we did an incredible version — Lawrence sounds just like John Lennon on it.
Lawrence Gowan (keyboardist/vocalist): I used to play “I Am the Walrus” in Rhinegold, my band in the ’70s. We all kind of knew it in our heads, you know? I knew it because I worked out the chords to the record, and I knew some of the King Lear scat at the end — “Sit you down father, rest you.” I walked everyone through the chords, and everyone applied their own imagination to it, from their memories. There are no heavy guitars on the original at all. Tommy and JY basically played the orchestra part of the song with two guitars, and they put in all the horns and orchestral bits. I also tossed those harmonies in on the keyboards, and there are some strings behind the piano that I’m playing. Todd [Sucherman] was quite faithful to the Ringo [Starr] approach to that song, especially the fills. People hear that and go, “Oh! There’s a live version I never heard!” And then they realize it was done by somebody else — us.
Tommy Shaw (guitarist/vocalist): Lawrence had been playing around with “Walrus” at soundchecks. He knew the arrangement, and not everybody knows that song. None of us really knew it as something we would jam on. Suddenly, we were like, “Ok, show me where this is going to go.” Little by little we learned those progressions, and then we decided to record it live up in Lincoln City, Oregon on my birthday [September 11, 2004]. We actually recorded it on JY’s laptop, on Pro Tools. That was the easiest way of getting it done — and it was a really good recording, too. For us, it was such a treat.
Ricky Phillips (bassist/background vocalist): I was only in the band for a year or two when we did that. I’ve been stopped by a lot of musicians who comment on how great they think our “Walrus” is. One of the reasons it was successful was because we never discussed it. I don’t think anybody referenced the original recording. I don’t even know how many years it had been since I’d even heard the original, but it stuck in my brain when we started playing it.
Todd Sucherman (drummer): Honestly, I think we play that song so well, and it’s a song that almost no one covers — and not to the level that we do. We have fun with it, and clearly the audience has fun with it as well. I always love when the song is in the set. It’s not always in the set, but it creeps in from time to time. It’s The Beatles, what can you say? I like when Lawrence makes mention onstage that we did this on a record, live, so a layperson won’t go, “Oh they’re just jamming on a Beatles song.” There’s a reason we did that — and it got to No. 2 behind the almighty U2, who were at No. 1 back in May 2005 — being that no “new” radio stations would play any new music from us, and the classic rock stations wouldn’t play new music from us either, so that was like a little loophole into getting on radio. It’s a good lesson for any musician: Don’t roll your eyes at any notion. If you approach it with open heart, open mind, and open ears, you can certainly surprise yourself, and come out the better for it.
Lawrence: We never even discussed doing a studio version. The excitement of it, from the first time we did it, seemed to be what its value was — the live audience hearing, “I Am the Walrus,” and how they react to it. Everything else for the album came from that.
JY: The genesis of doing the whole album thing was me driving by 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, the old Chess Studios where artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, and Buddy Guy recorded. A lot of great records were made there. The Yardbirds and The [Rolling] Stones went there to record too.
What happened was, I was driving in downtown Chicago, and I found a parking meter on South Michigan Avenue. I was waiting around, just listening to the radio and making phone calls, and I noticed 2120 was now Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. I said to myself, “Styx needs to go in there and record.” I went inside and talked with the people in there about it, and ultimately we arranged [with Marie Dixon and Kevin Mabry] to record there.
Tommy: Of course, there was no longer any recording equipment at 2120 since it had become a blues museum, but with Pro Tools and things, we just pulled up a truck and turned it into a recording studio. And Mrs. Marie Dixon was awesome. The whole family embraced us being there.
And then [legendary Chuck Berry pianist] Johnnie Johnson came into it. He couldn’t have been sweeter. We were just going to do whatever anybody wanted to do and whatever Johnnie felt comfortable with. But then [blues vocal legend] Koko Taylor shows up! She wanted to be a part of it. We all just sat around the board we set up downstairs, very casual, playing “Blue Collar Man.” She was there with a microphone, and just threw it down. There were a lot of lumps in the throats and teary eyes, because it was just (pauses). . . it was just magical. I’m glad we recorded it. Otherwise, it would have been one of those crazy, wonderful musical moments that’s only in your memory.
[Your Styxologist notes: That special version of BCM is officially titled “Blue Collar Man @ 2120,” and it appears as the final cut on the BBT CD. Sadly, Johnnie Johnson died at age 80 in St. Louis on April 13, 2005, and Koko Taylor died at age 80 in Chicago on June 3, 2009.]
It was just one of those things that was so well timed. It all started with an idea — with James Young thinking, “What if I pull in there?” That’s what I love about it; everything starts with a thought. If you act on it to see where it leads you, something amazing can happen.
Ricky: My favorite recording of the set is Koko Taylor singing “Blue Collar Man” and not changing the lyric, keeping it the male gender: “I’m a blue collar man.” Somehow, it was so right. And boy, did she believe that song; you could tell by the way she sang it. You can tell it shouldn’t have been changed.
Tommy: Recording “One Way Out” in itself [as a nod to the live version done by The Allman Brothers Band on their legendary February 1972 double album, Eat a Peach] was a great experience, especially for this band, to interpret that song. It was also a great opportunity for Todd Sucherman to play some serious drums!
And who in their right mind would have thought, years later, I’d be playing Duane Allman’s 1957 Les Paul onstage, in Macon, Georgia on that song [at City Auditorium on October 5, 2014]? Fate has a wonderful way of tying up little knots and making things happen that you’d never even really consider.
JY: Willie Dixon’s son Butch was a 6-foot-5, 300-pound guy who was very interested in the music business. I loved him. He said, “You guys really have to do a Willie Dixon song on your next record.” So I said, “Yep, we’re going to do ‘Don’t Make Sense (You Can’t Make Peace).’” Willie had given me his [1983-released Mighty Earthquake and Hurricane] album when I had met him in the ’80s, and nobody had ever covered that song. I just thought it was perfect for the times that we were in — 2004, and post-September 11.
Lawrence: I think the song that was the biggest surprise and the one that took the band a little while to embrace was “Talkin’ About the Good Times,” by The Pretty Things [included as a bonus track on their December 1968 opus, S.F. Sorrow]. I really like what we did with it. It was a different kind of pressure — as in, “Don’t let the song down” rather than, “Oh, I hope they’ll like this song.” We made a more polished version of it, and I just really like the fact we did it. That’s one where, whenever I hear it in the rotation of the songs that play during the preshow before we come onstage, I think in my head, “God, that sounds so bloody good.” (chuckles)
Tommy: “I Can See for Miles” [from The Who’s seminal December 1967 album, The Who Sell Out] was a treat, because I’d never been in a band that played Who songs. And that was right up JY’s alley too. Over the years, Styx would mess around on Who songs at soundchecks, and I think we played one or two of them live, many brain cells ago. But when it came to “I Can See for Miles,” I leaned on everybody to help me keep it authentic. It was more in my wheelhouse than I realized.
Ricky: “I Can See for Miles” and Manic Depression” are ones I’ve always wanted to play, and always admired. Doing “Manic Depression” [from The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s legendary May 1967 debut, Are You Experienced] was a blast for me, because I was a Hendrix freak as a kid. But after you play them, it feels like the “We’re not worthy!” thing.
Todd: “Manic Depression” was a fantastic thing to do. It’s such a showpiece for drum ideas. It would be easy to go overboard and over the top, but the trick was to play just enough, and the right amount. I use that song and “One Way Out” in my second Methods & Mechanics DVD [released in 2011], and will sometimes perform either of those tracks at my drum clinics.
Tommy: We were in Europe when we shot the video for “Can’t Find My Way Home” [from Blind Faith’s self-titled August 1969 album]. When you have a location like that — oh, man! A lot of it was done in Nottingham, some of it was in Berlin, and I can’t remember if we used anything from Amsterdam. We also did it on the ferry at Dover. And that’s such a great red rain jacket I’ve got on there. (smiles)
JY had one of those small digital movie cameras. We were down by the Thames one afternoon, just walking around. I had the song on my iPod, and that was our playback. We saw those ladies sitting there at the bus stop and we asked, “Do you mind?” I don’t know if they ever really understood what we were doing. (chuckles)
Lawrence: I think JY may have started singing “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” or maybe he just suggested it; I could be wrong. I loved that Humble Pie album [November 1971’s live benchmark, Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore]. That may be the one song where we did go and listen to the original live version. It’s a vocal style I never really get a chance to use in Styx, though I guess I do a little bit of that now in “Rockin’ the Paradise.” As an encore piece, it has a little more grit, and “I Don’t Need No Doctor” gave us license to do that. “Doctor” made it into the set for about a year as an encore, right before “Renegade.” We got a great crowd reaction for that one, because people were not expecting it at all.
Tommy: “A Salty Dog” was always a favorite of mine, by Procol Harum. I loved that record [released in June 1969]. It was just one of those haunting tunes. I love the flatted fifth in that song, and how orchestral it is. It’s right up our alley. That’s a song that would have been a great Styx song, right off the bat.
Lawrence: I love Procol Harum. To my mind, they were the first progressive band after The Beatles, who did every style of rock there is, but Procol Harum was the first band that picked up the progressive aspect of it. When I got A Salty Dog, I loved the title song. But I could not figure out those chords and the structure of that song — those were really unusual chords. I’d go, “What the hell is that?” I also like that “A Salty Dog” kind of ties to “Come Sail Away,” you know? I envisioned that. We did a nice job on that one.
Ricky: What’s the overall legacy of Big Bang Theory? For one thing, it’s interesting that it’s being talked about now. I didn’t know people even noticed it. “I Am the Walrus” lived on the charts for quite a while, and it lived on a lot of stations around the country. Beyond that one, the album is a very odd collection of songs. But at the same time, that’s why it’s interesting to listen to.
Todd: The moral of the Big Bang Theory story is, if you keep an open mind and an open heart and open ears, you might learn to love something that before, you paid no mind to at all.
Lawrence: The songs were well chosen, I think. It was just beginning to get popular about 15-20 years ago for bands to cover other bands’ stuff, and now it’s done fairly regularly. We never thought of doing the rest of the album live, like we did with “Walrus.” That’s something fairly unusual about the record. It opens up with a live track, and then you get a studio album!
I love the song choices on Big Bang Theory. In many ways, it kind of distilled a lot of the spirit of what the band is now. There’s a lot of fun on there. With it, I think we made people look into areas they might not have otherwise. It was a bit of a challenge to the audience. It’s also like the live show is now, which is the center of the band’s existence. It’s fun but it still surprises people, the way we surprised people with what we chose to put on that Big Bang Theory record.
JY: The genesis was we had the No. 2 classic rock song across the country with “Walrus,” and with the help of some independent promo guys, we became our own record company, and put it out there. We didn’t sell anything, but it was just a cool thing to have there on classic rock radio. The key is classic rock radio believes that when their listeners hear something that’s not familiar, they turn it off. But “Walrus” is a familiar song by a well-known band to them, so they won’t change the channel. Then we just decided to go back and do an album of songs that influenced Styx — songs that influenced all of us.
Tommy: It fits into us being adaptable and flexible, and to be able to go off the menu for what’s expected of us. We had the opportunities to do these songs, and we weren’t sure how they were going to turn out. But there was nobody saying “No.” We said, “Yes, let’s do it! Let’s figure it out when we get there. We’ll do the best we can.” That’s why a lot of that stuff is so real. Doing covers — some of them you know, some of them you’re learning, and some of them you’re coming up with on the spot. It’s kind of who we are.