Today’s the day Paradise Theatre first made history when it was released 40 years ago on January 19, 1981.
by Mike Mettler, resident Styxologist
Is it any wonder that Paradise Theatre made such a lasting impression when it was released 40 years ago today by A&M Records on January 19, 1981? In fact, Paradise Theatre (or Theater, depending on which part of the album sleeve you’re viewing) was Styx’s first album to reach No. 1, which it did for three non-consecutive weeks on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart not too long after its release. It ultimately sold over 3 million copies, making it Styx’s fourth multiplatinum album in a row — the first time any rock band in history had ever achieved such a vaunted sales feat.
“Has it really been 40 years already? I can hardly keep track of all of our anniversaries!” guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw told me with a hearty laugh this past week. “But I really do love how much Paradise Theatre has endured, and I appreciate all the ways the fans continue to embrace this music of ours.”
Onward to the facts: Paradise Theatre, Styx’s tenth studio album, was recorded, engineered, and mixed in 1980 at Pumpkin Studios in Oak Lawn, Illinois, with the late, great Gary Loizzo at the helm. (Loizzo passed away five years ago after a long battle with cancer on January 16, 2016.)
The album’s tone was set by the wistful bookends “A.D. 1928” and “A.D. 1958” — as well as, of course, its final 27 seconds, Dennis DeYoung’s Vaudevillian piano outro “State Street Sadie” (a particular favorite track of Styx’s keyboardist/vocalist since 1999, Lawrence Gowan) — all serving to frame a concept album that chronicled the glorious opening and eventual glum closing of a fictional Chicago theater. “I know exactly physically what building I was in when I wrote that riff for ‘Rockin’ the Paradise,’” says co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young. “I still drive by it sometimes in the south suburbs of Chicago, where we were rehearsing at the time. Tommy came up with the verse and Dennis came up with the lyrics, and there it was.”
Adds co-founding original bassist Chuck Panozzo, “Paradise Theatre really captured us at our best, when everyone was working towards achieving a common goal. And now I like that we’re able to recreate that feeling of rocking the paradise onstage every night with the people we have in the band.”
Two huge singles emerged from the record. Keyboardist/vocalist DeYoung’s touchingly reflective “The Best of Times” (JY’s self-admitted favorite DeYoung ballad, in fact) made it all the way to No. 3, and Shaw’s instantly iconic “Too Much Time on My Hands” reached No. 9. “Too Much Time” remains a crowd favorite to this day, and it appears prominently in every Styx live set. “It was like the song was playing in my head,” Tommy recalls of writing “Too Much Time” on the literal last day of recording for the album. “I heard that riff in my head, but I didn’t have anything to record it on as I was driving to the studio. When I got to the parking lot, I turned the car off, ran inside, got everybody together, and said, ‘Chuck, play this riff, and then do this.’ It was like it came together in a package, and all the pieces were assembled right then and there.”
“Too Much Time on My Hands” has garnered much additional pop-culture cache in the ensuing years. Back in April 2016, Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon began singing snippets of the song during his post-monologue, show-opening desk pieces (“I’ve got the 12 o’clock news blues!”), with house band The Roots picking up the beat to riff on it right alongside him. “I was impressed with Jimmy’s vocals — and the band did a fine job on it too,” Tommy told me at the time.
Soon enough, Fallon and his Tonight Show team created a frame-by-frame remake of most of the song’s instant-classic concept video imagery that had made it an unabashed early MTV staple, with Fallon taking on DeYoung’s vested role and Paul Rudd (Ant-Man, Anchorman) donning the infamous blue jumpsuit and requisite blonde wig to replicate that perfect of-era Tommy Shaw look. You can see their video homage in a side-by-side comparison with the original clip right here.
More recently, in December 2020 and in support of Steelers Nation, our man Shaw, along with every other current Styx bandmember — JY, Chuck, Lawrence, drummer Todd Sucherman, and bassist Ricky Phillips — took to Zoom to collectively perform an updated remake of the song for our modern times, in a video and audio package produced by the band’s formidable live engineer, Chris “Cookie” Hoff. You can watch that energetic and quite kinetic version of “Too Much Time” on Styx’s official YouTube channel right here.
Other classic Paradise cuts continue to be performed live by the band, including the aforementioned “Rockin’ the Paradise,” which has since turned into a top-hatted Lawrence Gowan performance showcase — and a song that also has the fine distinction of being the 10th video ever shown on MTV on the very day the music channel debuted on U.S. cable systems on August 1, 1981. “It reminded me of the kind of song Elton John was doing in the early ’70s. That’s how it felt to me, and I fell in love with it immediately,” admits Lawrence. “It’s a dissertation, that lyric. And it’s very uplifting, very positive. Live, it’s an over-the-top performance where I realized, yeah, I could really rev up this character. I’d done a kind of ringmaster-y character myself in the past, and these lyrics fit with that idea. I also thought I might be able to get away with a sequined coat on that one. (chuckles) It’s a song where I’d like to play piano from top to bottom, but the only spot where I can get away with it and still be the showman is in the middle.”
And then there’s “Snowblind,” which returned to the live set for the first time in a number of years in early 2016 and subsequently became a setlist favorite during Renegades in the Fast Lane, the band's five-show residential run alongside Don Felder, which was held at the Venetian Theatre in Las Vegas between January 6-14, 2017. “Snowblind” also made occasional appearances as part of Styx’s first round of live sets in January 2020, with Young’s effects-laden lead vocal as eerie/creepy as ever, perfectly countered by Shaw’s atmospherically cool wah-wah guitar tone during the “Mirror, mirror” verses. Observes Chuck, “That was the first time I played bass pedals on a song. We were doing some things that really took us out of our comfort zone.” Notes JY, “When you sing the soft parts of a song, you get to hear the crowd singing with you. A number of years ago, when I started singing the line, Mirror, mirror,’ I got to hear the whole place singing along with me for the first time. I had never experienced that before. It was like, ‘Holy crap! This song has touched a lot of people.’ It keeps resonating.”
A number of Styx’s contemporaries absolutely love the music of Paradise Theatre — especially when it comes to “Too Much Time on My Hands.” Among the musical admirers of “Too Much Time” whom I’ve personally spoken with include Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen (“It’s my favorite Styx song”), America co-founder Gerry Beckley (“That’s a great tune!”), and Chicago bassist/vocalist Jason Scheff (“It really impacted me in the ’80s”). As Sammy Hagar oh-so-succinctly told me in March 2017, “That is my favorite Styx song. Yeah, I really like that song. I like it melodically, and I like the way the riff goes, and the groove. If I ever did do a Styx cover song, that’s the one I’d go ahead and do. That ain’t a B song!”
An extensive international tour quickly followed the album’s release in 1981, encompassing over 100 shows in North America and 14 European gigs, as well as a pair of tour-closing dates at the legendary Budokan in Tokyo, Japan, in January 1982. The Japanese shows are especially notable because the setlist included traditional Japanese songs “Sakura Sakura” and “Sukiyaki,” which featured Tommy playing a koto, a zither-like instrument he bought locally and learned to play in his hotel room. “My most fond memories of Paradise Theatre were when we put it up as a show, and we played it onstage,” Tommy recalls. “I had never seen a backdrop like that — where you’d see one thing when it was lit from the back, and then see something totally different when it was lit from the front. It was just magical.”
One particularly auspicious and serendipitous U.S. performance on the Paradise Theatre Tour took place on August 25, 1981 at the Roanoke Civic Center in Roanoke, Virginia. Not only was that concert the very first Styx show ever attended by your trusty Styxologist (see my actual ticket, shown above), but it was also attended by Todd Gallopo, the owner and creative director of meat and potatoes – design and branding (all-lowercase letters intended). Gallopo happens to be the man responsible for the album design and visual conceptualization for Styx’s most recent studio album, June 2017’s The Mission, as well as other catalog releases in the Styx canon under the Universal/UMe umbrella including August 2003’s Rockers compilation, May 2004’s Come Sail Away: The Styx Anthology, and May 2005’s Big Bang Theory. “My mom and I went to that show in Roanoke, along with my best friend who I played hockey with,” Gallopo told me in May 2019. “It was the first show I ever saw. I don’t have my ticket anymore, but that was the first concert I ever went to. I was way into Styx at the time. I was a young kid playing my own music, and Styx was cool. And that show was also about a week and a half after my birthday. It’s amazing you were there too! Going way back like that, you can see the full circle that happened between Styx and me.” (Without a doubt, brother!)
Finally, we must share a few words about the album’s initial vinyl release. In that regard, adding to the overall Paradise coolness factor was the laser-etching of the band’s name along with some theater flourishes on the label-less Side 2. “That was done to thwart bootleggers, which was a big problem back then,” reveals Tommy. (These etchings can also be found on some, though not all, subsequent Paradise Theatre vinyl reissues.)
All of this wonderfully majestic detail, of course, serves well to keep alive the memories of Paradise.