The Power of 2.22: Styx Signs Their First Recording Contract 49 Years Ago, Plus Kilroy Was Here Turns 38 & Damn Yankees Turns 31 Today!
Three key reasons why February 22 is one of the most important dates in Styx history.
Text by Mike Mettler, resident Styxologist
Performance photos by Jason Powell
“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.” — James “JY” Young
Before the shortest month of the year officially goes in the books, we here at Styxworld central thought we’d take a moment to 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 date, 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 49 years ago today on February 22, 1972. The five co-founding members of Styx at the time of that most notable 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.
From there, Styx proceeded to make their first four studio albums with 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. “Within 14 months of my joining the band, we had our first recording contract,” JY confirms. “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.” (Believe me, JY, we’re all looking forward to whatever form that special milestone celebration may take!)
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 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. And that goes on for a while.”
Besides perfecting the art of live performance, Styx was ultimately able to master the recording aspect of their career as well, especially once guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw joined the fold 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 an international scale — though nobody could have predicted then we’d be talking about it all to such a degree on the literal threshold of 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 talked about the 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 talked about before, I plan on being here for the 49th year, and 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 plate on the table in front of us. “I remember Johnny [i.e., his late twin brother, John] 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 once Year 50 comes around — so stay tuned!
DOMO ARIGATO, Y’ALL
The second of our three 2.22 milestones occurred 38 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 for 1996’s Return to Paradise Tour.
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 has essentially shied away from performing much, if any, material from Kilroy Was Here, sans for a few song excerpts here and there during the lengthy “Styx Medley” they 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, as the song was originally performed live in a purely solo fashion by Dennis DeYoung to a backing track on the 1983 Kilroy tour. (It has since become a fan-favorite mainstay of 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 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.” Lawrence, of course, is keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan, the man who takes the lead singing/performing role and inhabits 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 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 third year of playing “Mr. Roboto” in front of audiences, Gowan reiterates another key reason why he likes singing it — namely, because it reminds him so much of the same persona that he inhabits in “A Criminal Mind,” his signature 1985 solo song that has become a Styx setlist favorite as well. “I realized I like singing songs where the character has something that 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.” (Domo arigato and himitsu o shiritai, as the lyrics go. . .)
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 still carry some serious weight to this day, 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, because 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, seeing how your trusty Styxologist would personally love to hear what the aforementioned keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan, bassist Ricky Phillips, and drummer Todd Sucherman could all do with the arrangements of those particular songs, especially given they weren’t on the original Kilroy album themselves.)
Naturally, I’ve often 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 idea — 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. . .
Finally, the third 2.22 milestone is that, 31 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 been certified double platinum, and it reached 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 has consistently sung a few verses of “Come Again” before going into “Crystal Ball.” 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. “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. Also, 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, which became a popular fixture during some of the set breaks and/or post-show codas that have been part of some of the entries in the band’s popular Styx Fix YouTube concert series.
“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 the 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 symmetrical date of 2.22 also dovetails quite nicely in parallel with the 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 sink in, I say let the countdown to 50 begin!