50 Years Ago: Styx Forms
In July 1972, music began flowing from a new Chicago band named after the river Styx. The quintet introduced itself to the world with "Best Thing," a love song inspired by guitarist James "J.Y." Young's wife, Susan. It was the lone single from their self-titled first LP, which followed in August 1972 — a relatively inauspicious debut (neither the single nor the album charted) for a band that would score its first hit, "Lady," just two years later. Toward the end of the decade, Styx was one of the world's biggest-selling groups.
"In a way, it seems like it was just yesterday that we started, and other times ... I don't know," Young, who remains from Styx's original lineup along with part-time bassist Chuck Panozzo, told this writer in May 2022. "The first album was a starting point. Every band needs to get a break and get that starting point. But we had no idea what was gonna be expected of us, and a lot of things came up that were, 'Oh, we gotta do that? Oh, we have to do that? Now we have to learn to do this? We have to learn to do that?'
"There was a lot to learn. And, pretty clearly, we did."
Panozzo and his twin brother, drummer John, had been playing music with childhood friend Dennis DeYoung for years, first as the Tradewinds and then TW4 (There Were 4) with guitarist Tom Nardini. They later added Chicago State College classmate John Curulewski on guitar and vocals, and after Nardini left they brought in Young, who was studying mechanical and aerospace engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology. It was Young's "Best Thing" that scored the fledgling band a contract with the local Wooden Nickel Records label.
"I'd just met a girl who ultimately became my wife and still is married to me," Young said. "We met in late '71, and then we moved in together — in sin, to the chagrin of my parents. Her parents were Danish and very open-minded, so it wasn't a problem for them. 'Best Thing' was about her and my relationship with her, and then Dennis helped me finish the song."
The group signed with Wooden Nickel on Feb. 22, 1972, after label president Bill Traut saw TW4 play at a Chicago club. The company nixed the band name, however, and Styx was chosen because it was "the only suggested name that no one in the band actively hated," according to Chuck Panozzo in his memoir The Grand Illusion. The mythological river separating the land of the living and the land of the dead "was kind of a cool concept for a rock band," Panozzo wrote. "'Listen to our music and cross over into another realm of existence.' Or something like that. ... So Styx was born."
Styx was produced by John Ryan, assisted by Traut and tracked at Chicago's Paragon Recording Studios. At the time, according to Young, Styx was still figuring out a sonic identity. "A lot of the Chicago bands from the '60s were very much about the three-part harmonies — the Cryin' Shames, the Buckinghams. Shadows of the Night were more of an edgy thing with their redo of 'Gloria,'" he said.
"Ultimately we were kind of a mixture of guys that loved the Beatles, which was Dennis and the Panozzos — not that I didn't love them, but my slant was more towards the Hendrix, Cream, Who side of things. We were just a mixture that happened to come together in Chicago and ultimately find a sound that worked."
For the first record, however, it was primarily producer Ryan who guided that sound, positioning the band in the hard-rock and prog realms. Styx starts audaciously with "Movement for the Common Man," a four-part suite weighing in at more than 13 minutes that included sections written by Young and DeYoung, along with a bit of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man."
"[Ryan] wanted to add artsy-fartsiness to just plain rock songs, and that was ambitious," noted singer and guitarist Tommy Shaw, who had played clarinet in his high school orchestra. "But the Who had done Tommy by then ... so I didn't mind going out on a limb like that."
Young was Styx's primary singer on that first album, taking lead vocals on five of its eight tracks.
"I always thought I was a strong singer," says Young, who started as a youth in the church. "I could sing high and sing on key. It was never a problem. I don't know that I'm a great singer, but I could hit the notes then, and my range is about as high now as it was back then. John Curulewski had the highest voice; he could just hit the stratosphere, high A and everything. I sang, and Dennis sang, and the Panozzo brothers would be part of the harmonies, so that was always a big part of what Styx is, on that [first] album right up 'til now."
While Styx featured material from outside writers, DeYoung and Curulewski wrote everything (minus an arrangement of Bach's "Little Fugue in G") for 1973's Styx II. And the group has remained mostly self-contained ever since, with some collaborators. "We learned things in dribs and drabs, and slowly but surely," Young says. "[1975's] Equinox was the first record we felt sounded like a big-time record, and Crystal Ball after that and then The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone. ... But those first few albums, with Wooden Nickel before we went to A&M [in 1975], we were learning."