In Advance of This Week's Hard Rock Live Concert, Styx Guitarist James Young Talks About the Prog-Rock Band's Lengthy Career

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click to enlarge In Advance of This Week's Hard Rock Live Concert, Styx Guitarist James Young Talks About the Prog-Rock Band's Lengthy Career
Rick Diamond
The first band in rock history to have four consecutive certified multimillion-selling albums in a row (those would be 1977’s The Grand Illusion, 1978’s Pieces of Eight, 1979’s Cornerstone and 1981’s Paradise Theatre, Styx has yet to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame while prog rock peers such as YES and Rush have finally gotten in.

That hasn't fazed the band. It continues to play about 100 dates a year; it also just released a new album, The Mission. The album opens with a noodle-y "Overture" and then features guitar heavy tunes such as "Gone Gone Gone" and "Trouble at the Big Show" as the songs explore a science fiction theme.

In a recent phone interview, guitarist James Young speaks about the band's legacy; it performs at the Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield Park at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday.

On Coming Up with the New Album’s Concept

“It was [guitarist] Tommy Shaw’s idea. He talks about how the story that popped out of his head when he came up with a melody and thought about the mission to Mars thing that’s at the end of Side 2 on the vinyl. The fact that we have a lot of fans at NASA might have had a small influence too. [NASA] sent a probe out to deep space to take pictures of the planet Pluto and discovered a fifth moon and they had to come up with a name and Vulcan was the biggest vote getter, but there’s another celestial body by that name, and Styx was the second vote getter. It’s somewhat of a coincidence but we have a pile of Styx fans in Maryland [where the NASA Goddard Space Center is based]. I think there’s a bit of cross-pollination there. We’ve been exposed to some of it up close. It’s not exactly a military theme but more about space adventure."

The Story Behind “Gone Gone Gone”

"The beauty of my colleague, Mr. Tommy Shaw, is that he’s great at taking a concept like this and bringing it into daily experience. It’s his gift as a writer. With “Gone Gone Gone,” the guitar riff is something that I used to noodle around with, and it’s Jeff Beck 1010, who’s a huge influence. I finally shook Jeff Beck’s hand about three years ago, by the way. I kept trying to put a song to this song but it didn’t come to me. Tommy and his collaborator managed to bash it out. When I heard the demo of it that opens with my guitar riff after Tommy added the lyrics and melody, it was a delightful surprise."

Is The New Album on Par With The Grand Illusion?

“That’s for people in your position to judge. I’ve never seen us receive such positive reviews from writers and journalists and people who generally review music. Our peers have put out records of new material, but I think this is more thoughtful and introspective than just trying to write pop songs. Tommy is credited with producing, and it turned out great. I have friends in the business who keep gushing about it. At this late stage in our career, to have this kind of response to our first new music in 14 years is gratifying. Music has become more disposable because of technology. We’re inundated with things at every angle to distract us, and Tommy is uniquely qualified to be our alpha dog. Even though I’m the one with the mechanical engineering degree, if I had come up with this concept, they would have rolled their eyes. I would have spun it a different way, but Tommy has done a tremendous job, and I give him the highest praise. We’ve carried the band on for 19 years without [original singer] Dennis [DeYoung] and had our biggest attendance ever last year.

A Bitter Break Up

We broke up in 1983 when everyone started making solo records. Beyond that, no one had individual success. [DeYoung] firmly believed his solo career would take off and Tommy got tired of waiting for him and started Damn Yankees. When you make a commitment to a man like [guitarist] Ted Nugent with crossbows, you have to stick with it. We got back together in 1996, and it was extremely successful. Yes was the opening act on that tour, but we were the main draw. I know Dennis is making noise about a reunion, but we’re in a good spot and [current Styx singer] Lawrence [Gowan] is a tremendous talent. I wish Dennis the best at everything he does. We did some incredible work together. We had such incredible battles, and it was hell to live through. People who talk about the creative process say that great works come from tortured souls. We were torturing each other, and my taste is different from Dennis’s. The work we did together collaboratively had to live up to high stands. The work holds up because it was subjected to such scrutiny. “Babe” was something I didn’t necessarily like because I was more into Deep Purple, but I’m happy to have been involved with it. We did some incredible work, and “Come Sail Away” and “Renegade” are still popular. The Goldbergs used 'Come Sail Away' just a week ago.”

On Kilroy Was Here

“That was the worst. It was Dennis [DeYoung’s] dream and our nightmare.”

Snubbed by the Rock Hall

“The crazy thing is that there has been a blind spot for Chicago as the birthplace of stuff that was deserving unless it was blues artists like Willie Dixon, who came to fame there, and Chuck Berry, who recorded at Chess Studios. The Paul Butterfield Band was a joy to me. I’m a huge fan and saw him play many times. I’m happy they finally got in. Two years later, Cheap Trick, who are our friends, got in. I know the door is open for us. We just have to be patient. For the longest time, I said I didn’t care. But fans want to see us there. I would say to [Rolling Stone publisher] Jann Wenner that we’d be well behaved should we be inducted. Our dear friend Kevin Greene was just inducted into the Hall of Fame. It took Kevin forever to get inducted, and there are so many great NFL players who aren’t in there. What matters more is the memories of people you touched personally. We’ll accept it if it happens. Our fans want to see us there, and we will be there if it happens.

Styx, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9, Hard Rock Rocksino, 10777 Northfield Rd., Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets: $55,

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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