Welcome to The Grand Illusion…again.
Styx’s seventh studio album—issued 7/7/77—invited listeners to “come on in and see what’s happening” at the show, whose program was actually a scathing rebuke of consumerism and superficiality.
“They’re just someone else’s fantasy,” sang vocalist Dennis DeYoung of the accoutrements constantly on offer by television and magazines.
One wonders if the Chicago-based progressive band ever considered that computers might one day be used to further the charade. Ah, but the art rockers have done a good job employing modern technology to serve their own ends, too, marketing themselves online as effectively as their younger peers in rapidly changing times. Fans can rest assured smashes like “Renegade,” “Blue Collar Man,” and “Lorelei” will continue making the rounds—in one format or another—well into the foreseeable future.
Still spearheaded by guitarist James “J.Y.” Young and longtime co-guitarist Tommy Shaw, Styx remains a force to be reckoned with some forty years after its inception. As with many groups boasting such longevity, its lineup has fluxed over the decades, with drummer John Panozzo passing away and bassist brother Chuck Panozzo stepping down for health reasons. Shaw left for solo work and super-group glory with Damn Yankees in the ‘90s, but “The Renegade” returned for Brave New World, Cyclorama, and Big Bang Theory with new keyboardist Lawrence Gowan (of “Moonlight Desire” fame). DeYoung—author of “Mr. Roboto,” “Babe,” and “Come Sail Away”—had already jumped ship by the turn of the century.
Recruiting veteran bassist Ricky Phillips to pin the low end (replacing Glen Burtnik) and drummer Todd Sucherman to delineate the group’s complicated meters, Styx was able to create new music and survive well into the 2000’s, where they now enjoy status as a premiere band (from an arguably superior musical age) and reliable road act whose catalog crammed is with hits—and whose semi-trucks weigh heavy with lights and pyro.
Making of “Styx: The Grand Illusion/Pieces Of Eight Live” DVD ):
Styx blew through Blossom Music Center in 2012 with REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent on the Midwest Rock and Roll Express Tour. Now they’re venturing into other major cities, secondary markets, and all points between with their “Wayward Son” colleagues in Kansas. The bands team up for a “Rockin’ the Paradise” styled gig at Youngstown’s Covelli Centre on October 17th.
Phillips checked in by phone last week to update us on current events in Camp Styx. But the ex-Babys / Bad English bassist also made time for a few over-the-shoulder glimpses down memory lane and key insights on recording vs. touring in an increasingly digital world.
EXAMINER: Hello, Ricky! How are you?
RICKY PHILLIPS: Doing great, man, how ‘bout you?
EXAMINER: Pretty good! Hey, do you mind if I ask where you are right now, just to get a sense of location? You guys are already out on the road, yes?
RP: I’m in Seattle. We’ve been touring all year. We’re in Seattle now, just moving through the Pacific Northwest. We’re going to be heading that way soon!
EXAMINER: Recently Styx toured with REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent, and now you’re out with Kansas. Are you getting on well with your new tour partners?
RP: Oh, Gosh, yeah! We’ve toured Europe with Kansas, toured the United States with Kansas. We’re real good friends. Love those guys!
EXAMINER: Can you give some examples of some things you’ve learned—or things that just stick in your mind—from traveling with other classic rock bands like those?
RP: Well, just starting with Kansas, I’m a huge fan and I love all the guys. I play golf with at least three of the guys in that band. I’m just a fan of bands that still have it. Bands where people go to see them and think, “Oh, they’re probably gonna be half of what they were,” but they end up being even better than they remember. That’s kind of what’s going on out here. People tend to forget that you get better if you keep doing it. I think people are surprised. I think I’d put my money on going to see a classic rock band over just about anything, because it’s being performed on the stage with real talent. There’s not a bunch of machines running things. It’s the real deal. And when we go out with other bands like Foreigner or Def Leppard—we did two runs with those guys—they were just fantastic shows! The guys deliver. Or Journey, for example. We did a tour with them. Or REO, you mentioned. All of these bands are really firing on all cylinders. And truly, back in the day—in the seventies—when I toured with these bands, they’re all considerably better now on several levels than they were back in their heydays.
EXAMINER: I think you’re right. I mean, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with guys coming out in flannel and jeans like Pearl Jam and Nirvana used to do, because it gives off that “we’re just normal dudes” vibe. But there’s something to be said for dressing the part and moving around a bit onstage and bringing that visual aspect to a rock show.
RP: Yeah! I used to think for a while there that all these bands just got off work at Kinkos and went running straight for the stage, and then just stood there! And I thought, “Okay. I didn’t like my dad’s music….” And it’s the same way today. But it’s so nice for us to look out and see so many young faces who have discovered not just us, but other bands who are now what is being coined as “classic rock.” And they’re seeing a lot of the roots of a lot of bands they like. They’re seeing where those bands came from. And it’s actually grown over the last ten years. There’s just this huge bed of young fans coming out to the shows every night. And I like to comment on that only because we appreciate whatever “quest” they went out that brought them to our music. However they got there, however they got to hearing us. When I was a kid, it was Howlin’ Wolf and all that stuff coming out of Chicago at Chess Studios, and some of the Memphis Blues—but we had to be reintroduced to all that by the Brits. Bands like the Beatles and Stones, and certainly Eric Clapton and John Mayall. And they were reintroducing to us what we already had here all that time, but we hadn’t been giving enough credence to. So that was my journey as a young guy. Now we’re seeing people find our band and other bands on that same sort of quest, and it’s very cool to see.
EXAMINER: Parents introduce their kids to it, and it gets passed on from one generation to the next. A lot of classic rockers get passed over on radio these days, and MTV isn’t what it used to be—but there are plenty of other outlets nowadays. Just the other night, in fact, this new ‘80s-based sitcom featured an REO song. So the material still gets out there.
RP: [Laughs] Yeah! That’s great.
EXAMINER: What can folks expect this time around? Last year the agenda was “The Grand Illusion” and “Pieces of Eight,” two major Styx albums from the late ‘70s in their entireties.
RP: Yeah! The cool thing that happened with those shows was, we brought out some old songs that had been overlooked—and a few that had never been played live by Styx before. It takes us to what some people would call the “deep cuts.” So what we try to do…we’re a little handcuffed with how much time we’re given to play. If we only have a ninety-minute set, then it’s pretty much the hits. And maybe we can squeeze a song or two in there from the “deep cuts.” That’s what we’re trying to do. We’ve seen bands go out and play all this obscure, crazy stuff, and you lose over half the people, because they haven’t heard all that before. But sometimes there are these venues that are appropriate for that, where people go, “Oh! This is cool!” And then there are venues that just aren’t set up for being introspective; the people are there to rock and have a good time. And we want to be the life of the party, not the downer of the party! So we definitely give the people what they want to hear, and try to hit on most of the hits. And then we’ll throw in a little something for the fans who’ve been there for a long time and maybe don’t expect to hear something like “Queen of Spades” or “Castle Walls.” We’ll interject some of those songs into the set, and not labor on them too much. Just give everyone a taste, so they’re like, “Oh, what was that? I like that!” And if they’re into it, they can research it maybe, and get it later. But that’s kind of what to expect from Styx right now: Giving you what you want, but also throwing in a thing or two you might not expect.
View trailer for Styx “Pieces of Eight” DVD: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NPwS0u90Ug&feature=player_embedded
EXAMINER: I know [original bassist] Chuck Panozzo is still with the band and comes out for the occasional song. How do you work out between you who will play bass on which material?
RP: Well, to be real straight about it, I’m the bass player in the band. And Chuck is a founding member. He wears the crown. He’s had health issues and just wasn’t able to do a full set—which is what kind of led to the phone call to me ten years ago. And Chuck comes out. We introduce him early on in the show, and then he leaves but comes back to do the encores with us. And that’s something he’s fine with. And by the way, we call him “Iron Man” because he’s stronger than ever now. He’s come back. And we’re so happy he’s not retiring and still loves doing it. He’s so much a part of the brotherhood here, and we support him and the fact that he’s still able to come out. He’s at over 90% of the shows at this point. The only time he doesn’t come out is when it’s a really tough, grueling run of shows that are just bam, bam, bam. Or maybe a few markets where the travel is a little suspect. But he’s got his fans out there every night, waiting for him to come out. And it’s a lot of fun for us. It’s thrilling to still have him out with us.
EXAMINER: Who were some of the early guys who influenced your bass playing growing up? What kind of stuff molded your style in The Babys and Bad English?
RP: I guess the very first influence—the guy I realized was doing way more than the band seemed to be doing—was Paul McCartney. To learn Paul McCartney’s bass lines…they sound real simple on the radio when they’re going, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” But then you really start listening to what he was doing, and it’s really intricate. And I learned a lot after the fact, and read up about it, and what he was often the last thing recorded, and he’d fill in percussively or melodically or rhythmically, and do whatever was needed to make the track pop. And that’s why his bass lines sound so simple. He made them look—and still makes them look—incredibly simple, when they’re really anything but. And it’s something that was probably the best things to happen to me as a young kid, to learn from. But beyond him, I’d say John Entwistle, Chris Squire…guys like that who could really did in and play and had a lot in their hands, really dig in. The feel, the tonality. Not just the notes they’re playing, but the way they played them. They got a sound. John Entwistle to this day, it blows my mind how good he was. And there are other guys, too. Tim Bogert from Cactus, who actually started in Vanilla Fudge. Great, great. Guys who are aggressive. John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin, I think is an absolute genius. There are just a few guys out there like that who just never did anything bad [laughs]! They hit a home run every time—those are the guys I love. Jack Bruce from Cream. Also, I learned an awful lot from Clapton back in his Cream days—his phrasing and note choice. It was so ridiculously cool back in those early days. And I’ve actually had some people pick up on that and say, “Man, I don’t know what it is, but there’s a Clapton-esque style to your bass playing sometimes.” I always trip out when people say that, because it’s right on the money!
EXAMINER: I’m a big Yes fan, so I love Chris Squire’s playing. He and those other guys really elevated the bass from just a mere rhythm instrument to a sometimes-lead instrument. They all have melody in their lines, and a lot of them play in upper registers and mingle with the guitars as much as the drums. And when you get to be that facile, other people tend to notice. Like you said with McCartney, “All My Loving” is very daunting for a newbie bassist!
RP: Yeah, I guess so. It’s funny, because as you say that, there’s a point where you just know you’re ready for that. I don’t know if you know until it happens, but when it does, it’s like, yeah! When I got the call from Jimmy Page [for the Coverdale / Page project], you could have bowled me over with a feather. I was like, “Seriously?” I actually got the call from David Coverdale, and he told me what he and Jimmy were up to, and the next thing I know I’m in this sequestered area where we worked on songs for several months. I was never supposed to be the bass player on that, as a matter of fact. They were going to do a super-group thing. Geffen—the record company—wanted to do a super-group with them. But as we got closer, they called and said, “Will you come up and help us woodshed these tunes? We need somebody who is a songwriter and can have some input.” And I ended up doing keyboards, and some background vocals on all the demos. We had a little camp set up, but then we’re flying off to Vancouver, where we recorded the actual record. It was just going so well that they decided to keep it as it was. And in answer to your question, you just never know when you’re good enough to do that, or when that adjustment comes. But if you’re always trying to be the best you can be, either you get there or you don’t. There have been so many things in my life where I’ve been asked to play or perform with people where I never would have dreamed it would happen. And when it does, you just smile and keep going and do the best you can!
EXAMINER: What is it about Styx music that drives you as a bassist? Are there any songs you like playing more than others, or that perhaps offer little technical challenges that you look forward to pulling off every time out?
RP: I think some of the things…. There are a lot of dynamic changes in Styx songs, a lot of odd meters. We’ll start in 6/8 and then go to 4/4, and then maybe 7/4. It’s very interesting. I don’t think the general listening audience has an awareness of the mathematics, but that’s one of the things I identify with. And when a Styx song comes on, you can go, “Oh, that’s Styx!” You don’t have to be told who it is, because it just has a sound to it. You’ve got the big vocals, and duality of guitars with James Young and Tommy Shaw…nobody sounds like that. It’s just something they have. I’ve seen them work over a part, but I’ve never seen them work on what it is that they do together. It just happens. When those guys play together, it just sounds like Styx! And all the lush vocals and powerful harmonies, it’s just such a signature sound. But back to your question, “The Grand Illusion” was a song that I always highly respected. I love playing that song. It’s just so well put-together. And Tommy Shaw has a song called “Fooling Yourself (Angry Young Man),” which, to me…I wish I would have written that song! To me, it’s got everything in the melody—and it’s so hopeful and positive even though it’s “Angry Young Man,” in the subtitle. It’s kind of like, get over yourself. Everyone gets spit out into life after all the teachers and parents and relatives or whoever beat you up. And now you’re supposed to make something of your life. So it’s like that: Get over yourself, get over being angry and make something of your life, because you’re wasting your time. Get with the program and have a good life! But beyond that, you’ve got this beautiful melody, and certain parts of the song are progressive, and then pop—and there are some just really good rock parts as well. I like that song a lot. It’s just cool!
EXAMINER: I saw a video clip online of you guys doing an a cappella version of the national anthem at a baseball game. It was a very cool arrangement.
RP: Yeah, if you break that down the way we do it, it’s almost like The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man.” There are places where it is the obvious harmony, but then there are places where there’s like a color change. Where it’s like, “Whew! That’s cool!” And really, that’s Tommy. We were gonna do the national anthem someplace—I think Heinz Stadium in Pittsburgh—and he suggested trying this new idea, where we switch it up from three-part harmony to four-part, where it weaves in and out. Really fun to do. We haven’t done it in a while; we’ve done it maybe half a dozen times at football and baseball games. And a couple hockey games, so maybe it’s more like a dozen times. It’s one of those things where, it’s not on our radar and we don’t seek it out, but when we get invited, it can be fun to do.
EXAMINER: Six or seven years ago you guys performed a one-off with Liza Grossman and Cleveland’s Contemporary Youth Orchestra at Blossom. It was shot for the DVD One With Everything, and was by all accounts a huge night and great spectacle. What are some memories you have from that event?
RP: I still remember that it quickly became apparent that the evening wasn’t about us. It was about the 160 kids up on that stage. And we got a little choked up at times, because we knew there were some kids there who would go on and be musicians—and then there were the other 125 kids where, this was it for them, and this would be a moment they’d remember for the rest of their lives. We were digging in, trying not to blow it! And they were high school kids, man! And there were kids in that choir who were like, nine years old! I think it went from nine to 19. It was a special night, and they all deserved the applause and accolades they got for what they were able to do. We worked with them a bit, and it all came down to, “It’s zero hour! Let’s everybody focus and do this!” And Blossom was crammed with parents and grandparents and relatives, and people from their towns, and other teachers…. The looks on their faces of rapture, of being scared to death, of every emotion you can think of…. And out of that emotion came some beautiful music. I think there were four or five arrangers who did those songs. Because this was a full-on orchestra up there, with reeds and brass and woodwinds. Violins, cellos. I think there must have been ten upright basses, and a full percussion section. So it was a full orchestra, and they did a fabulous job.
EXAMINER: A lot of Styx material lends itself so well to orchestra anyways.
RP: Yeah, I agree with you. I think some of the songs were so good, it was such a surprise, that I thought, “Hey, this isn’t just playing along; this is actually adding something.” Which, for a while, I didn’t anything could be added. But it was really well done.
EXAMINER: Back in the spring you were honored by the Texas legislature for your contributions to music, and were given a proclamation. That must’ve been neat for you.
RP: It’s crazy, isn’t it? Yeah, I played golf with Senator [David] Lucio. He’s a great guy and we had great conversation. And he was like, “Weren’t you in Bad English? Weren’t you in The Babys? Didn’t you play with Jimmy Page?” And after a while I realized he was a music fan. I was like, “This is cool!” Because he didn’t look the type, you know? He had his bow ties, and he’s just very statesman-looking, so I had no idea. But then I found out that his brother had been a musician, and they’ve had a lot of music in their family. And after a while, a year goes by and I get this call saying “Senator Lucio would like to present you before the Texas legislature…are you available?” And I was like, “What?” So I went down there—actually went to the House of Representatives first, then the Senate. They were passing a lot of bills. I think I was like, 852 on the docket that day. Something like that. It was just hysterical. It was like, “We would like to recognize Ricky Phillips as a great Texan, for his musical contributions over the years. He’s done this, this, this….” And they went down this laundry list of things I’d done—they made me sound pretty damn important, so it was fun to listen to! Then they walked me up and a bunch of senators came down and shook my hand. So it was nice. It was a very sweet thing for him to do.
EXAMINER: So what’s up for Ricky Phillips and Styx next year? I know you guys are road dogs, but is there any recording within the band—or without—on the calendar?
RP: I think there are a few things that dictate what we have time to do. We’re already book with shows into next year. There are a lot of little surprises coming up for next year. But what’s happened is, it used to be the “recording industry.” But it’s really the “touring industry” now, and the sooner you swallow that, the more fun you have with it. Because that’s really what it’s all about. We love recording; we’ll all songwriters. In fact, I’m finishing some recordings that I was working on with Ronnie Montrose before he passed away. I’m in negotiations now with a few people to play the solos that Ronnie just wasn’t able to do. And the whole premise behind me doing this is, I’m trying to do it from behind the eyes of Ronnie. We went in and did it on two-inch tape, no overdubs, and created songs in the studio the way we used to in the seventies. And it’s come out sounding so special. There’s Sammy Hagar, everyone Ronnie was known for working with is on the project with us. It’s coming out great. But for me, I have so little time to produce. But this is a labor of love, so for me I’ll fly out to San Francisco or wherever I have to in order to keep working on it.
EXAMINER: You sort of answered my last question, a joke question my daughter wanted me to ask. She’s grown up hearing Styx music with me, and I took her to see you guys a couple summers ago. When she heard I’d be speaking with you, she was like, “Ask them how much time they have on their hands!”
RP: [Laughs] Ha, ha! That’s very good—you can tell her. That’s very apropos!
Styx with Kansas. Thursday, October 17, 2013 at Covelli Centre (229 East Front Street, Youngstown, Ohio 44503). Tickets $37.00-$150.00.
Tickets available now: http://www.covellicentre.com/styx-kansas-october-17th-20/