About an hour and fifteen minutes into Adam Sandler’s 1999 hit comedy Big Daddy, attorney Layla Maloney questions five-year old Julian “Frankenstein” McGrath about the time he spent with Sandler’s Sonny. After discovering that the child has learned to perform a questionable and potentially dangerous professional wrestling move “like Chief Jay Strongbow” she asks if there is anything else.
“He taught me how to pee on a building,” the urchin replies and then, removing his sunglasses for emphasis, adds “and he taught me that Styx was one of the greatest American rock bands and that they only got a bad rep because most critics are cynical assholes.”
Attorney Maloney nods her head and says “Well, I think we’d all agree with that.”
Do we really?
Is Styx actually “one of the greatest American rock bands?” Have they been forced to labor under a dark cloud of disdain because those who have professionally judged their work bear a strong resemblance to misanthropic anal orifices?
To determine how Styx stacks up against the competition, we must first determine who they are competing against. According to the census bureau, 308, 745, 538 people were living in the United States in 2010, give or take several hundred thousand misplaced uncles, aunts, cousins, and individuals who owed underground crime figures significant sums of money. It is startling to realize that this is the exact number of American rock bands that have been formed since Styx began playing in 1962 as The Tradewinds. Since many musicians and a vast quantity of Americans without any musical skills at all have been in more than a dozen rock bands in the past half century or so, one would expect the number of rock bands that assembled during this time frame to be larger but, as fate often has it, many of these groups disbanded before playing their first chords or paradiddles due to fierce arguments over the band’s name, logo, haircuts or outfits and thus cannot be considered true American rock bands.
The founding members of Styx began exploring music in a Chicago basement. Garages and basements are the cradles of many American rock bands. For better or worse, many American rock bands have never been heard outside of their basements or garages. One might argue that one or more of these bands had the potential to be one of America’s greatest rock bands but had their careers cut short by intolerant parents, complaining neighbors, the inability to master certain diminished chords, or the sudden, shocking realization that extended accordion solos are of limited use in most forms of rock music. In the basement or garage phase of rock band development, critics are usually limited to friends, family, neighbors and potential sex partners. The number of cynical assholes in this audience tends to fluctuate but rarely constitutes a majority.
If we dismiss the large number of American rock bands that never performed outside of basements and garages, competition for the title of one of America’s greatest rock bands shrinks by a considerable margin but still leaves us with nearly a hundred million bands. We can now state with some certainty that Styx is greater than about two hundred million bands that have traded licks since Chuck Panozzo joined with his brother John and an unnamed high school friend with an accordion to form the group that would later grow up to become the first band we knew as Styx.
In evaluating whether Styx deserves to be considered among the greatest of American rock bands it essential to define which version of Styx we are discussing. When the Panozzo brothers dumped their accordion playing (former?) friend and replaced him with a neighbor called Dennis DeYoung they established the nucleus of the band that would eventually perform at stadiums throughout the world. Adding John Curulewski and John Young as guitarists, they took the name Styx in 1972 and signed with Wooden Nickel records. This version of Styx recorded five albums (the last on A&M) but was unable to attract much attention outside of Chicago until a song from their second album, Lady, hit the charts two years after it had been recorded.
In December of 1975, John Curulewski left Styx to spend more time with his family. He was replaced, for worse or better, by guitarist Tommy Shaw.
With the arrival of Shaw, Styx now had two long-haired blonde guitarists. Did this make them one of the greatest American rock bands or were they greater when J.C. was helping handle the guitar load?
Whether or not they improved after the addition of Tommy Shaw, they certainly were more successful. Their 1977 release of The Grand Illusion went Triple Platinum and the single Babe from their 1979 Cornerstone album hit #1 on the rock charts. Of course, as we have all learned from the success of groups like The Archies, Hanson, and others, success alone does not qualify one to claim the title of one of the greatest American rock bands.
Since 1984, Styx has broken up and reformed with various lineups enough times to make your head dizzy. Glen Burtnik replaced guitarist Tommy Shaw at one point and then he was replaced by Tommy Shaw. Burtnik then came back to the band as a bass player when Chuck Panozzo had to focus on health concerns. Meanwhile, co-founding brother John Panozzo was replaced by Todd Sucherman when his health began to collapse. Perhaps the most significant and controversial change occurred when Dennis DeYoung was booted from the band and replaced by Lawrence Gowan. One version of Styx, seen only on a charity telethon, actually had both DeYoung and Gowan on stage together.
Was this one gig band actually one of the greatest American rock bands in disguise or was it some other version of Styx or was it no other version of Styx? Mr. Sandler in his Sonny incarnation may have been correct in his opinion of “most critics” and it is certainly true that critics have not been kind to any version of Styx. It should, however, be noted that “most critics” haven’t had too many nice things to say about the bulk of Adam Sandler’s work either. It is said that the ability to relate to a band helps form the connection that causes us to sense greatness. If this is true, it comes as no surprise that Styx makes Adam’s list of greatest American rock bands.
As for me, I’m going with my firm mathematical contention that Styx is greater than two thirds of the rock bands that ever started in a basement or a garage. Personally, I might have even enjoyed hearing them back then.