James Young and Styx have a mission to keep rocking

Published on July 19th, 2019

By Jim Dail

Styx has been revered over the years for creating some of the best classic rock in history. Most fans can point to such hits as “The Grand Illusion,” “Renegade,” “Too Much Time on My Hands,” and “Miss America,” to name just a few.

Yet, when it comes to reviews, it hasn’t been that easy to appease the critics, until their last record, “The Mission.” That’s ironic since the band was the first group to be awarded four consecutive multi-platinum albums: “The Grand Illusion,” “Pieces of Eight,” “Cornerstone” and “Paradise Theater,” at the height of their recording career.

“”The Mission” is our best reviewed record we’ve ever had in North America and Europe and every place else as well,” said band founder and guitarist/singer James “JY” Young. “But having an artistic career always has its ups and downs, and things can surprise you.”

The band had consistently sold out shows for years, and it had been more than a decade since the band put out a new record.

“The band has hit this stride putting out the new record, which was something I was lukewarm about,” he said. “Tommy [Shaw] said it was time, and he had this notion of the “Mission to Mars,” and me having an aerospace engineering degree, I sort of couldn’t come up with anything but outer space.”

The band’s music has always been about humanity and making connections, and Young points to Shaw’s ability to relate to people in his music.

“Tommy, as a writer, has a way of capturing the humanity of everything,” he said. “That’s the key to relate on a human emotional level to things, and he nailed it.”

Perhaps one of the biggest parts of the album featuring JY was the lead work on “Gone, Gone, Gone,” one of the best rockers in the Styx catalog, and the song that has become the show opener.

“I’d basically played that Jeff Beck-inspired opening riff over and over in the dressing room until people were tired of hearing me do it,” he said. “I had tried writing a song around it, and Tom and our collaborator Will [Evankovich] finished the song. Then Lawrence [Gowan] nailed the vocal. It’s basically 3 minutes of hot fuel dragster!”

It’s a perfect show starter.

“As recorded, it is 3 minutes or so, and live it goes on a little longer,” he said. “It’s just a perfect thing to come out and get the crowd fired up and hammer them for 3 minutes solid. Then we take it wherever we want from there. It’s a collaborative effort as most things have been with Styx.”

In addition to the previously mentioned songs, fans can also expect such songs as “Fooling Yourself,” “Blue Collar Man,” “Rockin’ the Paradise” and “Lady,” among others.

Young has been the one mainstay in the group through its history, and there’s a great deal of classic music he has been a part of in his career, such as “Miss America” from the “Grand Illusion” album.

“I played that on a Gibson SG, but with all the knobs and buttons you can kind of make all those guitars sound the same,” he said. “I’d had family issues so I was behind the curve and distracted. I figured I had to finally come up with something. I am a huge fan of Jethro Tull. That’s what inspired the riff, a combination of ‘Minstrel in the Gallery’ and ‘Locomotive Breath.’ Well, we took turns rooming together, and we would rotate who got the one single room and who got the other rooms, and I was rooming with Dennis [De Young]. I woke up in middle of the night, and I thought that the Miss America contest was a great example of something that could work, since its whole purpose was to draw people to Atlantic City, and no one would ever know who these women ever were, with a couple exceptions. There was an illusion to it.”

To go with the guitars and lyrics, there was a powerful vocal as well.

“I was almost a screaming singer, and it sounds angry at times to me, but I am a true lover of the feminine gender,” he said. “It was very powerful.”

There’s also “Snowblind,” which some critics laughably somehow connected to Satan.

“Give me a break,” he laughed about the “Paradise Theater” track. “Anything you play backwards sounds like the devil is saying it. I tried hard to hear it. The most interesting thing about that song is its impact.”

The song, another collaboration, breached the topic of cocaine – but not actually Lucifer.

“Tommy had his own moment with that drug and bad experiences, so he was uniquely qualified to write the lyrics,” he said. “He took 10 minutes and nailed that part of it and the whole ‘mirror mirror’ thing was very catchy, the way it evolves and the way it ended.”

Bassist Ricky Phillips, a veteran of The Babys and Bad English, was enamored with the song.

“Ricky Phillips played with some great people like Neil Schon, and he’s worked around some great people, so he’s had the vantage point to observe,” he said. “He said the first time he heard the song he was blown away by the topic and said it just captures it in an amazing way.”

Another straight ahead rocker is “Renegade,” from the “Pieces of Eight” album.

“Tommy was home for a couple days and laid the bass track and an acoustic guitar track, and I was there and a guy wanted to hear about recording, so I laid down the guitar and that wound up being how we did the song,” he said.

Added to the set list of late is “Mr Roboto,” a hit song for the band in the ‘80s, but one that further exacerbated tension in the band at the time.

“We asked the people around us, such as our lighting director who is one of the smartest people I know, and she said the only song ever requested that we don’t already play was ‘Mr. Roboto,’” he said. “We were just in a catering area going over a few things and changes to the show and we asked the merchandise guy the same question, and he said every night people were complaining that we didn’t do that song. That was the song that pretty much ended the band at the time, but it was one of three gold records that year. “Beat It,” “Billie Jean” and “Mr. Roboto” were the only ones. ”

Scanning around online, the band found some inspiration.

“We’d heard other young bands doing the song and they toughened it up and made it heavier, and we figured we can toughen it up too and make it our own,” he said. “We went out with a fantastic lighting rig and put on a huge light show and it went off like gangbusters.”

For JY, Styx is a special band and not focused on one star.

“A band can succeed if you have one talented guy, and the rest of the band can fill in roles,” he said. “We have three strong singers, and we’ve had to change a number of the pieces of the band, but we were fortunate to find replacement parts that are equally as good or better.”

And the band is fast approaching the 50th anniversary milestone.

“The good news is we succeeded in spite of that bias in terms of reviews and critics,” he said. “You do what you are given the gifts to do, and that’s what you have to offer the world and you offer it in a big way. It’s crazy to think about it that we started making records in 1972, and we signed our recording contract on Feb. 22, 1972, so if we get to our 50th anniversary it will be 2/22/22, which is kind of cool.”

And while he loves the success of “The Mission” and all the recording success, it’s the stage that Young finds special.

“Live music is what I wanted to do play in front of a live audience when I learned to play,” he said. “Travel has gotten interesting. I’m not quite as limber getting into airplane seats! But touring is the most fun when you line up the machine and can get out there and perform and see how the audience reacts. I have a desperate need for attention!”

THE SHOW

Who: Styx

Where: Pala Casino

When: 8  p.m. Friday July 26

Tickets: $55-$75. https://www.palacasino.com/entertainment/concerts/

Styx is coming to Pala!

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