Graded on a Curve:
Styx, The Best of
Styx: The Millennium Collection

As any music critic with good taste and intelligence will tell you, Styx was one shitty progressive rock band. But, and this is important, for those (like me for example) who came of age in the late 1970s, Styx was the only progressive rock band that mattered.

While Keith Emerson was off writing his piano concerto (see Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s 1977 magnum dopus Works Volume 1), Yes was boring the bejesus out of us with 1973’s interminable Tales of Topographic Oceans and Renaissance was making us nostalgic for the Middle Ages, Styx was producing easily accessible pop prog for the masses. Their populism–which they embraced after their very proggy 1972 eponymous debut–eschewed elitism, bombast and instrumental virtuosity for its own sake, which is hardly surprising given they hailed from a Midwest city famous for its hot dogs.

Millions of kids listened to ELP’s adaptations of classical works by the likes of Modest Mussorgsky and Alberto Ginastera–theirs was head music of a sort, and it made their listeners feel smart. But teens could hardly relate to such music, seeing as how it failed to touch on the realities of working dead end jobs, getting stoned, looking for girls, and getting their hands dirty in the engines of their hand-me-down 1971 Plymouth Dusters.  Even the mythical enchantress Lorelei in Styx’s song of the same name is a flesh and blood, ready-to-put-out girl: “I call her on the telephone, she says be there by eight/Tonight’s the night she’s movin’ in/And I can hardly wait.” One shudders to think what unspeakable things ELP might have done with a song with that title.

Which brings us to 2001’a The Best of Styx: The Millennium Collection. It includes every song a casual Styx fan will want to own and plenty of other Styx songs your average person won’t want to own. What this compilation mainly proves is that Styx was a mediocre band that produced a couple of iconic songs that–along with the likes of Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind”–defined an era.

It’s important to note that this best-of does not include one of Styx’s most popular songs. The cringe-inducing “Lady” is MIA because it was originally recorded for and released through another record label, and if “Lady” is the only Styx song you’ve ever liked you’ll have to seek it elsewhere. Hell might be a good place to start.

The two songs I find most essential are “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” and “Come Sail Away.” The former is a guidance counselor pep talk (evidently directed at DeYoung) by guitarist Tommy Shaw that borders on the preachy. It opens with a lot of synthprog paradiddle by DeYoung followed by a Shaw lecture on why you should ditch the bad attitude because “your future looks quite bright to me.” Had Shaw tried this number on some of my high school classmates they’d have laughed in his face then poured sugar down his gas tank, but if it’s a solid rock song and some attitude adjustment you’re looking for “Fooling Yourself” has it in spades.

LP highlight “Come Sail Away” is one of the signature songs of the late seventies. DeYoung’s the weary captain of the ship of fate who–and this is one of the most mind-blowing moments in rock history–gets swarmed by angels who turn out to be aliens that want him to climb aboard their starship and sail away to another cooler galaxy where you won’t have to work a boring job, go to school, or take shit from your asshole parents. This is as close to mysticism as most of my peers got, and some really heavy shit when on acid. And the music’s great too; from its opening neo-classical piano to the big Who power chords that mark the arrival of our extraterrestrial visitors “Come Sail Away” is as good a pop song as any released during its time.

The less essential but still worth hearing “Blue Collar Man” directly addresses the woes of the working man. This hard rocker opens with a Uriah Heep organ riff then lays out how demeaning it is to want a job but to have stand in an unemployment line instead. “Too Much Time on My Hands” (which has one big guitar riff going for it) is practically a clone of “Blue Collar Man.” On this one a self-described unemployed loser sits glued to a barstool cuz he’s got “nothing to do and all day to do it,” You know he’s reached rock bottom when he sings, “I’ve given up hope for the afternoon soaps.” When General Hospital stops working you know you’re fucked.

The remainder of the comp’s songs run from the mediocre to the unspeakable. In the former class we have “Boat on the River,” a prog-folk waltz complete with mandolin and autoharp which may or may not be about the river the band named itself after. Then we have “Mademoiselle,” which is faux Queen but not half bad if you subtract the absolutely atrocious lyrics about some a mysterious Frenchwoman of wealth and taste who’s being pursued by our singer, who says delusional shit along the lines of “You’re searching for a dream/Well maybe it’s me.” Yeah right. She may want to consider getting a restraining order.

From here on out things go terribly, horribly awry. “The Best of Times” is the kind of song Billy Joel might have written then burned in a wastebasket to make sure nobody found it; the treacly ballads “Babe” and “Show Me the Way” are perfect examples of Man’s inhumanity to Man. Fans will tell you “Mr. Roboto” is an astute critique of the dehumanizing effects of technology, but it sounds like a cheesy novelty song to me. That said, it may have been the inspiration for the Unibomber.

Styx’s total contribution to Western Civilization was near nil–take away “Come Sail Away” and “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” and I wouldn’t miss Styx at all. But “Come Sail Away” was legendary when I was coming of age; if Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” wasn’t playing when you were sparking a joint in the high school parking lot “Come Sail Away” was. So let the elitists dismiss Styx’s music as kiddie prog. Bong for bong Styx was the best progressive rock band out there.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C

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