Over the past few years Styx has been on a mission to bring new music to classic rock fans — which is no small task for a band that will celebrate its 50th anniversary in two years. In 2017 the group released “The Mission,” their first album of original material since the 2003 release “Cyclorama.”
“Tommy (Shaw) was determined to make new music, which I thought would have been a fruitless exercise, but I have been pleasantly surprised,” guitarist James “J.Y.” Young noted during a recent phone interview. “It has given the band credibility and is an opportunity for Lawrence Gowan to firmly establish himself out front with the first song of the set. And we have a new creative energy in the band.”
Styx returns to the area for a sold-out show at Fallsview Casino on March 19, a show that will include a few songs from “The Mission,” including the group’s opening number that Young mentioned, “Gone, Gone, Gone,” featuring Gowan on lead vocals.
It’s also a song that gives J.Y. a chance to show off his chops. “I saw the original Jeff Beck Group, and I was old enough to see Jimi Hendrix five times. I saw The Who, Cream back then too, so Beck, Hendrix and Clapton are my biggest influences. I was playing this riff over and over and trying to figure out a song, and Tommy (Shaw) and his collaborator Will (Evankovich) wrote some great stuff around it and gave me a spot for a guitar solo, so a lot of that energy is pure J.Y.”
The theme of “The Mission” is centered on a space mission to Mars. Some people were surprised that Styx recorded a concept album, and even more surprised that the idea didn’t come from J.Y.
“I have a degree in Mechanical Space Engineering but the whole idea came from Tommy, Lawrence and Will. Tommy and Lawrence are fascinated with NASA, and they even know how to track the space station and see it with the naked eye. In the first bout of interviews they assumed the concept came from me.”
J.Y. was the first to admit he had reservations about putting out new music. Airplay for new songs by classic rock artists is virtually non-existent so many Styx fans hear the material for the first time in a live setting. Music writers gave it a thumbs up when it came out in 2017.
“It’s the best reviewed album we have ever made, which is something we never got in the beginning. It showcases this band at their collaborative height and it’s very rewarding.”
It’s also the first Styx album of new material to feature bassist Ricky Phillips, a former member of The Babys. Philips joined Styx in 2003 and since then the band’s had its longest running stable lineup.
“I never really got to know Ricky when he was in The Babys. They opened for us back in 1978 but the band kept to themselves. He is one of the greatest guys I have gotten to know.”
J.Y. also has high praise for Styx drummer Todd Sucherman, who took over for John Panozzo shortly before Panozzo passed away on July 16, 1996. John’s twin brother Chuck still performs with the band on bass for part of the show.
“Everything has come together, and as long as we stay healthy, we can play for another 20 years,” J.Y. noted after he mentioned that he turned 70 years old last year.
J.Y. is a founding member of Styx and has been in every incarnation of the band. When asked what song he never gets sick of performing, he answered without hesitation.
“The song ‘Renegade’ has taken on different lives. The Pittsburgh Steelers adopted the song and they adopted us. The guy who programmed the Buffalo radio station WGRQ, John McGhan, who I met back in 1976, moved to Pittsburgh in 1977 or 1978, heard it for the first time and told me the guitar solo was too long (laughs).”
Back in the days when AOR stations did song battles where fans would call in and vote for their favorite song “Renegade” won consecutive weeks and as Young put it, “became embedded in the psyche” of Pittsburgh music fans. In 2002 it became a staple during Steeler home games.
“I’m a diehard Bears fan, but to be embraced by one of the classic franchises is special but Bills fans might find it interesting that it originated with a guy from Buffalo, who was born in Victor (near Rochester). He made a difference and was a fun and amazing guy, many people in the business will never forget him.”
Sadly, McGhan passed away in 1990. He was 42 years old.
“People have used the song in different ways. Tommy came up with the idea, and at first it was like an Alan Parsons or Pink Floyd style, but we needed a big arena rock style song so that’s what we made it, and I love playing the solo in the middle part.”
Whether or not there will be any new Styx music on the horizon remains to be seen, but Styx is a band with nothing left to prove as they move toward what should be an exciting 50-year anniversary.
Thom Jennings covers the local music scene for Night and Day.