You know ‘em, you love ‘em, you’ve sung ‘em in karaoke bars: “Lady,” “Come Sail Away,” “Renegade,” “Mr. Roboto.”
They’re the irresistible prog-rock anthems and power ballads of Styx, the Chicago-born band that epitomized the ambitious arena rock sound of the late 1970s and much of the ‘80s. Styx has two times played the Super Bowl, three times broken up and gotten back together, and five times made platinum-selling albums.
They’ve once visited Belly Up Aspen, where they return on Saturday, July 20.
For a lot of us who weren’t around when Styx was cool in their hit-making heyday, it’s hard to imagine their singalong-friendly, guitar-powered, keyboard-tinged sound once fell far out of fashion. After “Show Me the Way” hit No. 3 on the Billboard chart in 1990, grunge took over and a nearly decade-long backlash ensued against their maximalist hard rock.
But the band’s oversized pop culture influence brought them back, as listeners slowly admitted they were not, in fact, too cool for Styx.
Credit for the resurgence goes oddly to the likes of Adam Sandler, who made “Renegade” a binge-drinking anthem in “Billy Madison” in 1995, then made the defense of Styx’s awesomeness a central part of “Big Daddy” in 1999.
In the climactic court room scene in the latter film, Sandler’s adopted son makes a concise argument for the band’s awesomeness: “Sonny taught me that Styx was one of the gweatest amewican wock bands, and they only got a bad wap because the cwitics are cynical a-holes.”
Eric Cartman’s immortal rendition of “Come Sail Away” on “South Park” soon followed, along with Styx fans outing themselves on “Sex and the City” and “Freaks and Geeks.”
The New York Times chronicled the phenomenon in a 2000 article titled “No Need to Hide Styx Albums Now.”
The band made its first new album in nearly a decade in 1999, and has remained a solid concert draw ever since — in arena tours with the likes of REO Speedwagon, Def Leppard and Foreigner. Rarely do they play a venue as small as Belly Up.
“There doesn’t seem to be any let up in the appetite for people to see Styx,” keyboardist Lawrence Gowan told Time Out during their last swing through town.
Gowan joined the band in 1999, with a lineup that’s stayed mostly solid since then.
During the platinum years, the band was known for all the ‘80s in-fighting and excess that makes for a riveting “Behind the Music” VH1 special. Two Styx members died — guitarist John Curulewski of a brain aneurysm in 1988 and drummer John Panozzo of alcoholism in 1996. Founding bass player Chuck Panozzo has mostly left the lineup because he’s living with HIV. Original lead singer and keyboardist Dennis DeYoung left for the last time after continued conflicts in ’99, and hasn’t come back despite persistent reunion rumors.
These days, Gowan plays and sings DeYoung’s parts, with original members and guitarists Tommy Shaw and James Young rounding out the lineup alongside drummer Todd Sucherman and bassist Ricky Phillips.
They’ve perfected crowd-pleasing shows over the years, using their hits to work up the crowd.
“’Renegade’ always feels like a fantastic moment on stage because it is usually toward the end of the night and the crowd is in such a state of ecstatic excitement,” says Gowan. “It usually comes after ‘Come Sail Away,’ which lifts the crowd to a great height.”
Playing a 450-person capacity club like Belly Up is a rare treat for the band, and makes for shows they cherish.
“You get that conducive club energy that you are always trying to generate in the arena and it’s a difficult task,” Gowan explains. “To some degree, we must be successful at doing that because people keep coming back [to arenas], but to actually get to play a small venue is something that we really look forward to.”