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Dennis DeYoung Celebrates Legacy Of 'The Grand Illusion'

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Released in the summer of 1977, Styx's The Grand Illusion became the album that cemented the Chicago quintet's place in the firmament of multiplatinum musical acts. Featuring the hit singles "Come Sail Away" and "Fooling Yourself," the album sold three million copies and set in motion an affair with mainstream success that would last all the way into the 1980s.

With guitarists James "JY" Young and Tommy Shaw offering material such as "Miss America" and "Fooling Yourself," respectively, the bulk of the album's writing credits go to Dennis DeYoung, the man who had also penned the group's breakthrough hit, "Lady." Speaking from his Chicago-area home, DeYoung recalls the period fondly, pointing out that his musical relationship with Shaw, who joined the group in 1976, was central to Styx's success in that era.

DeYoung, a founding member of the group, left Styx in 1999, although it's clear he remains fond of his time as a member of the band, as well as his contributions. That's part of the reason, he says, he began celebrating The Grand Illusion's 40th anniversary in 2017, a tradition he continues into this new year.

"We were booked for a show in Chicago on July 7 of last year," DeYoung recalls. "That was the anniversary of the release and I said, ‘Let's do The Grand Illusion album, just a one-off."

The show was well received and soon led to the current tour, which stops in Wichita on Saturday, Feb. 17, at the Orpheum Theatre, one night before DeYoung's seventy-first birthday. "I think it's our best album."

DeYoung says that fans can expect to hear the record done in full, plus a helping of hits he wrote during his tenure with Styx. Yes, he adds, that includes "Lady."

Jedd Beaudoin: My sense is that when you went in to make The Grand Illusion Styx had a tenuous relationship with success — that there had been these moments where you were on the verge of breakthrough and that there would be a step back and then another step forward.

Dennis DeYoung: We didn't have what would be considered a consistent amount of success. The first song I ever wrote and sang by myself on a record was "Lady." It was written for the first album. The producer, in his infinite wisdom, decided to keep it off the record. It goes on the second album and is released as a single. I would say that it was a huge stiff. Three cities played it. Minor cities. They were spread out all over the country. It felt like a rather abrupt commentary on what I did.

The album that it was on, Styx II, was not a success. It had five of my songs on it. We made two more albums that were not a success. In those days we were making albums for a local record company for $15,000. I think the label was a front for a Chinese laundry. They never had any money for promotion on records, but I got a nice amount of starch in my shirts!

But when we released our fourth album, Man of Miracles, we were promoting it at a radio station and right below that station was WLS, the most powerful radio station in the Midwest at the time. They had never played anything of ours to that point. We couldn't even get in there to clean the toilets. One day we thought we'd stop off there to drop off an album and they invited us in. We met the program director. We were stunned. He told us he wasn't going to play anything from our new album but that night he was going to play "Lady" on John "Records" Landecker's show to see if it was a hit.

He did that because he was getting competition from FM radio, which was just on the rise in '74. They wanted some rock to challenge it. And we couldn't get hired really anywhere else but in the city of Chicago. We played every night in Chicago in front of a bunch of teenagers who went back home and requested "Lady" to be played. We were Top Ten on the request lists for over a year, which was unheard of.

Because of that, we were able to get off the local record label and get onto A&M. We had a big hit single, a gold album and then we did Equinox, which was a great album. It did good but didn't break us. We did 350,000 copies initially, which was good in those days. It went on to sell two-and-a-half million later, when people figured out who we were.

So, yes, we did have a rather tenuous relationship with success. Like a lot of bands. We didn't have a lot of straight ups. But Equinox broke in Canada and made us platinum-plus superstars from 1975 forward. We're big there, came back home to the United States and were just the band that did "Lady." Then Grand Illusion came, and I guess when you make an album that good you can somehow supersede the business. That was it. From then on, we went on to record four triple platinum albums in a row.

If that isn't the longest answer to a simple question I don't know what is.

Listening to the lyrics on the album, I'm struck by the lyrical themes — the role media plays in selling these false images. In some ways, it seems prescient.

Hang on. I'm going to Google "prescient." [Laughs.] I hang my hat on the lyrics to "The Grand Illusion." What other band was telling their audience not to fall for them? "We're up here. We're creating a grand illusion." There's a song that follows it not too far afterwards, "Superstar," that says, "Wasn't too long ago that we were out there ourselves, looking up at other bands and wishing for this big dream to come true." We were being completely honest with our audience.

But here's the thing I've figured out: Rock journalism spends way too much time focused on lyric writing and it shouldn't. I can guarantee that you can sing the lyrics to one of your favorite songs — the first three lines — and then you're singing the melody. I see it night after night. Lyrics are less important to rock audiences than to the music press.

Something that's overlooked at times is that Styx was a blend of musics. There are hard-rocking things like "Miss America" or "Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)," which has elements of progressive rock. It's not too far away from what Yes might have done at the time.

We had three songwriters and three singers although, obviously, I sang the most. There were three distinct personalities. The most disparate were JY and I, even more so from him and Tommy. JY was a rock, end of story. If it were up to him every song he would have written would have been a hard rock song. Tommy and I were more melodic writers and most of the progressive stuff came from me.

But my overall theory was simple: It's the song, baby. Take everything away: The haircut, the length of the pants. Got a bone in your nose? One hundred and fifty tattoos. When it's all said and done it's going to be the song. Is it any good? People will forget who the band or the artist or the singer is but the song is king and they will know the song.

When Tommy brought in "Renegade" it was an acoustic song like Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Helplessly Hoping." When he brought it in, he said, "I've got this idea for this Crosby, Stills & Nash-like song." I heard it and said, "Tommy, it's a song about a renegade. I think there's a rock song hiding in there." We were standing on a stage and I said, "How would you rock this thing?" He started playing the heavy riff and a rock song was born.

Another time he brought in a song called "Boat on the River," which sounded like an Eastern European folk song. He said, "I wrote this song, but it's not for the band." I listened to it and said, "Jesus, that's a great song." The thing I like about our band is this: If you played them three songs: "Mr. Roboto," "Babe" and "Renegade" they wouldn't think they all came from the same band. I hang my hat on that for sure. People like the variety and I think the vast majority of people who bought Styx records really enjoyed the variety. And I tried to base that on the best songs that we wrote.

In a situation where there are three songwriters and three vocalists, is it something where someone comes in with a song on a Friday and the other two guys hear it and say, "By Tuesday, I'll have something that'll top that"? And you have this kind of friendly competition that's fostered.

I think that's true of any successful band where there's more than one songwriter. Lennon and McCartney were both great on their own, but together, it was monumental. It changed the culture. It changed the world's music. They've admitted like anybody would that friendly, healthy competition is good. It brings out the best in everyone.

What Tommy and I did for each other was that we were instrumental in the writing and arranging of each other's music. At the beginning of "The Grand Illusion," that big, pompous, elephants are crossing the Rubicon kind of thing you would think is me, wouldn't you? But it was Tommy. The beginning of "Blue Collar Man" where there's that ripping organ? You'd think it was Tommy. But that was me. How about that?

You can't know who's responsible for what in a group project. That's what makes groups great. They work together. They try to come up with the very best ideas for the songs on the record. It's too easy to say, "Well, this guy's that and that guy's that."

If you look at Tommy's songs — and he's a fantastic talent. Across the entire Styx spectrum, you'd notice all the times that he was in Styx with me, from Crystal Ball to Kilroy Was Here. To me, he only ever wrote two rock songs. Ever. "Blue Collar Man" and a song called "Shooz" that he wrote with JY. Those are the only two absolutely unequivocal rock songs. All the other things he wrote, they are not rock songs to me.

We were trying to write the best songs. That's all we were doing.

How did the success of The Grand Illusion change your life?

In one year we all made so much money that it was beyond anybody's comprehension. It changes it you in this way: All your friends and your family begin to treat you a little differently. It's like Joe Walsh said: "Everybody's so different, I haven't changed." I think there was a certain human fear of being left behind by your friends' or your relatives' success because of that fame. But it wasn't true. Because of those experiences I wrote a song called "Pieces of Eight."

"The search for the money tree/don't cash your freedoms in for gold." That was the follow-up album to The Grand Illusion. I had this concept and talked to JY and Tommy about it. We were having a lot of the very same experiences.

Pieces of Eight, that's really the answer to your question. That's what happened because of our success.

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Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

 
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