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REVIEW: Styx – The Grand Illusion is actually fairly tasty cheese

Ayn forgive me, but I’ve been listening to Styx. I’ve been listening repeatedly to The Grand Illusion, and digging it. There, I said it.

Recently I was in Grumpy Old Man mode, complaining about the offenses against Geometry and Theology collected on the Now 18 hits collection. Back in my high school days, even the crappy radio fodder was better made, stuff like Styx. Between that line of thought and South Park, I found myself jonesin’ for some Styx.

Funny, but I never really listened to Styx before. This album was huge in 1977- my freshman year in high school, but I was in the early throes of cultish Beatle worship. I can remember vaguely this stuff playing around me, and I could still sing back some of the hits, but it went in one ear and out the other. I wasn’t paying attention. I’ve never owned a Styx album, though I’ve certainly owned far worse.

By their big, bombastic arena rock style, this band would be a likely target for the punk rockers attacks on “corporate rock” that were emerging about this same time. Styx responded to all that noise, though, with an answer. Most critically, they answered with a good, memorable song to make their case.

I was not yet at all aware of punk rock, and thus missed the real point of the words, but I could still sing them back to you because of the memorable, sweeping melody. That makes perfectly good sense, even if you’ve never heard of Sid Vicious.

Why must you be such an angry young man
When your future looks quite bright to me
And how can there be such a sinister plan
That could hide such a lamb
Such a caring young man

Hey, that’s a pretty good understated rebuke. Well played. This may perhaps lack the pure rock and roll pentecostal emotional fire of the best few Sex Pistols songs, but it’s a more distinctive and memorable composition than the very bare bones off the rack Chuck Berry/blues songs of the Pistols. Oh, and these guys can actually play their frickin’ instruments.

“Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” frankly shows a lot more wisdom than the cheap nihilism of, say, the Sex Pistols. More significantly, it’s a much better written song than almost anything coming from anywhere in the punk movement, unless you move forward a few months and count Elvis Costello.

The title song “The Grand Illusion” opens the album, and best represents the pomp and circumstance. They particularly get the sweep of the cutting edge synthesizer keyboards whipping up an Epic Statement. Listening to it now the state of the art keyboards sound rather dated, but hey this works. It’s got a real honest to God melody, some good drama, lots of hooks, and outstanding dynamics. Whaddya want, a rubber biscuit?

So if you think your life is complete confusion
Because you never win the game
Just remember that it’s a Grand illusion
And deep inside we’re all the same.

OK, granted there’s a fairly high cheese factor here. The profound insights of the lyrics of the title song are a bit shallow. Then again, how profound were the Ramones lyrics? I’m inclined to cut them some slack, and credit them with trying to say something. And they actually did say something fairly memorable there. It just wasn’t so much in the words.

“Superstars” is somewhat less musically distinctive, but still reasonably catchy and well executed. The lyric really catches my attention more here. Check some of this:

You’ve read about me in the papers
You’ve seen me on the movie screen
You know everything about me
I’m your late night fantasy

But don’t think I can’t hear you calling
From the shadow of the 14th row
Cause I’ve had the same dreams you’ve had
A few short years ago and that’s why I know

You and I
We will climb so high
Superstars
Whoa whoa you and I

And we’ll just close our eyes
And we’ll become our fantasy

Oy, vey. And by “we will climb so high” we mean that you get to give us money for albums and concert tickets and adore from a distance as we live out “our” fantasy. Man, but that’s cheesy.

Yet it’s an admirably direct statement of the stunningly obviously self-serving understanding that ambitious man of the people rockers offer. Really, this is just exactly the schtick Bruce Springsteen has been selling, only he’s more cagey than to ever state the deal so directly. Wouldn’t want people getting the false impression that a humble man of the people is a self-serving schmuck. You have to give Styx some credit here for guilelessness.

But all of this is just the lead up to the real centerpiece of the album, a song I’ve seen described repeatedly with phrases such as “the ultimate guilty pleasure,” “Come Sail Away.” I don’t remember this song near as much as some of the others from back in the day, but it’s really kicking my ass right now. I feel not the least bit sheepish in saying that this is an outstanding song.

Famously, “Come Sail Away” is Cartman’s favorite song. For starters, consider that such import would be placed on this tune that came out when his creator was only seven. That’s indicative of some sticking power right there.

But mostly, this makes sense as Cartman’s song. It’s really a very pretty sad song of broken childhood dreams.

I think of childhood friends and the dreams we had
We live happily forever so the story goes
But somehow we missed out on that pot of gold
But we’ll try best that we can to carry on

It’s really even more poignant for Cartman though, never really having had the close childhood friends imagined in the song. Yeah, it’s his fault and all, but still I can well sympathize with his desire to sail away, far away from his crack whore mom and all the messed up people of South Park.

This song really rates as the most emotionally direct and effective track on the record. It opens as an exceptionally pretty piano ballad, and builds up a beautiful head of steam as Dennis De Young sails away. Plus, I give him some extra credit for the freaky stuff about the angels and the starship. What’s up with that?

The second half of the album runs downhill fairly quickly in terms of musical interest, and the lyrics get more hamhanded. But those main four radio hits work pretty effectively. They’re really memorable. They work.

For some reason, Styx has for many years been considered a particularly prime band for cool people to mock. Why that is though, I can’t quite see. Comparing them to modern acts that would be taking up some of their artsy old AOR turf, I’ll take The Grand Illusion over Coldplay any old day- or Radiohead even. This is better music.

To put one more little spin on this consideration, will any of today’s 7-year-old children be remembering Coldplay or Radiohead twenty years from now as a reference point to put into their cartoons and screenplays?

About Gadfly

  • Eric Olsen

    the copyright lawyers are scrambling as we speak: multiple vibe suits pending

  • http://www.utopia2000.org Barry Stoller

    > the copyright lawyers are scrambling as we speak: multiple vibe suits pending

    The “vibe” (is that a funny term? this is rock & roll we’re talking about) not about lawyers and courtcases, it’s about looking cool or foolish. The Beatles never sued the Stones when “We Love You” followed “All You Need Is Love,” but JL sure took the piss out of them later in an interview. Dig the distinction, you lawyers. And, seriously, when did so many people start DEFENDING Styx???

  • Eric Olsen

    I was defending the review rather than the band or the album, although isolated Styx songs are perfectly serviceable. It is rather missing the point to attack something on socio-cultural terms when it was not defended on those terms in the first place

  • ClubhouseCancer

    And I am defending Styx’s VIBE.

    And the notion that two sings with similar titles can actually both exist without one being a “transparent rewrite” of the other.

  • eric schultz

    All this commotion over Styx? Hard for me to believe. I have to 100% agree with BAB out there that Styx were drivel and had no cultural significance whatsoever. You want cutting edge keyboards from the 70s? Listen to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. You want bombast at a show? Go see Kiss (and I will defend that one no matter how cheesey of a band they were – they influenced more than just a gereration of musicians – good and bad).

    I am not gonna bunk people in their tastes in music, but I am not gonna let someone slag a movement like punk after admittingly not knowing anything about it. It was far more than just the music – these bands were singing about life – the Clash, the Ramones, the Pistols all sang about the injustices and frustrations they felt in everyday life; not about flying starships and angels while playing the wank-synth on cocane.

    I have memories of Styx when I was a kid too – and they were memories of people giving me shit because I would rather rock out to Kiss, the Ramones, or the Pistols than the crap they were listening to. And all it did for me was make me like bands like Styx even less.

    I would rather hang with the ugly real people than the fake, plastic beautiful people that cannot see the forest for the trees.

  • http://www.morethings.com/senate Al Barger

    Mr Schultz, you’re not quite getting the angle of my perspective here. Perhaps I was less than clear in expressing it, but I didn’t listen to Styx at the time- not on purpose anyway. I started with the Beatles, and soon worked my way to punk and new wave. Indeed, I’m known to be something of an obsessive Elvis Costello fan. I’ve owned nearly every Clash album.

    Thus, it’s something of an act of will for me to look back to the stuff that I dismissed in the day and reconsider. Giving Styx their day in court- trying just to listen to the songs without all the sociological crap attached- I find The Grand Illusion quite listenable.

    It perhaps helps my association that I don’t have the specific negative associations with Styx that you do. My particular cool-guy resentments were provoked primarily by Meatloaf, Boston, and the Bee Gees, if memory serves.

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    Who edited me?

    I’ve been censored into oblivion. I feel like the fading picture in Back to the Future, McFly. What’s funny is that [edit] is far dirtier and meaner than anything I actually said.

    Senator Al Barger, you are a [edit] [edit]ing [edit]er. Stop kissing Olsen’s butt every second. You don’t understand Elvis Costello OR the Clash if you completely ignore the cultural and artistic themes of pink and dismiss them as “childish posturing.” Your review struck me as “childish posturing” intended to get a reaction.

    Oh, and calling everyone “Mr.” such-and-such doesn’t lend your ridiculous viewpoints any more credibility or make you seem genteel and refined.

    Sociological crap? How is my criticism going to be dismissed as philosophical or socio-cultural? I wasn’t going deep there :) I gave plenty of reasons why Styx sucked on their own merits, like 7-minute rambling guitar solos, horrible lyrics that resemble a Stuart Smalley self-help convention, and meandering lyrics about wizards and dragons.

    How is this a good review? I find no defense of Styx’s artistic merit in it other than “punk sucks, I like these trite lyrics, they have a few cheesy melodies, they’re emotionally direct and guileless.” Huh? Even Al’s latest “defense” boils down to him backing away from liking Styx in the first place, trying to establish some semblance of credibility by citing better bands, and then saying, “hey, they’re not so terrible.”

    One final “socio-cultural” comment:
    When I think fake, plastic, beautiful people, the first name I think is Senator Al Barger. Right. It makes no sense for any of you introverted white male types to listen to classic rock.

    Listen to something with artistic merit.

    Learn how to spell “palate” before using it. You’re kidding right? Styx is cultural sorbet? Jammobile? Cool-guy resentments? You?

    Either you’re making it way too easy or you’ve just become a parody of yourself by now. This has to be some sort of Andy Kaufman bit, because no one could be so utterly lacking in self-awareness.

    This is Bizarro World, friggin Bizarro World.

    Bottom line: Styx sucks and so does this review, even as a joke (which Al swears it’s not).

    That is all.

  • godoggo

    Something like Grand illusion isn’t even a first draft of a good song. Everything about it is obvious or awkward or both. If you write something like that the only thing to do is trash it and try again. I guess they have pretty good dexterity on their instruments, though, although it would be nice if they could express something with it. The Ramone’s couldn’t play all the fluffy arpeggios, but their songcraft wasn’t a whit more primative.

  • godoggo

    “Primative!” I like that spelling!

  • godoggo

    Actually, let me rephrase that: ka ka poo poo to you too.

  • http://www.morethings.com/senate Al Barger

    Clearly, the better Styx songs have longer, fuller, more developed melody than any but a very few people associated with punk. They just actually do as a matter of fact. “Come Sail Away” has a more developed tune than “Beat on the Brat.”

    This does not necessarily imply that it is a better song or record. That might be something else. More sophistication with your instruments and compositional skills gives you a broader palette, but doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got something to say.

    I’d certainly rate the relative simplicity of “Johnny B Goode” obviously more impressive than “The Grand Illusion,” for example. Nonetheless, “The Grand Illusion” is a hell of a good little pop song.

  • http://www.morethings.com/senate Al Barger

    Re-reading Eric’s comment 41: “Does anyone really think Al doesn’t get the socio-cultural hilarity of defending a Styx album in 2005?”

    Wait are you telling me that the cool guys won’t like me anymore if I dig a Styx album? I’ll be ex-communicated from the COOL lounge!

    Alright, how could I have ever been foolish enough to find more value in the classical values of melody and musicianship than in the thrashings of a complete non-musician such as Iggy Pop?

    Plus, I promise to resume being mad at the world as a badge of honor. I have sinned against the sainted martyrdom of Sid Vicious at the hands of The Man, and all the young people being killed by the fascists Reagan and Thatcher. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

    Still, as Cartman would say, “Come Sail Away” is heller good.

  • Eric Olsen

    actually, the merits of Styx per se wasn’t the point – it was defending any vilified ’70s arena-rock band as a critical exercise at this stage of the game

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    a complete non-musician such as Iggy Pop

    uhm….just because you don’t like somebody doesn’t mean they’re not a musician.

  • Sister Ray

    Al: “My particular cool-guy resentments were provoked primarily by Meatloaf, Boston, and the Bee Gees, if memory serves.”

    Ah yes, Boston – the scourge of my early high school years. I remember earnestly explaining to a classmate that Creem magazine put them down, only to be told that no one cared what Creem magazine said.
    Little did I know that Kenny Rogers was just around the corner, waiting to invade.

  • http://www.morethings.com/senate Al Barger

    Okay Mark, in fairness, Iggy Pop certainly technically speaking a “musician.” Just not skillful enough in basic musical skill and artistic accomplishment to really properly earn the title of professional musician.

    For primitivism, I prefer the Shaggs infamous Philosophy of the World. They almost sound like Captain Beefheart if you hold your head the right way. They had more discernibly interesting personality than the Stooges. I’m just saying…

  • http://www.morethings.com/senate Al Barger

    KENNY ROGERS IS THE ANTI-CHRIST!

    Holy crap, Sister Ray. I had put the name of that evil one behind me. He even put his scaly evil to Dolly.

  • Eric Olsen

    Iggy has one of the greatest voices in the history of rock and has lived off his music for over 35 years: what else would he have to do to be a “professional musician”?

  • http://www.morethings.com/senate Al Barger

    Greatest voices? Could you please give me a clue as to what specific recorded performances you base that judgement on that I might try to hear what I have not so far?

    Okay, I’ll concede that Iggy is a “professional musician,” in that he gets paid for his services and makes a living at it. Technically though, 50 Cent is a HIGHLY “professional musician” in that he sells a buttload of records.

    Neither 50 Cent nor Iggy, however, has impressed me with being a musician of even vaguely professional quality, which is what I was trying to get at.

  • http://www.andrewiandodge.com Marty Dodge

    I recently saw em’ live in London and they reminded me while this heavy rocker has always had a soft spot for em’ (along with Journey and Night Ranger). The fact that Styx provided a part of Damn Yankees is cool as well.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    oh my….i know what cd i’m listening to tomorrow morning!

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    “actually, the merits of Styx per se wasn’t the point – it was defending any vilified ’70s arena-rock band as a critical exercise at this stage of the game ”

    It’s not about defending Styx? Huh? The stage of what game exactly?

    Olsen, are you really going to define Al’s goal in writing this review narrower and narrower to avoid the reality that he cannot defend his argument, however limited it may be? Now he doesn’t have to defend Styx? It’s just celebrating bad taste and bad music reviews in general now, right? Let the fendless fend for themselves.

    Anyone who honestly thinks Styx is superior to Iggy Pop because they’re “professional musicians” isn’t being camp, isn’t being ironic, isn’t celebrating retro, and isn’t being contrarian for the fun of it — Senator Al Barger does not know a lick about music. This is apparent in any review.

    Let’s have an up and down vote … who here thinks Senator Al Barger did a good review here? Who thinks he’s a good music reviewer who knows what he’s talking about and can argue for it? Who doesn’t?

    I officially nominate Johno to replace him as the music reviewer. Get someone who can write interesting pieces and knows SOMETHING, ANYTHING about music from the last 25 years.

    That is all.

  • Eric Olsen

    how about we leave it at I Like Iggy?

    Al check out his new double-CD career retro, which shows he has massively rocked the rectum for the last 35 years, and if you want melodic rocksmanship it’s all over Brick By Brick

  • eric schultz

    I’ll take Bob up on the review question. I dig music and I write for a living. I’ll write reviews here if someone will let me. Will I get the same grief for a review that Al has? I would hope so. I don’t want the world to think like I do.

    Regardless of the Senator’s musical taste (or lack thereof) he has incited a pretty passionate and heated discussion here about the topic at hand – that Styx suck out loud (and in new and exciting ways even though the GI was a 70s album). Good debates about anything are good just to get people thinking and talking and slagging, if that is what it takes.

    Al bummed me out by slagging Iggy (who, btw wrote China Girl with Bowie and recorded a better version imho) and the Ramones. Just because someone thinks they can play doesn’t make them a superior musician – The Ramones and 99% of the punk movement KNEW they couldn’t play, but they had something to say anyway – musicanship lacking was not a road block. That was the beauty of punk. There was no beauty in Styx (other than Tommy Shaw’s hair) nor Damn Yankees (Ted Nugent’s sell out band – yeah he started that crap much to my dismay).

    I noticed no one took my bait on the Kiss topic – friggin’ yellow bellies.

    e

  • http://www.morethings.com/senate Al Barger

    I’m trying to get some glimmer of what y’all see in Iggy, but I haven’t. At the strong endorsement of his art by Monsieur Olsen, I’ve just ordered up a live Iggy DVD. (IMCPL doesn’t seem to have a copy of Brick by Brick.) Maybe a concert video will enlighten me.

    There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t particularly do it for me, but I can see at least some of why people dig it. A very little bit of Pink Floyd goes a long way with me, for example, but I can see how someone would think that they’re the berries. I’m trying to get a clue why Iggy is supposed to be a big deal. I haven’t yet.

  • http://www.morethings.com/senate Al Barger

    Mr Schultz- I had forgotten Iggy’s co-authorship of “China Girl.” That’s an outstanding song, so I definitely must chalk 1 up in Iggy’s column. I don’t believe I’ve heard his version, though.

    Also, participation in the unredeemably godawful Damn Yankees costs Styx points retroactively. Not Ted Nugent’s proudest day, either.

    I didn’t mean to slag the Ramones, though. I’ve had more Ramones albums than of all these other groups combined, including Nugent.

  • eric schultz

    Senator Al (if I may call you Al), first off, please call me eric – second, I find Iggy’s version of Chian Girl superior to that of Bowie’s (and I an a huge Bowie fan) because it is a bit more raw and unpolished. I thikn that is a big reason I like Iggy and so many punk bands is that it doesn’t take a glossy sheen (and I am talking more than Tommy Shaw’s hair here) for them to make a statement.

    they got in, they ripped the tunes, they got out. Leave it stripped with all the hairy warts and bad notes – not that I don’t appreciate a band or musician that takes the time in some serious post production (read Frank Zappa, God rest his soul) – but it is nice to have a variety of “good” music to bounce around with.

    I do not catgorize Styx as good. I am a huge Kiss fan – were they cheesy? Absolutley. But they are still out there kicing it (for the bucks to be sure) with some of the best 70s pure rock songs ever written. Styx can’t cut it compared to a band like Kiss – they would run away like little girls at the first rumblings of the huge bass intro of God of Thunder. and that is what rock is all about – scaring the hell out of people no mater what.

  • http://www.morethings.com/senate Al Barger

    Mr Schultz, Eric, I appreciate this sentiment, “that is what rock is all about – scaring the hell out of people.” Ever heard the Feederz “Jesus Entering from the Rear”? That one would make even Gene Simmon’s wee-wee draw back up into his belly.

    I was never much of a Kiss fan, though I did see the Lick It Up tour, and currently have their big honkin’ box set (overdue) from the library. There’s no denying “Beth” or “Detroit Rock City” though.

    Listening now, I’m taking Styx more in the framework of “singer-songwriters” than “ROCK!” They’re definitely more, if you will, songwriter-y than is Kiss. Then again, Dennis DeYoung never breathed fire like Gene Simmons, literally or metaphorically. Even I have far more Kiss in the collection than Styx, in the ultimate ratings.

    Do, of course, feel free to call me Senator Al. I’m certainly happy to have the moniker, though to re-iterate the obvious, I was, to use the technical terminology, beaten like an ugly red headed step child by Senator (future president?) Bayh.

    Thus, plain old “Al” is fine. In short, feel free to call me whatever you like. Just don’t call me late for supper.

    I’d be happy to refer to you simply as “Eric,” but here at Blogcritics that would be likely assumed a reference to our Dear Leader and site owner Eric Olsen.

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    “Just don’t call me late for supper.”

    I think he was asking you out, Mr. Schultz.

    Singer-songwriter? Please tell me he’s joking and he knows what that means.

    “Al,” you’re too hard on yourself. You’re not a step child ….

    You rent music from the library, Senator? How do they justify buying a KISS box set with taxpayer money? Wasteful.

    That is all.

  • eric schultz

    A date? Maybe – only if Styx is not to be heard… Anyway – we can go on songwriting and ROCK all day – we got Zappa, we got the Kinks, Ithrown down the Ramones against Styx – maybe not for melodic value, but for pur effect. Who else?

    Soundgarden; my sons’ new favorite System of a Down, Tool, and the list goes on and on and if we wanna talk 70s writers, I will throw out Terrbile Ted Nugent (yeah,the Damn Yankees brain trust) over the DYs old band – I would much rather hear about Great White Buffalos or Mouths like Masseratis than the Grand Illusion any day.

    o yeah – put out the bucks for the Kiss box set – even if it isn’t the one set up like a guitar case – money well spent!

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    Mazeltov.

    I think that’s the Senator’s first “maybe” ever. This will be the Summer of Al.

    Just don’t let him play “Entering from the Rear” because that has a way of killing the mood.

    There’s a kind of hush all over the world tonight,
    All over the world you can hear the sound of lovers in looooovveeeee….

    That is all.

  • Arkpod

    Bob: As someone who just happened by and got caught up in reading the thread. I have to say you look quite foolish. You have tried everything but insult his mother to provoke a reply, all to no avail. Take your toys and go home. If you don’t agree with him, state your position and leave it at that. Years of punk music have seemingly rotted your brain!

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    Listen, “Arkpod.”

    I’m not trying to provoke. I’m right and Al’s afraid of me. He gave up long ago trying to debate me on anything because he knows he’s usually wrong.

    That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to point out when he’s wrong for your benefit, dear reader.

    That is all.

  • Jeff

    As someone who can afford to attend any concert I want to (McCartney, U2, Stones, etc.) Styx is awesome in concert. I have seen them 3 times and they hold their own with anyone I have seen.

  • lelo

    you need new songs get a life

  • Gary

    Styx gave me so many childhood memories with their songs, and isn’t that what’s its all about anyway? Long live Dennis DeYoung!