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The Friday Morning Listen

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First posted on Mark Is Cranky:

This issue has been addressed, pummeled, stomped on and beaten to death in many an Internet shooting match: a particular piece of music has intrinsic worth, a sort of objective scorecard whose total puts the record on some kind of pop music number line.

Or not.

I’m in the latter category. It’s one of the reasons that I don’t bother with writing negative reviews. Something’s not to my liking? Look I’m no expert. Maybe I missed the point. This is particularly true when I’ve never liked the artist. I mean, what’s the point of blasting out 500 words on how much the new Belle & Sebastian sucks? Save the pencil lead & keystrokes and just ignore the danged thing.

Now, here at Blogcritics we had ourselves a great Internet hooey about the band Styx and their big hit record The Grand Illusion. The lead hooey-meister was our own Al Barger. Some folks thought that the brazen act of liking this band was indefensible. ‘Bad’ lyrics, uninspired dreck…blah, blah, blah.

The thing is, one of the reasons I liked Styx so much (aside from nostalgia, which of course I’ll get to) is that their evolution was fun to watch. They started out as a Chicago-area working class band with a built-in time-bomb: the more blue collar guys in the group were at some point bound to clash with the white collar guy: lead singer/synthesize guy Dennis DeYoung. The first explosion seemed to occur on Cornerstone. Yea, “Babe” was a huge hit, but you can just imagine the look plastered on guitarist James Young’s face as Dennis played that one through the first time.

Rock group soap opera antics aside, I just plain liked the music. The contrasts in the band members’ tastes were exactly what made it so interesting. DeYoung might have been a synthesizer Liberace, but his whorling lines made James Young’s snarling guitar that much more intense. A perfect example is on “Miss America”, where the synth introduction gives way to some blissfully distorted guitar.

Then there’s the issue of musicianship: that one group/artist is somehow better and/or more deserving because their successful use of certain songwriting devices combined with an ‘acceptable’ level of chops. So obviously a group like Styx were ‘better’ musicians than say (to use Al Barger’s example), Iggy Pop. That conclusion leaves out all sorts of other reasons that people become enamored of tunes: passion, power, aggression, lust. Iggy, being the appropriately named ‘Godfather of Punk’ had all of those traits in spades. That and a killer growl of a voice. It was like the man was possessed or somethin’!

Lastly, there’s the nostalgia factor. Sorry, but I can’t get away from this. It applies to nearly every single recording in my collection. The Grand Illusion has attached to it my cousin Andy’s bedroom (where I first heard Pat Metheny while getting my game-pacifist ass kicked in backgammon…but hey, he had a cool Styx poster on the wall), the television ads for Styx at the Moncton Coliseum (WLBZ 2, Bangor, Maine), the time I saw them in concert with my old buddy Tyler (on the Pieces of Eight tour, where we stopped on the side of the Maine Turnpike just outside of Augusta to lob full bottles of beer at a huge exit sign….we missed), Dennis DeYoung’s piano rising from the chemical fog during the intro to “Come Sail Away”, Chuck Panozzo calling a crowd member a “big fucking asshole” for hitting him in the face with a bottlecap, my confused reaction to the release of Cornerstone, my even more confused reaction to the release of Kilroy Was Here. All of those thoughts are there, they just can’t be denied.

And, like William Hurt’s character said in The Big Chill:

    You’re so analytical! Sometimes you just have to let art flow over you.

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About Mark Saleski

  • I still think some music is objectively hideous, but in a world this big it’s hard to find something that doesn’t have at least one ardent fan.

  • …but in a world this big it’s hard to find something that doesn’t have at least one ardent fan.

    It’s always been a theory of me and my friend DD Blank that every band ever formed has at least one fan that thinks the band is the greatest in the world.

  • Cindi

    This band has thousands of fans. I’ve been a fan for over 28 years and I will see them live (again) next week. If you haven’t listened to Grand Illusions, Pieces of Eight, Cyclorama and Big Bang Theory (for starters) do yourself a favor, get them and give them a listen. Better yet, go to a STYX concert and be prepared to rock!

  • Mark Ketchum

    Well, well, well, well, well….

    To the people that posted “one ardent fan”. Quit posting. If you are going to be taken seriously, you must be intelligent in your poise and state facts, not ignorance. Styx had and still has, more fans than most groups around today. To say “one ardent fan” is ignorant and plain wrong. If you are correct, then that one fan is bringing all his friends to the concerts because they sure are selling out.

  • I re-iterate that simple “chops” meaning just a fancy technical proficiency at playing an instrument don’t necessarily mean anything. Indeed, that would be a very shallow defense of an act. Chuck Berry still beats the crap out of ELP.

    Indeed, “passion, power, aggression, lust” are great things in music. But all of those things are being expressed through singing and playing of instruments. Some minimal technical proficiency thus comes into play. If you only know three chords, and your vocal range less than half an octave, you do not have the minimal competence for musical greatness.

    The song (composition) and the musicianship are the basic foundations on which all that other stuff rides. If there’s no real song, and you don’t have decent technical proficiency, then none of that other stuff even comes into play.

  • Duane

    The tension in the group was between Tommy Shaw, the guitarist starting around 1975, and DeYoung. The song Babe came off their ’79 album, exactly the kind of stuff that Shaw hated. The shit really hit the fan with “Kilroy was Here,” which led to Shaw’s departure, and a critical lambasting.

  • “no real song” al, is in the eyes of the beyolder.

    and if you’re going use the three chords and limited vocal range thing, are you going to apply it to Hank Williams as well?

  • Mark, “no real song” is partly in the eye of the beholder. Different strokes for different folks. But “no real song” is in some significant part objective. There’s some math, if you will, under music, logic and structure and patterns. I feel fairly reasonable in proclaiming that “Born to Run” is OBJECTIVELY a better song than “In Da Club,” to pick a crappy modern hit at random.

    Speaking of the songs especially, separate from the performance, I’ve heard precious little tunewise that was distinctive compositionally from Iggy.

    Knowing more chords and theory and whatnot doesn’t mean you’ve got anything to say, but it does strongly tend to give you a broader palette from which to express yourself. On the other hand, yes, Hank Williams made magic from the very simplest primary elements. He might have only used mostly a handful of basic chords, but he sure knew what to do with them.

  • I feel fairly reasonable in proclaiming that “Born to Run” is OBJECTIVELY a better song than “In Da Club,”

    well, we’ll never agree here but…so, i don’t agree. it’s a DIFFERENT song. better is left as an exercise to the listener.

  • I’ve heard precious little tunewise that was distinctive compositionally from Iggy.

    and that is exactly the issue. YOU can’t hear it….that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

  • Interesting point about not bothering to post a negative review, Mark.

    I think a negative review is worth posting, but I think a critic should keep in mind his/her place in the creative universe.

    I think the most important part of any review is not the opinion itself, but the reason behind it. I read a negative review of an Allman Bros. Band album. The reason for the negativity? Too much guitar. Too much guitar? I love the guitar work of the ABB – that’s the kind of negative I like. Because the critic explained what he did not like about the album, I was able to make an informed choice on my own.

  • “You’re so analytical! Sometimes you just have to let art flow over you.”

    I love it!