Saturday, October 26, 2019

It Was a Styx Concert. You Got a Problem With That?

"DON'T LOOK NOW, but here come the '80's!"

Reaganomics, big hair, tight jeans and MTV. We'd been warned. By Styx. Driving home their point in a minute and a half, the arena rockers and power ballad pioneers committed a half-dozen rock and roll cliches on side 2, track 1 of their ninth studio album, Cornerstone.

Prog-rock synthesizer intro? Check! Portentous power chords? Check! Segue into Steve Miller-like rhythmic guitar beat?  Check! Check! Shouts of "Yeah! Yeah!"? Double check! And then... that notice of the imminent arrival of a new decade.

80s artifact -- Styx' Cornerstone
Songs that date-drop invariably don't age well. They can't. Think of the line "Now you find yourself in '82," from Asia's Heat of the Moment, or the atypically upbeat Joe Jackson telling us, "It's not so easy. It's '84 now" in Happy Ending.

Date-stamping a song is the ultimate guarantee that the song in years hence will sound... well, dated. And so it is that Styx' song Borrowed Time is rooted in 1979.

By the time Cornerstone was released 40 years ago this month, Chicago-based Styx had already embarked on a tour they'd dubbed The Grand Decathlon. On Oct. 25, the quintet of Dennis DeYoung, Tommy Shaw,  James Young and brothers John and Chuck Panozzo arrived at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, Long Island for a two-night stand.

They'd have an opening act called The Good Rats and in the audience on their second night me and my best bud. I was 14, about seven miles from home and seeing my first ever rock concert.

Rock concerts. The very idea seemed dangerous. Would there be sex? Drugs? Violence? Woodstock? Altamont? These reference points were still reasonably current, all within the past 10 years. Of course, this was a Styx concert and at least two sets of suburban parents saw it as safe enough to let their kids go alone.

Alas, they were right. These were Styx, not Stones, although I recall DeYoung wearing a Chicago Cubs jersey.

40 years ago this week, at the Nassau Coliseum
Cornerstone was still so new, so untested that it's possible none of its nine songs even made the set list if the previous night's version --which drew heavily from the band's past two albums -- is any indication. That one included Styx' first hit, Lady, but not their biggest one, Cornerstone's Babe.

Ah, Babe, the schmaltzy, syrupy granddaddy of power ballads, written by DeYoung for his wife Suzanne, recorded as a demo and -- according to legend -- included on the album at the insistence of his bandmates. It topped the Billboard Hot 100 on Dec. 8, 1979 and perched there for two of its 19 weeks on the charts.

And they didn't even play it.

They did work in other crowd pleasers, including Never Say Never, a pop song with a French chorus, ne dites jamais jamais, and the future Eric Cartman tour-de-force, Come Sail Away.

We rocked. We rolled. We waited for a ride home from our parents. Cornerstone soared to number 2 on Billboard's Hot 100 album chart, charted two more singles -- Borrowed Time and  Why Me? -- and ultimately went triple platinum. It even got nominated for a Grammy!

But about Babe...

Babe would almost come to define the band, and not for the better, even as it was typical radio fodder in an era that saw Air Supply score five top five singles in the next year and a half and spawn imitators like SneakerBabe wasn't even the only power ballad on Cornerstone.

Five out of Chicago, but bound for where?
But, Styx's prior album, Pieces of Eight, featured a pair of genuine arena rockers, Blue Collar Man and Renegade. Styx wasn't likely to inspire anyone to don a leather jacket, grow their hair long and jump on a Harley, but they were approaching respectability. Borrowed Time was made in that vein.

Babe, the band's only chart-topper ever, overwhelmed all of that, blowing whatever hard rock cred they had and becoming a point of introduction to a different kind of band, one that became increasingly, fatally, theatrical and thematic.

To be sure, Cornerstone's intricate packaging indicated the band harbored deeper, as yet unrealized ambitions, The album cover, suggesting the discovery of a buried artifact, wrapped around another album cover appearing to be that same artifact. Oh so meta.

It was silvery. It was spacey. It showed five beings emanating from North America and headed for the sky. Where were they going? In subsequent albums we'd find out for better and then worse: back to Chicago, for Paradise Theatre and then to the future!

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

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