By James Wood
Styx's new DVD/Blu-ray, Styx: Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight — Live, captures the band performing their two classic multi-platinum '70s albums live in their entirety for the very first time.
The DVD, which was filmed at the historic Orpheum Theater in Memphis, is the ultimate showcase for the albums helped establish Styx as a global phenomenon and defined their sound for a generation of fans.
I spoke with Styx guitarist James "JY" Young about the new project, plus his early days, seeing Jimi Hendrix perform and the future of Styx.
GUITAR AFICIONADO: How did this project get started?
It started as a notion that a promoter who's close with our manager came up with. He had the idea of us performing the Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight albums live in their entirety in the order in which they originally appeared on the vinyl LPs using the latest in HD technology. For us, it was an experiment and also a way to give our real die-hard fans the chance to hear some songs that we had never played live before, and some others we haven't played since the late '70s.
Did you have any reservations about doing it?
I was a bit skeptical at first, wondering why people would want to hear obscure songs. But considering that six million people bought the Grand Illusion album and more than three million bought Pieces of Eight, there's a huge audience out there for those LPs. It's what I view as our progressive rock heyday and emphasizes what the current incarnation of the band is all about.
What was it like performing some of those obscure tracks live for the first time?
The actual performances were great, but we hadn't rehearsed those songs, so there was a lot of pre-production work. We literally had to go back and figure out how we did certain things on them [laughs]. My biggest concern though was how the show would end. We typically end the show with "Renegade," but the way the album works, "Renegade" is the second-to-last song on Pieces of Eight. The last song is where we go into this ethereal thing with a real dreamy, tropical vibe. But after a few hours of performing those two albums, we began to play softer and slowly faded and you could hear the crowd swell, until there was a thunderous applause at the end.
Let's talk about a few songs from those albums: "Miss America."
The Grand Illusion album was originally a Dennis DeYoung idea. He already had the "Grand Illusion" song to start, and I was a little bit late to the party. One night, we were out on the road and I thought about one of the biggest grand illusions: the beauty contest that’s held every year in Atlantic City, the one where someone declares a young woman the "Queen of the United States." They're there for a year and then you forget about them. I started reading up on it and found out that the Miss America pageant was really just some guy's idea to promote Atlantic City as a vacation destination. That song became my contribution.
"Blue Collar Man"
We were on stage at a sound check when Tommy [Shaw] started playing this thing and then Dennis just started played something on the keyboard that later became the intro. We really needed a great rock song and I knew right away that it was going to be it. The topic of it was great.
"Renegade" was something Tommy had brought in and originally was nothing like what you hear now. Tommy had been listening to a lot of Alan Parsons; particularly a song called "The Raven," which is very quiet and done with synthesizers. He was inspired by that song, but Tommy's demo was quiet and unassuming. I, being the guy who likes to rock things up, [laughs] felt we needed an arena rock track, so I pushed to turn it into one. Everyone agreed and ultimately it worked out for us.
Tell me about your musical upbringing.
I started out playing clarinet and taking piano lessons on and off until I was about 14. It was then that my uncle bought a classical guitar and showed it to me. That was 1964, and the Beatles had just made their impact in the States. There was something about the guitar that I just loved.
I remember going out and getting a Beatles song book, and my brother and I coughed up $25 apiece and bought a guitar. I started playing seven hours a day playing from the song book and ultimately was introduced to Jimi Hendrix and the Who. I saw Hendrix four times and was in the front row to see the Who July 4, 1967, in Chicago. Professionally, I started out playing Gibsons then switched over to Strats, went to Kramers in the '90s and back to the Strat in the new millennium.
What was it like seeing Jimi Hendrix perform?
Jimi Hendrix was a guy from the second moon of Mars that somehow landed on planet Earth. He embraced all of the British psychedelic stuff, but also everything that I loved about the blues. He was the embodiment of everything that was going on at the time, and he just blew my mind! A cousin was reminding me recently of a time we saw him where I had binoculars. I was busy watching Hendrix's hands to see how he fingered some of those songs. I remember seeing how he ultimately played "Foxy Lady" (which was somewhat unorthodox), but I learned how he did it by watching him play.
What do you like most about what you do, and do you ever foresee Styx slowing down?
For me, I love the sense of adventure about being out on the road and playing for a different audience every night. It's an exhilarating thing. What we do on stage is the fountain of youth. I look at B.B. King, who's in his 80s and still out there loving it. We have a semi full of toys and a bus full of people who help set up our toys. Then we get to go out play with our toys for an hour and half in front of an audience. We all have fun doing it and there's a sense of joy that permeates through all of it. Why anyone would ever want to quit that is beyond me.
Photo: Ash Newell
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.