For the past 20 years, Styx have put their fans in an impossible situation. Anyone who attends one of their shows not only misses out on seeing founder and ex-frontman Dennis DeYoung, but the current lineup doesn’t even play many of the hit songs he wrote and sang, including “Babe” and “The Best of Times.” They only recently gave in to years of pressure and added “Mr. Roboto” into the set.
DeYoung plays everything in the Styx catalog at his solo gigs, but he doesn’t have the name or any other members of the group, even though his guitarist, August Zadra, does a stellar impression of Tommy Shaw. DeYoung is desperate for a reunion and is happy to look past all the battles of the past, but Shaw, along with guitarist J.Y. Young, refuses to even consider it. They also bash the singer in the press whenever his name comes up and insist that the band’s 1983 concept record Kilroy Was Here and the supporting tour, which was all DeYoung’s brainchild, irreparably damaged the band.
“It cut our album sales in half because the male audience was absolutely alienated by ‘Mr. Roboto,'” Young told Arizona Central last year of the Kilroy era. “Not all of them but a large chunk. And our concert tickets were down from sold-out arenas in 1981.”
The whole thing is a giant mess without any sign that the two parties will ever reconcile. DeYoung, however, is carrying on with his career and plans to release his new solo album, 26 East: Volume 1, on May 22nd. It’s his first collection of new songs since 2007 and quite possibly his last one. We spoke to him about the album, his hopes for a Styx reunion tour, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, politics, and the eternal legacy of “Mr. Roboto.”
What made you decide it was time for a new record?
I didn’t decide that. What happened is that I did a live thing for AXS TV a few years ago and then they gave me the rights to it. Some guy in Mexico posted it about two years ago on YouTube and it’s moving towards a million views. That’s unbelievable for a live concert. We’re talking about me now, not Sting. I thought when it was first posted, “Should I leave it up? Yeah. I’ll leave it up.” I was stunned.
After that happened, I heard from Frontiers Records. Their president Serafino [Perugino] asked me to make a new studio record. This was about three years ago. I said, “Why?” Can you imagine saying those words? But I really felt it. Even three years ago I said, “Have you looked around and seen that rock music is dead?”
Now I don’t mean the music, but the format for which it can be delivered properly to people has been choked at the neck. There’s plenty of classic-rock stations, but the two most dreaded words in the English language to a classic-rock fan are “new music.”
I just said to him. “Look, Serafino, it’s a lot of work. I produce these records. I end up mixing them. I have to write songs.” I didn’t know if I had it in me to sit down and do all this work. But my neighbor and good buddy Jim Peterik is friends with Serafino. The two of them kept working on me. Jim said to me, “Den, the world needs your music.” I said to him, “Have the world text me. I don’t believe it.” But he wore me down. We sat down to write songs and before I knew it, we had eight of them.
What was the idea behind the songs?
It was a concept record from the very beginning. The concept was, “Don’t suck.” I don’t wanna go any further than that. You know when you saw Willie Mays and he’s at the end of his career? I didn’t want to be Willie. I’ll stand on what I did; like it or hate it, there it is. Then I got talked into it.
In the final analysis, I owe Jim Peterik a big thanks. I would have never, ever done a duet with Julian Lennon without him. I never would have written that song [“To the Good Old Days”]. I never would have had that opportunity to basically wave goodbye and say, “Thanks for everything, you people. You have given me this wonderful life.” So I feel good about it.
How did you get Julian on the album?
I don’t know if you know this, but he’s a degenerate gambler and he was late on the vig!
How did it actually happen?
I wanted this album to be a chronology of my life, my feelings, everything. I wrote one about watching the Beatles in 1964. It was going to be a song about that moment when my life changed. It was really a musical homage to all things Beatles, though some people may call it a rip-off. I wrote it like Lennon and McCartney. Remember in the early days, they used to sing the whole song together?
That’s what I did. I thought, “Man. I need another singer.” I started thinking about guys I knew and so I thought, “Julian Lennon!” How could I not want to be the Paul to his DNA? I composed an email and was about to send it with this song. I listened one more time and I thought to myself, “He can’t sing this song. This is my story. And it sounds like a Beatle record.”
I thought he’d be criticized. I turned around and went into the other room, sat at the piano and I said, “Julian Lennon and I singing together. What can we do?” I wrote the song. I came back and did a little demo, just piano, and I sent it to him. Now, I don’t know him. Never met him. And so I sent it, never expecting even a response. And he wrote back and said he’d be honored to do it.
I don’t want to sound like a sentimental old fluff, but it meant so much to me to acknowledge, in the best way I could, the great life that his dad’s band and my fans have given me.
Where does the title of the album come from?
The title of the album is 26 East. The basement of that house is where John and Chuck Panozzo and myself formed the nucleus of Styx that would eventually, adding guitars players here and there, make a record in 1972. I just wanted to go full circle and bow and leave the stage because that’s what I should do.
Tell me about “All Due Respect.” You’re clearly singing about cable news in that one.
I say it right in the beginning: “They got the answers for me and you and royal blue.” I’m an equal-opportunity insulter. What’s happened is that over the past 30 years we have slowly taken this ugly march that confuses entertainment with news. And so now what do we have? We have all these mooks realizing that if we put these polar opposites to represent the extremes in a room like the WWF, eyes and ears and clicks start happening.
It becomes spectacle. It becomes entertainment. It’s dangerous. It’s killing democracy. It’s going to ruin us because they just want to sell you beer under the guise of ruining the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Do you think the left and right are equally guilty here?
No. The left is more guilty. You want to know why? Because they have all the outlets! Here’s the thing that gripes me. I find myself to be, always have been, center right. Now, if you write that, they’re going to hate me. What I mean by center right is I’m right for two reasons. One, I believe tonight there are people that are willing and able to come into your house, kill you and take everything you have if you give them the opportunity. I believe that because as much as I like human beings, I’m suspicious.
Two, I would like to keep as much of the money that I make for my family, knowing full well that there is a common good and a common wealth that must be addressed, so tax me a good amount of money. I’m not against it. But at some point, you know, I want them to act like parents.
Are you a Trump supporter?
No! No! Are you kidding me? I voted for Obama. Imagine that! I listened to what he said. I’ve voted for Republicans and Democrats all my life. I try to judge the man or the woman knowing full well that as a collective we’re imbeciles. To look at these individuals and think they’ve got the answer — they’re morons just like you and me and making it up as they go along. Everybody, wake up! These people are not saviors. They are humans.
In the last election, I couldn’t vote. I just couldn’t. I wanted to, but I couldn’t vote for either of them for obvious reasons. Politically, I am the guy who is sick and tired of the extremes who have suddenly started running our country. I don’t want these people. I want them to try and come to … dare I say middle ground? And I’m pissed at these people like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Both sides now claim that neither side has ever had a good idea ever, which we know is historically untrue.
Look, liberals imagine the world the way it should be, not the way it’s gonna be or the way it is. I applaud that. Without liberal thought, we’re lost. I believe that. But when you ask me, it’s not a level playing field. The left screams about Fox. Do you know whey they’re so successful? The same way Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow were so successful. Not a lot of options for those people! It’s not like me. I’m competing against 10,000 bands just like me. When Fox came out, you can’t beat them because there’s only one.
To switch gears here, are you going to add any of these new songs into your live show?
One I’ve chosen to play immediately is “East of Midnight” because that was written for Styx fans who are, shall we say, romantically trapped in a time period. And I don’t blame them. That’s why I wrote “To the Good Old Days.” Those two songs lyrically are about the fans saying, “Please, Dennis. Take me back for two hours out of the chaos that I live in, the stress and pressures that I didn’t feel when I first heard your music.”
You’ve also been playing Styx’s Grand Illusion album straight through at some of your shows.
That is what I would call the height of nostalgia. People need the ability to, rightly or wrongly, go back and feel the way they did when they were young. And I understand it completely. Listen, music is magic. Of all the arts, none of them come close to music. Music can ignite actual physical change in the body. It gives you goosebumps or raises the hair on the back of your neck. I could stare at the Mona Lisa for the rest of my life, that ain’t happening to me.
People come up to me and they thank me. Nobody thanks a 73-year-old for anything anymore. They come up and thank me for the music constantly and say what an impact I had on their lives. You know what I think? I was just trying to beat Queen and Foreigner. That’s what I was trying to do.
It’s interesting that when you go and see Styx, there are so many songs they just don’t perform.
That’s because they’re mine. They’ve taken a stance. But since the last time we’ve talked, they’ve added “Roboto.” It’s like going into a deli and the guy going like, “No, we’re not giving you any corned beef.” “What?!? I’m in here for the corned beef!
They still bash that song, though. Aren’t you tired of hearing that?
They’re doing that while they’re playing it! Look, when J.Y. and Tommy and myself were the only ones left in the band, I got really sick. And I’m still carrying the scars of that Influenza A I got. I still have light sensitivity. It doesn’t go away.
They wanted to assume control, the two of them. And need I say there’s an increase of a third of the money as well? They wanted the power to do that and they did it. But you can’t tell your fan base we got rid of this load over here because he was sick and couldn’t go on tour when we wanted him to, so they came up with this story that they’ve told for 20 years.
They said in 1999 that the reason they had to replace me was because of something that happened in 1983. And we’d just done two successful reunion tours in 1996 and 1997 and we were recording a new album! But if you tell a lie long enough and with enough enthusiasm, people are going to believe it. And I didn’t respond right away because I was sick. They wanted to tell that story: “If you didn’t like ‘Mr. Roboto,’ which apparently tens of millions of people disagree with, he’s to blame.”
Here’s what they don’t understand and I’ll say this on the record: All boats rise with the tide. Styx fans were not in a contest to see which member they liked best. They liked the band. Most of them loved the variety.
And for context here, when you brought Tommy into the band in 1975, you’d already had a big hit with “Lady.” He was joining a successful band.
The reason that I’m focusing on John, Chuck, and I is that we were the closest. We lived on the same street. We had the same ethnic background. That’s what kept the band going. Over the years we had various guitar players. Every guitar player that joined us, joined a successful band.
Every guitar player that joined the band, they joined because we had gigs. J.Y. joined in 1970 after his band had imploded. He was looking to make money. We had the gigs and he joined us. We were a cover band. It was only temporary in his mind. But then boom! He and I joined together and the Styx sound was forged.
But it was only temporary for him. He wanted to run his own band. So every guitar player joined a successful band, including Tommy Shaw. He joined a band that had just recorded an album that would go on to sell 2 million copies, a band that had a gold album and a Top 10 single. But the core was always the Panozzos and me.
Do you get any money from their ticket sales these days?
We had to come to an agreement. The reason I sued them … and they made this big thing, “They sued me!” They took the name after they replaced me. The used it for a year and a half on the road and I never sued them or said a word to them. They never paid me a dime. And then I saw the Behind the Music segment where they started this campaign of going after my music and me. I cried. I cried and I called my lawyer.
Throughout that year and a half I was hopeful they’d just call me back in and say, “You’re better now, let’s go.” But they were out to get me. The only reason I sued them was to get my share of the Styx name. I’m part owner. I mean, am I starting to sound like a whiner?
No. This feels very justified to me.
Here it is. I’m a lucky guy, buddy. I still go out and play. They pay to see me. I’m not even in the band I made famous. I don’t want to sound like a whiner. I have moved on. I have probably said over and over again we should do one last tour for the fans. I don’t have to have the name. Let’s go do 80 or 100 shows. Let’s put Moe, Larry, and Curly back on the stage.
When was the last time you spoke to Tommy or J.Y.?
If you were talking to them right now, what would you say?
I’d say, “Let’s get together and give the fans one more run at this thing and then I’ll ride off into the sunset. You’ll keep doing your Styx thing and using the name. I don’t care. I want it one more time for our fans.”
And can I say this? I want to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because we deserve to be. I’m sickened by the fact that we’re not. I know that’s going to look really bad in print. There was a time the Hall was controlled and run by a certain mentality, which I respect. I do. The people who raise the money and got it, those people have the right to put who they want in there. It’s their deal.
But in recent years, too many of our peers have gotten the nod. Is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the be all, end all? Of course, it isn’t. But it’s the only one. Would you like to be in the Rock Journalism Hall of Fame, if there was one, even if they said all your articles were poo-poo? We’re human. We’re looking for a pat on the head. We’re asking for someone to tell us, “Nice job! You’re not as bad as we thought.”
Journey got in recently. Maybe it’ll happen in a few years.
I don’t want to die first. Simply put, Rush inducted Yes. But there is no Rush without Yes. Led Zeppelin and Yes made a baby, it was Rush. I look at that and think, “Wow!” Number one, I want the fans to see this thing that I gave my life to. It defines who I am outside of being a father and a husband.
I still don’t understand why Tommy and J.Y. continue to bash you and then go onstage every night and play your music.
Look, they’ve decided to try and capture that percent of the audience that may have been turned off by anything that wasn’t how they define the band now in retrospect. But I was there. “Renegade” was not a rock song. I made it into a rock song. Image is different than reality.
They speak about Kilroy Was Here like it was the worst thing that ever happened to mankind.
Here’s the thing. You were too young to see it. It was really my brainchild and I wanted to do three things. I wanted to get us on film. This was before MTV. I didn’t know MTV was going to be invented, but I knew being on film was important. How did I know? The Beatles. And so I come up with this story because these fundamentalist dudes were burning records and the only reason Styx was in there because they are idiots. “Oh, it’s the river in hell.” They thought there were backwards satanic messages. I was actually on Nightline and Donahue talking about this stuff.
I thought to myself, “The band that just gave you ‘Babe’ are satanists? This is dangerous shit.” This is before the PMRC. I wrote a story about rock being being banned by a fundamentalist. He’s really an entertainer. He’s not a religious guy. He’s just a big-mouthed charlatan who owns his own TV network. And he’s a big bullshitter. That’s the original story. And he gets rock banned because he says that everything bad happening in the country was because of this stuff.
It was just a story. I thought to myself, “Let’s do something different. Do I have to go back to Madison Square Garden and stand on the stage and do songs?” I wanted to push the envelope. And so I did it. Did I push too far? Maybe.
The two overriding factors are that the First Amendment is due respect. Number two, watch out. “The problem is plain to see/Too much technology/Machines to save our lives/Machines dehumanize.” That’s what I was trying to say about these Japanese robots because Japan ruled the world in technology in 1981 and 1982 when I was writing it. I was saying, “We have to make a bargain with these machines creating.” I didn’t know there was going to be the internet. I didn’t know there was going to be AI.
I just looked around at my working-class buddies who went to factories to make money. You see what happened. It decimated those people I loved and grew up with. It turned them into opioid users, alcoholics, and victims of suicide because the machines took their place and they couldn’t earn the money and dignity that people need to have a decent life. That’s what I believed. It wasn’t like, “Oh, Dennis. He’s so precious.” I just knew machines could replace human beings.
To wrap up, are you thinking yet about a release date for Volume 2 of your new record?
No. I don’t really care. The songs are recorded and I’m really happy people are enjoying them. I didn’t do this for people to hate what I’m doing. I didn’t do it so people could say, “Dennis DeYoung’s music, he’s a poo-poo face.” Quite the opposite.
Over my life, I’ve had people look at Styx songs and you’d think we invented the coronavirus. It’s insane because they had a point of view that was different than what we did musically. This is music, kids. Take a breath!
As far as the second ones goes, the songs are mostly recorded. After I talk to you and everyone and see what they think, I’ll probably put a song or two new on it. At this point in my life, I’m not here to reinvent the wheel. I’m here to be liked. Should I be ashamed of it? I’m not.