Classic Rock Clash
Styx and REO Speedwagon, two hardworking Illinois bands that enjoyed massive success in the '70s and '80s, face off
If you love cutting-edge indie rock or underground dance music, life as a music fan in Florida can be downright dreary — especially in spring and summer. But if you grew up in the ’70s and love classic-rock radio, this time of year is a veritable cornucopia of soaring power ballads, ill-fitting leather jackets and bombastic guitar solos.
Leading the charge into summer package-tour bliss is Styx, REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent, who’ve reconvened for their second annual “Midwest Rock ‘n’ Roll Express.” The two Illinois bands have sold more than 70 million records between them and sound-tracked countless suburban make-out sessions with epic love jams like “Lady” (Styx) and “Keep On Lovin’ You” (REO Speedwagon). That might make them seem like an odd fit with the hell-raising “Uncle Ted” Nugent, Detroit’s most prolific six-string slinger and a fiery anti-liberal, pro-gun loudmouth with his own line of ammunition.
But given the misperceptions and immediate eye-rolls that often precede any conversation about Styx and REO Speedwagon, we thought we’d provide a tale of the arena-rock tape to sum up their respective careers. Read on — and show up at St. Augustine Amphitheatre on May 3 — to see who has the edge in this power-pop showdown.
BEST LEAD SINGER
Styx: Dennis DeYoung, who was with the band from 1961-1984, 1990-1992 and 1995-1999
REO Speedwagon: Kevin Cronin, who was with his band from 1972-1973 and 1976-present
EDGE: Since REO Speedwagon bounced through three lead singers in three years before allowing Cronin to settle in for good in 1976, we’ll give Styx and DeYoung the first point. His penchant for overblown stage theatrics and confounding concept albums is often cited as the main reason Styx broke up not once, not twice, but three times; in 1999, when DeYoung contracted a viral illness that made him temporarily sensitive to light, he asked the band to postpone touring. But they kicked their original member — part of the band since 1961 — to the curb and carried on without him. Today, the Styx website doesn’t even mention DeYoung.
MOST FAMOUS POWER BALLAD
Styx: 1975’s “Lady”
REO Speedwagon: 1984’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling”
EDGE: REO Speedwagon by a mile — those sappy keyboards, Kevin Cronin’s precious falsetto vocals, excruciatingly bad lines like “’Cause I feel so secure when we’re together” … Oh, and when your song is included on the soundtrack to everything from “South Park” to “King of the Hill” to “Horton Hears A Who!” you know you’ve got yourself a bona fide karaoke hit.
LONGEST WINNING STREAK
Styx: Five consecutive platinum albums between 1977 and 1983
REO Speedwagon: Seven consecutive gold albums between 1977 and 1987
EDGE: The first close call. We’ll go with REO Speedwagon, though — not only because the first album in their streak, 1977’s “Live: You Get What You Play For,” was a live album, but because, if 1979’s “Nine Lives” and 1987’s “Life As We Know It” ever break the platinum threshold, the band will have seven consecutive platinums to Styx’s five.
PINNACLE OF CAREER
Styx: 1981 album “Paradise Theatre,” which has sold more than 3 million copies and hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts
REO Speedwagon: 1980 album “Hi Infidelity,” which has sold more than 10 million copies and spawned four Top 25 hits, in addition to hitting No. 1 on the Billboard charts
EDGE: REO Speedwagon for purely mathematical reasons — “Hi Infidelity” is one of the biggest-selling albums of all time and was also the band’s true breakthrough hit, while Styx had already enjoyed considerable success before “Paradise Theatre.”
QUINTESSENTIAL OPENING LINE
Styx: 1977’s “Come Sail Away”: “I’m sailing away/Set an open course for the virgin sea.”
REO Speedwagon: 1980’s “Take It on the Run”: “Heard it from a friend who/Heard it from a friend who/Heard it from another you been messin’ around.”
EDGE: Styx by a nose. Kevin Cronin’s “heard it from a friend” riff packs a deceptively insinuating punch, but the song never takes off from there. Dennis DeYoung’s sensitive, piano-backed (and chortle-inducing) lyric, on the other hand, only sets the stage for a bombastic, kaleidoscopic guitar-and-synthesizer journey that elevates this tale of angels, starships and personal freedom right into the Great American Songbook.
MOST UNDERRATED MOMENT
Styx: 1975 song “Suite Madame Blue”
REO Speedwagon: Naming their 1978 album “You Can Tune a Piano But You Can’t Tuna Fish”
EDGE: Kudos to REO Speedwagon, a band that seemed to lose its sense of humor by 1980, for coming up with one of the funniest album titles in rock history. But in all seriousness, Styx has to win here — “Suite Madame Blue” still stands as one of the finest prog-rock epics of all time, slotting in easily with similarly hard-edged, quasi-mythological gems by ’70s kingpins Led Zeppelin, Kansas and Jethro Tull.
Styx: “I’m sailing away/Set an open course for the virgin sea” from “Come Sail Away”
REO Speedwagon: “It’s time to bring this ship into shore/And throw away the oars, forever” from “Can’t Fight This Feeling”
EDGE: Both bands earn points for predating the current nautical craze by a good 20-30 years. But still, we cringe far more thinking about the creepsters who used Styx’s lyrics as a naughty pick-up line than about the lonely rock groupies who longed for their men to dock in the same port for eternity.
WHEN THEY JUMPED THE SHARK
Styx: 1983’s “Kilroy Was Here,” a rock opera concept album about a futuristic world where rock ‘n’ roll is banned by a tyrannical evangelist
REO Speedwagon: After Alan Gratzer retired in 1988, leaving Neal Doughty as the sole remaining original member
EDGE: Styx, strictly on the strength of “Kilroy” single “Mr. Roboto,” a hilariously cornball stab at electro New Wave à la Devo. Google the video, which features band members dressed as silver-skinned robots before Dennis DeYoung breaks free to jam out in a lavender jumpsuit.
BIGGEST SHRED OF STREET CRED
Styx: Naming themselves after the River Styx; releasing their seventh album, “The Grand Illusion,” on 7/7/77
REO Speedwagon: Naming themselves after the real REO Speed Wagon, a commercial flatbed truck, produced by Ransom E. Olds of Oldsmobile fame, from 1915 to 1953
EDGE: A tough call — on the one hand, you have Styx, which named itself after the river in Greek mythology that damned souls must sail on their to the Underworld. On the other, you have REO Speedwagon honoring the forgotten ancestor of the pickup truck. For sheer music-geek minutiae, though, we’ll go with Styx’s grand numerological gesture.
MOST UNLIKELY HONOR
Styx: Being accused by the Parents Music Resource Center of back-masking Satanic messages into their 1981 anti-cocaine anthem, “Snowblind” — and then actually embedding hidden messages about God in 1983’s “Heavy Metal Poisoning”
REO Speedwagon: Earning love from high-profile publications for their 2009 video game “Find Your Way Home,” the first “downloadable casual game” produced with a rock band
EDGE: REO Speedwagon released a video game? That was considered a success? Easy win here, even up against Styx’s compelling mix of drugs, the devil and pedantic critics.
THE FINAL TALLY
Styx, six points; REO Speedwagon, four points, which makes sense, because Styx is scheduled as the closer for the St. Augustine show.