I grew up listening to Styx’s music during my childhood years. “Lady” was the only song I was familiar with, a 1974 hit song that received its share of radio airplay. It was not until I was in high school when I started to actively collect their LP’s, at least what was available during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Styx’s entire catalog soon found its way into my hands with the exception of their third and fourth LP’s, “The Serpent Is Rising” (1973), and “Man of Miracles” (1974). Much to my delight, a 2-CD set of their Wooden Nickel recordings, aptly titled “The Complete Wooden Nickel Recordings” was released in 2005 on the HIP-O label, along with a nice little 13-page booklet of the group’s history, early photos of the band, and LP cover artwork.
Unlike the Styx of the triple-platinum years, the Wooden Nickel songs are rooted in progressive rock, which blends classical pieces like Bach’s “Little Fugue in ‘G'” with hard rock and metal songs such as “Witch Wolf” and “Jonas Psalter.” These are the days before Tommy Shaw when John Curulewski was one of the guitarists in the band (James “JY” Young” is the other guitarist and is considered the “Godfather of Styx” for having been with the group since 1970) and before the band became known for its rock opera style hit songs. Going from the rock opera to the earliest Styx recordings is like having lived on Hershey’s chocolate then suddenly getting a taste of Valrhona. Like other progressive rock music, it has the artistic value but almost never makes it commercially where its creators can actually collect decent revenue on their work. During the group’s early years, “Lady” was not the only song Styx tried to get their local Chicago radio stations to play; they attempted to push “The Serpent Is Rising” and “Man of Miracles” LP’s but no one was interested in playing any of their songs except “Lady.” Like other progressive rock groups of the 1970’s such as Emerson Lake and Palmer and Triumvirat, Styx recorded at least one (in their case, the only one) multiple-track song, “Movement for the Common Man” which combines hard rock with a traditional song, Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
As a pleasurable diversion, Styx’s Wooden Nickel collection has the type of music that is definitely more appealing to not just Styx fans but also progressive and hard rock listeners. A few ballads are thrown in for good measure – “Evil Eyes” and “Golden Lark” but again, these are not of the England Dan – John Ford Coley variety. One of the most listenable songs in the collection is John Curulewski’s “A Day”, which appeared on the group’s first LP. Moody, tinged with laziness of a weekend afternoon, the song lasts almost 8 ½ minutes long and is guaranteed to put the adrenaline into inert mode. JY’s fans will be delighted to hear him sing lead vocals on “Witch Wolf”, “Southern Woman”, “Man of Miracles”, “A Man Like Me”, “Young Man”, “Rock and Roll Reeling”, “Jonas Psalter”, “The Serpent Is Rising”, and “Having A Ball.” James Young’s deliciously raspy vocals really shine here. “Krakatoa” is a unique electronic piece written by Curulewski, Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause which later became the signature song borrowed by George Lucas for use in his THX sound system. Being only recently exposed to “The Serpent Is Rising” and “Man of Miracles”, it is curious that one of the original Styx members said the former is the band’s worst recording effort1, which encouraged Curulewski to compose the sub-track “Don’t Sit On the Plexiglass Toilet” (which appears as part of the song “As Bad As This”), probably to communicate his real feelings about the entire project. The song title is obviously not Styx-like; in fact it sounds more like a Mclusky or Electric Six title. Oddly enough, this song is reminiscent of Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O” with its calypso beat. It is easy enough to skip this song and to evaluate the other songs individually. Hard-core Styx fans will smile at “Don’t Sit On the Plexiglass Toilet” and refute the claim “The Serpent Is Rising” LP is the band’s worst with “Kilroy Was Here” as holding that honored spot. I should know – after receiving “Kilroy Was Here” for a birthday present and listening to it all the way through only once was worse than getting a root canal.
James Young and Tommy Shaw still tour as Styx along with Lawrence Gowan, Ricky Philips and Todd Sucherman. Drummer John Panozzo died in 1996 due to liver disease, and his fraternal twin brother Chuck only performs with the band when his health permits. Thanks to JY’s business and financial savvy (he earned a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology2 before joining Styx during the band’s early days), Styx is still successful as a stage act and continues to draw new generations of fans who will hopefully get to listen to the group’s early work.