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Fifty years after landing first record deal, Styx taking victory lap in Tulsa

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The best of times?

Among achievements celebrated by Styx since mid-2021: a No. 1 album and the 50th anniversary of the band’s first record deal.

Released in June 2021, “Crash of the Crown” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Rock Albums chart. During Styx’s recent tour of Canada, a short track (“The Fight of Our Lives”) from the album was a show-starter, and it blended into classic songs that followed.

“We use the intro to that song as the walk-on music, and then, boom, we come in on the downbeat where the vocal comes in,” bassist Ricky Phillips said.

Steve Griffin tells us about Hop the Griffin's Irish Red.

“It’s kind of one way of sneaking in something new. Nobody wants to hear your new stuff. Everybody wants to hear your old stuff because they’re not as familiar with the new stuff. I’m the same way with my favorite bands. But I thought it was a clever way to kind of just break in with an intro piece and then of course launch into ‘Blue Collar Man.’ And then everybody gets the relief of, ‘oh, I like this song. I know this one.’”

Fans should know a lot of them when Styx returns to Tulsa for a Dec. 1 performance at the Cove, the concert venue of the River Spirit Casino Resort.

It’s a good problem to have, but when a band’s discography spans 50 years, the headache when compiling a set list is deciding which songs to leave out.

For decades, one of those left-out songs was “Mr. Roboto,” which reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983. Written by former vocalist Dennis DeYoung, “Mr. Roboto” was a track on a concept album that got the stink-eye from some in the band. The song was simultaneously radio-active and radioactive. The latter won out, and the current incarnation of Styx avoided playing “Mr. Roboto” live until surprising fans with it in 2018.

“It was something that I didn’t know if it was a good idea because of kind of a backlash that song had,” Phillips said.

“It was shunned by the real hardcore rock lovers in that it was too kitschy and ‘what the hell is this?’ A lot of people did not accept it. But there is the other flipside, the younger audience who got it and enjoyed it.”

Phillips said “Mr. Roboto” returned to Styx set lists after the group heard a young band do a version of the song.

“I can’t really explain it, but the way it struck us was ‘All right, let’s not talk about it. Let’s go in and play it, and everybody play it the way you would want to play it on your instrument,’” he said, adding that the intention wasn’t to rewrite the song but rather to “be yourself.”

“And it was so heavy and big that, right off the bat, it worked. It just worked, and there wasn’t a lot of discussion. Maybe none, really. We are playing the parts that the song always was, but it sounds beefed up — and not with intention. It just naturally (occurred) I think with mature musicians who know the parts. Instead of it being real bouncy ... (and) without it being almost comedic or tongue in cheek, we did it aggressively and seriously. We just charged into it and it worked on night one. It has probably morphed a little bit. I would love to hear some recordings of probably the first time we did it. But it gets a great (response) from the audience, and I think it brings some believers back into the fold that may not have been prior.”

Among other topics covered in a pre-Tulsa interview with Phillips:

Phillips was asked to finish this sentence: A band can’t sustain a 50-year history unless...

“Unless there is camaraderie at all levels,” he said, adding that sometimes, if you want to maintain strength, you have to cut out a weakness or anything that might be damaging the whole.

For instance, he said he was in a couple of bands (Bad English, The Babys) that broke up because certain members — not all of them — couldn’t get along and weren’t happy.

“So that was it, and we moved on,” he said. “But Styx has been able to find a way to continue on and is still pushing for every record to be better than the one before it.”

Follow-up to the previous question: As much time as you spend on tour together, you better get along.

“It’s a marriage of multiple people,” Phillips said. “A marriage with two people is hard enough. And dudes, they have their ways and their strengths and their conviction and every guy thinks he is right, so you have to find it within yourself to concede. There are so many — multiple — ideas, and you can’t use them all. You can’t have 40 versions of a song on a record.”

Continuing, Phillips said, “It’s just a maturity. I think it has gotten better as it has gone on, but there is a maturity and a respect that we all have, and we know that each guy has got a lot to bring to the table, and they deserve to be listened to. That’s kind of a no-brainer. We don’t discuss that. It just happens naturally.”

The new album was recorded during the pandemic. Some members hunkered down to work on material in their own studios, but of course the record was a collaborative effort.

“It was kind of a daunting task, but we sort of got in a groove with it, and I think we were able to audition more parts than you normally would because, when you are in a studio with a producer and maybe certain band members or people who had written the song, you hit something they like and you move on,” Phillips said.

“That’s kind of the way it has always been. The musicians are good, but we all want to do it again and do it again and do it again, but nobody has the time for that. So in our own studios, even myself, I was able to show up with multiple parts for them to choose from, and I think that’s why the record actually debuted on the Billboard rock chart at No. 1. I think the ability to really, really scrutinize and kind of leave no own stone unturned worked to our benefit.”

Phillips was asked what he wanted to say about the album, and he said it was a “slow burn” for him. He said he was so in love with a previous album (“The Mission”) that it was his girlfriend “and, so, to knock my girlfriend off my arm for another one, it took a while. But the slow burn finally got me.”

Phillips was pleasantly surprised when the new album debuted at No. 1.

“I thought it might be a little bit too proggy to get that response, which was fine with me, because prog music is one of the things that Styx’s members all kind of gather around,” he said. “We have such a stress on melody and structure and not trying to go over peoples’ heads. There is a limit, but I thought we were pushing the limit on that. Then I listen back, and I realize it was done so well. We have all been playing together so long that it didn’t sound like a calculus exam that you were listening to. It really was smooth, and all the transitions from song to song seemed to work.”

The album’s co-writer and producer, Will Evankovich, is touring with Styx, playing guitars and mandolin.

Styx has a sound all its own. And that sound is?

“The one thing — the most simple thing — to me has always been the band’s the ability to have a positive message,” Phillips said. “That’s really hard in songwriting.”

It’s much easier, in Phillips’ opinion, for a songwriter to tackle things like break-ups or being burnt by something in life.

“You think about a lot of songs from a lot of bands, and it’s hard to write a positive song without it sounding candy ass, like ‘up with people’ or something,” he said.

“I’m amazed at how the band has been able to write such great music. I have only been there 20 years. The band is celebrating the 50th anniversary of their first record deal this year. This was long before that I came in that they kind of laid down this gauntlet and this ability to do this with the songwriting.”

Covers of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and Genesis “Turn it on Again” popped up on Styx set lists during shows in Canada. Phillips credited vocalist Lawrence Gowan for bringing those songs to the table.

“Lawrence is such a chameleon and so good and such an extraordinary pianist,” Phillips said. “He does those by himself. We never know. We are backstage, and we are hearing him do this and we are going ‘oh my god.’ He has always got something up his sleeve.”

Styx and Stones? Phillips said Gowan has gone into snippets of songs from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones to David Bowie during his segments of shows.

Said Phillips: “You’ve got people holding signs up that say ‘this is my 147th show.’ Those repeat offenders, as we jokingly call them, we want to keep them happy and not hearing exactly the same thing. They want to hear the songs, but by doing little things between songs and those little extras that Lawrence does, each show seems a little bit special. It has a little something different.”

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Scene Writer

I cover pop culture and work as a feature writer at the Tulsa World. A former Oklahoma sports writer of the year, I have written books about former OU coach Barry Switzer and former OSU coach Pat Jones. Phone: 918-581-8389

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