Dennis DeYoung talks unlikely hits and robot masks

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Tampa Bay Times on Feb. 22, 2012.

In the early 1960s, Dennis DeYoung was just a 14-year-old with an accordion and a mission: to make a few bucks with his friends performing at weddings around his Chicago neighborhood of Roseland. A TV show changed all that.

“It was the Beatles on Ed Sullivan,” Dennis told me during a phone interview that went a lot longer than the planned hour. “If you talk to any baby boomer guys in rock bands, I would believe 80 percent would tell the same story. It was an epiphany.”

DeYoung retired his accordion for a set of keyboards and co-founded a band that would go on to achieve platinum sales success and fill stadiums with fans from the late ’70s through mid ’80s: Styx.

A battle over music direction coupled with health problems led to DeYoung’s dismissal from the band in 1999. But he still performs the music of Styx for fans around the world, while his old bandmates continue on with a new lead singer.

I spoke with the singer – long a hero of mine – a few weeks before he was scheduled to perform with the Florida Orchestra in Clearwater, Fla. Dennis was touring the nation, performing the hits he wrote with his own hand-picked band and local orchestras.

“The music lends itself to orchestration,” DeYoung says. “This is no condemnation of Chuck Berry, who I greatly admire. But Chuck Berry’s music will not translate as well to orchestration because of its very three-chord rock ‘n’ roll nature. It is the music of the artists that are more pretentious, pompous or closer to the kind of big dramatic stylings that orchestras are good with.”

“I wanted to make the rock band the focus; the orchestra is the sixth member,” he said. “I went one step further in incorporating actual pieces of classical music, trying to weave them within the confines and structures of the hit records that we had — which only pointed out clearly how absolutely c—– my songs were compared to Mozart.”

Here are some more highlights from our conversation:

Steve: I saw a photo of you with your accordion on VH1’s Behind the Music. Do you still have it?

Dennis: “It was in a flood. The accordion in that picture I still have but it’s pretty moldy. It’s packed away in storage somewhere. I can’t really play it anymore. This isn’t going to make the AP or anything, but there isn’t that much call for accordion players anymore in rock music.”

And yet it set you on the rock music path.

“Here’s the humiliation that it teaches you: You spend your life learning an instrument that becomes obsolete and almost something to be derided and made fun of. That will set you on a course to be an over-achiever.”

In 1979, I learned every lyric to the Styx album Cornerstone, which has the epic ballad Babe on it. But I’ve read that it was the beginning of band discord over musical direction.

“I just believed in 1979 that prog rock was finished. I just saw the handwriting on the wall. And I believed that if we continued in that direction, our career would be finished. So I kind of led the band to making Cornerstone, which is an album from my point of view which was not trying to be necessarily softer, but more natural.”

I always felt you got too much blame, publicly anyway, for causing the rift.

“What people fail to realize is that any album we did, really, 90 percent of it reflected the songs people brought in. If someone had brought in two great rock songs for Cornerstone . . . they would have been on that record. Babe was never supposed to be on that record. It was a song I wrote for my wife as a present, never intending for it to be a Styx song.”

Babe almost never happened?

“Babe was a demo. The demo became the hit record, including all the background vocals, which were done by me.”

You know, for a songwriter who caught the rock bug from the Beatles, there’s very little John or Paul in Styx songs.

“Our music did not sound like the Beatles in any way, shape or form. I could never find it in myself to use those Beatles tricks in Styx records because they were sacred to me. But what they did always influenced my thinking. Here’s what I always say to people: If I just brought you from another planet and set you down and you knew nothing about Styx, and I played three songs for you — I played Babe, Renegade and Mr. Roboto — what would you say those songs had in common?”

Nothing.

“Nothing! You’re a fan of my vision, which was I wanted Styx to be the band that lots of different people could come to the same party in. You’d all meet at the same place. That was my dream for the band. It wasn’t to be some one-trick pony. Styx in my mind was never intended to be one thing.”

Since you mention Mr. Roboto, I have to ask: If you’d known what angst that song would bring to the band’s members and some of its fans, would you do anything different?

[Long pause] . . . “I’d have had that Roboto mask made larger, because it didn’t sit right on my face.”

Click here to listen to the full interview with Dennis DeYoung.