“Greatest Hits” by Styx

Styx was not a particularly good band on the whole as Arena Rock acts go, but their overall output is such a complex mix of good and bad that I felt the only way to cover the full spectrum of their output was to review their most prominent Greatest Hits album in full. It’s the first compilation album I’ve ever covered in my album reviews, but again, I felt it was the only way to do justice to the scope of this band’s problems and occasional strengths.

The first problem with Styx as a band is obvious—the group’s primary vocalist sounds like a white Steve Urkel. Dennis DeYoung had his moments as a songwriter, but there are very few less credible Rock vocalists to have actually achieved a major career. Sometimes DeYoung would hand the mike over to his bandmate Tommy Shaw, particularly on Shaw’s own composition, which tend to be far more Rock-edged and which even DeYoung seemed to understand he couldn’t pull off convincingly. But frankly, while Shaw’s compositions tended to be more consistent than DeYoung’s, Shaw’s harsh croak was only slightly preferable to DeYoung’s nasal whine.

The band’s second problem was that they had a frequent tendency to dabble in gooey Soft Rock balladry, and this was a style for which they showed no aptitude whatsoever. Their first hit, “Lady”, was in this style, and in a just world that might have doomed their careers there and then (the song had to be re-recorded for this album due to label issues, but in any form it’s a saccharine embarrassment). Even worse is “Babe”, which somehow became one of their signature hits but which is so tritely-written and badly-sung that the result is indistinguishable from a late-career Chicago single. “Lorelei” is at least marginally better due to have slightly more of a Rock edge, but it’s still pretty unfortunate. And on the opposite side of the spectrum, “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” (apparently written by Shaw as a personal dig at DeYoung) and “Miss America” come across as needlessly belligerent and obnoxious.

That said, the band did definitely have its moments…the fact that they’ve retained a significant fanbase in the face of decades of critical scorn is not totally unjustified. DeYoung’s haunting “Suite Madame Blue” and Shaw’s blistering Rocker “Renegade” qualify as Rock classics. And despite their tendency to sound like warmed-over Queen at times, items like “Crystal Ball”, “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)”, and even the group’s biggest hit, the Prog-lite harmonic showcase “Come Sail Away” do have their pleasures (even if the latter makes its chosen metaphor far less evocative than it had been in Tom Waits’ “Shiver Me Timbers” three years earlier). And while “The Grand Illusion” does exaggerate the group’s trademark bombast more than a little too far, you still have to acknowledge the validity of its message, which seems even more relevant in today’s social-media environment than it was at the time.

The final problem with the band, and the one that ultimately wound up being their undoing, is that their output became progressively sillier toward the end of their initial run of hits. The fact that they decided to start playing up their Prog-Rock influences just as Prog-Rock was forcibly going out of style was a questionable decision to begin with, but the two Prog-style Concept Albums they released in the early Eighties made even the most outrageous excesses of the genre’s Seventies heyday look respectable by comparison.

Their 1981 album Paradise Theater was their biggest hit commercially, but its convoluted Concept (which none of the band members except DeYoung really seemed to be on board with) resulted in some pretty contrived songwriting. The two songs from it included here, “The Best of Times” and “Too Much Time on My Hands”, are attractive enough musically, but they both feature absolutely ridiculous lyrics. “The Best of Times”, a synth ballad reminiscent of late-career ELO, is built around an embarrassingly pretentious and inept appropriation of the opening lines of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Meanwhile, in “Too Much Time on My Hands”, the entire song is built around a common phrase (“Is it any wonder?”) that Tommy Shaw clearly didn’t understand how to use properly, resulting in a confusing, illiterate mess of a lyric.

The album that would ultimately kill the band, though, was the legendary disaster Kilroy Was Here (they would eventually reunite as a kind of nostalgic niche band, but Kilroy was essentially the end of the line for them at hitmakers). There are two singles from that album included here: the second, “Don’t Let It End”, is merely another soppy love ballad when divorced from the album’s context, but the first is the band’s notorious calling card among their legions of detractors…the infamous “Mr. Roboto”. This combination of confusing out-of-context story song, anti-technology screed and repetitive nonsense chorus is probably the most ridiculous Prog-Rock track of all time, and the fact that it actually became a hit is what ultimately doomed the band to their current status as Pop-culture punchlines. I’d complain that it makes no sense outside the album’s story and thus shouldn’t have been released as a single, but frankly, it doesn’t make any more sense if you do know the album’s story.

There is one track from Styx’s “reunion” era included here, “Show Me the Way”, and while it is reasonably pretty, it definitely comes across as something of a diminishing echo of their heyday-era work. This Greatest Hits collection comes off as disappointing on the whole, just as Styx’s overall output did, but it has a few good tracks and at least shows that the band had some measure of talent and weren’t outright bottomfeeders like some of their peers from the era. I can’t really say I recommend this album (or, frankly, this band), but I will give it this: it was never boring, and that’s more than anyone can say for the Greatest Hits of some of the bands that succeeded them.

“Tip Toe Thru’ the Tulips With Me” by Tiny Tim

Ladies and gentleman, the award for Single Most Annoying Falsetto in Pop Music History goes to…Tiny Tim! Seriously, this guy has to be the absolute worst Easy Listening musician of all time…even the Starland Vocal Band were more capable than this. Tiny Tim is regarded as little more than a joke these days, but that’s actually giving him too much credit. I have literally never heard a worse singing voice come out of someone who supposedly sings for a living. Granted, the song itself, a hopelessly hackneyed piece of fifth-rate Tin Pan Alley leftovers, doesn’t help, but if you give this idiot a good song, the results are actually even worse (listen to his horrific butchering of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” if you don’t believe me).

Verdict: Beyond horrific.

“It’s Still Billy Joel to Me” by Weird Al Yankovich

Of all the songs Weird Al has recorded, this seems to be the one he’s most openly ashamed of (it’s worth noting that he never wound up putting it on an album). Granted, it’s a mean-spirited attack on the original artist, something Yankovich is normally above doing, but so is “Achy Breaky Song”, and while Al seems somewhat embarrassed about that one too, his fans had a much more positive reaction to it.

Maybe I’m biased because I am an avowed Billy Joel fan and absolutely despise Billy Ray Cyrus’ music, but I am a fan of about two-thirds of the other artists Yankovich insults in “Achy Breaky Song” (and I’m certainly no great defender of “It’s Still Rock’n’Roll to Me” as an individual song).

The difference is that “Achy Breaky Song”, with its hyperbolic language and comedic exaggerations, actually came off as a joke. “It’s Still Billy Joel to Me”, on the other hand, doesn’t really tell any jokes…it’s just a string of fairly mundane cheap insults, and mostly just comes across as a jealous rant about Billy Joel’s level of commercial success and security (Weird Al’s own career hadn’t really started to take off at this point, and his envy and pettiness here don’t exactly reflect well on him).

Verdict: Bad.

“Gotta Serve Somebody” by Bob Dylan

While the album Slow Train Coming is generally the best-regarded of Bob Dylan’s three Christian Rock albums, this particular song is generally seen as emblematic of the problems associated with that stage of his career. This is partly because it was only really popular hit song to come out of his Christian phase, but there’s more to it than that.

For one thing, it’s a relatively simplistic piece of songwriting by Dylan’s usual standards, which is bound to come off as disappointing to fans of his usual work. For another, its simplicity means that Dylan’s smugness, a problem that is generally present to at least a subtle degree even on his classics, is much more direct and palpable here.

But perhaps the biggest problem with this song is one that most of the people who object to it don’t even realize…it is blatantly ripped off in both content and structure from “Righteous Rocker No. 1”, a song from Larry Norman’s seminal Christian Rock album Only Visiting This Planet. Both songs offer various descriptions of worldly success or failure before tying each statement back to a biblical reference. In Norman’s case, it’s that “you ain’t nothing without love”, a reference to Corintheans 13; in Dylan’s, that you’re “gonna have to serve somebody”, a reference to the ‘God or Mammon’ dichotemy from Matthew 6:24.

The songs are in fact virtually identical, except that Norman’s is actually a lot better, coming off as significantly less smug and more sincere. Dylan’s Christian albums actually produced several songs much better than this one but he ought to have been above this kind of borderline plagiarism, and it stands as one of the more disappointing moments of his illustrious career.

Verdict: Not terrible, exactly, but “Righteous Rocker No. 1” got there first and did it a lot better.