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40 Years Ago: Styx Step Toward a Bright Future on ‘Crystal Ball’

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Go ahead and get all your Mr. Roboto jokes and Cartman singing “Come Sail Away” clips out of your system right off the bat, because Styx’s 1976 album, Crystal Ball, is no laughing matter.

As avatars of late-‘70s/early-‘80s AOR, the band has historically gotten a lot of guff over the years, and some of that way be justified. But ignoring their virtues and acting as if there are no golden moments in their discography is a classic example of throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater.

Crystal Ball captures the band at a crucial phase of transition, and while it’s not completely absent of flaws, it contains some tracks as good as anything else emerging from the American rock ‘n’ roll mainstream of the era.

Though they’ve often been slagged off as “corporate rock,” Styx weren’t dreamed up in some boardroom by an evil genius like John Kalodner, the music biz mogul who would eventually team Styx’s Tommy Shaw with Ted Nugent and Night Ranger‘s Jack Blades of in ’80s supergroup Damn Yankees. They were a blue-collar band that came up on the streets of Chicago, and slogged it out on endless opening-act tours in indie-label obscurity for years before even getting near a major label deal, never mind seeing any serious success.

After four albums, they finally got a deal with A&M Records and released Equinox in 1975. Though it made a little more commercial headway, it didn’t exactly take the world by storm. In the wake of its release, founding guitarist John Curulewski decided he’d been a rock ‘n’ roll road warrior long enough and quit the band. Dependent on a dual-guitar front line, Styx sought a replacement, and ended up with Shaw, a young guitarist from Alabama.

The rest of the band had no way of knowing it at the time — as Shaw has alleged that they hired him largely because he could cover the high harmony in Styx’s lone hit, “Lady” — but bringing Shaw aboard was the smartest move they ever made. Besides his guitar skills, which were considerable, Shaw was a gifted singer and songwriter. His talents would bring the band some of their biggest and best songs in years to come, and it all started here.

Setting up a dynamic that would continue throughout his career with the band, Crystal Ball’s best songs were penned and sung by Shaw. The title track, a hypnotic folk-rock ballad, takes an unassumingly philosophical tack, coming from the vantage point of a young man humbly searching for his place in the world. Between the bewitching acoustic guitar patterns and Shaw’s warm, soulful delivery, it’s every bit as affecting as the efforts of any contemporaneous folk-rock troubadour, and remains one of the finest tunes in the band’s catalog.

On the other side of the coin, Shaw’s “Shooz” is a raucous, bluesy rocker that could easily have fallen off the truck on its way to a Thin Lizzy session or that of any other mid-‘70s hard rock act with more cool cred than Styx. Drummer John Panozzo’s groove slams and swings at the same time, and the guitar interaction between Shaw and James Young (who co-wrote the song) could get a team of firefighters suiting up and sliding down a pole. The lyrics evoke an appropriately sleazy street scene full of unsavory activity, just like any down ‘n’ dirty rocker worth its salt should.

Listen to Styx’s ‘Mademoiselle’

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On the Shaw-sung, Dennis DeYoung co-write “Mademoiselle,” the guitarist manages to coax the better angles of DeYoung’s pop sensibilities to create a hooky, melodic pop tune without the saccharine in later DeYoung hits like “Babe.” Instead of a MOR ballad, we get a bouncy, Beatlesque tune that could segue seamlessly with the Fabs’ “Getting Better,” complete with bassman Chuck Panozzo’s McCartney-like upper-register flourishes. Just on a basic level, it’s pretty impressive that the same band could turn out diametrically opposed songs like this and “Shooz” with equal success.

Styx’s pop-savvy side may be pretty well documented, but what’s frequently forgotten is the fact that when they wanted to, they could rock too. Besides “Shooz,” the opening track, “Put Me On,” bears this out. The lyrics may be on the dumb side, but rock history is hardly lacking in celebrated songs with stupid lyrics. And the full-tilt Shaw/Young guitar assault is so effective that it can’t even be diminished by DeYoung’s stentorian synths.

Are there some cringe-worthy moments? Sure, but you’ll find those on the best of albums. “Jennifer,” DeYoung’s icky ode to a 17-year-old, is as creepy as it is unconvincing. And the use of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” as the intro to “Ballerina” sends the pretentiousness meters soaring into the red. But they don’t do irreparable damage to the overall feel of the album.

So even if you’re in a Styx-bashing mood, don’t be so quick to dismiss Crystal Ball. Not only does it represent a major uptick in the band’s firepower with the addition of Shaw, it’s got as many memorable tunes as you’re likely to find on anything Styx’s AOR peers were putting out at the time. But it was not destined to be the band’s big breakthrough. They’d have to wait one more album for that.

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Next: Top 10 Styx Songs

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