Dennis DeYoung Gazing Back in Time!

By Ralph Chapman @

Styx’s 1976 album Crystal Ball, sandwiched in between the band’s auspicious and splendid A & M debut, Equinox, and arguably the band’s masterwork, The Grand Illusion, will always feel lost in the shuffle, despite it possessing band newcomer Tommy Shaw’s first display of songwriting genius in the title track.  It’s not a record like Kilroy Was Here (a personal favorite) that divides fans, but one that is tagged, perhaps unfairly, as a so-called transitional record – a stepping-stone to what would be far greater heights. Which is a shame, because the record, with forty years hindsight, possesses its own unique charms, overflowing with buoyant melodies, inspired ensemble work, and sublime singing – Styx’s stock and trade. But maybe Crystal Ball can be both a splendid piece of work on its own and a souvenir of a band on the verge of stardom?

 At the risk of sounding a tad morbid, in these present times when some of our most beloved icons are suddenly leaving us, it’s worth taking a moment to think of the legends that are still walking among us. Speaking to Dennis DeYoung is an immensely pleasurable experience.  Disarming, sharp, humble, insightful, candid and immensely funny, he will always be the spiritual center of one of the great American bands of the past fifty years. He was kind enough to answer the phone and chat about Crystal Ball on the eve of that record’s 40th anniversary...

RC: What was your rig back then? Equinox, Crystal Ball days...?

DD: It varied.  The more successful I became, the more I had, the more gear I could get.  The Oberheim hadn’t been invented yet, so those days, I had the fiercest Hammond B3 ever made, and I would use an ARP 2600 and an ARP Pro Soloist and a string ensemble, and of course, a piano.

RC: Do you still have all that stuff, locked away somewhere?

DD: Unfortunately, when I was replaced in Styx in ’99, all that stuff had been in storage for many years, and we finally came to an agreement and a settlement, I had forgotten about my Wurlitzer Electric Piano, priceless to me because I wrote ‘Lady’ on it, and my B3, and I didn’t get them.  Now the B3, in all fairness, had been in storage since 1981, because I don’t think I used a B3 on Kilroy, I’d have to look. I bought that B3, it was a 1957, from an older lady, it was blonde, it was gorgeous, it was like brand new.  I paid like two grand for it, which was a lot of money in those days; it was just a perfect organ, then I souped it up, got some JBL drivers, put through a wilder cabinet, it sounded like a freight train.

RC: How did you feel when the B3 was not part of your set up anymore?

DD: I didn’t care. It was 1983 and the whole techno thing of which I was somewhat enamored with, the techno music that came from England that featured keyboard players – keyboard players were king in that music.  They weren’t really using a B3. But, I never saw myself a virtuoso keyboard player, I used them to enhance my songwriting.  As I look back now, I think I had a unique style, but that style was that of an accordion player, which is what I started out as.  But I listen to some of those keyboard parts now and I think, ‘Hey, I didn’t suck.’

RC: Jumping to the period just before Crystal Ball, did your new label, A & M, freak out when (guitarist, writer) John Curulewski quit the band?

DD: No, not at all.  They barely knew us.  They hadn’t even seen us play live. He quit the band just as the record (Equinox) was coming out.

RC: Did you freak out?

DD: No, it was a long time coming.  He had quit the band half a dozen times that year.

RC: Did you see it as a potential opportunity to take the band somewhere else?

DD: No, I saw it was a necessity.  He quit. We had to get someone else.  John was unhappy.  That’s just it.  It’s just unfortunate for him. But, he was part of a really, really good record.  He wrote ‘Prelude 12’, which is just brilliant.

RC: Did A & M pressure you for a follow up to Equinox?

DD: The people at the label were geniuses.  They never said anything until after we handed them the master.  On all our albums.  How about that?

RC: What was it like when you first sat down with Tommy Shaw?  Did he show you some material that he had?

DD: He brought in a tape to audition with song ideas on it and I hired him on the spot, because he could sing the high parts that we needed, and he was a songwriter. That’s what I needed in the band, a songwriter. He never even played guitar for us in the audition, just the playing on the tape he brought in.  Did you know that?  I heard the beginnings of ‘Crystal Ball’, ‘Ballerina’, he had all these little excerpts and I thought, ‘that guy can write a song. Come on in here and have a seat.’  Then he and I worked together.  We worked on ‘Crystal Ball’ together, there was no ‘Crystal Ball’ hook, in fact, you can hear the demo of it on YouTube with his band, Harvest, without the hook.  We Styxified that song.  We made it proggy.  We collaborated on ‘Ballerina’, beautiful music, and I wrote the lyrics.

RC: ‘Mademoiselle’?  There is a killer bridge on that.

DD: That’s nice.  Yeah. That’s Tommy’s.  On that song, Tommy wrote the verses, and I wrote the chorus.  There was no chorus before that.

RC: Was that tune brand new from the ground up? Not on the original tape of Tommy’s?

DD: I can’t say for sure.

RC: The opening track, ‘Put Me On’…

DD: That’s a collaboration between the three of us, Tommy, JY and me.    That’s my hook  (singing) ‘Put me on, on your brand new…’ and the lyric, I just thought it would be interesting if the first thing that happens on the record album is the record album sings to you.  I thought that would be a hoot.  The break, that soft part-

RC: That’s stunning.

DD: That’s Tommy.  Now see, everyone always said, ‘That must be Dennis, he’s the balladeer,’ but it was Tommy.  It’s like when you listen to Lennon & McCartney you’re never sure who came up with what.  JY came up with the opening ‘chugga da chugga da chugga da chugga’, and I wrote the melody over it.

RC: So, did it come out of a jam?

DD: I can’t remember.

RC: Interesting move to start the album with a JY lead vocal.

DD: Well, ‘Great White Hope’ opens Pieces Of Eight.

RC: Yeah.

DD: He was behaving himself, so we let him sing (laughs).

RC: The Ringo of the band.

DD: Don’t say that to him.  He wants to be George.

RC: No. I’m kidding, of course!

DD: He kept the band honest. He’s a rock guy, end of story.  Got it?  ‘I rock! I do da rock, period.’  So, he kept Tommy…the misconception is that Tommy is a ‘rock’ guy, but he wasn’t. He was the songwriting guy who could do anything, the melody man.

RC: So, there’s been a bit of mythmaking with Tommy.

DD: Totally.

RC: Was that an easy integration with Tommy as a lead guitarist?  Was there any competition between those two?

Long pause

DD: Yes.  But competition is healthy.  It makes people better.

RC: They collaborated as writers with ‘Shooz’…

DD: They did. Yeah, that was Tommy and JY getting together and turning in to ZZ Top. That song reminded me of ZZ.  A cool song.  Any song can be a Styx song, but that sounded like ZZ Top to me.

RC: The interesting thing to me is, you didn’t just let Tommy in to the band, you let him have a big chunk of the record…

DD: I said Crystal Ball should be the name of the album because I thought it was the best song.  Tommy wasn’t the guy making that decision.  So, I let him in to the band.  Lennon needed his McCartney and McCartney needed his Lennon.  Not that we were that.  We were more like Max Lennon and Rudy McCartney.  That’s who we were.  Tommy was a good songwriter and I recognized it immediately.  All boats rise with the tide.

RC: How quickly did you realize it was going to work?

DD: I knew it would be better immediately, but then we got on stage and Tommy was one kick ass performer.  I looked across the stage that first night and thought ‘Oh baby, we’re in the big money now!’

RC: Tommy being so much younger, was there a generation gap?

DD: I think it was geographical for him.  I read somewhere where he said that we were all south side Chicagoans, all college educated, and he was from Montgomery, Alabama with a high school diploma and somehow he never felt 100% part of it, and it made me feel sad to read that.  People will feel what they feel.  But that made me sad.

RC: Styx was really a band that allowed Tommy to do whatever he wanted.

DD: It was more than that. I knew Tommy Shaw was a star.  ‘Crystal Ball’ he sings by himself upon my suggestion.  Same with ‘Renegade’. I kept directing him to be center stage because I believed that he was a star. When I read stuff where people have said I was intimidated and envious of Tommy, that’s just absolute garbage.  Were we competitive?  Did both us want to be the best we could be in the band? Yes.  But I wanted Tommy to be the biggest star that he could possibly be.  And it wouldn’t be wrong to want to be just a little bit bigger.  What would that make me?  Human?  All the young girls loved Tommy.  And I thought that was just awesome. But, if you look at Cornerstone, he and I wrote a bunch of songs together, and he had ‘Never Say Never’, ‘Boat On The River’, ‘Love In The Midnight’, we wrote ‘Lights’ and ‘Borrowed Time’ together.  You know, we were doing some stuff.

RC: Okay, another song from Crystal Ball.  ‘Jennifer’.

DD: I pulled that out of my ass.  It was a song written for Man Of Miracles, never got on it, so we stuck it on Crystal Ball.

RC: Are you fond of it?

DD: Not particularly.  But here’s the thing, people, fans, some may really love that song, and then they are disappointed in you for saying something negative about it.  So, let’s say, I wouldn’t put it in my top twenty songs I’ve ever written.  But that (sings the opening vocal hook of the tune) is pretty catchy.  (laughs).  Even when I’m not that great I’m hooky!

RC:  Do you remember composing ‘This Old Man’?  That was about your dad.

DD: I was going through some really dark times during Crystal BallReally dark times.  I wrote ‘This Old Man’ during that period because, there was something…you know the whole idea of the greatest generation?  He was the perfect example of that.  He won a Bronze Star in World War II.  He waited until he was seventy-seven years old to write me a letter and give me the gun he brought home from the war, and I would ask him ‘Dad, how did you get the Bronze Star?’ and he said ‘I zigged when I was suppose to zig.’.  And then he told me how he won it.  Humility, hard-working, not expecting much from life, and satisfied and happy, and my father would always say to me, ‘Dennis, I got so much more out of life than I ever thought I would.’ Who says that?  Most of us are whiners.  And he lived that life. He believed it.  So, I wrote it about him.

RC: There’s a great lyric in that song: ‘He taught me many times to understand that showing love was simply nothing you should have to hide.” He sounds like a pretty progressive dad.

DD: Yeah.  It’s hard to explain.  He was a special guy.  Not without his flaws.  He was special because he had a tough life, and he was bound and determined to be a good dad.

RC: ‘This Old Man’ has quite a cool little symphonic moment. 

DD: It was just what we did.  We were in the studio, we got a timpani, so it’s like ‘What do you want to do?’ ‘Hey John, do you want hit a chime? Go ahead.’  John Panozzo was a percussionist supreme, you know. A real percussionist.  John could play anything.  That break, it’s supposed to sound like a factory, without us having to bring in sound effects.

RC: I think that’s one of the more under recognized tunes in the catalogue.

DD: Thank you.  You know, I don’t listen to that one much.

RC:  And you don’t play it live.

DD: No, it’s never been played live.

RC: Why?

DD: Yeah.  I don’t know.

RC: So, was it challenges with the band that was causing this ‘dark period’?

DD: No, not with the band at all.  It was self-doubt; believing that you’ll never measure up, the curse of great expectations.

RC: And that was haunting you?

DD: No, no, haunting would be a nice thing.  It swallowed me up whole.

RC: When did you start to see sunlight?

DD (calling to his wife): Was that last Thursday, Suzanne?  My wife rescued me. After Crystal Ball we toured, so 1977.  Most of 1976 though, was not good for me.  It just happens to people.  I don’t have a dark side, but I had a dark period.  But that period allowed me to write The Grand Illusion, and be true to my own feelings and beliefs.  And that, from the suffering and the self-examination came realizations.

RC: We should wrap up, but I want to throw a couple of last questions at you.

DD: Go ahead.

RC: There has been no Styx box set, no alternate or early takes release, no meaningful excavation of your catalogue.

DD: That’s Universal.  Out of my control.

RC: Do you have any desire to see that?

DD: Yes, but it’s up to Universal.  I don’t have a say in it.

RC: What did you think of the vinyl re-issue collection that came out?

DD: I have it. I still haven’t opened it.

RC: But you’re not against those records being re-issued and possibly expanded? 

DD: No.  I am so proud to have been a member of Styx, and the music we did.  I can feel honorable about that.

RC: So, in the end, where does Crystal Ball sit for you?

DD: If I was to rate the albums? Well, I rate the albums purely on music, so Grand Illusion is #1, then Pieces of Eight and Paradise Theatre but I’d give Pieces the edge, then Equinox, then Cornerstone, then Crystal Ball and Kilroy are about the same to me.  I am talking about songs though.  Crystal Ball is okay.  Listen, we were bringing in a brand new songwriter and member in to the band.  That was a trick.