Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Return to Paradise

(Writer's Note: I realize that it's February already, but for what it's worth I started this post in December).

December usually brings on a mood of nostalgia. One often gets a strong urge not just to look back at the past several months, but the past several years as well. When I first started "Life is a Soundtrack," one feature I was hoping to make a regular occurence was a retro-album review, where I give a fresh listen to a record/tape/CD that had once been among my favorites, but in recent years had been relegated to a dust magnet.

Styx's "Paradise Theater" was released in 1981, a year before my I started my obsession with pop music. "Paradise Theatre" was a concept-album (like it's follow-up, "Kilroy was Here"), celebrating Chicago's legendary Paradise Theater which had closed in 1958 and tied in as a pseudo-allegory to changes in America in the 1970's. "Paradise Theater" was one of the albums that defined the early-80's, especially with it's cutting-edge logo embossed into the vinyl. I knew the hits, but I don't think I had ever listened to the entire record from start to finish until June 1, 1986 when my buddy Brian Hollander (who as 'The Bison' would DJ evenings on Classic Rock Z-93 in Atlanta during the mid-90's), lent me his walkman on a trip to Great Adventure. Wow! Not only were all the tunes great, but they all flowed so nicely one into another. The songs that I had previously known from the album, made so much more sense in context. I haven't listened to the tape much in recent years (I taped over Brian's vinyl-to-tape copy, with a CD-to-tape copy in the middle of my Freshman year of college....courtesy of Funby, of course), but I think the time is ripe to go back to paradise. If you've familiar with the album, this is going to be fun. If you're not, fasten your seat-belt and get ready to be introduced to one of the greatest pop-rock concept albums of all time!

AD 1928

Gotta love that quick piano chord that begins the record and seems to come up out of nowhere. The producer really knew what he (or she) was doing. Dennis DeYoung's falsetto is simply amazing on the melodic refrain that will appear a couple of more times later in the album. I'm normally not that big a fan of singing through a synthesizer, but the background vocals make it work on this cut (just as they will later on "The Best of Times"). Styx takes its name from a river in Greek Mythology and whenever I hear this cut I picture myself on a small boat in the Mediterranean, serene as can be. There's little hint that we're about to kick into overdrive until Dennis goes high on "Here at the Pa-RA----

Rockin' The Pardise

---DIIIIIIIISE. It's never been entirely clear to me where "AD 1928" ends and "Rockin' the Paradise" begins, but the last syllable of paradise seems as logical a starting point as any. This is one of those songs that makes you want to get up and go. I've always gotten into the "Watcha doing, Watcha doing" background chants on this one. This track rocks!!!

Too Much Time On My Hands

This was one of the two major hits from the album, peaking at #9. I remember back in 1982, Tommy Shaw was a guest-DJ one night on the then newly-launched WAPP (103.5). He closed the show by playing this track and explaining how it was the last song written for the album and how the tune just came to him and then the next dayhe walked into the studio and directed each of the other members what he needed them to do to make the song work (Writer's note: Sorry for the run-on sentence). Tommy's account helps to explain why "Too Much" seems like the one track that's out of place on the album. The song has its good points, specifically the "Too much time" whispers over the ticking clocks at the end. I had never really noticed those cool claps in the chorus, until one day in camp when a bunch of people were singing the song and clapping along in time. The hi-tech intros and outros sound great on the recording but weak outside the studio, which is probably why "Too Much" always fell flat when it was played live.

Nothing Ever Goes As Planned

This one kind of grows on you. Didn't think much of it at first, but it fits well within the sequence of the record. It's kind of cool, how the tune stirs up a bunch of sounds (70's pop, jazz, Motown) but delivers a smooth end-product. If nothing else, it serves as a nice bridge between "Too Much Time on My Hands" and "The Best of Times."

The Best Of Times

The big hit from the album, peaking at #3. Probably one of the best power ballads of all time! If you were a teenager in the early-1980's, this was one of your songs. Romantic and haunting, "The Best of Times" still sounds as fresh as ever.

Lonely People

Never quite understood why they decided to kick of Side 2 with the weakest song on the album. The thunderstorm at the beginning is actually the only real cool part of the tune. Not a bad song, just way below par for the rest of the record.

She Cares

This is a great no-frills pop song. The type that sounded great on rock stations in the early-80's and on country stations today. Most people who have never heard "Paradise Theater" have never heard "She Cares," and boy are they missing out. A few years back, Tommy Shaw was a guest on Scott and Todd's morning show on WPLJ and someone called in and asked if he'd play a few bars of "She Cares." It was great to know that I wasn't the only one who took a liking to this one.


Hands-down the best song on the album and by far the most progressive as well. Eerie and dark yet melodic and sweet, "Snowblind" captures a bundle of contradictory emotions by having the lead vocals split between James Young with his ghoulish delivery and Tommy Shaw belting out what amounts to a musical S.O.S. Dennis DeYoung's backing vocals on the chorus seal the mood of desperation on "Snowblind." If songs were movies, "Snowblind" would be a contender for Best Picture.

Half-Penny, Two-Penny

JEG claims to be a big fan of my blog so he's going to love this one. I've always thought the opening line of "Half Penny" was "Half-Penny, Two-Penny, go through the rounds." Well I recently learned that it's actually "Half-Penny, Two Penny, GOLD KRUGERRAND!" I know the average Styx fan would probably say that "Miss America" had the band's best riff, but I'm partial to the one on "Half-Penny." Once again, James Young's deep vocals set the stage on the verses, giving way to the more melodic harmonies on the chorus. The song finishes with an instrumental which flows right into....

AD 1958

Musically the album ends in virtually the same manner as it began, except instead of hope and anticipation, we're left with a sense of bittersweet longing. The album is over, the theater has closed, the times have changed and all we have are the memories. At least I think that's the message they were trying to convey.

State Street Sadie

So as to not leave us on a down note, the record adds on about 20 seconds of ragtime music, taking us back to where we began in 1928.

What a Kick-A** record! It will probably still sound just as good 25 years from now. One thing that occurred to me during this last listen is how much parts the record remind me of the Rent Soundtrack. That started me thinking how Styx would be the perfect band to have their music adapted for a musical. Not like that Beach Boys disaster from last year or "Mama Mia" which only sold because millions of ABBA fans have been waiting since 1980 to see their favorite band reunite. This could be a GOOD show and I already have a plot outline in mind. Interested? Give me a call. I'll be willing to serve as techical consultant for a cut of the profits.