The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Styx’s “Babe”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Styx – “Babe”

HIT #1: December 8, 1979

STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks

Think of Styx, if you like, as the white Commodores, or the prog Chicago. Like their peers in slick party-funk and mannered jazz-rock, Styx are a massively successful, long-running genre band that had their biggest hits with gloopy, tremulous middle-of-the-road love ballads written by a frontman who didn’t always get along with the rest of the band, and whose songs didn’t necessarily fit the vibe of what the band was going for. Dennis DeYoung, the Styx singer and keyboardist responsible for the band’s most resonant roller-rink makeout anthems, did not become a solo star on the level of Lionel Richie, or even Peter Cetera. But for a few years in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he was the party most responsible for queitly turning Styx into one of the biggest bands in America. He’s the guy who wrote most of Styx’s hits, including “Babe,” the straight-up power ballad that remains Styx’s only #1 hit.

By the time Styx made it to #1 with “Babe,” Dennis DeYoung had been in some version of the band for 18 years. In 1961, DeYoung was a 14-year-old singer and accordion player in Chicago, and he started playing music with two of his neighbors, the 12-year-old twin brothers Chuck and John Panozzo. When they first got together, they called themselves the Tradewinds, and they played at parties all through high school and college. They went through a few different names and lineups — though always keeping the core of DeYoung and the Ponozzo twins intact — before signing to Wooden Nickel Records and becoming Styx in 1972.

For years, Styx were strictly a regional act. Compared to fellow Midwestern hard rockers like Grand Funk, Styx were proggy and theatrical, driven by fancy-ass high-pitched harmonies and Broadway-influenced dramatic flourishes. Their self-titled 1972 debut, for instance, opens with a multi-part 13-minute suite called “Movement For The Common Man,” an insanely and lovably hubristic thing to put on side A of your first album. But those big gestures weren’t enough to make Styx into national stars. For that, they needed power ballads. Dennis DeYoung had power ballads.

DeYoung wrote the bombastically doe-eyed Styx II jam “Lady” for his wife Suzanne, who he’d been with since high school and who he’d married in 1970. (They’re still together now.) “Lady” didn’t go anywhere at first, but the Chicago radio DJ Jeff Davis loved the song and played it constantly, turning it into a pet cause. Gradually, in the way that regional favorites once did, “Lady” gained steam around the country, becoming Styx’s first national hit. In 1975, when the song was more than two years old, “Lady” peaked at #6. (It’s a 7.)

Over the next few years, Styx became the sort of rock band that sells millions and packs arenas without getting any love from critics. Tommy Shaw, a singer and guitarist from Alabama, joined the band in 1975 after Styx member John Curulewski suddenly and unexpectedly quit the band. Shaw pushed Styx in more of a straight-ahead hard rock direction, and he frequently clashed with DeYoung, who had both down-the-middle pop instincts and ludicrously proggy ambitions. That led to a whole lot of tension within the band, which would plague Styx for decades to come, but it worked out well for them for a long time. That specific combination of sensibilities was pure commercial gold, and between 1977 and 1981, Styx released four straight multi-platinum albums.

“Babe” was right in the middle of that run. It’s another song that DeYoung wrote for his wife, and when he first came up with it, it was just supposed to be a birthday present. DeYoung recorded a demo of it, singing his own multi-part harmonies. The Panozzo twins backed him up on bass and drums. But “Babe” had obvious commercial potential, so someone made the call that “Babe” had to be a Styx song. (There are varying reports on who made that call.) Styx tried to record “Babe” a few different ways, but none of them worked. So the version of “Babe” that Styx released as a single and included on their Cornerstone album was just DeYoung’s demo, with an overdubbed-in Tommy Shaw guitar solo.

Now: Dennis DeYoung could write the motherfuck out of a power ballad. A truly great power ballad demands both majestic pomp and craven shamelessness. DeYoung had both. He had the canyon-spanning yowl, the instinct for cinematic big-moment buildups, and the confidence in his own absurd ideas. He sold those songs. To me, “Come Sail Away,” Styx’s absolutely ridiculous DeYoung-written 1977 belter, is a total classic. (“Come Sail Away” peaked at #8; it’s a 10.) “Babe” is something else.

“Babe” is about as small-stakes as a Styx power ballad ever got. Every member of Styx loved to communicate in vast and silly allegories; that’s the tendency that led them to stage the supremely goofy 1983 rock opera Kilroy Was Here. On “Babe,” though, DeYoung lays out his feelings in plain and generic language. He loves his wife, and he’s got to leave, but he’s going to miss her. He thinks about her all the time, and that lifts him up and helps him get through with what he’s got to do: “I’ll be lonely without you/ And I’ll need your love to see me through.” That’s some real shit, and I can relate. But it’s also a boring sentiment, rendered boringly. DeYoung doesn’t even sing anything about going on tour or whatever; it’s just “my train is going.” There’s nothing specific about it. It’s Hallmark-level expression.

Musically, “Babe” is also a whole lot smaller than your average Styx song. DeYoung starts it out solo, wailing over an echoing electric piano and keeping up like that for way too long. The song picks up with the drums come in and DeYoung starts harmonizing with himself. “Babe” does have a real chorus, and its keyboard noodles and patched-in guitar solo at least hint at lighters-up spectacle. But compared to so many of DeYoung’s other Styx songs, “Babe” is more of a contented shrug than anything else.

Styx never hit #1 again, but they cranked out consistent smashes for years after Babe. They also got sicker and sicker of each other. Kilroy Was Here, the aforementioned 1983 rock opera, was a big seller, and it produced a massive hit in the DeYoung song “Mr. Roboto.” (“Mr. Roboto” peaked at #3; it’s a 6.) But in its wild scope and its self-seriousness, Kilroy Was Here — a story about a future where repressive religious forces outlaw rock ‘n’ roll — tore the band apart. They also attempted to stage it as an arena-sized touring musical, with different members of the band playing different dramatic roles, which probably didn’t help things. Styx broke up a year later.

Dennis DeYoung’s solo career started out well enough. His 1984 solo single “Desert Moon,” originally written for Styx, peaked at #10. (It’s a 4.) But things kind of petered out from there. In 1989, Styx reunited without Tommy Shaw, who was then playing with piece-of-shit guitar monster Ted Nugent in Damn Yankees. (Damn Yankees’ highest-charting single, 1990’s “High Enough,” peaked at #3. It’s a 7, but its video might be a 9.) Styx managed one more colossal hit with 1990’s “Show Me The Way,” a song that DeYoung wrote for his son. (“Show Me The Way” peaked at #3. It’s a 4.)

Styx broke up again in 1991 and reunited again in 1995, this time with Tommy Shaw. A year later, drummer John Panozzo died of cirrhosis of the liver. A few years later, John’s twin brother Chuck Panozzo, had to step away from the band after being diagnosed with HIV. In 1999, amidst health problems and lawsuits over the rights to the band name, DeYoung and Styx parted ways, this time permanently.

Styx are still touring. Thanks to the continuing strength of classic-rock package tours, they sometimes still headline arenas. They generally do not play Dennis DeYoung songs anymore. It’s been a whole thing. Late-period Styx guitarist James Young in 2006: “This is a rock band. This is not a band that does show tunes.” Chuck Panozzo is still around, and he’s playing with Styx again. DeYoung says he’d like to once again reunite with Styx some day. Tommy Shaw says it won’t happen.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: There’s a scene in the 2016 Kevin Smith film Yoga Hosers where the movie’s two stars, Johnny Depp’s daughter Lily-Rose Depp and Smith’s own daughter Harley Quinn Smith, perform “Babe” together. (Kevin Smith really named his daughter Harley Quinn.) Here it is: