It was the best of times, it was the worst of times in 1981. That is, for Styx. They put out their tenth studio album (and sixth on a major label, A&M) this day 41 years back, Paradise Theatre. And, if you think that spelling’s incorrect, reach for another copy… oddly, it’s been spelled both “Theatre” and “Theater” on different releases through the years. Either way, it was as the Daily Vault point out, their “highwater mark”, commercially and perhaps artistically.
Many bands seem to get going when two friends with similar talents but slightly different tastes begin meshing. The Beatles with Lennon & McCartney. Canada’s Blue Rodeo with Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor. With Styx, by a few years in, it was clear the quintet was largely run by guitarist Tommy Shaw and keyboardist Dennis DeYoung, both of whom shared most of the writing and singing duties. For some time this worked well, with the band turning out a version of prog rock with just enough mainstream pop as to be radio-friendly in North America. However, by the end of the ’70s, that was turning sour. They had a massive hit with the soft rock ballad “Babe”, and it was clear the two men were pulling in different directions. Shaw was something of a conventional rock’n’roller; DeYoung was looking more to top 40 pop and perhaps “big themes.” As allmusic put it, my the time this album was being made it had turned into a “bitter co-existence.” It may be a stretch to assume, but it would appear it was four against one, but the one (DeYoung) had the stronger hand and the backing of the record-buying masses. So with this one, both contributed songs but the album itself was DeYoung’s idea, and he wrote more of the tracks.
The album was a loose concept one, based on a slightly fictional take on the real Paradise Theatre in their hometown of Chicago. It was an architectural gem on Crawford Avenue, a grandiose movie hall that sat over 3000. Unfortunately, it had bad acoustics and wasn’t often full. It was knocked down when Styx were still children, in 1958, and replaced by a supermarket. DeYoung had the idea of a story of the grand theatre and its decline being a metaphor for American urban life itself. It opens with “AD 1928”, a suitably theatrical, piano-driven intro which segues into the straight-ahead rock of “Rockin’ the Paradise.” Much of the record continues thusly, a mix of balladry drawing from the basic refrain of “AD 1928” and rock tracks from Shaw and James Young.
Rolling Stone, never big fans of the band, gave it 2.5-stars. However, many reviews have been much kinder. Allmusic give it 4-stars, calling “The Best of Times” “one of the more improbable top 10 hits of the decade” and “Too Much Time on My Hands” “among Shaw’s finest singles.” The Daily Vault grade it “A” (although a reader’s poll scores it a much more dour “C-”) suggesting “Styx was never this good before, Styx was never this good again” and suggesting the “highlight though is ‘Snowblind.’”
Their fans liked it just fine regardless. The two singles mentioned by allmusic were indeed both hits, “The Best of Times” getting to #3 domestically and becoming their second #1 in Canada; “Too Much Time on My Hands” was a #9 hit in the U.S. and by reaching #2 on the rock charts, their highest-charting song there. “Nothing Ever Goes As Planned” gave them a third top 20 hit off it to the north in Canada and another song on radio at home. That pushed the album to #1, their first chart-topper in the U.S., and in Canada as well, and at #8 in the UK, it was their biggest there. In fact, although it was the fourth-straight of theirs to hit triple-platinum in the States, overall it is their biggest-selling album.
Which made it, according to allmusic, “their temporary saving grace and ultimate doom.” The rift between the two leaders deepened after it, and the more bizarre concept album that followed, Kilroy Was Here, saw sales decline and resulted in the band splitting up for several years. When they rebanded in 1990, Shaw refused to rejoin them, although he eventually did and DeYoung was replaced by Larry Gowan.