UNDER THE INFLUENCE
by Jay S. Jacobs
Tommy Shaw was the lead guitarist and rock-and-roll voice of STYX – one of the most popular rock bands of the 70s and 80s. Joining the band right before it exploded, Shaw contributed the songwriting and vocal chops to some of the band’s classic tunes such as “Too Much Time on My Hands,” “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man),” “Crystal Ball,” “(Blue Collar Man) Long Nights” and “Renegade.” STYX broke up in 1984 after the turmoil of the recording of the concept album Kilroy Was Here and the complicated ensuing tour.
Shaw spent the rest of the 80s working on an up-and-down solo career which never reached the heights of his band work. His biggest (and first) solo single was the 1984 rocker “Girls with Guns,” which barely dented the top 40.
In the early 90s, Shaw blasted back to the top of the charts with singles like “High Enough” and “Where You Going Now?” from his supergroup Damn Yankees. That group featured the three-pronged guitar attack of Shaw, Jack Blades – singer/songwriter of popular 80s rock band Night Ranger (“Sister Christian,” “[You Can Still] Rock In America” and “Sentimental Street” were some of their biggest) and Motor City Madman Ted Nugent (“Cat Scratch Fever” and “Wango Tango.”)
Nugent left the group after the second Damn Yankees disk, so Shaw and Blades released a CD called Hallucination in 1995 together. When that did not quite take off, Shaw returned to the reformed STYX. However, Shaw never forgot his partnership with Blades and a decade after the debut (and long-presumed final) Shaw Blades disk, they got together to re-release Hallucination.
They enjoyed the experience of being back together so much that in 2007, they have released Influence – which is just what the title suggests, a new group of fun remakes of songs which turned the two on to music. Not just a fun side project, Influence has returned Shaw Blades to the rock charts with a surprising cover of the YES classic “Your Move.” Other favorites on the album include the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreaming,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” and “I Am a Rock,” Emerson Lake and Palmer’s “Lucky Man” and Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work.”
Shaw was nice enough to check in with us from the road while doing a fun small-club tour with Blades – where the duo play well over two hours worth of acoustic versions of their favorite songs from growing up, as well as signature tunes from STYX, Night Ranger and Damn Yankees.
How did you originally get into music?
I always loved the variety shows on television when I was a child. I got a guitar on my tenth birthday which sealed my fate.
STYX had been recording a little while before you joined the band. How did you get together with them?
Their tour manager at the time, a fellow named Jim Vose, came to a gig of mine in Chicago when I was in MS Funk and introduced himself to me. When the day came that they needed someone to replace John Curulewski, I was called. They flew me up from Alabama and I auditioned, sang the high note on “Lady” and was hired.
One of my first dates was to see STYX at the Philadelphia Spectrum on the Paradise Theater tour. You were huge. For a period of several years, you were part of arguably the biggest rock band in the US. How surreal was that whole experience?
You hit it on the head. It was surreal. We’d been working as hard as we could to get positioned on larger and larger shows with the top bands. When the success came it seemed overnight. I was young, somewhat single, ready to take it all in, and I did.
STYX sort of imploded in 1984 after all the turmoil of the Kilroy Was Here album and tour. When did you know the band had sort of run its course?
We probably knew a while before it fell apart but we had gotten comfortable with our dysfunctional way of dealing with each other by complaining to our manager who would try to smooth things over. In hindsight if we’d been better able to communicate with each other it’s possible we might not have had such an acrimonious split. But then again, the personalities were what they were and chances are we’d have had to go our own way anyhow. One can only speculate.
You released three solo CDs in the period between the original breakup of STYX and Damn Yankees. I have to say I really liked some of your solo singles like “Girls with Guns” and “Ever Since the World Began.” Was it disappointing that your solo stuff never caught on like the stuff you did in STYX?
My solo career needed a lot more developing than I gave it. I was used to being in the studio with the band and overestimated my own ability to make the album I wanted to and had to rely on others. Very talented people but it’s different when you are in the studio following your own vision. At the time mine was probably a bit blurred. I have no regrets because it all led me to where I am today.
In the late 80s, you got together with Jack and Ted Nugent to form Damn Yankees and had a few big hits – particularly the first CD did really well. When Ted left Damn Yankees, you and Jack did one Shaw/Blades album in the 90s. You’ve been back recording and touring with Styx regularly, and yet a decade later you have just re-released the first Shaw/Blades CD and now recorded a second in the last couple of years. What is it about this side project that you like which you can’t get with the day job?
Jack Blades and I have the most uncanny chemistry I’ve ever had with another writer and singer. It’s always been and remains so easy and malleable that there’s never a struggle. Because we are not as big as STYX we have fewer expectations and can be more flexible in how we approach everything—for example we are currently on an all acoustic tour with a third musician, Will Evankovich (lead singer for American Drag) and are performing an ever-changing songlist of music from every single incarnation between us, which at last count was six. We go off the page, jamming, exploring the spontaneous callings of many of these songs to what seems to be the sheer delight of fans who are following us. We could not do that with STYX , Night Ranger or Damn Yankees.
I believe the new CD is one of the first releases on VH1 Classic Records. How did that come about?
Jack and I and finished the CD, financing it ourselves. We owed nobody, owned it outright. After getting lukewarm receptions from major labels, Jack gave a copy to Eric Sherman at VH1 Classic, who was about to launch their own label. It was typical of how this project seems to have had a charmed life at every step.
How is working with a smaller label like this or CMC or New Door different than a major during the glory days of STYX and Damn Yankees?
There was a time when labels routinely paid half a million dollars for an album to be recorded. There was a culture of spending that was like a small scale version of making a major motion picture. Now, with home studio equipment removing the financial gatekeeper in the recording phase, albums are made more like independent films, to keep with that example. To survive, labels will now go into partnership deals with artists. So much music is burned and recopied now, it’s impossible to know how many people own your music, but fortunately for us, I believe a big part of our audience would still rather have their own copy with liner notes rather than having to burn it and have a blank with magic marker titles.
Now you’ve done covers albums with both STYX and Shaw/Blades. As a respected songwriter, is it at all weird doing an album that’s entirely other people’s work?
There is so much good music out there. It’s a real treat to do an album like Influence. It was a little harder to do a STYX record like Big Bang Theory, because we are such a dyed in the wool original music band, but we still had a great time making it.
There was a really interesting collection of songs on the album. While you did music from some of the greatest rock bands, you also picked some songs that might not be obvious choices for people with a rock background like you and Jack; things like “Summer Breeze,” “Dance With Me,” “California Dreaming” and “I Am A Rock.” Were you trying to show your musical diversity of tastes with the song choices?
We literally meant what the title says. These songs did influence us when we were younger. They made us who we are today. Think of the harmonies in our respective bands as well as Damn Yankees. The Hollies, ELP, YES, Simon and Garfunkel, etc., all had a major impact on how we looked at the world of musical possibilities.
There are two Simon & Garfunkel songs on the album. How hard was it to choose from all the great tunes in Paul Simon’s songbook?
I did a demo of “I Am a Rock” right away when we discussed the possibility of making this album. It was a natural and was on the list from the get go. “Sound of Silence” was another one we’d both played and sang as youngsters.
The recordings here are pretty faithful to the original songs – some songs like “Time of the Season” and “I Am a Rock” were made a bit more rock-oriented, but the original tunes were pretty clear in the recordings. Did you decide early on not to play too much with the original structure of the songs like some people do when making covers?
We let the songs tell us what to do. As soon as I dropped the E down to a low D on my 12 string acoustic, it began to grow on its own.
How do you think bands like Simon and Garfunkel, Yes, The Zombies and others you have covered here have influenced today’s bands?
Anyone who was around when these songs first came on the radio, or who has since taken the time to get to know them, would be hard pressed to not be influenced by them. Unless perhaps they were not aware of the fact that these were the pioneers, that they have been the influence behind so many others who have come along since.
One thing that is great about the bands you covered is that they weren’t afraid to have a tune. A few years ago it was something of a sell-out for a rock band to have a melody. Why do you think the world is so ready for more melodic rock?
We go through cycles. Sometimes what’s needed is a good old-fashioned primal scream. Try it sometime. It cleans out the spiritual cobwebs. But eventually that scream softens into an articulated message, and when it comes from our souls it often has a melody. Melodies imprint on our psyche more than screams. For us, we’ve had the good fortune to do a little of both when we were in Damn Yankees, but now we’re really enjoying singing these melodies.
Several of the artists who you recorded on the album – like Jon Anderson of YES and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas – have come out and said that they really liked your recordings of their songs. How gratifying is that?
You have no idea what this means to us. When I see the wonderful comments we’ve received from Michelle Phillips, Greg Lake, Graham Nash, Jon Anderson and others whose songs we covered on Influence, I am shot back in time to when I first heard these songs. If someone had told me back then that years later I’d be getting a thumbs up from the originators for our performances of these songs I would have been hard pressed to imagine it really happening.
In the end, how would you like people to look over your career and your music?
I hope my music put a smile on a few faces and distracted them from their daily routines from time to time.
Are there any misconceptions you’d like to clear up?
I’m a lot taller at family reunions.
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Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 11, 2007.