Obituary: John Panozzo

While Britpop, grunge, teenpop and trip-hop now rule the airwaves of Radio One, it's easy to forget that, up to a couple of years ago, the nation's no 1 station would regularly feature adult-oriented rock and power ballads on its playlist. At the height of their fame in the late Seventies and early Eighties, the Chicago five-piece Styx, of whom John Panozzo was co-founder and drummer, were prime exponents of the much-maligned power ballad and pomp-rock genres. As such, they have forever been lumped together with acts like Asia, Boston, Foreigner, Journey, Kansas, Reo Speedwagon and Toto whose songs dominated American radio and the Simon Bates Our Tune and Golden Hour slots 15 years ago.

John and his twin brother Chuck Panozzo were born in 1947 in Chicago, Illinois. Respectively on drums and bass, the precocious pair started playing with their neighbour Dennis De Young on keyboards and vocals in 1964. With the arrival of the guitarists James Young and John Curulewski, the band changed its name from The Tradewinds to TW4 (to avoid confusion with The Trade Winds of "New York's a Lonely Town" surf anthem fame) and started to develop its own progressive style. In 1971, they came to the attention of the American entrepreneur Bill Traut, who sign-ed them to his Wooden Nickel label and renamed them Styx after the Greek name for the mythological river of the dead.

The early Seventies were heady days for the neoclassical music of Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but at first Styx struggled to get recognition outside their native Illinois. In 1975, "Lady", a ballad culled from their second album, started to pick up nationwide airplay and eventually became a Top Ten US hit three years after its original release.

Suddenly promoted into a bigger league, the outfit signed to A&M Records and replaced Curulewski with the guitarist Tommy Shaw, who became one of their main writers with Young and De Young. The Panozzo brothers acted as a more than capable rhythm section for this hard-working band who didn't flinch at doing 110 gigs in six months (this punishing schedule would later take its toll).

Twenty years ago, you could still break America through sheer determination and constant touring and Styx undoubtedly became one of the prototypes and inspirations for the parodic Rob Reiner movie Spinal Tap with their elaborate shows based around concept albums like The Grand Illusion, Cornerstone and Paradise Theater (all platinum records). In 1979, following hit singles such as "Lorelei", "Mademoiselle", "Come Sail Away" and "Renegade", a US survey by Gallup revealed the scary fact that, while punk and new wave were ruling the UK, Styx was the most popular rock band with American teenagers.

At the end of that year, the De Young ballad "Babe" became an American no 1 and a million-seller. Having also conquered Canada, Styx could at last turn their attention to overseas territories. In 1980, "Babe" duly entered the British Top 10 and the group played the Hammersmith Odeon in London.

The band may have over-reached itself with the ambitious Kilroy Was Here which attempted to blend rock and theatre while dealing with the state of the nation, but their singles ("Mr Roboto" and "Don't Let It End" in 1983) still secured high placings in the US charts.

However, after the obligatory double live album Caught in the Act, the now feuding components of Styx took an exten-ded break. De Young and Shaw both launched solo careers, the latter eventually joining veteran gonzo- rocker Ted Nugent in the Damn Yankees supergroup.

In 1990, the other four Styx members recruited Glen Burtnik to replace Shaw and hit the comeback trail with their Edge of the Century album. The following year, on a wave of patriotism fuelled by the Gulf War, their "Show Me the Way" single (not the Peter Frampton song of the same title) became an anthem and a US Top 10 hit. More recently, the band recorded "Lady 95", a new version of their 20-year-old hit, and was still touring on the nostalgia and middle America shed circuits.

However, John Panozzo, who suffered from cirrhosis of the liver as a result of chronic alcoholism, had recently been replaced by Todd Sucherman on drums. His old band now intend to dedicate the rest of their current 77-date tour to him.

Styx were more a nice bunch of rock-journeymen than an original outfit. However, "Babe" still turns up on many an oldie or AOR station. In the words of a track from their 1978 Pieces of Eight album, John Panozzo is now "Rockin' the Paradise".

Pierre Perrone

John Panozzo, drummer and songwriter: born Chicago, Illinois 20 September 1947; died Chicago 16 July 1996.