Released in January of 1981, Styx’s latest in a string of huge selling albums would be the first album I ever bought brand new. At that point I liked the single “The Best Of Times”, and nearing my 12th birthday. Purchased this at a record stand at the CNE in Toronto. My dad took me that day, as I think he had dropped off my older brother for a concert that day, as well. I can clearly recall that stand and flipping through for this LP, and my dad not being enthused at my decision to spend my $ on a record for that day! I still have that copy… .played it a number of times while writing this. I enjoyed that album from the start, the story behind the theater, the songs, the artwork, the gatefold cover, the band logo etched in on side 2, The front album cover depicted a drawing of the front of the theatre [spelt with an ‘re’ on the front] with cars from the 30s or 40s in front, and the building in all it’s glory lit up for a big evening; while the back cover showed the theater [spelt ‘er’] all closed up and in decay. Quite an introduction to a young music fan then, [at that point I think I had a few used albums I’d obtained from a school friend] – playing track to track, reading the liner notes, credits, lyrics – in the unfolding cover, the smell of new vinyl…
“I was 26 years old when I painted the album art for “Paradise Theater”. It’s true that I don’t paint album cover art these days mostly because I am no longer an illustrator and to be an illustrator now days means an intense knowledge of the digital world. I admit that I am and have always been a painter and am woefully inept at anything digital. I am painting constantly however as my love for and of the craft has not diminished but has only grown. I was fresh out of art school and had a position as one of two illustrators at an illustration shop, Willardson/White owned by illustration legends, Charles White III and David Willardson, Charlie and Dave had gone to Japan for awhile and the Styx job landed on my desk. It was a concept album with the idea created by Dennis DeYoung. Dennis had found a serigraph print done by the artist Robert Addison. It was a print of a closed formally grandiose theater in a state of disrepair. Dennis thought such an image along with an image of the theater in it’s glorious heyday would make a fitting metaphor of America. At the time Styx was a significant band for A&M Records so they were given a hefty budget. Edward Witus designed the lettering and I did the rest including painting Ted’s lettering. The job just kept growing as A&M approved and liked the results I was giving them. What had started as a simple front and back cover became art for posters, as well as more art created for a 45 sleeve, a center label which was also used as a lazer etched design in the record vinyl, art for point of purchase displays and art for outdoor boards and off shoots such as blow ups of a small marquee I painted on the album cover, “Sparky The Flying Dog”. There are a number of hidden signs on the album but as for the spelling of Theater vs. Theatre I really have no idea as I didn’t lay that part out. I would imagine though that “Theatre” may seem more elegant or snooty and would fit nicely with grand opulence of the era depicted on the front cover. A&M was a good client back then and the the art director and I worked well together. I did other album art for them besides Styx and Oingo Boingo. Oingio Boingo was actually done with Danny Elfman as he preferred to bypass the A.D. and work directly with me. I also did album work for other labels including some Christian artists and some album art for movie scores and soundtracks…. I had a full color comp sketch that I painted but sold. A&M considered it their top art for that year and chose it to make limited edition prints which are quite rare. I sold most of my artist’s proofs. – Chris Hopkins, 2021 (Chris Hopkins Art)
I have read further notes from Chris Hopkins online stating that the album cover was not based on 1 theatre in Chicago, but more so from a number of images he was shown for reference. There are a number of old Chicago theater photos out there that bare some resemblance to the album cover, most notably The Granada, Marbro and Paradise! (You can check images out searching at – http://www.cinematresures.org) .
It would also introduce me to Styx, who were probably my first favorite band, as I would go out and buy albums such as Pieces Of Eight and The Best of soon after. I think I picked up Pieces Of Eight mainly because it was on sale & display in picture-disc form at the local Sam The Record Man.
Playing this album nearly 40 years later, I think I actually like it more, as I grasped the concept more now – compared to the 12 year old me – who was more in to it for the hits at the time. I still like how the album starts with Dennis DeYoung’s “AD 1928” on the piano, which is in part from the first single “The Best Of Times”, and before “Rockin’ The Paradise” comes charging in. Rockin’ The Paradise is rare in that all 3 singers/writers share the writing credit, while Dennis sings a solid upbeat rocker that really gets things going. It is really the dramatic introduction for what’s to come, much in the same way the song “Grand Illusion” did for that album. A video was made for the song, and it was released as a 7 inch single in the UK and Europe (among other places) .
“I had never heard of it. It closed in 1958—it was on the West Side. (Around 1980) I was walking through an art gallery, and there was a serigraph of a painting of the Paradise Theatre by Robert Addison, an artist who lived in Chicago. I looked at it, and if you see the back side of the album cover, where the theater is in disrepair, our album art is a paraphrasing of his painting. So I saw it, and in the painting it said, “Closed Indefinitely.” And I thought, that feels like a metaphor for America in 1980. And I bought [the serigraph], brought it home, and I looked at it and thought about it. Then I went to the guys and said, “What about a thematic album based on a once-proud movie house that has fallen into disrepair and urban decay from neglect…as a metaphor for the United States in 1980? And that was when (Ronald) Reagan and (Jimmy) Carter were going at each other. So that’s where the whole idea for the Paradise Theatre album came from, from that painting.” – Dennis DeYoung (https://www.songwriteruniverse.com/dennis-deyoung-styx-2017.htm)
“Too Much Time On My Hands” was the 2nd single, and also went Top 10 in Canada & the USA. I was not as crazy about it on it’s own then, but somehow it fits better and sounds better as part of the whole album [if that makes sense]. Definitely catchy, and had/has a wide appeal. It is one of 2 Tommy Shaw penned tracks.
” I liked the idea of the Paradise Theater concept, but just wasn’t coming up with any songs. Suddenly I felt like I had an assignment to write a song. I never have been that good at that. So I was a song short. It was the last day of song rehearsals for the record, and we were scheduled to go into the studio the next week. I lived in Michigan, so I would drive over every day. I got about five miles from the rehearsal hall in Indiana, and all of the sudden, it came on in my head like a song on the radio. And I said, “Okay, all right, all right, all right. I got to get there. I got to get there before I forget it.” I parked the car and I ran in and I said, “Chuck, play this—duh, duh, duh, da, duh, duh. And now J.Y., play A. Okay, when I say, everybody go to D, and I’m going to sing this part: ‘duh-dah-duh-duh-dah-duh-duh.’” I was calling out chords, and it was sort of an audible. I yelled out the changes as we were going along, and we played it and that was pretty much it.” – Tommy Shaw (https://music.avclub.com/tommy-shaw-of-styx-17982248000)
“There was a place near where I lived in Niles, Michigan, a little tavern right next door to the Catholic church…. I think officially it was called Mark’s Tavern, but everybody called it Mark’s Bar. It was the local watering hole…. The drinks were good, and the drinks were cheap. You could go in there with 20 bucks and be a hero, you know — buying rounds of drinks. And you’d always run into somebody you knew in there.” – Tommy Shaw (https://styxworld.com/blogs/news/styxworld-exclusive-the-inside-story-behind-too-much-time-on-my-hands)
The other Tommy Shaw track being the lighter pop track “She Cares”, which features saxophone courtesy of Steve Eisen – who guested on a few Styx albums, as well as Dennis’ solo albums. It is [IMO] the least memorable track on the album, kinda bubble-gum, and not really suiting the album’s theme. Heck, even the title is pretty forgettable.
Dennis DeYoung wrote the majority of this album, which is interesting in light of what came before and after this album — the 2 weakest albums in the bands 1975-83 era catalogue (IMO), both plagued by lighter-poppier material [though in all fairness, other members of the band share in the blame on Cornerstone, but DeYoung gets it largely for spearheading the writing, the themes, and for the hit “Babe” during this era]. “Nothing Ever Goes As Planned” was the 3rd single in Canada, USA, and Japan (while other countries got “Rockin’ The Paradise”), and although it didn’t make the top 10 as the previous 2, it did land in the top 40 in Canada, but much lower in the US. This, as well as “Lonely People” – both kinda funky pop-rockers, storytelling theatrical pieces, complete with cool guitar breaks, added horns, synths….
“The Best Of Times” was the first single, and probably the reason I bought this album at the time, I loved it then, as it was all over the radio. The song was a #1 hit in Canada, and #3 in the US. Along with the other singles, and a massive world tour, it would make Paradise Theatre the band’s biggest album (and only #1 in the US). Like side 2 of the Paradise Theatre album, this single also featured the ‘STYX’ etching, released in many territories.
“Like (author) Charles Dickens said, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I paraphrased that in the lyric of the song. For me, the song is simple. It’s when the world goes mad, how do you cope? And in this instance, it’s the love between two people, that they make their own paradise within their companionship, their love for each other, and their own home. And that’s what “The Best of Times” is about…it’s saying that The Best of Times are when I’m alone with you.” – Dennis DeYoung (https://www.songwriteruniverse.com/dennis-deyoung-styx-2017.htm)
After all the hits and more pop-rock gems on this album though is perhaps James Young’s finest pair of classics back to back on any Styx album – “Snowblind” and “Half Penny, Two Penny”. Snowblind being the closest progressive track on Paradise Theatre, co-penned with DeYoung and Shaw (who was apparently uncredited for lyrics). A great build up from the quieter to the hard hitting sounds of the band, and the shared lead vocal from JY an Tommy Shaw. Probably a great live song back then.
“JY had a song, I think he did have the title, but you know all the parts he sings, “Mirror, Mirror,” all that stuff? That’s what he wrote. Then after the “Mirror, Mirror” part, he had another song that went double-time that he had written that he thought matched, they went together. And I said, “JY, that second half of that is not going to cut it. That beginning is genius, you can’t go wrong, you can bet the kids’ college fund.” And I went in and I finished the song. So all the parts that Tommy sings, including the chorus, not the lyrics, I wrote. I think those lyrics are JY’s and the “Mirror, Mirror” parts are his but all those chords and that melody, that’s me. Now people don’t expect it, do they, because I guess I’ve so much success writing hit ballads that they think that’s all I do, but that’s not true. You can listen to any number of songs – “Grand Illusion,” “Castle Walls,” “Rockin’ The Paradise,” “Lorelei,” “Born For Adventure;” I mean, the list goes on and on. That’s me in there. …But “Snowblind,” that’s how it came about. And here’s what I did, this is how I was the kind of leader of the band. Not the dictator but the leader, the guy who kind of brought things together, because there is no Styx record without those other four guys. That’s a fact. We were a band together making that music. BUT, I said to JY, “This second part of that song that I’m writing, I think Tommy should sing it.” How’d you like to go to the original idea guy and tell him you should let Tommy sing the second half (laughs). That’s what I did, because I knew Tommy would be the right guy to sing that part.” – Dennis DeYoung (https://glidemagazine.com/245206/dennis-deyoung-formerly-of-styx-speaks-the-truth-about-broadway-lies-history-of-renegade-bipartisan-news/)
“On “Snowblind” from Paradise Theater, the keyboard thing in the beginning was my idea. I’ve got an electric piano that sits right next to my guitar, and I was just fiddling around and came up with it. Actually, I like to know how to play all my songs on both guitar and keyboards. With ‘Half-Penny Two-Penny,’ for instance, I doubled on guitar and piano as well as sang all the vocals in my rough demo. Basically, I want a song to be good in my own mind before I present it to the band, and when it comes to my ideas about specific keyboard parts, I’m often quite opinionated. Many times Dennis will hit upon something that’s better than I originally conceived, but basically I’m a real son-of-a-bitch [laughs]” – James Young (James Young-The Guitar Player Interview (racerrecords.com)
“Snowblind”, like the Black Sabbath song of the same name, was penned about cocaine. – “That’s what they say…. Yeah, I had done some research into those lyrics. Everybody was doing it back then—it’s not my excuse, but it was just what you did. If you were going to party back in those days, cocaine was just one of the things on the menu. I never did heroin, because I thought that meant I was doing heavy drugs, which shows you the insanity of doing drugs. I probably should have done heroin, because I understand heroin actually makes you feel good. Cocaine just makes you stupid.” – Tommy Shaw (link below)
“Snowblind” was also singled out by the Parents Music Resource Centre (a bunch of Washington wives claiming to be part of the moral majority). The song was claimed to have included “backwards Satanic messages”. Ridiculous to think now that these people had any clout, and could come up with such stupid claims. But it got the band even more attention – “I know. We loved that…. There was a backward thing on there, but it was “If you don’t like this, you can kiss my ass,” or something like that. From what I understand, the kids that were in church groups were flocking to the stores to buy that. So I think it backfired.” – Tommy Shaw ( https://music.avclub.com/tommy-shaw-of-styx-1798224800)
The album’s big rocker – “Half Penny, Two Penny” was co-written by James Young and Ray Brandle – who (according to my check on Discogs) was only credited on later CD issues and re-issues of Paradise Theatre. Brandle had credits on a few very early Styx songs. Interestingly, he was also a lyric writer for another Chicago band in the ’70s – The Roseland Band. They also had a song by the same name, co-written with Brandle, but not the same song musically or lyrically. It was unreleased, but a live recording of it can be found on youtube. This song is a classic JY rocker, that is definitely comparable to “Miss America” from The Grand Illusion, and lyrically suits the album as it comes to the end, after a cool guitar solo, followed by another verse and chorus, the song slides back in the album’s theme, as guitars disappear for piano and saxophone, and eventually the piano carries write in to “AD 1958”, which reprises the “Best Of Times” melody with a closing lyric. A half-minute of “Half Penny…” [roughly] was aired in the detective show Hart To Hart in May of 1981 (episode – The Latest In High Fashion Murder) . Following the “AD 1958” farewell, the album trails off with the piano playing of “State Street Sadie”, which is likely titled after the late 20’s silent film.
“I suppose, on the Paradise Theater album, and the Paradise Theater being an allegory, not so veiled an allegory, for the state of America at the time… concept of justice for money and the other roles that money plays in our capitalist society led me to write that song. “ – James Young (hob.com – Styx Interview (jamesyoung.ws)
“There was no doubt that in response to Cornerstone, which preceded it, and my own grumblings about how soft Cornerstone was, internally anyway, that “Paradise Theatre definitely had more punch, and kind of elevated the band again as a rock band. So another great moment in Styx history was 1981.” – James Young (Q&A with Styx :: The Grand Illusion | Lawrence.com)
I really enjoyed revisiting this album, one of my Styx favorites, still. I didn’t realize it then, but this was the band at their commercial peak, and then things soon went downhill. “Mr Roboto” came out, and it was a great single, despite it’s lack of guitars. But I remember getting the Kilroy Was Here album, and excited about the story and album packaging, but really disappointed in the album upon listening to it. I’ve pulled it out recently, and still don’t like most of it. I thought the Kilroy movie/video thing was pretty neat, but the album lacked hard rockers. The double live Caught In The Act came out not too long after (which I picked up at Sears!), I didn’t dig the new track “Music Time” (more ’80s pop), and really wasn’t enthused by the whole album (and I like live albums). There are a few live shows from the Paradise Theatre tour on youtube (Maryland 81 and Budakon 82) which seem a bit more lively – worth checking out (would be cool if someone tidied these up and released them).
Further viewing & reading: