Remember when you could still be suckered into serenity by a gentle 12-string guitar or a lonely baby grand, only to be assaulted moments later by crunching power chords, squealing solos and a singer coming off the gas to a painful skin graft of the heart? Such was the raucous majesty of the power ballad, which in its classic form could inspire more fear and surprise than the Spanish Inquisition crouching in your cupboard.
Nowadays all songs go up and down like cars on a jack but then — oh, then! People would crap themselves daily when unexpected Herculean choruses spooked ’em, and no one dished them out with more volatile vigor than Journey, Styx and REO Speedwagon, three bands joining in an unholy alliance on the summer concert circuit. Why they’re not touring under the more obvious banner Monsters of Power Balladry is a marketing blunder you can blame on band vanity — can’tcha just hear Tommy Shaw telling his 22nd century version of Styx — “hey, we rock — even without the sensitivity!” Maybe no one wants to take the blame or the responsibility for Jack Wagner and Creed.
But forget all that! If you lined up all the arenas these bands have simultaneously rocked and wimped out end to end, it would stretch across the universe and back six times and probably resemble one of their ludicrously impersonal album covers.
Here now is … The Power Ballad Timeline
1971 — Power ballad not yet invented! REO Speedwagon releases debut LP anyway.
Heaven invented 9 o’clock for bands like REO Speedwagon. If Martin Mull needed an opener, these roadaholics would already have their toothbrushes packed in an Anvil case. Their ability to out-faceless every faceless ’70s arena band knew no bounds as they hid behind a hood ornament logo and switched lead vocalist three times for the first three albums. First man out Terry Luttrell keeps the band from reaching their power ballad potential with songs like “Prison Women,” “Dead At Last” and the almost Styxian “Anti-Establishment Man,” which whines about “spending all that money on a stupid war in Vietnam.” Mr. Politician, implicated in the song by name, could not be reached for comment.
1972 — Led Zeppelin almost invents the power ballad!
The British supergroup records “Stairway to Heaven,” a gentle paean about a mythical lady that gets crazy heavy in the middle and has a big dumb-ass guitar solo — only its red herring lyrics prevent it from becoming a wedding favorite. When Zep refuses to release it as a single, it’s left for the Americans to seize the template and build a simpler, stupider “Stairway.” REO, sensing sensitivity in the air, ditches Luttrell for insightful folkie Kevin Cronin, who leaves after one album to resume a solo career that can best be described as “what solo career?”
1973 — Styx releases the first true power ballad!
Take the solemn seriousness of ELP and Pink Floyd and marry it with the histrionics of community theater and you’ve got Styx! Their chief weapon of surprise: Dennis DeYoung, who appears as harmless as a carpet salesmen but has a silly streak that would gag Freddie Mercury. He pens “Lady,” which belatedly becomes a Top Ten hit two years later, prompting DeYoung to include at least one “intimate” love sonnet per album that sounded as though it was being sung to his beloved from 150 rows away. Critics deride DeYoung for cloning “Lady” so many times — witness “Mademoiselle,” “Dame,” “Fraulein,” “Senorita,” “Signora,” “Bishojo” and, of course, the controversial “Squaw.”
1974 — Paul Anka releases “(You’re) Having My Baby” and sets power ballads back a year!
The “My Way” composer still maintains that, had the megaton mix been released instead of the sugary substitute that went to Number One, every metal band of the ’80s would have had to bow down and make a hair extension love offering to him.
1975 — Power ballad gains popularity but Journey doesn’t care!
Formed by Santana refugees Neal Schon and Greg Rolie, the jazz-rock fusion group releases three aimless long-players before discovering the power ballad and album covers with globe-hatching intergalactic bugs.
1976 — REO rehires power ballad MVP Kevin Cronin!
Cronin becomes to his cronies what Lionel Ritchie was to the Commodores, Balladmeister General. But even Ritchie didn’t have the balls to credit himself as “Lyric Assistant” on the albums. Guitarist Gary Richrath silently rebels by penning a series of instrumentals like “Flying Turkey Trot,” “Unidentified Flying Tuna Trot” and the egocentric “Gary’s Guitar Solo.”
1977 — Styx Creates the First Homoerotic Power Ballad!
The Chicagoons accrue a second chief weapon of surprise—Tommy Shaw, the first credible recording artist with braces since Jan Brady! Another reason Shaw never smiles for group photos — Dennis DeYoung takes the band into lad-baiting territory with “Come Sail Away” which he sings like Captain Bligh tryin’ to score! Ay-ay—yi yi yi!
1978 — Journey morphs into Jefferson Starship without any Grace!
Steve Perry joins the ranks and breaks power ballad tradition by singing to a province instead of a chick on “Lights” — Journey’s first power ballad to crack the Top 70. His insertion of a Sam Cooke yodel in every conceivable air pocket and rampant mispronunciation of the word “city” — so it sounds like he’s talking about a piece of furniture — doesn’t sit well with Greg Rolie, the group’s keyboard player and original vocalist, now reduced to one vocal per album like Ringo. What a pit-tayyyy!
1979 — Styx scores the first Number One power ballad with “Babe!” Journey hits the Top 20 with “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’.”
For his winning, wussy efforts, DeYoung is secretly ousted from Styx before being reinstated at double the silly strength. Meanwhile on the Journey front, Greg Rolie gripes that singing 77 “na na’s” or 154 individual na’s at the end of “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” is perhaps not the best use of a jazz-fusion rock group’s time. In retaliation, Journey names its next album Departure in the hopes that Greg Rolie will take the hint and leave. He does!
1980 — Styx unleashes the first power ballad-driven concept album.
How d’ya make the Depression more depressing than it was the first time around? Stick Styx in a time machine set for 1928 A.D. and people won’t even wait for the stock market crash to start jumping out of windows. Whenever Dennis De Young sings “The Best of Times” from Paradise Theater, he navigates around the word “honey” with all the uneasiness of a cloistered monk.
1981 — REO goes to Number One with “Keep On Loving You!”
And Kevin Cronin keeps on writing it until fans don’t wanna keep on buying it. After 1987, the hits stop completely. Behind the scenes, they tell themselves that it’s all Nirvana’s fault.
1982 — Journey has three Top Ten power ballads from the Escape album!
Hordes of Detroiters snicker at the line from the weepy “Don’t Stop Believin’” that uses the image “Born and raised in south Detroit” as a way to illustrate a boy’s hardship growing up. It must have been hard, since south Detroit is the grey-hued Detroit River! Also, Atari issues its Journey Escape video game that pisses everyone off. The game’s objective? It’s up to you to guide each Journey band member past hordes of love-crazed groupies and sneaky photographers, and protect their $50,000 in concert receipts. Two albums later, none of this will be a pressing concern when Columbia starts putting its funny money behind Michael Bolton who also yodels like Sam Cooke might’ve. During a bowel movement.
1983 — Dennis DeYoung rewrites Rush’s 2112 and calls it Kilroy Was Here!
“Don’t Let It End” appears in two versions, the standard sappy power ballad and a souped-up ’50s-style “rocker” that concludes with DeYoung giving shout-outs to Chuck Berry and Fats Domino like an adulterous letch who can’t remember who he went to bed with. “Do let it end,” boo back state fair crowds that didn’t come to see Styx’s thespian abilities. Being in the first rock band to break up out of acute embarrassment sends Tommy Shaw racing into the crosshairs of venison menacin’ Ted Nugent, where he ironically becomes the resident power ballad wimp in Damn Yankees. Which you might’ve noticed except that…
1984-2002 — Everyone on planet Earth records a power ballad!
The timeline gets admittedly fuzzy from here on, with everyone from Richard Marx to the Scorpions to Bonnie Tyler to USA For Africa to Poison to Metallica to Nickelback diluting the original recipe. Worst offender has to be Celine Dion, who actually injects the word “power” into every ballad, inspiring fear in the manner that only an overly emotive nuclear reactor might.
2003 — Journey, REO and Styx Form Power Ballad Triumvirate!
REO Speedwagon is not only still chugging along with Kevin Cronin and two other original members (no Gary Richrath) but they also sport the former drummer from Wang Chung! Yeah! Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain not only found another lead singer named Steve but one with the same size schnozzle! What are the odds? But these aren’t the best of times for Styx since Tommy Shaw and his replacement are both in the band to cancel each other out. And Styx without Dennis DeYoung is like Lost In Space without Dr. Smith. Sure, mission accomplished but you miss out on all the whimpering.
Journey, REO Speedwagon and Styx will perform Thursday, June, 12, at Joe Louis Arena (600 Civic Center Drive, Detroit). For information, call 313-471-6606.Serene Dominic writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]