Styx, Joan Jett and Tesla Tour: A Tale of the Tape

It’s a platinum triple-header, an arena-rock summer extravaganza: Styx, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts and Tesla, loading up an amphitheater near you with your fellow rock fans and the sounds of decades of FM radio classics.

In one corner, you have the men who conjured a “Grand Illusion” and taught us what “Domo arigato” meant. In the next corner, you have a woman who parlayed her spot in the Runaways into a nearly 40-year career of steadfast rock ‘n’ roll, music for which she declared her love in her biggest hit. And across the ring, you have a quintet of modern-day cowboys who, in their heyday, brought classic hard rock to an audience hungry to hear such loud, righteous noise.

They join forces to kick off a 27-stop summer tour tonight. It’s a friendly competition, and we’re firm but fair. Let’s take a look at the tale of the tape:

CURRENT LINEUP
Styx: James “JY” Young (lead vocals, guitars), Tommy Shaw (lead vocals, guitars), Todd Sucherman (drums, percussion), Lawrence Gowan (lead vocals, keyboards), Ricky Phillips (bass, guitar, vocals), Chuck Panozzo (bass, vocals)
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: Joan Jett (vocals, guitar), Thommy Price (drums), Dougie Needles (guitar), Hal B. Selzer (bass)
Tesla: Jeff Keith (lead vocals), Frank Hannon (guitar), Dave Rude (guitar), Brian Wheat (bass), Troy Luccketta (drums)

FORMED / HOMETOWN
Styx: 1970 / Chicago
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: 1979 / Long Beach, N.Y.
Tesla: 1984 / Sacramento, Calif.

Former Styx lead singer Dennis DeYoung and the Panozzo brothers (Chuck and John) had played together since they were teenagers in a dance band called the Tradewinds, eventually changing the name to TW4 when they went to college, stopped playing weddings and started playing frat parties and the like. They changed their name to Styx shortly after signing a deal with Wooden Nickel Records to release their first album.

After the Runaways broke up in 1979, Jett recorded a solo album in Europe, eventually moving to New York, where her producer Kenny Laguna was based. She held auditions for the band that became the Blackhearts in Los Angeles, though, looking to tap the energy of the punk scene there. After a tour of the U.S. and Europe, the band settled in Long Beach, N.Y., and began planning their world domination.

Tesla came together under the name City Kidd and toured throughout California before being signed by Geffen Records. During the recording of Mechanical Resonance, the band decided to change its name to Tesla on the advice of its manager.

FIRST SHOW
Styx: 1970, Chicago
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: 1979, Huntington Beach, Calif.
Tesla: 1982, Sacramento, Calif.

James “J.Y.” Young joined DeYoung and the Panozzos in 1970, completing the lineup of TW4 that would rename itself Styx. This band played the Chicago area pretty much constantly in that period, but UCR has been unable to find specific concert information from that year (we did, however, stumble upon a fan site, Styxtoury.com, with a pretty impressive collection of itineraries, dating back to 1972). Jett’s first shows with the Blackhearts are said to have been at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, Calif., and at the Whisky A Go Go in Hollywood, prior to their first tour of Europe. According to Tesla’s website, an early version of the band (still called City Kidd) started playing gigs at the Oasis Ballroom in Sacramento, while bassist Brian Wheat and guitarist Frank Hannon were writing songs with guitar great Ronnie Montrose. This led to more engagements in southern California, including several showcases in Los Angeles that helped the band seal a record deal.

FIRST ALBUM
Styx: Styx (1972)
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: Joan Jett (Germany, 1980) / Bad Reputation (U.S., 1981)
Tesla: Mechanical Resonance (1986)

At the outset of their recording career, Styx were a prog-rock band, a Midwest U.S. answer to Emerson, Lake & Palmer — their first record even opens with a four-part suite built around themes from Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” a composition ELP would cover years later. The album also contains the churning “Best Thing,” which climbed to the lower reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Jett’s debut was released in Germany when no American label would touch it. She and her producer Kenny Laguna finally decided to release it independently in the U.S., eventually securing support from Boardwalk Records, which re-released it under the title Bad Reputation. Tesla’s Mechanical Resonance was a hit out of the gate, with songs like “Modern-Day Cowboy” having immediate impact at rock radio and on MTV.

Even though Styx’s second album (the imaginatively titled Styx II) yielded a Top 10 hit with “Lady,” it wasn’t until The Grand Illusion and the hit single “Come Sail Away” announced their presence with authority (as well as gatherings of angels above their heads), kicking off a six-album run of chart supremacy and arena-filling tours. Jett’s cover of the Arrows’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” could be heard coming out of every jukebox, basement stereo and car radio in early 1982. The single sent its titular album blasting up to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart (kept out of No. 1 by the Go-Go’s’ Beauty and the Beat and the Chariots of Fire soundtrack). Tesla’s second album, The Great Radio Controversy, featured the  ballad “Love Song,” which climbed to No. 10 and sent the album into the Top 20.

GOLD, PLATINUM AND DIAMOND ALBUMS
Styx: Seven gold, Six platinum
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: One gold, Two platinum
Tesla: Two gold, Four platinum

Styx had a multi-platinum streak that ran from The Grand Illusion in 1977 through Paradise Theater in 1981; the robot rock opera Kilroy Was Here (1983) put a stop to that, but still sold a million copies. The wave of success also pushed early albums, like Equinox (1975) and Crystal Ball (1976), to gold, and songs from the band’s hit records populated three compilations, one of which went platinum and two gold. Edge of the Century (1990), made after Tommy Shaw had left the band, was the last Styx studio record to earn a certification, going gold eight years after its release.

Jett has struck platinum twice, with I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll and her 1988 hit Up Your Alley (the one with “I Hate Myself for Loving You”); her 1983 album Album went gold.

Tesla’s first four albums (Mechanical Resonance through Psychotic Supper) went platinum; 1994’s Bust a Nut and the compilation Time’s Makin’ Changes: The Best of Tesla went gold.

TOP 10 SINGLES
Styx: Eight
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: Three
Tesla: Two

Styx’s platinum-plus run in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s resulted in a number of chart hits, including “Come Sail Away” (No. 8 in 1977), “Too Much Time on My Hands” (No. 9 in 1981) and a pair of No. 3 hits in “The Best of Times” (1981) and “Mr. Roboto” (1983). The band had a big hit in 1979, when the soft-rock concoction “Babe” gave them their only No. 1 single. “Show Me the Way” (1990), released at the height of the first Gulf War, hit No. 3, the band’s last Top 10 single.

Jett’s No. 1 hit “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” was followed by a cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover,” which hit No. 7. Her last Top 10 single was 1988’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You” (co-written with hitmaker Desmond Child), which topped out at No. 8.

Tesla’s “Love Song” hit No. 10 in 1990, and was followed in 1991 by a live, acoustic cover of the Five Man Electrical Band’s “Signs,” which hit No. 8.

ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME
Styx: No
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: Yes
Tesla: No

After years of eligibility, Jett and the Blackhearts were inducted into the Rock Hall in 2015. Several of Styx’s arena rock brethren (Rush, Journey, Kiss, etc.) have found their way onto the esteemed walls of the Hall, raising hopes that Styx, too, will be honored some day. Though Tesla have made some awesome music in the past 30-plus years, their resume is probably too short to consider them for induction. You never know, though if Kiss and Journey can get in after years of being ignored, anything can happen.

MOST RECENT STUDIO ALBUM
Styx: The Mission (2017)
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: Unvarnished (2013)
Tesla: Simplicity (2014)

Styx didn’t just roar back into record stores (remember those?) and streaming services in 2017 with a new album, they roared back with a full-scale concept album about a voyage to Mars. That hardly screamed “hit” in 2017, yet The Mission became Styx’s highest-charting album since 1983, hitting No. 45 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. Jett’s Unvarnished likewise charted in the Top 50, and featured a collaboration with Dave Grohl. Simplicity was Tesla’s first studio album in six years, and fans were apparently ready for its crunchy hard rock goodness (and its power ballad “Honestly”), because it peaked at No. 24.

SONG WE’D ADD TO THE SET LIST
Styx: “She Cares”
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: “Little Liar”
Tesla: “2 Late 4 Love”

Paradise Theater’s deep tracks are pretty awesome, so it would be great to hear one that’s both awesome and pretty. “She Cares” is Tommy Shaw at his poppiest and most lovelorn you can practically see the butterflies and rainbows and his twinkling eyes by the song’s end. Still, in a show filled with hit after hit, mixed in with songs about Mars and space, it might prove to be a good, if temporary, change of pace stick it in as the first encore. “Little Liar” was a Top 20 hit for Jett, one of the slick Desmond Child co-writes from Up Your Alley, but it hasn’t been in her set in six years. We’d definitely be up for hearing it again, particularly that huge chorus and the key modulation near the end. We’d like to hear Tesla play “2 Late 4 Love,” just to hear Jeff Keith hit the first verse (“I can’t believe this fucked up world in which we’re livin’ in / Still I do the best that I can”) so we can raise our fists and yell.

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