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Having a Career

Dennis DeYoung is the former keyboardist and vocalist for Styx, with whom he had five top-ten albums in the 1970s and early 1980s. DeYoung was the writer of some of the band’s most enduring hits, including “Babe,” “Come Sail Away,” “Lady” and “Mr. Roboto.” Since leaving Styx in the mid-1980s, he has released several successful solo albums, and continues to write, record and tour regularly.

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Dennis DeYoung, former lead singer of the rock group Styx, talks about what it takes to have a career in the music industry.

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DY: Having a Career

A very difficult thing to do in the music business is to have your first hit record and define yourself. Then the really hard part begins, which is, “How do I stay true to the audience that I've created and move forward without being a repetition and a parody of myself?” That is always the challenge. The thing that I'm most proud of with Styx and the things that I've done over my career is I figured out a way to not repeat myself. Remember, I'm the guy who wrote Come Sail Away, Mr. Roboto, and Babe. I don't know what those three have in common. Not a lot.

People say to me sometimes, “You know what you need to do? I know what you need to do. You need to write a song like Come Sail Away.” And I go, “No kidding? I already did.” You can't rewrite it. You can't do it, because I wasn't trying to write Come Sail Away. I didn't try to write that song. I just wrote it. If you try to write a song like a song you've written, it will sound just like a song you've written.

What makes those songs valuable is that they were unique the first time someone heard them. You can’t go back there. This is the difficulty for all of us—the reinvention of ourselves. When I did Mr. Roboto, for instance, I wasn't trying to do anything other than write that song to fit. It's a great story about Mr. Roboto. I bought a synthesizer that had the first built-in arpeggiator on it. Arpeggiator means if you hold one note, it can rhythmically play that note. Instead of going, “Bom,” it'll go “Bom, bom, bom,” or “Bombombombombom” by holding one note. I'd never seen anything like that before. It was the early sequencers called an arpeggiator.

I held this note. “Dumdumdumdumdumdum. Bom, bombom.” That's how I wrote it, because this new synthesizer can do that thing. That's where it came from. I wasn't trying to do that. I was fascinated by this gimmick on this synthesizer. That's where it sprang from musically.

But you can't go back and be surprised by it again, can you? It happened once. That's why it happened. My point is simply, as a songwriter, you always have to push yourself to not be mediocre, to not just do what you can do. Try to always find the lost chord. Look for the new chord. Look for the new twist on the old, because there's only so many chords. We played them a lot. All you're trying to do is put your point of view on something. “How do I take those chords and make them my own?”

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