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Writing Great Songs

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 write memorable songs.

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DY: Writing Great Songs

The question is, “Do I know when I've written a hit song?” I should quantify that by saying I know when I've written what I consider a great song for me. I'm not saying a great song in the pantheon of great songs, but a great song for me. I used to say, “That's a hit record.” I've never been wrong one time in my life about anything I've ever done. Never. Because I always knew when I wrote the mediocre ones. I would never tell somebody, “That's a hit song.” I never would do that to myself, but I knew when they were hit records.

Lady I screamed for 2 1/2 years at everyone around me. You know why? We played it live, and people would go nuts. What am I, an idiot? We play 15 songs, and we'd play Lady, and people would go crazy. I thought that you'd have to be stupid not to know that one's different from the other 14 songs.

But when I wrote Lady, I didn't know, because I'd never done it. You know what I'm saying? After that, I always knew. I never forget the first time we listened to Come Sail Away in the studio at the listening party. We’d had some success. We had a big success in Canada. Lady was a hit record. We had two gold albums, and we had a bunch of platinum albums in the can, but we had still not broken the US scene in a big way. We were still playing behind Kiss and Aerosmith and Bob Seeger, you name it. We were the world's biggest support act.

We made this album called The Grand Illusion, and I wrote this song called Come Sail Away. We're listening to Come Sail Away, and it played over the speakers, and I turned to my best friend at the time, Tom Short, may he lay in peace, and I said, “If that doesn't do it, I'm going back to teaching. I don't think I can do any better than that.” That's what I said.

But I knew it when I wrote it. I was sitting at a piano, and there was snow. It was the worst winter in 50 years in Chicago. I wrote this song about sailing. I remember sitting at the piano, and I got it. I got the verse to the chorus, right? I got it. “Come sail away...” Tears rolling down my face. Something about what I had said in that song, I’d gotten it right within myself. The lyric and the music, it all came together in a way that I knew that's it. That is what I should be doing, and there it is.

It's like an actor sometimes. They think the last role they get will be their last role. I’ll never get another one. Same thing with writing songs. You think, “That's the last good one I'm ever going to write.” The more good songs you pile up on yourself, boy, the worse it gets, because you go, “Oh, my God.” You're shooting here today. You see behind me? This is what I call the Hall of Ghosts. (Laughter) I come down here and look at it and go, “Oh, my God. That's a lot to live up to.”

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