Styx Solo Albums from the Lost and Found (Part 2): Girls with Guns / What If

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

It’s clear from Tommy Shaw’s solo debut, 1984’s #50-peaking Girls with Guns (helmed by former Journey producer Mike Stone and featuring a backing band that includes former Wings drummer Steve Holley, former Al Stewart keyboardist and “Year of the Cat” co-writer Peter Wood, and former Billy Joel saxophonist Richie Cannata), that he wants to re-establish his reputation as a bona fide rocker, and this is one very arena-rock-sized album, almost to the point of being comical. (The cavernous sound of the drums – the toms in particular – is fairly over-the-top.)

But Shaw also has a real love for poppy melodies (just listen to the acoustic rock of his wildly underrated Paradise Theater offering “She Cares” as proof) that made him a much stronger fit for working with a guy like DeYoung than he would probably like to admit in interviews. (One cut here, “Heads Up,” is even co-written by Kenny Loggins, who can really rock out when he puts his mind to it – listen to his album cut “Swear Your Love” from High Adventure if you don’t believe me – but is really a pop singer-songwriter at heart.)  Consequently, this disc, as muscular as it is, isn’t without its pop appeal, and that’s apparent in the album’s downright fantastic and deliriously catchy arena-rock-oriented title cut, which boasts a fun singalong-styled chorus and just snuck into the Top 40, stopping at #33. (It remains Shaw’s only Top 40 solo hit to date.)

Other strong cuts include the rockers “Heads Up” and “Outside in the Rain,” the chilling ballad “Lonely School,” and the warm, shimmering acoustic pop of “Little Girl World.” Be advised that, while the original CD edition of this album (assuming you can even find a copy; it is terribly difficult to obtain) is quite the collectible, it’s the vinyl version that’s the preferable package of the two, since the cassette and CD copies add several unnecessary extra minutes to both “Outside in the Rain” and “Kiss Me Hello.” (The latter, in fact, clocks in at just less than eight minutes on the CD edition.)  

The follow-up disc, 1985’s What If, like DeYoung’s Back to the World, wouldn’t fare nearly as well on the charts as its predecessor, peaking at #87 and failing to yield any Top 40 singles, but it’s just as strong and the hooks are more immediate. Noticeably a lot less rock-minded and more pop-oriented than Girls with Guns was, the disc (produced by Shaw and Cannata) does contain what even Shaw himself concedes is his least favorite song he’s ever written, “Friendly Advice.” (Whether it was by Shaw’s request is unclear, but some later international pressings of the CD would move the song to the very end of the disc and separate it from the rest of the album with the sound of a needle skidding across a vinyl record.)

But, while more rock-minded Styx fans are less likely to appreciate some of the songs here than those on Girls with Guns, there’s quite a generous number of extremely catchy songs here, especially “Remo’s Theme (What If)” (written for and included in the movie Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins), “See Me Now,” the insistent and tight grooves of the nuclear-war-themed “This Is Not a Test” (which sadly was not released as a single but could have been a sizable hit if it had been; it’s considerably catchier than the album-opening “Jealousy,” which did get released as a single), the pop bounce of “True Confessions,” and the lighthearted closer “Bad Times,” which has its share of really clever couplets (i.e. “These bad times are only temporary / Running away is not necessary.”)

Much like DeYoung, Shaw would depart A&M after his second solo outing. (He would next end up on Atlantic Records, who DeYoung would coincidentally also record for in the early ‘90s.) Shaw would only release two solo albums during the next twenty-five years – 1987’s Ambition, which sports a great cover version of Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger album cut “Ever Since the World Began” that absolutely blows away the original, and 1998’s 7 Deadly Zens – but he’s never been quite as playful on disc as a solo artist as he was on Girls with Guns and What If, and while the later discs are good listens in their own right, they’re a bit too focused on delivering the rock to deliver the catchy hooks that are so plentiful on his first two. Shaw’s fifth and most recent solo disc, 2011’s The Great Divide, is, intriguingly enough, a full-blown bluegrass album (with cameos from Alison Krauss and Dwight Yoakam) that surprisingly works better than you might imagine it to.