Styx The Serpent Is Rising
Photo: 1980 cover of 'The Serpent Is Rising'

The Ultimate Lost Cause: Styx’s Orphaned ‘Serpent Is Rising’ at 50

The “anything goes, no guardrails” mentality of Styx’s The Serpent Is Rising is precisely what early 1970s rock and roll was supposed to be all about.

The Serpent Is Rising
Wooden Nickel
1 October 1973

In the classic finale of 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the title character declares that lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. While this reviewer’s screwy idealism may not extend to Senate speeches or Hollywood film-making, it does cover music. And if there’s a more orphaned, disowned, godforsaken ‘lost cause’ in rock history than Styx‘s progressive rock-inflected 1973 time capsule The Serpent Is Rising, you’d be hard-pressed to find it.

How disowned? Singer Dennis DeYoung supposedly considers it one of the worst albums in music history. Of the three surviving band members, guitarist James Young pointedly declined an interview request, while DeYoung didn’t bother responding at all. (Catching up with dearly-departed members John Curulewski and John Panozzo would necessitate a trip to the hereafter; don’t think we weren’t tempted.) As for bassist Chuck Panozzo, by this point, yours truly was simply too embarrassed to ask.

Had Styx broken up or faded into obscurity, none of this would matter. But by early 1976, Tommy Shaw had replaced Curulewski, DeYoung’s love-march ballad “Lady” became a monster smash, and late 1970s “Arena Rock” was born. A dozen hits, and millions in album sales followed. This leaves the poor jilted Serpent just dangling there, like a schlocky horror film on a Hollywood A-lister’s resume.

Rehabilitation? Popular reassessment? Not a chance in hell. But as Jimmy Stewart’s Smith character once said, we fight harder for lost causes than others. So 50 years later – for the sake of lost causes everywhere – it’s time to give this bizarre, maligned little album its due.

Ask any Gen-Xer to describe their personal “Pop Soundtrack to the 1980s”, and the answers sound like a “We Are the World” setlist: Prince, U2, Tears for Fears, Bruce Springsteen, the Police, and so on. Plenty of 1970s music filled our college dorms too, especially Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. But for a select, very hardcore group, The Serpent Is Rising somehow became our go-to college soundtrack for all those late-night inebriated BS sessions.

The reasons for this are roundabout and a bit complicated. After Styx broke it big with “Come Sail Away” off 1977’s Grand Illusion, many of us snapped up their earlier catalog. Chief among these was 1977’s The Best of Styx, an opportunistic Wooden Nickel compilation from their pre-A&M days. “Lady” was the big hit, of course, but the three Serpent tracks – especially “The Grove of Eglantine” – proved the most interesting songs on the LP by far. “Eglantine” sounded proggy yet muscular, more Trilogy-era ELP than Yes, with trademark Styx harmonies and one of the spookiest bridges in early 1970s rock. (That DeYoung was singing about a woman’s nether regions didn’t occur to this innocent ten-year-old fan.)

Thus began a peculiar yet enduring musical relationship. Assessing the records from beyond the middle-age rainbow, Serpent remains unfailingly… interesting. Granted, it was easy to overlook, given 1973’s bounty of classic recordings (Dark Side of the Moon, Quadrophenia, Houses of the Holy, Band on the Run… we could go on). Styx’s subsequent catalog was also stuffed with best-selling arena-rock crowd-pleasers. But somehow, for our tiny club, Serpent edged out all those 1970s rock titans and stuck around.

“The Grove of Eglantine” is indisputably the best song here, perhaps even an undiscovered art-rock classic. But more aggressive tracks like “Witch Wolf” and “Young Man” feature similarly diverting bridge work as well. (DeYoung actually likes both of those.) From there, the record skids from prog-rock to hard-rock and back again, with several freaky ‘what were they thinking?’ detours. Case in point? Curulewski’s searing acoustic dirge “As Bad As This” expertly channels Stephen Stills’ suicidal “4+20” from 1970’s Deja Vu before segueing into the notorious unlisted track “Plexiglas Toilet”.

“Toilet” must be heard to be believed – a calypso Mexican poop parody beloved by “Weird Al” Yankovic and featured on Dr. Demento’s radio show. The song is nutty enough on its own, but crashing “Toilet” headlong into the dead-serious “As Bad As This” strikes like a jarring vinyl bungee jump. The album’s final two tracks, if you can call them that, include an ode to the 1883 “Krakatoa” eruption and a version of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”. Again, where the heck did this stuff come from? But that’s Serpent for you: always entertaining, never boring.

Perhaps most surprising, all these years later? Even the corny stuff mostly works. Sure, “Jonas Psalter” may be a comically earnest 18th-century pirate tale, ruthlessly mocked by DeYoung during the ‘Classic Rock Revisited’ interview referenced above. But before laughing too hard, check out that wailing James Young solo, the cool fret-less guitar bracketing each verse, and the fabulous keyboard-soaked crescendo that ends the song. Curulewski’s chilling title track closes the album proper with a growling, pre-Metallica organ riff that has haunted me since childhood.

Speaking of the departed Curulewski, his contributions are certainly worth a paragraph of their own. In addition to “As Bad As This” and “The Serpent Is Rising”, his deceptively simple “22 Years” is the most chugging, straight-ahead rocker on the album, a la early 1970s Brownsville Station. Curulewski shared the ignominious fate of John Rutsey, Pete Best, and even Peter Gabriel after a fashion – founding members of acts that achieved unimaginable heights of stardom only after their departure. Though even this Serpent fanatic will admit that Tommy Shaw meshed far better with the arena-rock path, Styx wound up taking.

One musical epithet you will not find here – the band Queen. Thanks to “Lady” breaking out in 1975, two years after its release, many critics disparaged Styx’s coordinated harmonies and high-pitched licks as cut-rate Brian May imitators. Sorry, but check your calendars – “Killer Queen” hit the airwaves in late 1974, and their masterpiece Night at the Opera in November 1975. Serpent Is Rising may be unjustly ignored, but it saw daylight over a year before anyone in the US ever heard of Queen.

How unloved was Serpent Is Rising? For years our clan of college devotees made do with the original vinyl, drunkenly flipping album sides until RCA’s desperately-awaited CD release finally arrived in 1988. True to form, it was an audiophilic disaster. Plenty of digital CD transfers back then were of horrible quality; the hissy misery of EG’s In the Court of the Crimson King 1987 reissue comes immediately to mind. But so awful was Serpent’s rushed transfer that we could literally hear the tape spools spinning up before each scratchy cut. Thankfully, in 2016, Hip-O Records finally rectified this defect with a decent CD remaster.

But hey, of course, it took that long. We’re talking about The Serpent Is Rising! Less than 100,000 copies were sold, compared with 50 million for Styx’s subsequent catalog. Despite surviving members’ defamation, Serpent sounds far more inspired today than the band gave itself credit for. No enforced formulas… Wild, LSD-fueled unpredictability… Waking up a million miles from where you started? This ‘anything goes, no guardrails’ mentality is precisely what early 1970s rock and roll was supposed to be all about.

At the denouement of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, just before he faints dead away, Jefferson Smith hopelessly shouts, “Somebody will listen to me!” at his uncaring Senate colleagues. This page may reside in print, not television, and no lives or dollars are at stake.

But consider it shouted.