Thursday, March 30, 2023

Steelers and Styx: ‘Renegade’ tradition has become ‘a gift that keeps on giving’ to both band and team

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Oh, mama, what a scene Tommy Shaw beheld as he stepped onto the terrace outside a private box at Heinz Field on that Sunday afternoon in 2008. Pittsburgh was frigid that day, but the Steelers were hotly contesting an essential game against the Chargers. All around him, Shaw could see the mass of fans wearing mostly black outfits with gold trim starting to stir. They had reason to believe that this was the moment. Shaw knew it was, and still it was more than he might have expected.

First, above the crowd, he heard a voice, his voice, singing acapella. Oh, mama, I’m in fear for my life from the long arm of the law. Then it was the foot of the late John Panozzo, gone too long but still with us in that bass drum sequence that sounds so much like five heartbeats. Lawman has put an end to my running and I’m so far from my home. Then another five beats from Panozzo, and Shaw’s voice was surrounded by two of his bandmates. Oh, Mama, I can hear you a-crying, you’re so scared and all alone. Hangman is coming down from the gallows and I don’t have very long.

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What followed — after Dennis DeYoung’s primal scream punctuated the prelude and launched the guitar-driven rock anthem that ensues — surely was a blur, because it always is: the accelerated video compilation of massive hits by Steelers defenders, the fans simultaneously waving the team’s Terrible Towel talisman and either shouting or singing along. An NFL timeout does not allow for the song’s entire 4 minute, 14 second running time, whittling out much of James Young’s memorable guitar solo, but the edit by the gameday operations team honors both the franchise’s tradition of defensive excellence and Styx’ now-classic top-20 hit, “Renegade.”

“The look on my face must have been, like: Wow! Because it was kind of a holy s—t moment,” Shaw told Sporting News. “It still blows me away that they haven’t tired of it. It’s just like this gift that keeps on giving. If it all ended this year, I would still go: This is one of the coolest things that ever happened to me, and to Styx.”

The Steelers will play the final home game of their 2020 regular season Sunday against the Colts. They at least have been able to continue performing because their art translates so well to television, and this will be the 15th of 16 scheduled games to be completed on the way to their ninth NFL playoff appearance under head coach Mike Tomlin.

Styx began canceling concerts in early March, when the nation started entering quarantine amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The band had 11 more shows planned that month; next up were Pennsylvania dates in Bensalem and Jim Thorpe, and then one in New York City at the Beacon Theater. Originally, that was postponed until autumn, but the pandemic had other ideas and that show later was canceled. The only way to hear their music would be through one’s phone, or the radio — or, for a handful of autumn days, through the scoreboard and sound system at Heinz Field.

It’s been played three times in seven home games this season. There never have been more than a few thousand fans inside to hear it, and cheer it, and now the audience is reduced to friends and family members of the players and coaches involved. Oh, and the media. The team periodically has included “Renegade” in its gameday presentation, though, so that games feel as normal as possible no matter how abnormal the reality might have become.

And the Steelers and “Renegade” have become inextricably linked.

“It’s a delightful confluence of wonderful things. No one could ever have scripted this. It just happened. It’s a magic moment,” Young, known to his fans and friends as JY, told Sporting News. “If you keep putting good things out there, something will break through. And this was just one of those breakthroughs that could never have been planned. It’s just a magnificent story.”

‘Let’s make this into a rock song’

The band that became Styx initially was formed in the Chicago area by the Panozzo twins, John and Chuck, and neighbor DeYoung in the early ’60s. Young, also a Chicagoan, was added to the group in 1970, while he was finishing an engineering degree at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The band adopted the Styx name in 1972, upon signing with an independent record label.

After Shaw joined in 1975, and after his fascinating song “Crystal Ball” became the title track for his first album as a member and the second for the group after its big move to A&M Records, Styx released four consecutive multi-platinum albums, the first band ever to achieve that distinction. The first, “The Grand Illusion,” turned the five members into album-rock superstars. The next, “Pieces of Eight,” made it clear that the band could flat-out rock. The next two, “Cornerstone” and “Paradise Theatre” sold beautifully and contained many memorable tracks but also planted the seeds of the near-term dissolution of the band, as conflicts developed over the its musical direction.

In the middle of that five-year storm of creativity, as the members of Styx were preparing material for “Pieces of Eight,” Shaw sat down at a piano.

“And I’m not much of a piano player,” he said. “I’d been listening to Alan Parsons — I was a huge Alan Parsons fan — and he had this one song that was in G minor. … It might have been “The Cask of Amontillado,” something like that. I ham-fistedly went over, and I had left hand on G, did a couple of little inversions and I was like: Hey, I can play this Alan Parsons song.

“And then I went: Well, what if I turn this around and did this? Then all of a sudden, this was something new. I scribbled down some words to sing, and that was it. I took it to the band, and the band decided: Let’s make this into a rock song. It immediately translated into that song.”

The song was “Renegade.” Shaw is from Montgomery, Ala., not exactly a descendant of the old West. The lyrics about an outlaw who runs out of luck and time while attempting to dodge the authorities were just a happy dose of inspiration.

“The way we would make records is we’d have time off, everybody would go write some things and get just enough where you’ve got a verse and a chorus, and then we’d take it to the band, and the band would arrange it,” Shaw said. “And by that time, everybody knows their part, and we would go in and cut it.

“So we went in and laid down the track and just had the space where we were going to do the vocals. And we went out and sang it, and Dennis just popped out with that ad-lib, that scream. It just came out. And when we heard it, it was: Well, we’re keeping THAT!”

“Renegade” was tucked into the middle of the second side of “Pieces of Eight” and became the third single released from the record. It climbed the Billboard chart to No. 16, becoming the third top-20 hit for Styx, and the first time they made it big with a straight-ahead rock record. Their most successful previous singles had been “Lady,” considered the first power ballad by many rock historians, and the more prog-oriented “Come Sail Away.”

“We would collaborate on a lot of different things. ‘Blue Collar Man’ was already kind of a song that he and Dennis kind of put together, and I kind of pushed that one in a certain direction to make it a little harder-edged,” Young told SN. “Then Tommy walked in with this after listening to Alan Parsons.

“I always liked to push things in a hard-edged direction, if I could. I’m a Hendrix, Pete Townsend, Eric Clapton kind of guy. Ultimately, we pushed that song in that direction.”

In the 1970s, when progressive rock — or prog — became another step in the genre’s evolution, Pittsburgh was a friendly market for many of its pioneers: Genesis, Kansas, Rush and, of course, Styx. All of them, when touring, continued to play concerts there long after those peak years.

Styx has been the busiest of all and has played nearly every venue the city could offer. The band most recently appeared in Pittsburgh at the Rivers Casino in November 2019. Over the years, they have performed at Stage AE (an outdoor venue just a few football fields from where the Steelers play), Three Rivers Stadium and Civic Arena (both since razed) and the Stanley Theater (since transformed into the Benedum Center for the Arts). In 2016, they did a show at the Benedum to help celebrate the induction of former Steelers linebacker Kevin Greene — an ardent Styx fan and friend of the band — into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

They have played Heinz Field, at a 2005 concert also featuring Kansas and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The idea for that show came from their manager, Charlie Brusco, who grew up in the Pittsburgh suburbs and, like so many who left the region to pursue careers elsewhere, still maintains his deep affection for the Steelers. That and the “Renegade” connection has led to them performing the national anthem before a number of Steelers games. They returned to Heinz Field on New Year’s Day 2011 to play at the NHL’s Winter Classic between the Penguins and Capitals.

Styx’ connection to the city is deep enough that Young casually refers to the city’s most prominent rock station, WDVE — which also happens to be the radio home of the Steelers — as “DVE,” the way Pittsburghers have for half a century.

“There was a fellow named John McGann, who had been a radio programmer. I met him in Buffalo, and then he got moved to a bigger market, which was Pittsburgh, and that was at DVE,” Young said. “He could light up a whole room and get everybody excited about something, even if it wasn’t that exciting. He heard ‘Renegade’ and said, ‘You know, the guitar solo’s too long on that song.’”

That was Young’s solo, and he understandably is proud of it. It runs 37 seconds, before Young’s guitar is joined by a synthesizer backing from DeYoung, part of a one-minute instrumental break directly in the middle of the record.

“Then they started having this Battle of the Songs on the air. They’d play a song and the listeners would call in, a way for rock stations to connect with their listeners, get them buzzing or whatever,” Young said. “And ‘Renegade’ won two weeks in a row, before it got knocked off by some other song. So it really got pounded into the rock fans of Pittsburgh.”

It was exhumed from the archives of their craniums on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2003, at Heinz Field, when the Steelers were scrambling to recover from a miserable early performance in an NFL Wild Card round playoff game against the Browns. They trailed by a 24-7 margin in the third quarter. An intern in the team’s marketing department, Mike Marchinsky, had the idea to play “Renegade” to help fire up the deflated audience. It seemed to work. After the Steelers commenced a rally, the song was played a second time. When the Steelers completed a 36-33 comeback victory, a tradition had been born.

“Our manager, within 24 hours, was saying, ‘How about those mother-bleeping Steelers? Played ‘Renegade’ and came back and won the game!’” Young said. “I think it’s our manager that’s nurtured this.

“To be in Heinz Field when it’s going on — that is heavenly for me. That kind of energy, it just is there, and we’re, fortunately, somehow, stitched into it. Whenever we’ll play a concert in Pittsburgh since that day in 2003, we’ll play ‘Renegade’ and the Terrible Towels come out at the concert.”

A band of football fans

In the decade leading up to 2020, Styx was on the road for an average of slightly more than 100 shows per year. DeYoung has not been part of the group since 1999; Canadian Lawrence Gowan handles most keyboard parts and sings such numbers as “The Grand Illusion” and “Lady.” John Panozzo died in 1996 because of liver issues; Todd Sucherman has drummed for Styx since. Chuck Panozzo appears regularly in concerts, although Ricky Phillips is a full-time member on bass.

Shaw, 67, and Young, 71, are at the heart of Styx now. Neither seems to have lost his taste for performing. In the 1978 film “The Last Waltz,” Robbie Robertson of The Band memorably said the road is “a g—damn impossible way of life.” Shaw and Young had been together in Styx for three years then. Now their collaboration, with only a few brief interruptions, has lasted nearly half a century.

“I love the time on the stage. The roar of the crowd is an addictive thing,” Young said. “I like being on the move. There’s just something about that I miss.”

These past 10 months have not silenced Styx.

“There has been a lot to do,” Shaw said. “Just not the thing that we want to do the most. I’m still adjusting to it. I don’t know if I ever will completely.”

The group has not released a record since 2017’s “The Mission,” which earned a four-star review from AllMusic critic Steven Erlewine. They had been working prior to the pandemic on new material. Suddenly, there wasn’t much else to do. Shaw told SN that he has worked in person with songwriting collaborator Will Evankovich and remotely with other members of the band to complete a new album.

“It’s ready to go — as soon as we can go out and promote it,” Shaw said. “That’s the record business for us anymore. You presale it, you get that bunch of albums out. Then you go out and play, and people see it live, and then they go and buy it on the way out the door. We do really well like that. If we put it out now, we’re just handing it over to Spotify, and in two years we might see a dollar.”

They’ve been watching some football, too, of course. Still living in the Chicago area in a home that was a classic when he purchased it nearly 50 years ago, Young declares that he is the biggest NFL fan in Styx, a friend of several members of the legendary 1985 Bears, although disenchanted with the current team’s offensive struggles. Shaw lives in the Nashville area and, along with his wife, follows the Titans. Both Young and Shaw maintain a steadfast interest in the Steelers that began with the “Renegade” phenomenon.

“It’s always been our gift to them. We’ve never asked them for — usually, you negotiate a fee, but we’ve never done that because it’s such an honor for us,” Shaw said. “It wouldn’t be that much money for the team or for us, but we’ve been asked before, ‘Don’t you want to negotiate a deal?’ No! No! Because what else can we do for the Steelers?”

‘A great thing in Pittsburgh sports’

For 17 years, at some point late in the third quarter or early in the fourth, always during a television timeout and at the start of an opponent’s possession, the scoreboard screen in Heinz Field’s South End zone would go dark. To a stadium full mostly of season-ticket holders that were in on the routine, that was the signal.

This autumn, though, because of COVID-19, the Steelers have played the majority of their games with essentially no fans permitted in the stadium. Only some friends and family members of the players and staff were allowed inside at early games against the Broncos and Texans and post-Thanksgiving matchups with the Ravens and Washington. In between, before the resurgence of the virus, they played three times with roughly 5,500 spectators in a stadium that holds a dozen times more.

For two of the games with spectators and one without, the game management staff chose to play “Renegade” along with the video compilation of jolting Steelers defensive plays and superstar linebacker T.J. Watt’s pregame shout lip-synched to DeYoung’s scream. The fans stood and waved their towels during the massive October victory over the Browns. The surge of energy that typically results wasn’t needed in that blowout, which was a good thing, because it’s a lot to ask 5,000 people to do the work of 65,000.

“The first game, they had a clear opportunity to use it and didn’t,” Dejan Kovacevic, a veteran Pittsburgh columnist who runs the DKPittsburghSports website, told SN. “I thought to myself, at the time: That’s perfect. Don’t. Because it’s really strange.

“The first time they did do it, I watched the players on the field and on the sideline, because they usually get animated. And I distinctly remember Bud Dupree looked over to one empty side of Heinz Field and started raising his arms. He’s one of those people who can get caught up in the moment. The sight of it — coming from someone who’s covered baseball, hockey and football in this pandemic, in stadiums and elsewhere — was one of the strangest experiences of 2020.

“Seeing that scoreboard go dark and thinking to yourself: Really, are they going to do this? And when they did it, later on with the crowd there, the reaction of the people is pretty much what you’ve seen in the stadiums where they are allowing people, where they try very visibly to make up for everyone who isn’t there.”

There are some in the city, mostly within the media, who lately have attempted to move the Steelers beyond the “Renegade” tradition: a February article on the Behind the Steel Curtain website, an article last season in The Athletic suggesting the song had lost its “mojo,” a thread on a Reddit discussion board, the occasional Twitter poll or talk-show segment.

Kovacevic is not among them. He sees how the players have embraced it “generationally,” from Joey Porter to Cam Heyward. This fall, the Steelers lined up Super Bowl 43 star Lamar Woodley and a number of former and current Steelers and put together a lip-synched “Renegade” video complete with the requisite defensive highlights. There seemed to be no shortage of volunteers, with James Harrison, Ryan Clark and Brett Keisel of the 2008 Super Bowl champions agreeing to participate.

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“The song is obviously not new and hip. It’s not the kind of thing they would play in their cars going home,” Kovacevic said. “But they know what it means, especially as a defense.

“It’s become a great thing in Pittsburgh sports. It really has. When you’re in there, the darkening of the scoreboard, which is something people don’t get to see — they hear about “Renegade” and they see people waving the towels once it’s going — is the most powerful moment of all of it. Because everyone knows exactly what it is. Everything just stops. Everything just goes dark. Even in the daytime, that’s a powerful thing because you’re so used to having your brain addled with neon. Everyone realizes what’s going on, and they go loco even before Tommy Shaw gets going.

“The important thing is this: At some point or other, it will be back.”


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