Longtime bassist Ricky Phillips talks about the new album Crash of the Crown and its place in the band’s legacy
With their seventeenth studio album, Crash of the Crown, legendary rock band Styx embraced “something that is much more difficult than most records we’ve done,” says longtime bassist Ricky Phillips, calling from his Austin, Texas home.
“It’s really more of a progression towards the progressive side of the band. Instead of simple song structures, there’s little segues that might even be within one song,” he adds. “Odd time signatures are used. Huge Styx harmonies. All the big type of hooks that Styx is known for.”
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Phillips notes that this album, which was just released in June, was inadvertently prescient. “People have been asking questions because it seems like a lot of the song titles and lyrics are about being locked down, or politically motivated – and they actually are not,” he says. “Most of these lyrics were written far before the election and COVID.”
To support Crash of the Crown, the band is hitting the road this summer and fall – their first string of shows since the pandemic began.
“It’s going to be fun,” Phillips says. “To get people familiar with [the new album], we’ll do a few cuts that hopefully will make people more interested in wanting to hear the rest of the record.”
But, he adds, “We won’t force-feed anybody the new material. We’ll play a little bit, but people really want to hear the songs that they’ve grown up hearing and paid their good money to come and see live, so we respect that.”
Styx certainly have plenty of hits they could play. Starting in the 1970s, they released a string of singles that hit the Top 10 in the Billboard charts, including “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)” (1978), “Renegade” (1979) and “Too Much Time on My Hands” (1981), all of which feature lead vocals by Tommy Shaw, who still fronts the band.
VIDEO: Styx “Too Much Time On My Hands”
Phillips says he and his bandmates never tire of playing these hits. “One of the luxuries of playing Styx material is that it’s generally very well-crafted and very fun to play every night,” he says. “And it’s a challenge to play Styx material and sing those harmonies at the same time. When you’re playing odd meters and have to sing against that, you’d better be ready for it! That keeps us entertained night by night. I’ve been playing all my life, and it’s still a challenge, some of the things.”
Growing up in Redding, California, Phillips admired his father, who sang and played guitar. Noting his musical interest, his parents bought him a piano when he was seven years old, and it wasn’t long before he also mastered the piano and bass guitar. As a teenager, Jimi Hendrix and The Who inspired him to put together a band. “We were called The Warlocks,” he says. “We were a badass little band! We would play teen dances, and our parents would have to drive us because none of us were old enough to drive.”
Phillips went to college at San Francisco State University, but dropped out in his senior year so he could pursue a music career full-time. Forming a band with friends, he toured the country for three years before finally ending up in Los Angeles, “sleeping on couches with twenty borrowed dollars in my pocket,” he says.
He wasn’t in such a precarious position for long, though: “During the first three weeks I was there, I was seen by the soundman for a British rock group called The Babys.” That band included frontman John Waite, and also future Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain. “John didn’t want to play bass, he just wanted to sing at that point. So I auditioned for them, and I ended up going on the road with them.”
VIDEO: The Babys perform “Every Time I Think Of You” on the Midnight Special 1979
Phillips was in The Babys from 1979 until 1981. “It was a really, really great first professional band for me to learn from such great guys. John Waite’s voice still gives me goosebumps. And Jonathan Cain was the consummate writer – still is.” (Phillips, Waite and Cain would also go on to form the band Bad English in 1987, earning a hit single in 1989 with the power ballad “When I See You Smile.”)
When The Babys toured with Styx, Phillips befriended his future bandmate Tommy Shaw. But by the early 1990s, Phillips figured his days on the road were done, as he’d moved on to composing for film and television. He also did some session work, including appearing on 1993’s Coverdale-Page, the only album to come out of a collaboration between Jimmy Page and David Coverdale.
“Then I get a call from Tommy Shaw saying, ‘Hey, would you consider touring again? Chuck [Panozzo, original Styx bassist] has had some health issues, and we need somebody who can be here full-time and sing some high harmonies,’” Phillips says.
He knew he’d fit in well with the band as soon as he joined them on the vocal harmonies that are such a crucial component of Styx’s sound. Doing that for the first time “was amazing – all those beautiful voices,” he says. “Next thing you know, I’m on the road – and now I’m just finishing up my eighteenth year with the band.”
Now, with Crash of the Crown, Phillips has one more reason to feel proud of being in Styx. As he sums it up: “This was a big undertaking, this record, and I’m really happy for the way it’s being received because a lot of time and energy, heart and soul, and sweat and tears have gone into making it.”