Behind the Song: “The Best of Times” by Styx

“‘The best of times, the worst of times,’ that’s me stealing from Dickens,” Dennis DeYoung explains about the dichotomy at play with “The Best of Times,” the ever-resonant 1981 hit he wrote for Styx. “And, really, aren’t all times that way?” 

In 1981, Styx, a blue-collar Chicago band that steadily rose to elite rock status by mixing progressive-style album cuts with savvy pop sense, were looking to switch things up. “There will always be fans that will be miffed that you make any changes,” DeYoung tells American Songwriter. “A lot of fans lock into one thing. They like it, and they don’t want it to change. And that’s understandable, but as somebody who tries to create things, this is a recipe for boredom and complacency.” 

Thus, DeYoung and Styx (Tommy Shaw, James Young, John Panozzo, and Chuck Panozzo) wanted to find a more grounded musical style and lyrical theme for their next album, Paradise Theatre. “It was the Carter-Reagan election,” DeYoung remembers. “The battle of the two very different ideas of what America could be and should be. I started to think about America again and what we had gone through in the ‘70s. I focused on the disparity that I felt between people and the palpable fear I felt in the country in 1980.” 

All the album needed was a timeless emotional centerpiece to connect the songs on the album inspired by current events. “In that backdrop, ‘The Best Of Times’ came to me, lyrically, because I was trying to understand what it is that allows me to weather the changes in the world and in our country,” DeYoung says. “And I decided, ‘Well, love is a good thing.’ If you have somebody that you trust to have your back and you have theirs, this is fundamentally a good thing. The character in the song finds solace by going inside, locking the door, pulling the shades down, and being in the embrace of someone he trusts and loves.” 

DeYoung wanted to feature the band’s signature vocal blend on the track. “I wrote my harmonies and hooks based on the people who would be singing them,” he says. “Traditionally, the lead singer would be singing the melody in the chorus. That doesn’t happen. At one point, J.Y. (Young) is on the melody of the hook. Because I looked at Styx harmonies as a living, breathing entity that separated us. My point was that these are three distinctive voices, bring them together to create that sound.” 

The track also benefits from Shaw’s stirring guitar solo. “Some guitarists have their bag of tricks and they whip it out,” DeYoung says. “But Tommy is a stream of consciousness guy. You tell him, ‘Play another solo, I didn’t like that as well.’ He would say, ‘I’ll play something different,’ and he’d go out there and play two, three, four different solos. And then we had this little box we used to switch between tracks seamlessly. So that solo was pieced together by JY and Tommy and me.” 

“The Best of Times” proved so effective in summing up the overarching themes of Paradise Theatre that snippets of the melody would be used as album bookends, which DeYoung says was his homage to The Beatles’ Abbey Road. The melancholy verses don’t shy away from expressing the turbulent times (“Rumor has it it’s the end of paradise”). But the narrator has somewhere special where he can take cover, which is made clear in the soaring chorus: “The best of times are when I’m alone with you.” 

What the song’s creator couldn’t have envisioned back then was how “The Best of Times” would continue to supply consolation and hope, even 40 years into the future. But he found that out when he recorded a home version of the song last year at the beginning of the pandemic and watched it become a viral sensation. 

“People put a lot of stake in music,” DeYoung shrugs when pondering the reaction. “They just do. I went to the piano reluctantly and did the best I could under the circumstances. How did I know that was going to happen? The last time I trended was in 1981 because I had a mustache or something.”  

“When I was writing this stuff, I was just trying to kick Queen’s ass. I wasn’t thinking about the longevity of the music. You can’t assume that stuff, people saying, ‘It meant so much to me and it does today.’ Well, there’s a residual I didn’t count on.” 

Even with that response from the fans, Dennis DeYoung doesn’t feel that “The Best of Times” makes him some sort of sage. “I don’t have any answers,” he humbly says. “I use my songs to work out the things that I don’t know. ‘The Best of Times’ reminds me that, when you say something musically that’s true to yourself, other people say, ‘That’s me too.’” 

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