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‘Too Much Time on My Hands’: The Story Of Styx’s Classic Hit

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Cover: Courtesy of A&M Records

One of Styx’s biggest, most beloved songs nearly didn’t happen. It was 1980 and Styx was on top of the world. They were coming off three multi-Platinum albums in a row and were just about to record Paradise Theatre, which would become their biggest yet, and their first No. 1. Of course, they had no way to know that yet, but at the end of the year, a Gallup poll would declare them America’s most popular band, and it was already pretty clear that there would be a lot of ears for whatever Styx put out next.

Tommy Shaw had become known for contributing at least a couple of high-impact tunes to each album, especially rockers like “Renegade” and “Blue Collar Man.” But for what would become Paradise Theatre, he had only written one track on his own, the relatively laid-back love song “She Cares.” And he was on his way to the band’s final rehearsal of their new tunes, so it was looking like that’d be it.

Listen to Styx’s “Too Much Time on My Hands” now.

As he was driving around the perimeter of Lake Michigan, from his Niles, Michigan home to the rehearsal studio in Gary, Indiana, fortune smiled upon the singing guitarist. Without warning, the riff that would become ingrained in the American psyche as a perennial pop-culture earworm suddenly appeared in his head.

It was the hard-pumping hook we now know as the indelible bass line of “Too Much Time on My Hands.” The gears in Shaw’s head started turning as he neared the studio. In a 2016 interview for the band’s website, Styxworld.com, he revealed, “I turned the car off and ran inside to rehearsal and gathered everybody around and said, ‘Chuck [Panozzo, bassist], play dun-dun dun-dun dun-dun-dun-dun. Do this, and go to this chord.’ And it just unfolded. It was like it came in a package. We took it out and assembled it, and there it is.”

For the song’s lyrical inspiration, Shaw didn’t have to go too far beyond his own backyard. Not far from the farm in Niles where he was living with his horse trainer girlfriend there was a blue-collar bar called Mark’s, where he logged a lot of elbow-bending hours when he wasn’t out rocking. “The drinks were good, and the drinks were cheap,” he said. “You could go in there with 20 bucks and be a hero, you know — buying rounds of drinks. And you’d always run into somebody you knew in there.”

Shaw wrote from the POV of an imagined Mark’s regular describing the hours whiled away, “sitting on this barstool, talking like a damn fool,” and detailing the lack of any more attractive options. The song turned out to be a good thematic fit for the Paradise Theatre concept, which used the opening and closing of a classic Chicago theater to symbolize the rise and fall of the American dream, chronicling the lives of underdogs struggling for a better life.

Musically, “Too Much Time on My Hands” was probably the most au courant track Styx had yet recorded. A Kraftwerk-worthy synth locks in with the bass line and lends the track a distinct synth-pop/New Wave vibe. And the fraternal rhythm section of Chuck and John Panozzo puts a dab of disco into the groove, making this the closest thing to a dance tune in the band’s repertoire at the time.

All of the above helped “Too Much Time” climb into the Top 10, which didn’t hurt the album’s rise to triple-Platinum status. The endearingly goofy video boosted the cause too, alternating performance shots with images of the band camping it up at a funky gin joint.

Styx - Too Much Time On My Hands

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That video had a second life in 2016 when fan Jimmy Fallon joined together with Paul Rudd to create a loving shot-for-shot remake of the video, bringing a whole new audience into the fold. When “Too Much Time” was written, going viral was something you combated with antibiotics. Decades later, it added arguably as much to the Styx legacy as Cartman’s 1998 South Park immortalization of “Come Sail Away.”

Listen to Styx’s “Too Much Time on My Hands” now.

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