I just can’t seem to get out of the 70s with this Number-One Singles challenge! At the very least, though, this single wasn’t released until September 1979 and was one of the final songs to reach the top spot at the end of that calendar year, making it eligible for the year-end list for 1980… so that has to count for something.
Yes, I’ve already written a bit about this song for my overview of the aforementioned 1980 year-end list, but I don’t think it would hurt to clarify these thoughts a bit more. But first, some background. Although Styx had become pretty famous through the 70s for their prog-rock albums and even a few crossover hits into the pop charts (including “Lady”, “Come Sail Away”, and “Renegade”), “Babe” was their first and remains their only #1 hit in the US. Initially written by lead Dennis DeYoung as a birthday present for his wife, the band decided to set these words to music, abandoning their bombastic theatrical tendencies in favor of something softer and more tender. Obviously this was a huge hit for listeners of pop radio – it hit the number-one spot, stayed there for two weeks, and was the second-to-last number-one hit of the 70s.
Despite (or perhaps because of) this surge in popularity for the band, the song’s reputation has withered somewhat in recent years. I could imagine this being pretty alienating to fans who were familiar with and more appreciatory of Styx’s early work; I’m sure the term “sell out” was thrown around pretty casually during the height of this song’s success (as it would be even more a few years later with “Mr. Roboto”‘s top ten feat). And with only one listen, it’s apparent why this would be the case. The track introduces itself with twinkling synths, followed by DeYoung’s signature shrill vocals, emanating romantic lyrics of love and commitment (“I’ll be lonely without you / And I’ll need your love to see me through / So please believe me; my heart is in your hands / And I’ll be missing you”). The mood lifts ever-so-slightly after the first chorus, wherein a brief guitar solo fills in the slightly awkward gap. But then the rest of the song just sort of meanders for a bit, with a second verse that feels pretty hastily tacked on and DeYoung clumsily tying off the whole track with a, “Babe, I love you / Oooh, babe…”.
And now this is where my biases come in, because I hold so much specific nostalgia for this song. When I was eleven years old, an uncle of mine – an alcoholic – was suddenly taken into the hospital for kidney failure. After two or three days of uncertainty over whether or not he’d pull through, he finally passed away. This was my first experience with losing a loved one and while it would be far from the last, I always think back to the bolt-from-the-blue suddenness of this experience, those two to three days of hospital visits, and the subsequent weeks of mourning. Around this time, there was a mixed CD of unknown origins that made its way around my family, filled with some of his favorite classic rock songs from the 60s, many of them dealing with themes of loss and sadness that eerily correlated with the tough times we were enduring at this time. This was the first time I heard The Beatles’ “Yesterday” and “Here Comes the Sun”, Terry Jacks’s “Seasons in the Sun” and, yes, “Babe”.
Therefore, while I completely understand the criticisms toward the song’s unfavorable qualities – its cloying tendencies, the sappy lyrics, DeYoung’s voice, the sloppy structure overall – I cannot hate it. I guess I just interpret it differently than most. At age eleven, hearing DeYoung sing “I know the feeling we’re trying to forget / If only for a while” sounded like my uncle Bobby singing to me from the afterlife. It brings me back to this crucial time of growth and heightened understanding of the reality of death. I know that a cheesy AOR ballad from Styx seems like the least likely place to uncover such sentiments… but music can be quite funny that way.