Come on in and see what’s happening: Styx’s biggest-selling album, The Grand Illusion, turns 41 today, having been released by A&M Records on the cosmically cool stardate of July 7, 1977 — or, as it’s better known on the back of many a Styx t-shirt, 7/7/77.
by Mike Mettler
Demo’ed at S.I.R. Rehearsal Studios and ultimately recorded at Paragon Recording Studios in Chicago in early 1977, The Grand Illusion was engineered by Barry Mraz and Rob Kingsland, but the overall production credit was given to the entire band in the liner notes as simply, “Produced by Styx.”
The Grand Illusion reached as high as No. 6 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart, and it spawned two Top 30 singles — “Come Sail Away” reached #8, and “Fooling Yourself” reached #29. The album has been certified triple platinum by the RIAA, selling over 3 million copies to date. Any bets on when it’ll “officially” surpass 4 million? During the band’s current summer tour — which touches down tonight oh-so-appropriately in their hometown, Chicago — Styx co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young has often noted before launching into “Miss America” that the album has in fact sold 6 million copies to date, and that “over 1 million of them were 8-tracks!” (Ah, the good ol’ days of make-do in-car formats. . .)
At any rate, The Grand Illusion was the first entry in the band’s groundbreaking string of releasing four multiplatinum albums in a row — a feat no other band had ever done before, BTW. The album’s iconic cover art by Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse is modeled after Belgian surrealist René Magritte’s 1965 piece titled Le Blanc Seing, a.k.a. The Blank Check. (Tip for all you concertgoers this summer: Watch the massive screen behind the band carefully whenever they play any of the four songs from this album during their headlining set — you might just see some, shall we say, interesting movements afoot.)
Styx played The Grand Illusion in its entirety when it was paired with Pieces of Eight on a 2010 tour that’s since been commemorated on CD, DVD, and Blu-ray. Its core songs remain as indelible fixtures in the band’s live set, which can also feature Illusion album-track gems like “Man in the Wilderness,” “Superstars,” and “Castle Walls” during certain, extended headlining shows when other bands do not appear on that evening’s bill.
As noted, three of the album’s core songs appear in every show: 1) the title track, “The Grand Illusion,” which is now the second full song performed just about every night and is sung with much aplomb and panache by keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan; 2) “Fooling Yourself,” which, if he’s in the house that night, will also feature original bassist Chuck Panozzo playing on the entire track and taking its brief but iconic bass break the moment guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw calls out, “Chuckie!” (with Ricky Phillips then pulling double-duty on bass himself via a double-neck 12-string); and 3) “Come Sail Away,” which closes every main set with great cosmic bombast, and, at the song’s conclusion — if you’re lucky, and if the venue allows it — features cannons releasing lots and lots of confetti into and onto the audience from either side of the stage.
As easy as it is to sing along to it, “Fooling Yourself” is actually one of the most complex musical pieces the band has ever composed. Both its intro and outro are performed in 6/8 time, while the vocal sections are in 4/4. The synthesizer solo section is in 7/4 before returning to 4/4 for the final chorus. Two measures of 5/8 follow the brief intro recap with a return to 6/8 and another synthesizer solo before the fadeout. Aforementioned bassist/vocalist Ricky Phillips confirms “Fooling Yourself” has always been his favorite composition by Styx: “People ask me, ‘What is it that gives Styx their sound?’ The way Tommy and JY play together has been a huge part of that sound, but it’s also the odd time signatures like you get in this song.”
Towards the end of the recording sessions for The Grand Illusion, an Oberheim 4 Voice analog synthesizer arrived in the studio to further enhance the proceedings. “Its rich sounds unleashed another dimension of textures no one had yet taken advantage of,” observes Tommy Shaw. Lawrence Gowan has since made sure to program that vintage Oberheim sound into his current touring rig so that he can call it up for whatever song that needs it.
Eagle-ear listeners will also note that vintage Oberheim sound quite deliberately lends a certain authentic weight to Styx’s most recent studio album, The Mission, which was released little over a year ago on June 16, 2017 on LP, CD, and digital-download formats via Alpha Dog 2T/UMe. Tommy confirms the sound of The Grand Illusion — along with that of 1978’s Pieces of Eight and Side 2 of 1975’s Equinox — was instrumental in that critical Mission production/performance gear decision.
And now, in a Styxworld exclusive, all six bandmembers recount the impact The Grand Illusion has had over the years — and continues to have, night in and night out. The stage is set. . .
James “JY” Young (co-founding guitarist/vocalist): Dennis [DeYoung] is the one who gleaned the idea that it was our seventh record. I think the release date had originally been scheduled for 7/8/77, or something like that, and we went, “No, we want it on 7/7/77.” Just trying to stack the deck — not that we’re superstitious, or anything. (chuckles) So they changed the original release date to the 7th — which is fantastic! It has such a beautiful resonance and synergy.
Dennis wrote the lyrics, but as the man behind [the title track to 1974’s] “Man of Miracles” [which features lines like, “He was a man of miracles/Riding golden meteorites/Ruler of distant galaxies/Born of the Northern Lights”], I had suggested “Come Sail Away” become not a song just about a sailing ship, but that it should morph into a song about a starship, which was my idea. “Come Sail Away” was also lifted by the release of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the same year, so ’77 was the year for outer space.
We have the good fortune of The Grand Illusion continuing to be a resonant topic, and The Mission resonates with The Grand Illusion in a variety of ways. The theme of Tommy Shaw’s “Man in the Wilderness” intersects with “Radio Silence” — an individual against the forces of nature, wherever you happen to be. And there’s no greater wilderness than the absolute zero-temperature environment of outer space! (laughs)
Tommy Shaw (guitarist/vocalist): It’s 7/7 again — the date that changed everything! We made a record that sounds really good, and we worked really hard at trying to get it right. It wasn’t always romantic and sometimes we lost sleep over it, but what matters is how it turned out. It’s the creative process.
I run into people almost daily who tell me that “Man in the Wilderness” and “Fooling Yourself” are the songs that helped them get through high school. I like hearing that. And now, to look out in the crowd when we’re playing “Man in the Wilderness” and see people singing along who weren’t even born yet when it came out — that’s very satisfying.
Chuck Panozzo (co-founding bassist): The Grand Illusion was the right album at the right time. Why is it our best-selling album? It has the best songs. And it was a true collaboration.
Lawrence Gowan (keyboardist/vocalist): When we did The Grand Illusion-Pieces of Eight tour in 2010, we discovered what a cohesive composition that album is from beginning to end. Delving into the parts and playing the songs in the actual running order reignited my enthusiasm for that album as an album. I was a fan of it then, and I’m a fan of it now.
I should also mention that the album’s artwork has stood the test of time. It looks so engaging today. I love seeing that equestrian image mixed with the forest and the woman’s eyes whenever it gets projected onscreen behind us. It’s one of the great visual icons of rock history.
Ricky Phillips (bassist/vocalist): “Fooling Yourself” has always been my favorite composition by Styx. But being able to play “Castle Walls” is awesome too, because I come from a heavier place. I appreciate that it’s a great track — and it’s bass-heavy, on top of that.
The first time I heard [the song] “The Grand Illusion” was when I was with The Babys, when we were touring with Styx. It has that very clever, “Welcome back my friends/here we are tonight” vibe — it’s grand and pomp, with that bolero beat. So very cool.
Todd Sucherman (drummer): The Grand Illusion will always have a soft spot in my heart because it’s the first full Styx record I ever heard, or bought. My uncle Dennis happened to put that one on during one of our visits with him, shortly after that record came out.
My brother and I immediately went home and bought it, and we would play that record every day. It was the first record I ever bought from the band, and I continued to buy all of their records in succession after that. To me, that album was the genesis of me liking the band, really.