by Mike Mettler
Cornerstone, Styx’s ninth studio album, was released 39 years ago today by A&M Records on October 19, 1979. It was the band’s third triple-platinum-selling album in a row (cementing them as the first band ever to have achieved that vaunted sales feat, with another one to follow), and it spawned their first #1 single, “Babe.” The intimate, Dennis DeYoung-penned ballad reached the pinnacle of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for 2 weeks in December 1979 (specifically, on the charts dated December 8 and December 15). The album itself peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart.
Cornerstone contains a number of key tracks in the Styx oeuvre. For example, guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw’s mandolin-driven “Boat on the River” is, in fact, the band’s biggest hit internationally, having topped the charts in Switzerland and reaching the Top 5 in countries like Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. It’s also the band’s most-covered song, with many of those covers having been done in languages other than English. “It still amazes me how much impact that song has had on people over the years, and how far and wide it has reached all over the globe,” Tommy admits.
For “Boat on the River,” original bassist Chuck Panozzo tried something new by playing a bowed, stand-up double bass. “It was something I hadn’t done before in the studio,” Chuck recounts. “Some people were skeptical about it, but that wasn’t going to stop me from trying it. I thought it was the right thing to do for the song, and I think it worked out perfectly.”
The album’s vibrant lead track, Tommy’s ever-uplifting “Lights,” has become a staple in the back half of the band’s current extended live set, and it was a standing favorite for Gary Loizzo, the band’s late, longtime live engineer and studio co-producer who passed away in January 2016. Live, “Lights” features an original percussion intro written and performed by drummer Todd Sucherman, Shaw on acoustic guitar throughout the entire song, and co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young replicating the Ed Tossing-arranged middle horn section from the studio version on his electric guitar.
Cornerstone was recorded at Loizzo’s own Pumpkin Studios in Oak Lawn, Illinois. “For me, Cornerstone was one of those albums that went together very well,” Loizzo told me in 2015. “I was very hard on Johnny [John Panozzo, Styx’s original drummer, who passed away in 1996] because I made him play nothing but foot, snare, and kick on a couple of tracks, and then he’d have to go and overdub toms and other stuff. Sometimes, the sound itself isn’t the most important thing — you’ve also gotta get the feel.”
The album was named by JY, as they often are. (He also named Man of Miracles and Equinox.) Cornerstone’s stunning artwork, which features a barn-door opening down the middle of the back cover that opens up to printed lyrics on both interior half-sides and a shiny, futuristic silver LP sleeve, was designed by Mick Haggerty. (Unfortunately, some of the latter-day LP reissues don’t include the barn door.)
While most of the attention given to Cornerstone continues to shine on Side 1, lyrics from key Side 2 tracks like Tommy’s album-closer, “Love in the Midnight,” have occasionally been sung by its author before launching into other songs acoustically onstage. The hard-charging “Borrowed Time” (the album’s second single, which reached #64) has been discussed only in passing as a song that might be revisited live someday, and when I once suggested to JY that I’d love to hear “Eddie” played live, he replied, “You might have to wait on that. But I’d keep it in the original key.” (I’m still waiting, JY. . .)
Cornerstone remains a strong pillar in Styx’s recorded legacy, and it’s an album worth revisiting via its finely remastered vinyl form. And all roads lead to tranquility base. . .