by Mike Mettler, resident Styxologist
Cornerstone, Styx’s ninth studio album, was released 43 years ago today by A&M Records on October 19, 1979. Cornerstone was the band’s third triple-platinum-selling album in a row — cementing Styx as the first band ever to have achieved that vaunted sales feat (with their fourth one, Paradise Theatre, to follow just two years later) — and it also spawned their first No. 1 single, “Babe.” That intimate, Dennis DeYoung-penned ballad reached the pinnacle of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for two weeks in December 1979 (specifically, on the charts dated December 8 and December 15). The album itself peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart.
Cornerstone — an album referred to by keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan as being a “pillar” of the band’s “Big Four” albums (the other three being July 1977’s The Grand Illusion, September 1978’s Pieces of Eight, and January 1981’s aforementioned Paradise Theatre) — contains a number of key tracks in the Styx oeuvre. 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 — not to mention it becoming a key track on Sing for the Day!, Tommy’s live solo release from June 2018 on which he was backed by the Contemporary Youth Orchestra. Believe it or not, “Boat on the River” also happens to be the band’s most-covered track, with many of its cover versions 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,” co-founding 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.” Someone who particularly admires Chuck’s work on “Boat” is the newest fulltime member of Styx, guitarist/vocalist Will Evankovich, who got to perform a special orchestrated version of the song alongside Tommy during that above-noted Sing for the Day! concert. “I’m a huge fan of Chuck’s isolated bowed tracks on that song,” admits Will, who’s personally studied the original master recording firsthand in much detail.
The album’s vibrant lead track, Tommy’s ever-uplifting “Lights,” has often served as a welcome staple in the back half of Styx’s extended live sets — and it was also a standing favorite for Gary Loizzo, the band’s longtime live engineer and studio co-producer who passed away in January 2016. In recent years, the live version of “Lights” features an original percussion intro written and performed by drummer Todd Sucherman, along with Tommy 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 [i.e., John Panozzo, Styx’s original drummer, who passed away in July 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 the toms and other stuff. Sometimes, the sound itself isn’t the most important thing — you’ve also gotta get the feel.”
The album title came courtesy of JY, the man who 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 in addition to a shiny, futuristic silver LP sleeve, was designed by Mick Haggerty. (Unfortunately, some of the latter-day LP reissues do not include that way-cool barn-door option, such as the version of Cornerstone that’s included in The A&M Albums – 1975-1984 vinyl box set.)
While most of the attention given to Cornerstone continues to spotlight 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 he’ll launch into other songs acoustically onstage. Meanwhile, the hard-charging “Borrowed Time” (the album’s second single, which reached No. 64 on the charts) has been discussed only in passing as a song that might be revisited live someday. (So, guys . . . how about working it up for some of the longer sets in 2023, a.k.a. Year 51?)
Finally, on those occasions whenever I, your trusty Styxologist, suggest to JY that I’d love to hear his pleading “Eddie” find its way into the set — somewhat of a ritualistic request of mine, especially when we’re on the road together for any extended periods of time — he will often give me a patented JY look and reply with something along the lines of, “You might have to wait on that!” before taking a beat to add the final kicker: “But I’d keep it in the original key.” (I think the message is ever so loud and clear, indeed. . .)
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. . .