Crystal Ball Turns 45 Today!
by Mike Mettler, resident Styxologist
Crystal Ball, Styx’s sixth studio album and their first to feature Tommy Shaw on guitar and vocals, was released 45 years ago today on October 1, 1976. Recorded at Paragon Studios in Chicago and produced by Styx with assistance from Barry Mraz, Crystal Ball reached No. 66 on the Pop Albums chart. Crystal Ball has long been certified as Gold by the RIAA (which translates to sales of over 500,000 copies), but considering how long ago that particular certification was done — i.e., in the pre-CD, pre-download, and pre-streaming era! — it’s much more than likely to have surpassed the million-selling mark at this point (if not well beyond it). “Mademoiselle,” with lead vocals from Shaw, was released as the album’s lead and only single, and it managed to reach No. 36 on the Pop Singles chart. (The song remains a band favorite to this day.)
“We knew right away Tommy was a superstar,” says original co-founding Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo about Shaw, his longtime stage and studio compatriot. “His songwriting, playing, and singing on Crystal Ball immediately elevated the band.” Adds Chuck with a laugh, “And he’s a pretty decent-looking guy too.”
Tommy had been recruited to replace original Styx guitarist/vocalist John “J.C.” Curulewski once the tour to support the band’s fifth album, Equinox, got underway in December 1975 (the same month that historic album was released). As recording commenced in Chicago for the band’s next album in 1976, Shaw reached back to his days in MS Funk to emerge with key elements for songs like the quite apropos uplifting album opener “Put Me On” and the “Crystal Ball” title track itself — the latter of which, as Tommy himself notes, “was a song I was playing in my $200-a-week bowling alley gig back in Montgomery, Alabama. It came to me pretty much all at once one time when I was visiting my mama at home.”
On many a recent Styx tour during a number of his spoken-word intros to “Crystal Ball” — right in those intimate moments before he strums the song’s iconic opening notes on his acoustic guitar — Tommy has often affirmed that he brought the track with him when he first traveled up to Chicago for his band audition.
Co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young, who was instrumental in helping Shaw and the band collectively “Styxify” the aforementioned title track, understands the song’s deep resonance to this very day. “I have a lot of people come up to me and say ‘Crystal Ball’ is their favorite Styx song. It seems to have an added layer of importance today with all the uncertainty in the world, especially with people who are searching for deeper meaning in their own lives,” observes the always-on-point Godfather of Styx.
As such, “Crystal Ball” remains an important fixture of many of the band’s longer live sets to this day. Tommy has also more often than not resurrected some of the lyrics that were edited out of the original recorded version, which instead now serve as the song’s live acoustic coda — so keep an ear out for them if you go see Styx live anytime soon, as you might just be surprised at what you may hear!
Otherwise, you can see an example of exactly how Tommy adds those long-lost lyrics back into the track during his solo performance of “Crystal Ball” with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra (CYO) — while seated right next to newest Styx bandmember, guitarist/vocalist Will Evankovich, no less — on the Sing for the Day! Blu-ray/DVD release, which was recorded in Cleveland back on May 27, 2016 (a show yours truly happily attended in person, and thoroughly enjoyed). Sing for the Day!, which is also available on CD and via digital platforms, was released by Eagle Rock Entertainment on June 29, 2018.
Evankovich, who now gets to play “Crystal Ball” onstage with all of Styx after having joined the band fulltime in the summer of 2021, respects how the song’s throughline of questioning one’s own purpose, direction, and sense of self are among the core themes Shaw handles oh-so-deftly as an observant and insightful songwriter. “Tommy is that guy, you know? He’s always on the existential precipice,” Will observes. “He’s just like the rest of us. I mean, what are you thinking about at 2 in the morning? What do you worry about? Do you worry too much? Are you asking the anti-logical questions of why we exist? What is this all for? I really like how he does it in his songs — and he also does it in a way where the average person can totally relate.”
One other such notable lifelong fan of “Crystal Ball” is Loverboy lead singer Mike Reno. “It’s one of my favorite songs,” Reno readily admits. “That song is a total inspiration to me. When I was living in Calgary and playing in a bar band, I was hoping I could be like Styx someday and write songs that good myself. And now I’m proud to call Tommy my friend.”
Elsewhere on Crystal Ball, Dennis DeYoung masterfully performs French composer Claude Debussy’s impressionistic 1890 instrumental “Clair de Lune” (which translates to “moonlight,” and was further inspired by French poet Paul Verlaine’s 1869 poem of the same name) on piano as the intro to the album’s final heartfelt track on Side 2, “Ballerina,” a song that immediately followed “This Old Man,” a poignant tribute to DeYoung’s father.
Meanwhile, the beginning of Side 2 gets ushered in with “Shooz,” a catchy finger-snapper of a track featuring some Southern-flare slide guitar courtesy of Alabama native Shaw, as counterbalanced by JY’s patented Hendrixian fire. “I think they were only going to let me have one of those moments on the album,” chuckles Tommy. Adds JY, “I do love The Allman Brothers — and I’m not sure if we did them justice, but that was our attempt to go there. Our style had already been established, but Tommy was known for doing that kind of stuff in the clubs. I actually hoped we could have moved the band more in that direction."
If you too want more Allman Brothers-related joy in your Styx life, just check out the band’s scorching cover of the ABB’s indelibly pleading “One Way Out” on May 2005’s Big Bang Theory, which features Tommy on lead vocals, tearing it up like only he can. In addition to that, you can further access that instantly identifiable Allmansesque vibe during those special moments onstage when Tommy and JY play certain tasty riffs in tandem together on “Man in the Wilderness” and “Radio Silence” — whenever those two classic songs appear in the setlist, that is.
In the meantime, as we collectively celebrate this album’s magical 45th anniversary, we invite you all to please enjoy the many aural gifts Crystal Ball continues to offer with every successive spin. There are so many things I need to know. . .