by Mike Mettler, resident Styxologist
Styx’s mega-triple-platinum smash success Pieces of Eight was released 41 years ago today by A&M Records on September 1, 1978. Featuring a stunning cover design by Hipgnosis — the British company known for creating album-package artwork for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, UFO, 10cc, and scores of other bands — Pieces of Eight become the second of ultimately four consecutive Styx albums to sell more than two million copies, the first time any band in rock history had ever done so. (To date, Pieces of Eight has been certified by the RIAA as having sold over 3 million copies — but since that certification was done quite a number of years ago, we suspect Po8 has sold much, much more than that. . .)
Just as on the band’s previous album, July 1977’s The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight’s overall production credit was again given to the entire band (“Produced by Styx”), with engineering by longtime collaborators Barry Mraz and Rob Kingsland. Po8 was recorded at Paragon Studios in Chicago.
Pieces of Eight reached as high as No. 6 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart, and boasted three hit singles, all penned by guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw: “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights),” which reached No. 21; “Sing for the Day,” which got to No. 41; and “Renegade,” which made it all the way to No. 16.
Pieces of Eight features many key tracks in the Styx canon that remain staples in the band’s current live set. For example, the aforementioned and always hard-charging “Blue Collar Man” (the show’s onetime bring-it-on-home song that for quite some time now has been vaulted up to the second position in the beginning of the set, following The Mission’s kickoff vocal starjammer, “Gone Gone Gone”); “Pieces of Eight” (which, for a time prior to the release of the band’s aforementioned, stellar June 2017 studio album The Mission, featured keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan’s furiously engaging original piano instrumental “Khedive” as its intro); “Sing for the Day” (an acoustic-driven treasure that also served as the title for Shaw’s May 27, 2016 solo show with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra in Cleveland and was released a little over a year ago on Blu-ray and CD by Eagle Rock on June 29, 2018); and, of course, “Renegade,” the set-ending barnburner that gained additional life not only as a fourth-quarter rallying cry for the Pittsburgh Steelers (more on that in just a bit!) but also served as the theme for Season 2 of the quite intense Netflix drama Narcos in 2016.
Me, I’m also partial to the Gowan-sung version of “Queen of Spades,” which appears in 2011’s two-disc Regeneration collection. (His unbridled cackle before the line, “You lose!” is priceless.) And, as many of you will recall, Styx performed Pieces of Eight (the first Styx album your humble Styxologist ever bought, in fact!) in full alongside 1977’s epic The Grand Illusion on tour for a few select dates in 2010, which can be found on the live CD, DVD, and/or Blu-ray set, The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight Live (Eagle).
Incidentally, the design and positioning of the “mature” female heads on the Po8 cover itself (seen above in its full gatefold presentation) is patterned after the monolithic stone statues that appear all throughout Easter Island in the Valparaiso region of Chile. The statues were carved by the island’s native Polynesian inhabitants, the Rapa Nui.
Toto guitarist/vocalist Steve Lukather cites “Blue Collar Man” as his favorite Styx song, telling me, “They write really well-crafted songs. They’re a solid band, you know? They’re really good live — and that’s how you know it’s the real thing.” (Naturally, we here at Styxworld agree with this assessment from the guitar maestro sometimes known as Cool Hand Luke, who published his own pull-no-punches autobiography, The Gospel According to Luke, in September 2018.)
Many people assume “Sing for the Day” was named after Tommy’s daughter Hannah Shaw — a.k.a. “The Kitten Lady,” who recently became a New York Times bestselling author with her August 2019 book, Tiny But Mighty: Kitten Lady’s Guide to Saving the Most Vulnerable Felines — but she was in fact born in 1987, a full 9 years after the Po8 album was released. The “Hannah” whom Shaw namechecks throughout the song is meant to be the representative embodiment of the mutual respect between the band and their substantive female following.
And in case you were wondering, the absolutely brilliant pipe-organ solo performed by keyboardist/vocalist Dennis DeYoung in the middle of “I’m O.K.” was recorded at the St. James Cathedral, which is located at the corner of Huron and Wabash Streets in Chicago. It is the oldest Episcopal Church in the United States, having been founded in 1834 and completed in 1857.
Concerning “Renegade,” possibly his most well-known and most enduring song, Tommy Shaw told me, “I wrote that song in my living room on my piano back when I lived in Michigan. Nobody else was around, and for it to become something that Steelers players and fans love, and became a part of a show I enjoyed watching [i.e., Narcos], is so surreal to me! I’m so grateful for how much it means to our own fans, and how it endures to this day.”
Meanwhile, co-founding Styx guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young revealed to me the secret to all those scorching riffs he plays on the song: “To me, it’s Jeff Beck 101,” JY observed. “As far as the guitar solo goes, it took me all day to do it. I used my old ’65 Stratocaster, which had not really been modified in any way at that point in time, played through the Yoshinarator into a Marshall stack, as recorded by Barry Mraz.” [Said Yoshinarator preamp/distortion unit was custom-built for JY and designed around his ’65 Strat by Dave Yoshinari, a friend of his with whom he attended the Illinois Institute of Technology.]
Since January 2002, the Pittsburgh Steelers have regularly shown a video compilation of its defense in action with “Renegade” as the soundtrack on the JumboTron at Heinz Field whenever the team needs a boost, usually in the fourth quarter.
Regarding the ongoing impact of “Renegade,” Hall of Famer left outside linebacker Kevin Greene said, “That’s a Steelers song. I hate to ‘claim’ that one, but it is a Steelers song. It’s an ass-kicking song, and it just really speaks to the Steelers and the steel-mill town mentality. You know, we are renegades, we are long hair, we’re out there being wild and free and having fun and kicking people’s asses!”
Added Hall of Fame running back Jerome “The Bus” Bettis, “As a football player from Pittsburgh, I just wanted to let those guys in Styx know how important ‘Renegade’ was to me as a player — and the fact that they allowed us to play that song, because it brought us so much joy. But it also brought some wins. It helped the defense pick it up. It made a difference with us, and those guys need to hear it from me how important that was.”
Steelers-sent message duly received by “Renegade” songwriter Tommy Shaw, by the way: “I’m completely blown away by hearing this!”
“Renegade” was also covered in fine kickass fashion in 2017 by Shallow Side, an up-and-coming rock band from Tommy’s home state of Alabama. “It’s one of those songs that, when you play it and you’re nailing it and everyone’s on their spots, you can just feel it,” noted Shallow Side vocalist Eric Boatright of the track that appears on their January 2017 release, One. “The emotions surrounding it when we were doing it had that same vibe, so that’s where we were coming from. We wanted to make it our own and add a newer vibe to it, and bring some of the new age of rock & roll to it, right there where it left off.”
Songwriter Shaw wholly approves: “I’m impressed by those guys. Good arrangement, good performance, good video. By far, this is my favorite cover of ‘Renegade.’ Everyone in the band really liked it too. We love the song, love the video, and think the band has a great vibe. They seem like the real deal. They’ve got soul.”
Please join us in celebrating the 41st anniversary of this most wonderfully enduring album in the Styx recorded canon by spinning Pieces of Eight today! Say it with me now: “Oh, Mama!!”