Pieces of Eight Turns 43 Today!
by Mike Mettler, resident Styxologist
Styx’s mega-triple-platinum smash success Pieces of Eight was released 43 years ago today by A&M Records on September 1, 1978. Featuring a stunning cover design by Hipgnosis — the British company known for creating instantly memorable 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 three million copies apiece, the first time any band in rock history had ever done so. (Since the RIAA’s three-times-platinum certification for Pieces of Eight was done a good number of years ago, we suspect the album has sold many, many more copies in the interim. . .)
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. To wit: “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)” reached No. 21; “Sing for the Day” got to No. 41, and “Renegade” 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 regular live set. For example, there’s the aforementioned and always hard-charging “Blue Collar Man,” the show’s onetime bring-it-on-home song that has since been vaulted up to the second position in the beginning of the set following “The Fight of Our Lives,” Crash of the Crown’s elegiac, kickoff table-setter. In recent years, “Blue Collar Man” has been sung more like the original recording after Tommy went back and listened to it as a personal refresher.
Then there’s “Pieces of Eight,” which, when it made its occasional appearance during some of Styx’s longer, two-set shows prior to the pandemic, would often feature keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan’s furiously engaging original piano instrumental “Khedive” (from June 2017’s The Mission) as its intro. And then there’s “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 on Blu-ray and CD by Eagle Rock on June 29, 2018.
Of course, it almost goes without saying we also have the cream of the crop that closes every single Styx live set — namely, “Renegade,” the eternal 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 back 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 simply priceless.) And, as many of you will recall, Styx performed Pieces of Eight (the first Styx album your humble Styxologist ever bought back in 1978, in fact!) in full alongside 1977’s epic The Grand Illusion on tour for a few select dates in 2010. This special two-fer show can be found on Eagle Rock’s live CD, DVD, and/or Blu-ray set, The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight Live.
GOT YOU COVERED
Incidentally, the design and positioning of the “mature” female heads on the Po8 cover itself 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.
How the album’s truly mystical design came about is a story best told by the creative director of Hipgnosis himself, Aubrey “Po” Powell — who gave yours truly, your resident Styxologist, all the details about it from across the Pond in a Styxworld-exclusive conversation just for this posting. “It was intended to be as radically different as possible,” Powell told me. “When we thought of the idea of Pieces of Eight, automatically, in England, you think of treasure — doubloons, and other stuff pirates would have like that — so we wanted to move as far away from that as possible. I remember we were sitting around thinking of ideas, and Storm [Thorgerson, Powell’s late Hipgnosis partner and master designer] suddenly said, ‘Why don’t we create something like a strange cocktail party with a housewives-from-Phoenix kind of context?’ And then it went from there. ‘Why don’t we shoot the background on Easter Island?’ I was actually going to go to Easter Island and shoot it for real, but in those days, it was very difficult to get there. So, we decided to create a collage of these very conservative, upmarket, rich women attending a cocktail party. All the women at the cocktail party were very carefully chosen for their elegance and their age — and they all had to be wearing those Aku-Aku earrings, like the Aku-Akus that were on the island behind them.”
Powell readily admits the Pieces of Eight layout was a “high concept” design idea to the hilt. “If you said to me, ‘What relevance does that have to Styx, or the music?’ — I would have to say, ‘Very little.’ It’s just an image that’s hopefully impactful enough that people should take note of,” he points out.
Many people did indeed take notice of the Po8 album’s striking cover art — and that was entirely the point. “At that time in the ’70s, in the record emporiums like Tower Records and other places like that, there’d be something like 10,000 albums in there, so you wanted to create something that was a little different,” Powell explains. “When an album like Pieces of Eight went up on the wall, it would garner people’s attention. They’d be wondering, ‘What is that? What’s going on there? What is the story behind it?’ That was our exact intention.”
How did Styx react when the cover art was first presented to them? “They recorded Pieces of Eight in Chicago, and I flew to Chicago to go and see them, which was Storm’s idea,” Powell recalls. “I remember taking several ideas to show the band, and that was the one they all went on about immediately — ‘Yeah, I love that; we love that! Let’s use it.’ Why? Because it was telling a story, and Styx often told stories in their lyrics.”
INSIDE THE Po8 SONGS
As to the music on Pieces of Eight itself, Toto guitarist/vocalist Steve Lukather cites “Blue Collar Man” as long being 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.)
Many people assume “Sing for the Day” was named after Tommy’s daughter Hannah Shaw — a.k.a. “The Kitten Lady,” who 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 nine years after the Po8 album was released. The “Hannah” whom Tommy 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.
THE RENEGADE WHO HAD IT MADE
Concerning “Renegade,” which is among its author’s most well-known and most loved songs, 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 also 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 way back in the day.]
Or, as newly anointed fulltime Styx bandmember guitarist/vocalist Will Evankovich put it, “Oh God — that’s the Holy Grail right there, isn’t it?” And Will would certainly know of what he speaks firsthand, considering how he now gets to play and sing on “Renegade” himself during every live Styx set moving forward, Not only that, but Will also a) co-engineered and co-produced Tommy’s vocals and guitars on the Regeneration Volume II version of “Renegade” that were done at The Shop in Los Angeles back in 2010, and b) played acoustically and sang on the song right alongside his partner in songwriting during Tommy’s aforementioned Sing for the Day! event.
HERE WE GO STEELERS
Since January 2002, the Pittsburgh Steelers have regularly shown a video compilation of its mighty defense in action with “Renegade” as the soundtrack on the JumboTron at Heinz Field whenever the team needs a boost, usually (read: always) in the fourth quarter.
Regarding the ongoing impact of “Renegade,” Hall of Famer left outside linebacker Kevin Greene said to me a few years ago, “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!” (Sadly, Greene passed away at age 58 on December 21, 2020.)
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 messages duly received by “Renegade” songwriter Tommy Shaw, by the way, who responds: “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.”
And with that fine final sentiment, we now say to one and all — please join us in celebrating the 43rd anniversary of this most wonderfully endearing and eternally enduring album in the Styx recorded canon by spinning Pieces of Eight right along with today. Say it with me together now, won’t you: “Oh, Mama!!”