Gaze with us through the looking glass as we survey Styx’s most patriotic song, “Suite Madame Blue.”
by Mike Mettler
Happy 4th of July, everyone! Some of you will be at Blue Ash Summit Park in Blue Ash, Ohio tonight to celebrate the birth of our fine country with a rousing set from Styx at 8 p.m. — and we salute you!
And to further salute this special day in American history, we now turn our collective eye to “Suite Madame Blue,” from 1975’s Equinox. It’s one of Styx’s most enduring songs that remains in many a current live set list, and it also speaks to the very heart of the country we love — and, interestingly enough, it also holds special significance to our neighboring country to the north as well. “Styx was an American progressive rock band that got noticed in Canada,” observes keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan, an Ontario resident and the man who sings lead on “Suite Madame Blue” night after night. “On Ontario radio, we didn’t have ‘Suite Madame Blue’ first — we had ‘Lorelei.’ But when I finally did hear ‘Suite Madame Blue,’ a song that was really big in Quebec, I realized the band had such incredible depth.”
Now let’s gaze through the looking glass together to see why the watchful message and overall promise of “Suite Madame Blue” continues to hold a special place in many a patriotic Styx fan’s heart.
James “JY” Young (co-founding guitarist/vocalist): I love the majesty of “Suite Madame Blue,” and the evolved arc — the way that song develops when we get to the “America”s [i.e., the four-part harmonizing on the word “America” done by JY, Tommy, Lawrence, and Ricky Phillips in the song’s back half], and the guitar solo into the “America”s, and then the grand conclusion.
“Lorelei” was the first single, but CHUM-FM [104.5 FM] in the province of Quebec, with the blue Fleurdelisé [the flag of Quebec], played “Suite Madame Blue” — they felt it was their song.
I didn’t know this at the time, and none of us did, but I still tell this story: When we opened for Bad Company at The Forum in Montreal [on April 19, 1976], it was the first time we played a big room like that. It was the first time Tommy [Shaw, guitarist/lead vocalist] played in Quebec with us — in fact, it was also the band’s first time in Quebec — and when we hit the opening arpeggiated part on the 12-string that John Curulewski so capably played on the record, there was this great reaction. [Tommy replaced John when he left the band in December 1975.]
I’m thinking, “Oh, did Paul Rodgers [Bad Company’s lead singer] stick his head out from the side, or something?” (both chuckle) And to realize that the reaction was for us… (pauses) We were all taken aback. Ultimately, when it dawned on us — this wasfantastic.
Tommy Shaw (guitarist/vocalist): In order to play “Suite Madame Blue” live, I had to get a 12-string, and I got the double-neck. At first, I was playing it on a 6-string and it didn’t work, so that’s when I got the double-neck, a 6 and a 12. At one point, the 6-string neck got smashed, so I had it replaced with a second 12. So it was actually a 12 and a 12! Whenever I broke a string on the 12, the guitar went drastically out of tune. So I had an onboard spare 12-string. [The original guitar Tommy played "Suite Madame Blue" on live was a Gibson EDS-1275 double-neck guitar. In the modern Styx era, many of you will have seen — or will see! — Tommy playing “Suite Madame Blue” on a 1966 Fender Electric 12-string.]
It was like having a barbell around my neck. And it was very heavy — very top-heavy. If you let go of it, the neck just dropped. But who cares? It was a great guitar, and it sounded good on that song.
Your Styxologist notes: If you want to feel even more patriotic — albeit with that patented Styx twist — feel free to cue up both “Miss America,” JY’s look at “the fleeting nature of fame” from 1977’s The Grand Illusion, as well as Tommy’s “Everything Is Cool” from 1999’s Brave New World, which includes the telling lines: “I say we make it a holiday/Bigger than the 4th of July/Declare a new Independence Day/Yeah, there’s nothing to it/You can do it if you try.”
Enjoy the 4th of July, one and all!