by Mike Mettler, resident Styxologist
band photos by Jason Powell
Come on in and see what’s happening: Styx’s biggest-selling album, The Grand Illusion, was released 45 years ago today by A&M Records on the cosmically cool stardate of July 7, 1977 — or, as it’s better known on the back of many a favorite Styx t-shirt, 7/7/77.
Demo’ed at S.I.R. Rehearsal Studios and ultimately recorded at Paragon Recording Studios in Chicago in early 1977, The Grand Illusion was engineered by Barry Mraz and Rob Kingsland, but the overall production credit was given to the entire band in the liner notes as simply, “Produced by Styx.”
The Grand Illusion reached as high as No. 6 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart, and it spawned two Top 30 singles — 1) “Come Sail Away,” which reached No. 8, and 2) “Fooling Yourself,” which reached No. 29. The album has since been certified triple platinum by the RIAA for selling over 3 million copies. (That said, since we all believe GI has likely sold well over 6 million copies to date — and at least 1 million of them on 8-track tape, as co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young often noted onstage prior to singing “Miss America” — we once again demand a re-certification!)
The Grand Illusion also holds the distinction of being the first entry in the band’s groundbreaking string of releasing four multiplatinum albums in a row — a feat no other band had ever done before, in fact. And in case you’re wondering, the album’s iconic cover art by Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse is modeled after Belgian surrealist René Magritte’s 1965 piece titled Le Blanc Seing, a.k.a. The Blank Check.
Styx played The Grand Illusion in its entirety when it was paired with Pieces of Eight on a 2010 tour that’s since been commemorated on CD, DVD, and Blu-ray. Its core songs remain as indelible fixtures in the band’s live set — and if Styx is doing one of their longer, two-set shows, that set will often feature other sweet Illusion gems like “Miss America” and “Man in the Wilderness.” The latter track is a particular favorite of mine — as well as of Tommy Shaw’s guitar tech Scott Rottler, who assists Tommy with the acoustic-to-electric guitar switch-off in the middle of “Wilderness” whenever it’s performed live. “It’s phenomenal,” Scotty told me recently, when we touched on the impact “Wilderness” continues to have on the both of us. “Just the fact that Tommy can hit some of those high notes he wrote decades ago blows my mind! And there’s something about that solo he goes into, too. When he switches from the acoustic, where it’s a little more stripped-down and personal, and then he goes into this solo that just rips your face off — that’s when the song rises to a whole other level.” (No arguments here!)
As noted, three of the album’s core songs appear in every Styx show: 1) the title track, “The Grand Illusion,” which is usually the second song performed just about every night and is sung with much aplomb and panache by keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan; 2) “Fooling Yourself,” which, if he’s in the house that night, will also feature original bassist Chuck Panozzo playing on the entire track and taking its brief but iconic bass break the moment Tommy Shaw calls out, “Chuckie!”; and 3) “Come Sail Away,” which closes every main set with great cosmic bombast, and, at the song’s conclusion — if you’re lucky, and if the venue at hand allows it in these post-pandemic times — also features cannons releasing lots and lots of confetti into and onto the audience from either side of the stage. (Show of hands, how many of you have some of said confetti and/or streamers still in your possession — yep, me too!)
As easy as it is to sing along to, “Fooling Yourself” is actually one of the most complex musical pieces Styx has ever composed. To get somewhat compositionally technical for a moment here, both its intro and outro are performed in 6/8 time, while the vocal sections are in 4/4. The synthesizer solo section is in 7/4 before returning to 4/4 for the final chorus. Two measures of 5/8 follow the brief intro recap with a return to 6/8 and another synthesizer solo before the fadeout. In fact, bassist/vocalist Ricky Phillips cites “Fooling Yourself” as having always been his favorite composition by Styx: “People ask me, ‘What is it that gives Styx their sound?’ The way Tommy and JY play together has been a huge part of that sound, but it’s also the odd time signatures like you get in this song,” Ricky observes.
Toward the end of the recording sessions for The Grand Illusion, an Oberheim 4 Voice analog synthesizer arrived in the studio to further enhance the proceedings. “Its rich sounds unleashed another dimension of textures no one had yet taken advantage of,” points out Tommy Shaw. (Lawrence Gowan has since made sure to program that original vintage Oberheim sound into his current touring rig so that he can call it up for whatever song that needs it.)
Eagle-ear listeners will also note that vintage Oberheim sound quite deliberately lends a certain authentic weight to Styx’s 16th studio album, The Mission, which was released on June 16, 2017 on LP, CD, and as a digital download via Alpha Dog 2T/UMe (as well as in a 5.1 surround-sound mix on Blu-ray the following year). Tommy confirms the sound of The Grand Illusion — along with that of 1978’s Pieces of Eight and Side 2 of 1975’s Equinox — was instrumental in that key Mission production/performance gear decision.
And now, in a Styxworld exclusive, all seven bandmembers recount the impact The Grand Illusion has had over the years — and continues to have, day in and day out. The stage is set, the band is playing. . .
James “JY” Young (co-founding guitarist/vocalist): Dennis [DeYoung] is the one who gleaned the idea that it was our seventh record. I think the release date had originally been scheduled for 7/8/77 or something like that, and we went, “No, we want it on 7/7/77.” Just trying to stack the deck — not that we’re superstitious, or anything. (chuckles) So they changed the original release date to the 7th — which is fantastic! It has such a beautiful resonance and synergy.
Dennis wrote the lyrics, but as the man behind “Man of Miracles” [the title track to Styx’s November 1974 album], I had suggested “Come Sail Away” become not a song just about a sailing ship, but that it should morph into a song about a starship, which was my idea. “Come Sail Away” was also lifted by the release of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the same year, so ’77 was the year for outer space.
[Your Styxologist notes: For additional context, the song “Man of Miracles” features lines like, “He was a man of miracles / Riding golden meteorites / Ruler of distant galaxies / Born of the Northern Lights.” Hence, you can see how that song’s lineage plays into the more “cosmic” portion of “Come Sail Away” that goes, “I thought that they were angels / But to my surprise / We climbed aboard their starship / And headed for the skies.”]
Young: We have the good fortune of The Grand Illusion continuing to be a resonant topic, and The Mission resonates with The Grand Illusion in a variety of ways. The theme of Tommy Shaw’s “Man in the Wilderness” intersects with “Radio Silence” — an individual against the forces of nature, wherever you happen to be. And there’s no greater wilderness than the absolute zero-temperature environment of outer space! (laughs)
Tommy Shaw (guitarist/vocalist): It’s 7/7 again — the date that changed everything! We made a record that sounds really good, and we worked really hard at trying to get it right. It wasn’t always romantic and sometimes we lost sleep over it, but what matters is how it turned out. It’s the creative process.
I run into people all the time who tell me that “Man in the Wilderness” and “Fooling Yourself” are the songs that helped them get through high school. I like hearing that. The times I’ve looked out in the crowd as we’re playing “Man in the Wilderness” to see people singing along who weren’t even born yet when it came out — that’s very satisfying.
Chuck Panozzo (co-founding bassist): The Grand Illusion was the right album at the right time. Why is it our best-selling album? It has the best songs. And it was a true collaboration.
Lawrence Gowan (keyboardist/vocalist): When we did The Grand Illusion / Pieces of Eight Tour in 2010, we discovered what a cohesive composition that album is from beginning to end. Delving into the parts and playing the songs in the actual running order reignited my enthusiasm for that album as an album. I was a fan of it then, and I’m a fan of it now.
I should also mention the album’s artwork has stood the test of time. It looks so engaging today. I love seeing that equestrian image mixed with the forest and the woman’s eyes whenever it gets projected onscreen behind us. It’s one of the great visual icons of rock history.
Ricky Phillips (bassist/vocalist): “Fooling Yourself” has always been my favorite composition by Styx. But being able to play “Castle Walls” live is awesome too, because I come from a heavier place. I appreciate that it’s a great track — and it’s bass-heavy on top of that. I miss playing “Castle Walls,” you know? I really loved how we did it when we did the whole record [as part of The Grand Illusion / Pieces of Eight Tour in 2010].
The first time I heard [the song] “The Grand Illusion” was when I was with The Babys, when we were touring with Styx [in February and March 1979]. It has that very clever, “Welcome back my friends / Here we are tonight” vibe — it’s grand and pomp, with that bolero beat. So very cool.
Todd Sucherman (drummer): The Grand Illusion will always have a soft spot in my heart because it’s the first full Styx record I ever heard or bought. My uncle Dennis happened to put that one on during one of our visits with him, shortly after that record came out.
My brother and I immediately went home and bought it, and we would play that record every day. It was the first record I ever bought from the band, and I continued to buy all their records in succession after that. To me, that album was the genesis of me liking the band, really.
Will Evankovich (guitarist/vocalist): With songs like “Fooling Yourself,” “Miss America,” and “Man in the Wilderness,” what’s not to love about The Grand Illusion? What’s more is, I now get to play these songs onstage with the band every night, delivered soulfully and true to form by the very guys who created them! I’m honored to be a part of this new chapter in the Styx lineage of amazing albums and performances, and The Grand Illusion at the at the top of the list.