Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Album: THE GRAND ILLUSION
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
During my pre-teen years, when Styx began their rise to prominence with a string of multi-platinum albums, girls were especially enamored of the band thanks to the flowing golden locks of singer/guitarist Tommy Shaw, but because they straddled the lines of progressive rock, melodic pop and the then-emerging quasi-genre of “arena rock,” they appealed to a wide variety of listeners…myself included. Shaw had joined Styx for the previous year’s Crystal Ball and, with 1977’s The Grand Illusion, the quintet that also consisted of founding members Dennis DeYoung (vocals/keyboards), James “JY” Young (vocals/guitars) and brothers Chuck & John Panozzo (bass & drums, respectively) joined the big leagues. After scoring a Top 10 hit in 1974 with DeYoung’s ballad “Lady,” their commercial fortunes floundered for a few years before they signed a major label deal with A&M Records. A handful of singles barely cracked the Top 40 but their patience paid off big time with DeYoung’s now-classic “Come Sail Away.” This song has become a pop culture touchstone, with memorable appearances on TV’s South Park and Freaks & Geeks, among many others. For nearly 2-1/2 minutes it’s a pretty piano-and-synth ballad with DeYoung’s theatrical vocals, but then it morphs into a crunchy pop-rock tune with an insanely catchy chorus, a slow instrumental section with cascading synths and a killer guitar solo through the outro. I’ve always enjoyed the sci-fi nature of the final verse as DeYoung’s voice soars into the chorus: “I thought that they were angels, but to my surprise, they climbed aboard their starship and headed for the skies.”
Of course it takes more than one unforgettable song to make a great album, and Styx certainly delivered the goods. DeYoung shines again on album opener “The Grand Illusion.” Beginning with a rhythmic synth fanfare, he sings like a circus ringmaster right from the start: “Welcome to the Grand Illusion, come on in and see what’s happening, pay the price get your tickets for the show.” Perhaps this was a nod to their prog-rock forebearers, Emerson Lake & Palmer, who once greeted us with “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.” This song also has several distinct melodic sections, and an uplifting message: “So if you think your life is complete confusion, because your neighbors got it made, Just remember that it’s a grand illusion and deep inside we’re all the same…” The album closes with “The Grand Finale,” a 2-minute coda of the opening track that gives the record a cohesive feel even though there’s no particular concept tying the songs together. Shaw’s “Fooling Yourself (Angry Young Man)” was an instant classic, with the squiggly synth intro joined by acoustic guitar strumming, Shaw’s voice soaring along with strong harmonies, and a synth solo section that has a similar rhythmic feel to Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up.” Shaw also delivers the nearly 6-minute epic ballad “Man In The Wilderness,” a fine follow-up to the previous album’s mighty “Crystal Ball.” I especially love the extended instrumental section, which features some impressive guitar work. DeYoung, Shaw & Young co-wrote the driving synth-y rocker “Superstars,” with harmony vocals through the verses (“You and I, we will climb so high”) and a nice guitar solo. Young shows off his straight-ahead rock & roll credentials with “Miss America,” highlighted by a great guitar riff (which arrives after a minute of synth and guitar), a driving rhythm and the theme song from the Miss America pageant appearing via synth in the intro and during the middle section. He also rips off a fiery guitar solo. “Castle Walls” is the only song here I don’t love, although it includes some impressive musicianship and a progressive arrangement so it’s far from a misstep. The Grand Illusion is the perfect bridge between Styx’s earlier progressive material and the chart-conquering sound of their next several albums. They’re still playing many of these songs to sold-out crowds forty years later, an indication of how timeless this music remains.