That Time Styx Got Bigger, and Went Through Some Changes, With ‘Pieces of Eight’
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Styx had just broken through to superstardom when they released their eighth studio album, Pieces of Eight, in September 1978. The album cemented their position as one of the biggest arena rock headlining groups in America — but it also heralded a change that would ultimately help to pull the band apart.
The group’s previous album, The Grand Illusion, had given them their breakthrough with its blend of Midwestern rock and British progressive flourishes. Singer-guitarist Tommy Shaw‘s “Fooling Yourself” had been a big hit, and singer and keyboardist Dennis DeYoung‘s “Come Sail Away” had given the group their biggest radio success to date. The upheaval that took place in the musicians’ lives as a result of their sudden stardom, after a long struggle and a string of failures, provided the catalyst for the follow-up record.
“Pieces of Eight was a concept I had after we finally made it; we were so successful in a 12-month period financially that it was about what happens with your friends, and what is this thing about money, what is this pursuit of money?” DeYoung recalled in an episode of In the Studio.
That became the basis of another semi-conceptual album that was very much in the same musical vein as The Grand Illusion, with lyrical themes centered around money and the various ways it dominates people’s lives. The group worked once again at Paragon Studios in their hometown of Chicago, writing, producing and arranging the new album themselves, as they did with all of their most successful work.
The album opened with “Great White Hope,” a quintessential arena rock track from singer-guitarist James “JY” Young. Taking its title from the famous movie, the song drew a lyrical parallel between Styx and a boxer who fights his way out of poverty to become a champion.
DeYoung brought in “I’m O.K.,” an unusual hybrid of pop melody and hard rock chords that featured a flashy guitar solo from Shaw. DeYoung recorded the middle section’s showy pipe organ solo at St. James Cathedral in Chicago, running the cables from there to the studio up the street.
Shaw’s “Sing for the Day” was musically similar to “Fooling Yourself,” with its sprightly acoustic bed tracks and elaborate synthesizer solos from DeYoung. The keyboardist was also featured on “The Message,” a bizarre, somewhat atonal keyboard intro to his “Lords of the Ring,” a cinematic progressive rocker that, despite its fantasy imagery, was actually an allegory about the illusory nature of fame. DeYoung gave the song to JY to sing.
Shaw wrote and sang “Blue Collar Man,” an unemployment anthem that was inspired by a friend of his who worked in the auto industry and kept getting laid off. DeYoung and Young collaborated on “Queen of Spades,” a cautionary tale about gambling that featured a series of rapid-fire licks from JY, who wrote the song in the key of C# as a nod to his guitar hero, Jimi Hendrix.
Shaw also brought in “Renegade,” but his initial take on the tune was dramatically different than the barnstorming arena rock track that ended up becoming his signature song. His demo was a mournful acoustic ballad, with multi-tracked vocals all the way through, reminiscent of CSN’s ‘Helplessly Hoping.’ DeYoung suggested that they “Styxify” the arrangement by increasing the tempo, cutting the triple-stacked vocals in all but the intro and bridge, and adding heavy electric rhythm guitars throughout. The resulting track was so appealing that JY asked Shaw if he could provide the solo, which ended up being the biggest exposure he ever had as a lead guitarist at radio.
DeYoung wrote the album’s title song, which began as a piano ballad that worked its way into an anthemic rock chorus, with an unusual progressive rock middle section that featured all of the instruments in the group in intricate interplay. Shaw’s instrumental “Aku-Aku” brought the album to a gentle close.
Pieces of Eight was a hit, reaching No. 6 on the Billboard album chart. For the first time, Shaw had all of the hit singles from the album; “Blue Collar Man” reached No. 21, and “Renegade” went all the way to No. 16. Both songs would go on to be staples of Styx’s live set for the rest of their career.
Predictably, critics were less enthusiastic. Styx had generally received harsh reviews, and Pieces of Eight took a beating from many in the press. “What’s really interesting is not that such narcissistic slop should get recorded, but what must be going on in the minds of the people who support it in such amazing numbers,” Lester Bangs wrote in Rolling Stone. “Gall, nerve and ego have never been far from great rock & roll. Yet there’s a thin but crucial line between those qualities and what it takes to fill arenas today: sheer self-aggrandizement on the most puerile level. If these are the champions, gimme the cripples.”
Still, the album sold three million copies, becoming the second of four Triple Platinum albums in a row for Styx. But DeYoung was dissatisfied; he felt that he had merely repeated much of what he felt was expected of him as a result of The Grand Illusion, and he was ready to make some changes to the music of Styx.
‘I was very unhappy after the Pieces of Eight album,” he recalled. “Not in the record itself, because I think Tommy’s contribution is very strong. But my own personal contribution, when I look back at it, I’m not crazy about what I wrote.”
Styx went to England during the promotional touring for Pieces of Eight, where punk was breaking and the progressive rock that had helped inspire Styx was dying a sudden, brutal death. He came home convinced that the style that had characterized Styx to that point was no longer viable, and the group’s next album, Cornerstone, would take a dramatic step away from progressive arena rock and into melodic pop-rock.
The success of DeYoung’s No. 1 hit ballad, “Babe,” would help splinter the group into factions that would remain permanently entrenched, and though the band’s commercial peak was still ahead of them, Pieces of Eight in retrospect marks the end of an era for Styx, when the group were at the height of their powers as an Americanized response to British progressive rock.
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