Graded on a Curve:
The Grand Illusion

Celebrating Tommy Shaw on his 70th birthday.Ed.

Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Beware, for if you stare long enough into Styx’s The Grand Illusion, The Grand Illusion will stare back into you.” Nietzsche had good reason to be fearful, for not only did Styx’s masterpiece ultimately drive him mad, it also happens to be the most addictive slice of “soft-core prog” (thank you, Philip) ever created. I myself was certain I hated it, but like Nietzsche I stared too long into it, and sure enough here I am, come not to bury The Grand Illusion but to praise it.

Chicago’s Styx came to be in 1972, but its members were playing together long before that under the name TW4. A lightweight ELP but with catchier melodies, far better guitar hooks, and fewer grandiose musical pretensions—no “symphonies” or 93-part songs ever came from these guys—Styx was gigantic from the late seventies to early eighties, scoring four consecutive multi-platinum albums, a feat never matched by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.

Styx was your younger sibling band par excellence. While older sis Suzie sneered at Styx as a moronic shlock-rock band, younger brother Randy knew for a fact Styx could kick the asses of all those high-falutin’ progressive rock outfits like Yes and Gentle Giant Suzie thought were so sophisticated with one synthesizer tied behind its back. Styx was more fun to listen to while doing bong hits, too.

Styx recorded The Grand Illusion—their seventh studio album and the one that catapulted them to superstardom—in 1977. The album’s cover was the work of legendary psychedelic poster artists Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse, while the band’s line-up at the time included Dennis DeYoung on keyboards, synthesizers, and vocals; Chuck Panozzo on bass guitar and vocals; John Panozzo on drums and vocals; Tommy Shaw on acoustic and electric guitars and vocals; and James Young on guitar, keyboards, and vocals. DeYoung handled the bulk of the songwriting duties, although Shaw and Young also contributed tunes.

It was DeYoung, however, who established himself as the deep thinker of the band, and his profound philosophical insights (e.g., “So if you think your life is complete confusion/Because you never win the game/Just remember that it’s a Grand Illusion/And deep inside we’re all the same”) remain unrivaled by anybody but Arthur Schopenhauer and Kansas’ Kerry “Dust in The Wind” Livgren. (Forget Rush’s Neil Peart; he stole his entire philosophy from Ayn Rand.) Indeed, PhD philosophy candidates will forever debate the relative merits of DeYoung and Livgren, and I’ll never forget the day my undergraduate philosophy professor leaped up from his desk and scoffed, “Livgren, bah! A lackey of the Absolute! Dennis DeYoung!”

But onto the music!

Styx opens with the title track, the basic thrust of which seems to be “accept your lot in life, because all your ideas of success are media-generated, and it’s all a grand illusion.” I agree that life is an illusion, but a paltry one, and can’t help but think it’s easy for a bunch of rich rock stars to tell you to accept the fact you’re a nobody. That said, “The Grand Illusion” begins with an oversized synthesizer and drums flourish, then DeYoung sings, “Welcome to the Grand Illusion/Come on in and see what’s happening/Pay the price, get your ticket for the show/The stage is set, the band starts playing/Suddenly your heart is pounding/Wishing secretly you were a star.”

He goes on to say don’t be fooled by NPR, porn magazines, etc., then some power chords are followed by an excellent Tommy Shaw guitar solo, which is succeeded in turn by the big introductory synthesizer flourish. Then DeYoung sings all that deep shit about how if you think your life is complete confusion don’t sweat it cuz it’s all a grand illusion, after which James Young plays a truly wonderful solo, so wonderful in fact it caused one of my molars to fall out. Then DeYoung comes back for the final stanza, which Shaw punctuates with some natty guitar riffs, and the song closes with that big introductory flourish being played over and over until the fade out.

“Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” opens with a long blip-happy synthesizer solo by DeYoung, accompanied by acoustic guitar, which grows more ornate as it goes along, then segues into an acoustic passage during which Shaw says in a hushed, portentous voice (which never fails to make me cackle) “Relax, take it easy.” Then Shaw sings the first verse, followed by the chorus: “And you’re fooling yourself if you don’t believe it/You’re kidding yourself if you don’t believe it/Why must you be such an angry young man?/When your future looks quite bright to me/How can there be such a sinister plan/That could hide such a lamb, such a caring young man.”

He then repeats, “Fooling yourself if you don’t believe it,” and the band echoes “fooling yourself,” then he shouts “Get up!” and the band repeats, “Get up!” and he shouts “Come on!” followed by the band’s “Come on!”, and all this call and response is both rousing and pretty darn snazzy. Then DeYoung stretches out on the synthesizer, until Shaw jumps back in on vocals followed by the band singing, “Come on, let’s see what you’ve got/Just take your best shot and don’t blow it.” DeYoung then plays another Fancy Dan synthesizer solo until the song quietly subsides, like the angry young man on a much-needed dose of Klonopin.

I wasn’t crazy about “Superstar” at first, but DeYoung’s insane vocal performance finally won me over. “Superstar” opens with a jaunty synthesizer and drums flourish, then a guitar riff comes in and the band harmonizes, “You and I/We will climb so high/We’ll be superstars/Whoa whoa you and I.” (You gotta love those “whoa whoas.) Then Shaw sings a verse the gist of which is he’s our “late night fantasy” but he had the same dreams of superstardom we had “just a few short years ago.”

The band then harmonizes on the chorus again, followed by some synthesizer and a happening gee-tar solo by Shaw. All of this is okay, but nothing compared to the moment when a maniacally laughing and obviously deranged DeYoung delivers a frenzied soliloquy that goes in part, “Wahahaha!!/Superstars, yes, yes, superstars!/Step right this way, everyone’s welcome!/We want your dreams!/The offer’s simple, momentary immortality, my love!” Meanwhile the band jumps in and repeats the chorus over and over until “Superstar” peters out, sort of like the career of Val Kilmer.

“Come Sail Away” is the album’s (and DeYoung’s) undisputed masterpiece and a great song about escape that every kid trapped in a bland suburban neighborhood could (and still can) get on board with. It opens with some pretty and frilly piano, over which DeYoung sings, “I’m sailing away/Set an open course for the virgin sea/’Cause I’ve got to be free/Free to face the life that’s ahead of me/On board, I’m the captain, so climb aboard/We’ll search for tomorrow on every shore/And I’ll try, Oh Lord I’ll try, to carry on.”

And on he sings until Shaw’s guitar and John Panozzo’s drums blitzkrieg in, and suddenly a “gathering of angels” appears over DeYoung’s head (too much pot, probably), singing over and over, “Come sail away/Come sail away/Come sail away with me, lad.” Then the song quiets down like a classroom when the teacher walks in, and a long synthesizer solo follows. The guitars then come back in, kicking angelic ass, and DeYoung receives the shock of his life when he discovers that those “angels” singing over his head are actually aliens (!), and want him to sail away with them on their starship.

Which he of course does, despite having no starship driver’s license or insurance, or even any idea whether they simply want him along to probe him in his intimate places. From there on in the song is just DeYoung repeating, “Come sail away/Come sail away/Come sail away with me” while Shaw wails on the guitar like he’s Jimmy Page or The Great Kat. It’s a tremendous song along the line of David Bowie’s “Starman,” but while all Ziggy S. has to offer is, “Let all the children boogie,” “Come Sail Away” is a promise of free passage to Pluto, which may not be a planet anymore but still boasts some great four-star hotels.

“Miss America” has never thrilled me, despite James Young’s bravado vocal performance. It opens with DeYoung’s slow and lugubrious synthesizer take on the Miss America Theme, then in comes in a killer guitar riff and the drums, followed by Young singing, “You were the apple of the public’s eye as you cut the ribbon at the local mall/A mirage for both you and us/How can this be real?/We love your body in that photograph, your home state sure must be proud/The queen of the United States, or have you lost your crown?”

As for the choruses, Young snarls them, while the band sings “Miss America” behind him. Then comes a synth solo, followed by one wham bam of a whammy bar solo by Shaw, after which Young grows increasingly frenzied, firing off the lyrics like he’s a human AK-47. The song concludes with him grunting “Miss America” over and over again to the accompaniment of Shaw’s guitar, and I’ve got to hand it to Young, he’s a punk.

Shaw’s very pretty “Man in The Wilderness” opens with some melodic guitar/synth interplay, then Shaw comes in accompanied by DeYoung’s church organ, and sings, “Sometimes I feel like a man in the wilderness/I’m a lonely soldier off to war/Sent away to die—never quite knowing why/Sometimes it makes no sense at all.” I love the song, but the lyrics are a hopeless muddle. Shaw’s no philosopher-poet like DeYoung, and he can’t decide whether his character is a man in the dark, a man lost in the wilderness, a soldier sent off to war, a sailor adrift on the seven seas, or just a man looking for love.

But with a melody this good—and a guitar solo as freakin’ groovy as the one Shaw plays toward the end of the song—he could be a starfish for all I care. I also like the passion with which he sings the closing: “Sometimes it makes no sense/Sometimes it makes no sense/Sometimes it makes no sense at aaaaaaaaaaallllll!” Then tosses in some more cool screams after that. I like it when a guy leaves the studio screaming, and Shaw succeeds wonderfully at it.

“Castle Walls” opens with a slowly throbbing bass, followed by some atmospheric “medieval” synthesizer, then DeYoung comes whispering in: “Once in a dream/Far beyond these castle walls/Down near the bay where the/Moonlit water falls/I stood alone while the minstrel sang his song.” And at this point I’m 90 percent certain I’m going to hate this song. Anyway, DeYoung’s vocals are followed by some vocal harmonies accompanied by big guitar riffs, then DeYoung sings, “And every dove had lost its will to fly,” and now I’m 100 percent certain I hate this song.

There’s some nice guitar work at this point, and a big-ass organ, then a synthesizer riff followed by some honking big power chords, and on it goes until a very Dark Side of The Moon synth riff explodes, then the song returns to the bass and the way it started. Then comes a very cool solo by Young, after which DeYoung sings, “Where I thought I heard Tiresias say/Life is never what it seems/And every man must meet his destiny.” Those are the kind of lyrics that make DeYoung such a great philosopher, but they’re not enough to save this bad Pink Floyd—no, wait a minute, make that bad Alan Parsons Project—rip-off of a song.

“The Grand Finale” is a short reprise of several of the songs on The Grand Illusion, and opens with a heartbeat bass, followed by “The Grand Illusion”’s introductory orchestral flourish and some mastodon guitar riffs. Then the band sings, “Sail away, superstar/Sail away, superstar” after which DeYoung sings the beginning of the “So if you think your life is complete confusion” stanza from “The Grand Illusion” to the accompaniment of some cool guitar, then, “Just remember, please, please, it’s a grand illusion!/And deep inside we’re all the same, we’re all the same!”

Then the band sings “Whoa whoa whoa!” and Young plays a concluding solo followed by DeYoung on his synthesizer playing that opening riff yet again, at which point The Grand Illusion comes to a close. Leaving us to wonder: If it was all a grand illusion it never really happened, so why did you plunk down $5.99 of your hard-earned cash to buy it back in 1977 in the first place?

That’s a question best left to a philosopher like DeYoung; as for the rest of us, all we can do is shake our heads in awe at the sweep of Styx’s ambition. They created an album that millions of kids (and non-kids) loved, and they did it on a shoestring budget of $128. Okay, so they didn’t, but what they did do was create a pubescent’s classic, one that promised an escape from the teenage wasteland of the American suburbs of the late 1970s, where punk had yet to happen and “Baba O’Riley” was still the order of the day. And most of those former teens still love The Grand Illusion, and not simply out of nostalgia.

Styx has broken up and reformed several times, due largely to artistic differences between DeYoung and Shaw, and currently straggles on without DeYoung, which is kinda like Scooby-Doo without Shaggy “Gee, Scraps, you didn’t have to freak out like a jerk and kill all humanity” Rogers. But that’s today, and who cares? What matters is that if you stare into The Grand Illusion for too long, it will not only stare back at you—it will cause a gathering of space aliens to appear above your head singing, “Come sail away with me, lad.” And if you’re not at least tempted, you’re too grown up for your own good.


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