Weekend Songs: Styx, ‘Blue Collar Man’
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Classic rock is about heavy hooks, power chords and tight harmonies. But it’s also about letting loose and enjoying the good times. And there’s no better time for that than Friday evening, when we pick up our paycheck, punch out of work and enjoy a couple days of much-needed rest and relaxation.
It only makes sense, then, that there are plenty of rock songs about the working man — and this Friday, we’re looking back at a classic cut from the Styx catalog that pays tribute to all those blue-collar folks who helped turn the band from local legends into AOR superstars during the ’70s. The song in question, of course, is ‘Blue Collar Man.’
Recorded for 1978’s ‘Pieces of Eight’ LP, ‘Blue Collar Man’ came at a crucial point for Styx; the previous year, their seventh LP, ‘The Grand Illusion,’ finally broke the band through to the big time after years of hard touring and slowly building momentum on the pop charts. Although they’d broken the Top 40 before — ‘Lady’ served as their first big hit single in 1975 — ‘The Grand Illusion’ went triple platinum and spawned a pair of major singles in ‘Come Sail Away’ and ‘Fooling Yourself.’ Under a more intense spotlight than they’d had to deal with before, the band needed to deliver a follow-up that could build on ‘Illusion’ — and they got it in ‘Pieces of Eight.’
Another triple-platinum hit, ‘Pieces’ delivered a savvy blend of radio-ready singles and prog-tinged, concept-driven rock, with neither side overpowering the other. Although the album was nominally about staying true to your dreams and not selling out for commercial or material gain, listeners didn’t need to be tuned into the overarching theme in order to appreciate singles like ‘Sing for the Day,’ ‘Renegade,’ and ‘Blue Collar Man.’
Written and sung by recent addition Tommy Shaw, ‘Blue Collar Man’ was easily one of the harder-rocking songs on the record, perhaps owing to the fact that it started out as a soundcheck jam while the band was on tour for ‘The Grand Illusion.’ “‘Blue Collar Man’ was kind of assembled on a concert stage [during] soundcheck,” Styx guitarist James “JY” Young recently told Ultimate Classic Rock’s Matt Wardlaw in an exclusive interview. “Sometimes it goes easily that way and sometimes it takes forever to pull teeth and rearrange it, but some things just kind of come out and it’s pretty amazing.”
Asked how the song evolved from its impromptu origins, Young replied, “We always liked to play with a wider palette of musical instruments than we might actually perform with onstage. We’d go in and [put] a pipe organ here and Tommy played the mandolin on another song. So sometimes onstage, you’d have a limit [to what you could do], but ‘Blue Collar Man’ is a great stage song and that’s because it was written onstage, in a way. It’s just a very basic, straight-ahead rock thing and Tommy caught a great lyric and a great vocal performance and had the right energy and attitude and then we went from there.”
“From there” ended up being the pop charts, where ‘Blue Collar Man’ made it all the way to Number 21 as the leadoff single from ‘Pieces of Eight,’ helping send the album into Billboard’s Top 10 and extending an amazing run of success that didn’t conclude until ‘Kilroy Was Here’ in 1983. The song remains a staple in Styx’s live set today, and it’s easy to understand why; aside from the fact that it’s a solidly high-energy number that works well in concert, quite a few Styx fans are still keeping their minds on a better life where happiness is only a heartbeat away. If that’s you — or if you just want to hear a blast from Styx’s blue-collar past — you know what to do: Scroll up to the top of this post, hit “play” on that video, turn up your volume, and let the weekend…start…now.