Written and sung by Styx keyboard player Dennis DeYoung, this song is about following your dreams by embarking on a journey into the unknown. In the second verse, he misses out on the pot of gold, but continues to carry on.
The song is a personal one for DeYoung, who wrote it about struggling to break through to the next level with Styx. Formed in the early '70s, they grew a solid fanbase but were always the support act (for Bob Seger, Foghat, Rush, Kiss, Aerosmith, etc.), never the headliner.
Released as the first single from The Grand Illusion, "Come Sail Away" helped get them to this next level, as the Styx became one of the top arena rock acts of the next few years.
At the end of this song, the journeyman is visited by aliens, who at first he thinks are angels. "Come sail away with me" they tell him, before riding off in their spaceship.
This was a very intergalactic time, as the album was released a little over a month after Star Wars hit theaters.
Running 6:05 (in the album version), this song plays like a ballad for the first 2:20, then kicks in with the big guitars and chorus. It's quite a transition, and one that quickly brought couples apart on the dance floor. In the first (and sadly, only) episode of the 1999 TV series Freaks and Geeks, this song is playing when a geeky freshman finally gets to dance with his dream girl, but as soon as they hit the dance floor, the song goes from ballad to rocker, so they end up dancing apart.
This being the '70s, radio stations played a big role in promoting songs, and program directors could often be swayed with gifts of money and drugs. Payola, was of course, illegal, but that didn't stop Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw and the band's promo man Jim Cahill from traveling to many of the stations with bags of cocaine in an effort to get more airplay for this song. The tactic worked; Cahill explained on the Styx Behind The Music that program directors were like penguins, since they'd follow you around if you had "snow."
The radio edit runs just 3:07 and removes the entire second verse, pulling the uptempo transition up to 1:10. Styx purists see this as butchery.
The last part of this song where the angels/aliens come to visit can be seen as an allusion to the Bible verse of Ezekiel chapter 1:1-28 where a large wheel/cloud (depending on text) appears to Ezekiel and gives him instructions from God. The passage concludes:This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord
The lyric has a similar theme:A gathering of angels appeared above my head
They sang to me this song of hope
And this is what they said
(later in song)... I thought that they were angels
But to my surprise
They climbed aboard their starship
And headed for the skies.
Some people believe the figure Ezekiel saw was not a messenger sent from God but an alien space craft or a time machine from the future.
The band had to push for this to be the lead single from the album, as their management wanted "Superstars" released first.
This regained popularity in 1999 when it was used in the raunchy, animated cartoon show South Park. One of the characters, Cartman, was compelled to sing it every so often. Cartman's version was released on a soundtrack album and the song was introduced to a new generation.
Styx performed this during the pre-game show of Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa. Swashbucklers sailed into the stadium pirate ship while the band performed.