Ahhh… 1983. I was a kid then still but was just starting to pay attention to music and take notice. And one song that I knew from the radio that fascinated me was a song that made no sense. At six years old I had no idea what “Domo Arigato” meant. I also had no idea this song was a line in the sand for many classic rock fans. I also was oblivious to what it meant that my mom had bought this LP from a yard sale already in early 1984… probably for 50 cents.
So why is this one of the most hated albums in classic rock? Kilroy Was Here was more or less the brainchild of singer Dennis DeYoung. It is obvious from his contributions to the band such as “Come Sail Away” and “The Best of Times” that he was the one with the flair for the grandiose. On the flipside of that there was Tommy Shaw. Tommy just wanted to sing in a hard rock band and his lyrics swayed more towards the plight of the average Joe in the midwest. They were a band from Chicago after all.
The idea had sort of been done by Rush already on 2112. Post-apocalyptic-ish setting. Totalitarian future. Rock music has been banned by self-serving figureheads. So what was different? This was 1983. Now we have keyboards and electronics that weren’t available in the 70s. We now have MTV, which gave the visuals a stage on which to be presented. And we have Dennis DeYoung, who has no qualms about camping it up for the sake of the stage or the song. And “Mr. Roboto”, a perfect slice of cheese-filled storyline prog-pop synthesizer singalong rock perfection. Taken aside, lyrics like “I am the modern man, who hides behind this mask” and “Machines to save our lives, machines dehumanize” still work today. But the song has that happy guilty pleasure thing going. Laden with new-at-the-time effects and synths, it really was the next step after the synth touches and driving beat of “Too Much Time On my Hands” from their previous concept album, the blockbuster Paradise Theater.
But… this album is nine songs long. “Mr. Roboto” is the first. Once you get past the first track, the storyline comes and goes. You have to keep referring back to the storyline on the sleeve to make sense of the rest. I recently saw Caught In the Act – Live! on dvd for the first time, which shows this tour’s concert (in abbreviated form), starting with a film and broken up with..erm..acting from Dennis and Tommy. Dennis’ character Kilroy is an imprisoned rock star, framed by the power-mad Dr. Righteous for the killing of a music fan and put away in prison as an example of how immoral and destructive the path of rock music is. Kilroy escapes prison by overtaking a prison guard robot (a “Roboto”), hiding in his mask, and escapes. Jonathan Chance (Tommy’s character) set out to find the truth and Kilroy. And then track two.
Track two is “Cold War” which is penned by Tommy, and the lyrics have him making a plea that rock music isn’t bad if he could only just make them all understand. The song is one of the harder rockers, and worked better on the live show actually. Apparently one part of the rift that made the band split after this album was Tommy not getting to have this song on the live Caught In The Act album even though it features on the video version.
Next we have the other hit single from the album “Don’t Let It End”. We have now jumped the track of the story. It is simply a well written ballad (actually one of my favorites penned by DeYoung), about not letting go from a breakup. I suppose in a wiiiild stretch the title is supposed to fit. Don’t let rock & roll end! Something like that. A great ballad from Dennis that turns somewhat of a rocker by the end. And now with the hits out of the way, we have 6 more songs to go.
“High Time” was the third single. It failed to break the top 40. It was.. let’s face it, it was just too weird to be a hit. From what I’ve read, the record company rushed this out after taking a loss on later track “Haven’t We Been Here Before”, a really good ballad written by Shaw that could have been a hit. But after filming a video, Tommy had a change of heart and refused to have it released as a single. More on that later. “High Time” is a narrative song that introduces the idea of Dr. Righteous and of a revolution by the kids. But the seriousness of the idea is lost a bit in the bounciness of the song.
Next up is “Heavy Metal Poisoning”, sung and acted out on stage in the shows as the grand entrance of Dr. Righteous, portrayed with some zest by guitarist James “J.Y.” Young, who obviously had some fun with the idea. It’s very, *very* campy with lyrics like “First we’ll spank your big behinds, then we’ll twist your little minds”. It’s where the album turns Rocky Horror for a few minutes. It made for a fun if not confusing piece during the concerts, and apparently a similar video was played on MTV more than a few times.
Side two kicks off with Tommy Shaw’s “Just Get Through This Night”. The song is the longest on the album and really is a stalling point. “Jonathan Chance’s Pondering Theme”. The mid-tempo rock track sounds a lot like a Foreigner 4 outtake. Then we get to “Double Life” written and sung by James J.Y. Young. I can only gues the song is “Dr. Righteous’ Pondering Theme” but seems like a song about a break-up and jealousy that was stretched to tryyyy to fit the plot. But this one could have worked as a single if either Dennis or Tommy sang it, being the two recognizable voices in the band.
The last real song is Shaw’s “Haven’t We Been Here Before”, a song about relationship disagreements that you could also in a big stretch almost make it fit the theme. But just barely. The song has the classic elements of really great earlier Styx. The harmonizing between Tommy and Dennis is excellent. But because Tommy Shaw was afraid that he wouldn’t be taken seriously because Styx sang too many ballads, this song was left in the dust. Even after the band shot a video for it. This is the attitude that makes me not a big fan of the current lineup of Styx which only contains Shaw and J.Y. from the classic lineup along with a cast of hired latecomers. He appears very visibly embarrassed by the theatrics that Dennis DeYoung brought to the band. Anything I’ve heard since DeYoung’s departure is missing that big something and feels stale. And yet DeYoung has embraced theater and classical and new ideas to his performance. I guess you can tell which camp I find more interesting.
The finale, “Don’t Let It End (Reprise)” is straight out of 2112. Jonathan Chance picks up a guitar for the first time and vows to keep rock and roll alive. “Mr. Roboto” becomes a 60s Chuck Berry romp. Fade out. The end.
What about Kilroy? What about Dr. Righteous? Where’s the rest of the damn story? You need a few things to make a concept album great. One, the songs need to all tie back to the story, or at least be a tangent that makes sense and can be followed back. Two, you have to have great songs amongst the storyline. A lot of this album was filler. And three, you have to see your vision through. It is very obvious from watching the live video and from interviews after that Tommy Shaw was not about to try to let go and enjoy himself in the camp of this story. Had he thrown caution to wind and let himself rock out in these songs it would have been better. Had he not been ashamed of a ballad, it would have been better. You can see in the show that the band was on board, silly costumes, whatever and had fun. But now, Tommy is such a sourpuss about it that on their two-disc retrospective, only “Mr. Roboto” is featured from this album. As a passive aggressive statement no doubt. Leaving out “Don’t let It End” was a cold shoulder to people like me, who at 6 years old thought that was quite a good song. Enough to want to hear more of this band other than just “Mr. Roboto”.
So this ended up being the last album of the classic Styx lineup. It could have been a blast, but it was killed in the power struggle. But it gave us one of the most memorable songs of the 80s. It stands now as an artifact of a time bands were trying new things and sometimes they just didn’t work out.
“Don’t Let It End” (Live 1983):
“Heavy Metal Poisoning”
“Haven’t We Been Here Before”
…and the commercial for MTV’s World Premiere Video for “Mr. Roboto”: