At the end of the 1970s, Chicago rock band Styx was on top of the world. A 1980 Gallup poll crowned them as America’s favorite band. An insider from their record label said to Circus, “Styx is the Second Coming of God…They could fart and it would go Top 10!” No one could have foreseen the inner creative struggles or public outrage that would wash over the group just a few years later. Styx’s response to the turmoil, Kilroy Was Here spawned one of the catchiest songs in pop culture history- “Mr Roboto”. How did the song help cause the downfall of this multi-platinum progressive rock band? Was “Mr. Roboto” a cautionary tale about censorship and over reliance on technology? The answer is [REDACTED].
In August 1961, fraternal twins John (drums) and Chuck (bass) Panozzo befriended fourteen-year-old neighbor (and accordion player) Dennis DeYoung– calling their band The Tradewinds then TW4. By 1965, DeYoung abandoned the accordion for keyboard and vocals. The three entered Chicago State College together, soon meeting up with folk guitarist John Curulewski. Rock guitarist James “J.Y.” Young joined in 1970 and helped the band get discovered by a talent scout during a concert in J.Y’s hometown. Once signed to Wooden Nickel records, the band couldn’t decide on a better name. After several suggestions the five bandmates settled on Styx because according to DeYoung it was “the only one that none of us hated”.
Styx released four albums in three years that combined lofty prog-rock touches with a harder, louder working-man machismo. DeYoung’s use of new synthesizer technology kept the band sounding fresh, while driving vocals, guitar, bass and drums fit well into the newly created AOR (Album-Oriented Rock) format for FM radio. AOR gave DJ’s the freedom to play more than just the hit singles from a rock album, in any order. It also gave songs that weren’t hits greater public exposure. Still, Styx couldn’t seem to get noticed outside the Chicagoland area. One day in 1973, DeYoung wrote a spirited power ballad, “Lady” about his wife (and high school sweetheart) Suzanne. He didn’t think it was worth recording until encouraged by the rest of the band to have it added to Styx II. After a label change to A&M Records in 1974, the band got a lucky break. A DJ from WLS Chicago heard “Lady” on a jukebox in a north side Chicago pizza joint. After adding it to his Saturday night show (which went out to 38 states), “Lady” reached #6 in 1975, two years after it was released. Styx II went gold and the sky was the limit.
In 1976, Curulewski left the band suddenly before a major tour to spend more time with his family. Styx frantically looked for a replacement, finding guitarist Tommy Shaw. The straight-ahead rockers had finally made it and each successive album (Equinox in 1975, Crystal Ball in 1976) rewarded the band with greater success and wider appeal – but at what cost?
Styx had three talented singer/songwriters with Young, Shaw, and DeYoung – each with their own ideas and musical ambitions. A clash of egos came to a head during production of 1977’s The Grand Illusion. The once shy DeYoung felt his contributions weren’t being appreciated and grew angry or depressed when things didn’t go right in the studio. “(Fooling Yourself) Angry Young Man” was originally written by Shaw with DeYoung in mind. While the album reportedly sold six million copies and went triple platinum, a battle of wills kept the band in “an unhappy place” according to Shaw.
By the end of the decade, Styx was easily filling 30,000 seat arenas with their hard rock sound (which coined the term ‘Arena Rock’) and wanted to keep things that way. When another syrupy DeYoung ballad (1979’s “Babe”) went to #1 and was Styx’s first million seller, the writing was on the wall. J.Y. Young told the Chicago Tribune:
Dennis really wanted to do these soft, intimate love ballads, and that was against the grain for me and Tommy Shaw, so our differences got magnified, because Dennis was insisting on going outside the boundaries we lived with. He’s an assertive and strongly opinionated guy.
Styx had just started the 1980s with the #1 smash concept LP Paradise Theater (a metaphor about the changing times in the US). Things started going sideways with the stand out hit “Snowblind” which showed the horrors of cocaine addiction. When played backwards, the phrase “I try so hard to make it so” comes out a little like “Satan moves through our voices”. This made Styx a lightning rod for anti-rock music advocates and the ‘Satanic Panic’ movement of the early 80s. Its leaders (including Tipper Gore and Rev. Jerry Falwell) used “Snowblind” as an example of having ‘hidden satanic phrases’ and successfully lobbied the Arkansas state senate to have warning labels on records containing such messages. An Assembly of God church in Iowa even hosted an album burning with Styx albums becoming easy kindling – after all they were named after the river leading to Hades, right?
This puzzled (now lead producer) DeYoung. Why would anyone think Styx was satanic, especially with a harmless ballad called “Babe”? He jokingly said in an interview with In The Studio with Redbeard, “Anyone who plays their records backwards is the Antichrist. We have enough trouble making these records sound right [playing] forward.” The scary reality of censorship spurred DeYoung into thinking about a new album concept. After a band tour of Japan, DeYoung was fascinated by their culture – and robots. Something clicked and DeYoung started writing a theatrical treatment for Styx’s next project: What if in the future, rock music was forbidden, artists were imprisoned and robots were their wardens? What if this could be a show within a Styx concert? Kilroy Was Here was the result.
“Kilroy Was Here” was one of the first popular memes – a graffiti tag supposedly started by WW2 servicemen to leave behind a memento of a successful beachhead or territory capture. The symbol of a baldheaded man with a long nose peeking over a wall soon appeared ubiquitously under bridges, on tree trunks, on the walls of bars and restroom stalls.
The titular rock opera describes a totalitarian state led by Dr. Everett Righteous (played by guitarist J.Y. Young) who successfully convinces the masses that the root of all evil started with Elvis Presley. Through a weekly TV show, Dr. Righteous and the Majority for Musical Morality outlaw rock and roll and order the destruction of all rock instruments. According to Dr. Righteous, anyone who listens to rock music is considered diseased or mentally ill and must be brainwashed back to ‘health’. All rock performers are put in prison and tended to by guards called ‘robotos’ (Japanese for ‘robot’). One imprisoned rocker, Robert Orin Charles Kilroy (R.O.C.K. – played by DeYoung) manages to overpower a roboto guard and hides in its shell to escape. Once revealed to rebel Jonathan Chance (played by Tommy Shaw), Kilroy unmasks and helps lead the resistance. By the end of the ‘show’ concert goers are vicariously helping overthrow the Majority.
The band was less than enthusiastic about DeYoung’s Broadway-like concept. They also weren’t thrilled about ‘performing’ as actors and saying scripted dialogue in a mini-musical. Concept albums were on the decline (notably the poor sales of KISS’ 1981 Music from The Elder) and Styx wanted to get back to its rock roots. J.Y. Young recalled the tense scene to The Arizona Republic:
Dennis was a strong-willed individual and had the most success as a writer and lead singer in the heyday,” Young said. “So when we were gonna go with his idea about this robot thing, I said ‘We run the chance of really alienating our male audience.’ And Dennis turned down headlining the US Festival in 1982, which was a globally advertised event that offered us more money than we’d ever made in a live concert times three or four… In a power move, [Dennis] said, ‘I’m not gonna do it unless I get to do exactly what I want.’ I said, ‘I don’t believe in it but you’ve led this band to this point and I’ll back you on it.’
Reluctantly, the band allowed themselves to be roped into the project and work began on Kilroy Was Here in 1982. DeYoung took advantage of a Roland synthesizer with a new arpeggiator feature. Arpeggiators repeat a programmed pattern of notes or sounds for as long as you press the key. The intro to “She’s A Beauty” by The Tubes is a classic example. This gave “Mr. Roboto” a strange, futuristic tone. A vocoder features prominently on DeYoung’s voice which begins in Japanese:
(Dōmo arigatō misutā robotto)
(Mata au hi made)
(Dōmo arigatō misutā robotto)
(Himitsu o shiritai)
Which translates to:
Thank you very much, Mr. Roboto
Until the day we meet again
I want to know your secret
DeYoung relates the imprisonment and escape of Kilroy during the song as he reveals himself to Chance. Kilroy also adds a prophetic commentary about the dangers of a modern, digital world and loss of identity.
The problem’s plain to see
Too much technology
Machines to save our lives
After a rocking climax, Kilroy’s mask is removed with simulated sounds of electronic parts breaking down as DeYoung yells “I’m Kilroy!” The music video was iconic for its time as robots and band members mimed their way through the story. Stan Winston (the special FX wizard behind The Terminator, Aliens and Predator) created the special roboto masks shown both in the video and on the album cover and Michael Winslow (the human sound-effect machine from Police Academy) played Jimi Hendrix in a scene where Kilroy is initially captured in an outlawed rock history museum.
On the surface, Styx had made another great studio album. Kilroy Was Here went platinum (their fourth in a row) and made a big hit out of “Mr. Roboto” (#3 on the Hot 100). The album was even nominated for a Best Engineered Recording Grammy but the damage had already been done. Styx’s modern synthpop and soft rock sounds were a reversal of fortune. Young recalled:
It all went bad. It cut our album sales in half because the male audience was absolutely alienated by ‘Mr. Roboto’. Not all of them, but a large chunk. And our concert tickets were down from sold-out arenas in 1981.
Yet another DeYoung ballad “Don’t Let It End” (#6 on the charts) pushed the album deeper into pop banality. Even the addition of J. Y. Young’s rocker “Heavy Metal Poisoning” couldn’t keep the album from ‘jumping the shark’. The song did however have some clever, stinging barbs for the band’s fundamentalist critics by intentionally backmasking “rock and roll is evil” and the latin phrase “annuit cœptis, novus ordo seclorum”. Translated to “He/God has favored our undertakings, a new order of the ages”, the phrase appears on the back of the one dollar bill and furthers the narrative of Dr. Righteous. To add salt to the wound, “Snowblind” was the original B-side to “Mr. Roboto”.
An ambitious yet expensive 1983 tour (with a 10 minute opening film) opened to smaller, more intimate houses meant for theater but slowly moved to larger venues. By then, the band was weary of being DeYoung’s marionettes. The fan backlash of Styx’s insipid new style caused Shaw to fear for his life one hot evening during the Texxas World Music Festival in Dallas. High-energy acts Sammy Hagar and Ted Nugent had just burned the house down with their set and it was Styx’s turn to perform their Kilroy rock opera to 100,000 drunk, heat-crazed fans. Shaw recalled to Behind The Music:
I’m thinking “In a few minutes I’ve gotta walk out there and stand on that stage for ten minutes going [miming] ‘…But Kilroy, what about the young people of America?’. They’re gonna kill me! I’m going to die in Texas.
Shaw finally snapped in the middle of a Maryland show, abruptly smashed his guitar and walked off the stage in disgust. The next day, Shaw quit and the tour limped on without him. While Styx didn’t officially announce a breakup, the three songwriters began cranking out their own solo projects with DeYoung’s “Desert Moon” in 1984 becoming the most successful (#24 on the album charts, #6 on the Hot 100 Singles). To make up for Styx’s unexplained absence, A&M Records released the live double-album Caught In The Act to poor reviews. The one new song “Music Time” made it to #40. It was the last Styx single for six years. Shaw moved on and formed Damn Yankees in 1989 with Ted Nugent, Jack Blades and Michael Cartellone. Styx didn’t reunite in the studio until 1990’s Edge of the Century (sans Shaw) where they took the (surprise!) DeYoung ballad “Show Me The Way” to #3. By 1991, grunge and alternative music had taken over the music scene, leaving Styx’s hard rock act behind.
DeYoung got a taste of his Broadway fantasies in the early 90s when he put on the robes of Pontius Pilate for the touring revival of Jesus Christ Superstar. Finally, Styx reunited (with both Shaw and DeYoung) for a greatest hits LP and tour in 1995 with replacement drummer (and Styx superfan) Todd Sucherman filling in for John Panozzo due to heavy drinking problems. Panozzo, 47, died a year later from cirrhosis.
“Mr Roboto” gave Styx a new start thanks to a 1998 Volkswagon commercial featuring then unknown Tony Hale (‘Buddy’ from TV’s Arrested Development). The 1999 Brave New World album failed to chart, but the group was ready to return to the road with their ‘Return To Paradise’ tour – their first in four years. Tour plans were quickly hobbled as DeYoung contracted a viral illness that made him susceptible to light and Chuck Panozzo was diagnosed with HIV (who later came out in 2001). Styx decided to tour without the two and replaced DeYoung with Lawrence Gowan and Panozzo with Glen Burtnik. While DeYoung was devastated at the news, J. Y. Young recalled:
Dennis was so good for this band for the first ten years but its really been all about him for himself in my judgement ever since then. For Dennis it was either ‘his way or the highway’. We’ve chosen the highway.
While the band toured heavily during the 2000’s Styx had only two studio albums – Cyclorama and Big Bang Theory which went to #46 on the Billboard Top 200. Ricky Phillips replaced Burtnik on Bass in 2003. In 2017, Styx released “The Mission” (a concept album about a mission to Mars) as their first new LP in 14 years. The group is reportedly almost finished with its followup as of this writing and still tours extensively.
Over the years, the phrase ‘Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto’ has been used many times in pop culture including: The Simpsons, Futurama, Archer, My Life as a Teenage Robot, Arrested Development (again imitated by Hale), Eight Crazy Nights, Austin Powers in Goldmember, DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story, Man With A Plan, The Perfect Man (where DeYoung fronts a Styx tribute band) and Mr. Robot. It was even used in an Academy Awards acceptance speech.
Almost fifty years after their first album release, Styx has still not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The acrimony between DeYoung and the band still exists with DeYoung performing Styx hits without the band, while Styx only recently began adding “Mr. Roboto” to its encores due to the new generation of teen and pre-teen fans. The chances of reunion are slim, said Shaw in a Rolling Stone interview in 2011:
We already did it. In retrospect, we weren’t even happy working with each other in our heyday. We’re just different people with different desires and different visions of how things should be. God, it was such an unhappy place. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We’re crazy, but we’re not insane.
Young told the Chicago Tribune that Styx has found its happy place without DeYoung or rushing to release new albums:
When I see our audience building, and see more and more young people coming to the shows, I say, Why do we want to do things the way we used to do them, when it’s pretty clear they don’t work for us? When what we are doing, making concert DVDs, is drawing more people to us?
DeYoung however would love to reunite with the band but until then its
Beyond my control, we all need control
I need control, we all need control