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Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Great Concept Album Horror Vol. 4: Styx - Kilroy Was Here

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto, indeed.

There was a time when I was in high school that I loved Styx's album Paradise Theater so  much that I wore the cassette tape out.  Then something happened.  My taste changed.  The stars fell out of alignment.  I don’t know.  The bottom line is that now,  I can’t stand the vast majority of their music.  Other than a few cuts from Paradise Theater and the whole of Grand Illusion, I no longer own anything by Styx.  Something about the songs gets under my skin and I’m telling you this not to say I’m in any way “cooler” for not liking them.  I’m just saying that as you read this article, there is definitely a bias at play here. 

At the same time, history cannot be argued when it comes to the events surrounding Kilroy Was Here, so I’ll try to keep things as objective as possible. 

Styx was a HUGELY popular band in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  The two things that ultimately tore them apart are the same things that produced the album we’re going to discuss today.  Those two things are Egos and Greed.  The band had spent almost a decade releasing album after album and touring relentlessly to build an audience.  They reached a huge commercial breakthrough when their single “Babe” went to number one in 1979 and on the heels of that album (Cornerstone), they went into the studio and created what many consider their greatest album.

Paradise Theater is a concept album.  It was conceived by Dennis DeYoung who was one of three songwriters in the band (Tommy Shaw and James Young being the other two).  DeYoung had always striven to drive the band in a more theatrical, pop direction while Shaw and Young pushed back, wanting to play straight ahead rock and roll.  As long as those two forces reached a balance, Styx was cranking out huge hit albums, but the success of “Babe” (a song written solely by DeYoung) changed the dynamic slightly.  Thus, when DeYoung presented the Paradise Theater concept, he was able to push his bandmates to go along. 

The thing that made Paradise Theater work was that there was room to move within the concept itself.  The story centered around a theater whose heyday was in the 1920’s but had over the years fallen on hard times.  The songs didn’t tell a story so much as just painted a picture.  The opening song, “Rocking the Paradise” started things off in those early, heady days after the theater opened and by the time you got to the end of the album, you had heard songs about drug addiction (“Snowblind”), desperate people (“Half Penny/Two Penny”) and could piece together that the neighborhood around the theater had deteriorated.

It was a huge success and the subsequent tour was one of the highest grossing of that year.  As I said above, it’s considered by many to be the band’s best album and thanks to another huge DeYoung hit (“The Best of Times”), he once again leveraged his position to try to steer the band into a more pop/theater path.

This time, DeYoung pitched another concept album but it had a more focused narrative.  In fact, each band member would play a different character and the story would play out on stage with props, set pieces and a short film full of special effects to set the tone.  By most accounts, Shaw and Young fought back but through record company pressure (re: Greed) and DeYoung’s insistence (re: Ego) the concept was eventually forced upon the band.    

Thus Kilroy Was Here was born.


It tells the story of a world where rock and roll is outlawed by an evil dictator named Dr. Emmet Righteous.  Censorship has been enforced in order to maintain control over the populace.  Our hero (naturally played by DeYoung himself) is Robert Orin Charles Kilroy (get it?  The initials spell ROCK!).  He is a former rock star who was imprisoned on trumped up murder charges.  However, there is an underground rebellion looking to bring rock music back and overthrow the government.  They hack into the television signal that Dr. Righteous sends out to the public and they broadcast bootleg footage of Kilroy’s final concert.  Back at the prison, Kilroy sees this and is inspired to escape.  He overpowers one of the Japanese robots (a Mr. Roboto model) and hides inside it to get out.  Then he arranges to meet with the underground to bring back rock music (which of course will save us all).

Let’s just say this now.  That concept has a number of things going against it.  However, I should point out that times were different when it was conceived.  In the late 1980’s, there was a large push in the U.S. by Christian conservatives who wanted to censor rock music.  There were stories on the national news about people who supposedly discovered satanic messages hidden on rock albums and only a few years after this album was released, a group of Washington wives would form the Parents Music Resource Council (P.M.R.C.).  That organization actually forced hearings in Congress on the issue and ultimately got record companies to voluntarily sticker albums with explicit content. 

So while the concept is pretty heavy-handed and silly on a number of levels, it was actually DeYoung’s response to what he saw happening in American society.  When it was released, it was greeted with a lot of enthusiasm.  The record was a commercial success.  It made it to number 3 on the U.S. album charts and scored two top ten singles (“Mr. Roboto” and “Don’t Let It End”) which were both written by DeYoung.  

Even so, the concept was so strict that it hogtied the other two songwriters.  The rest of the album consists of songs that were written strictly to connect scenes together so neither Tommy Shaw nor James Young had much room to stretch out.  Where their songs were generally highlights on a Styx album, on Kilroy Was Here, they are completely forgettable. 

Critics slammed it and after that initial excitement from fans who bought it based on the first single, things got ugly.  Kilroy Was Here divided Styx’s fanbase because it was not a rock album.  It had more in common with the electro-pop that was dominating the airwaves at the time (think bands like Thompson Twins, who relied heavily on keyboards instead of guitars).  In retrospect, this makes sense as it was exactly where DeYoung wanted the band to go.  Unfortunately for their fans, Styx couldn’t come to the middle again.  Despite being successful, by the end of the supporting tour, the band decided to call it quits. 

DeYoung went on to a solo career and eventually ended up right where you would expect him to go. 


The rest of the band pulled a Pink Floyd and got together without him.  There was a lawsuit involved and the two sides don’t really talk any longer, however Styx continues to tour to this day.  When you look at the setlists though, you’ll notice they don’t include any songs from Kilroy Was Here

Also, to their credit they are not just a nostalgia act.  They’ve released six new studio albums without DeYoung, the latest of which was last year’s The Mission.

Guess what!  It’s a concept album.

It’s about a mission to Mars in the year 2033.  I personally haven’t heard it, but it was critically well received and actually touted as a worthy follow-up to Paradise Theater.  Unfortunately no matter how good it is, Styx will never completely erase the taste of Kilroy Was Here.  This is especially true as long as “Mr. Roboto” continues to be used in car commercials, sit-coms and is a staple on karaoke nights around the world.

This album will be my soundtrack in Hell.  Seriously.

Perhaps you don't agree with me though.  I'd love to hear from you.  Leave your opinion in the comments section or on Facebook.  

Also, if you haven't already, please check out my Author Page on Amazon.  It's got links to short stories as well as my horror novel The Wash, which I hope scares you but doesn't end up on your "worst horror novels of all time" list.


Lisanne Harrington said...

Never cared for Styx. I must have been living under a rock during this time because I never knew about these concept albums. I do remember the hearings, though. Some scary shit during scary times.

Kinda like now...

Cary said...

The thing I found the most unbelievable about those hearings was that almost nobody showed up to defend the artists' point of view. I don't know if you remember but literally, only three artists agreed to take the stand to speak out for freedom of expression: Frank Zappa, John Denver and Dee Snider (lead singer of the band Twisted Sister).

That was it. Everyone else was too concerned that speaking out would harm their careers. I'm not a Twisted Sister fan, but I gained a hell of a lot of respect for them after that. I'd always been a Zappa fan and John Denver's music was a favorite of my parents for a while so I have a soft spot for him also. Mad respect for both of them too.