Heavy Metal Poisoning: Styx’s Kilroy Was Here at 40
Misunderstood gem or the album that killed the band?
You’re a Midwestern rock band that’s made it big. You’re coming off four straight multi-platinum albums, with songs that gained hefty amounts of airplay on rock and pop radio.
Do you (A) continue in that vein or (B) go with a concept album that breaks up the band as fans knew it?
If you answered (B), then you’re Styx and you might quite possibly be Dennis DeYoung.
That’s a little harsh, as you’ll find out as we go along.
The title inspiration came from World War II era graffiti, a sort of pre-internet meme. Its origins are unclear, but it’s believed to be a mashup of a British drawing of a bald man peering over a wall with the phrase. It started appearing in locations American troops did during the war, to the point there were rumors that Hitler himself was demanding to find out who “Kilroy” was.
The album wasn’t otherwise related to the war that men of Styx’s fathers’ generation fought in. Rather, it was inspired by the Moral Majority and others of its ilk, the forefathers of the current crop of neo-fascists. Their targets at the time were rock music, full of baseless satanic panic ideas and delusional conspiracy theories about backwards masking.
Some of these types had even insisted Styx was “satanic”, thinking there were “demonic messages” on the Paradise Theatre track “Snowblind.” Of course, these people were so busy looking for non-existent backwards messages that they missed that the song was about the perils of cocaine addiction.
The idea was to build a stage show, complete with an accompanying short film that would open it, to go with a concept album about a world where rebels fight back after rock music is outlawed.
Listening now, 40 years later, Kilroy’s issues remain readily apparent. The first strike against it is its obviousness. The hero of the story who escapes to help a young musician “save rock”? He’s named Robert Orrin Charles Kilroy. His initials are R.O.C.K.
Insert your own favorite facepalm meme or gif here.
The villainous preacher? Dr. Everett Righteous. Not that anyone expected subtlety from Styx, but that would be like naming the villain of a 2023 reboot Governor Notsee.
Obvious character names are one thing, but then they don’t completely commit to the bit. There really isn’t as much incisive lyrical commentary as one would hope, given the ripe subject matter. Expectations for more of a plot are thwarted, because there isn’t really much of one. I mean, sure, rock apparently gets “saved”. But there isn’t a lot on it to pin to that journey from Point A to Point B. To borrow a pro wrestling entertainment term, they don’t keep kayfabe.
Case in point is the second of the album’s two hit singles — “Don’t Let It End”, part of a long tradition of “I screwed up. Please forgive me” ballads.
Say what you will about DeYoung, but the man had a knack for this sort of thing. In “Babe”, off 1979’s Cornerstone, DeYoung basically knows his wife will be lonely, but he hopes she’ll be alright, because he and the boys will be playing all night. The love ballad became the band’s only No. 1 single.
The hopeful “The Best of Times”, off 1981’s Paradise Theatre, had enough of a hook to become a prom theme all over the country.
While “Don’t Let It End” also delivers a hook (and a nifty DeYoung vocal), it plays like a successful pop ballad, rather than any part of the story of the effort to save rock music from Christofascism.
The plot is front and center, however, in the hit that never went away — synth-driven opener “Mr. Roboto.” There’s a certain irony in the most successful song on a concept album about saving rock-and-roll would be a synth-driven number that angered the more rockist portion of Styx’s fanbase.
It’s retrospectively silly now, but at the time, there were those who painted synthesizers as somehow less “real” than the standard guitar.
VIDEO: Styx “Mr. Roboto”
Written as a track to bridge from the end of film to the start of the live show, it depicts the moments after Mr. Rock, er, Kilroy has escaped and meets Chance, revealing that he’s only disguised as a robot.
Yes, it’s as silly as it sounds, but Styx commits to it. DeYoung sings with appropriate theatrical gusto. The keyboards give it atmosphere and appeal. Tommy Shaw threw in the vocoder. And I guarantee that without me mentioning it, you already had the “Domo arigato, Mr.Roboto” hook in your head.
Add it all up and you have an outlier in the Styx catalog that stuck in pop culture, undeniable enough that even the current iteration of Styx without DeYoung had to return it to the setlists.
Oddly enough, DeYoung had to be talked into it releasing it as the first single, as others around him, including people at Styx’s label and his wife, felt it was an obvious hit.
Young understood what was needed to make the concept work on “Heavy Metal Poisoning”, starting with the backward masking. Angry Tipper Gore types who reversed the opening reversed dialogue would hear “Annuit cœptis, Novus ordo seclorum”. In English, that means “(God) has favored our undertakings, a new order for the ages”. A “Satanic” agenda? No. It’s an inscription that appears on the back of the dollar bill and the United States’ Coat of Arms. He later tosses in “Sterces eht sdloh natas” later as a poke at people who would take such things seriously, the kind of people who 40 years later would insist that a non-binary performer wearing a devil hat from Party City at the Grammys was basically demanding human sacrifices onstage.
As serious as the goal was and as odious as its inspirations like Jerry Falwell were, there was an undeniable kitsch factor at play.
Young’s vocals give Righteous a sleazy lounge lizard vibe. The kids at the end add the over-the-top cherry on top. And the track has a punch that one wishes showed up elsewhere on the album.
That said, it is amusing in that the closest the album comes to rocking out is a song by a “preacher” who wants to kill rock music and is performing it as some form of corrective therapy.
DeYoung’s “High Time” is more jukebox musical than rock-and-roll revolution. But at least it’s related to the theme and his vocals clearly aren’t phoned in.
The album ends with “Don’t Let It End (Reprise)”, which is bizarrely titled given that it reprises music from “Mr. Roboto” and not the love ballad. Shaw’s Jonathan Chance semi-commits (“With this guitar in hand, I’ll do my best and try to keep rock and roll alive”) before DeYoung’s Kilroy takes over to let us all know that he’s going to “keep on rockin'” til he “loses control”, that he shakes to soul music and starts name-checking the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis all the while sounding like it’s Dennis DeYoung’s Bat Out of Hell. It’s supposed to be a triumphant moment, but it feels stitched together. And frankly, it comes across as odd tonally given the balladry that precedes it, something that could have been fixed had the album been longer.
A longer length could have solved the plot issues — the completely missing setup to how the characters got there (seriously, not a song about Chance falling in love with rock-and-roll as a kid?) and how they ended. Seriously, how did they actually defeat the evil Dr. Righteous? And what happened to the robots, who completely disappear after the first song?
To be fair to DeYoung, the missteps on Kilroy weren’t all on his shoulders. The concept was his, but he only wrote four of the album’s nine songs.
Young comes out of it alright, as “Heavy Metal Poisoning” and “Double Life” at least have the energy the album should have, even if the latter doesn’t quite pull together as well as the former.
Shaw, in good voice, contributed a trio of songs, which feel like they could have been on a non-concept Styx album. “Cold War Kids” feels like a peppier “Too Much Time On My Hands”, only less catchy with a chorus lacking in rock verve. “Just Get Through This Night” takes too long to get going and never really takes off. The ballad “Haven’t We Been Here Before” is his best contribution here, but the musical backing is curiously muted.
For an album about saving rock (and democracy in the process), the album seems shy about rocking out.
It was easy at the time to slag off Styx as so much “corporate rock”. But years later, Johnny Rotten became a right-winger who did butter commercials while The Grand Illusion (still the band’s high point) still sounds great turned up on the stereo.
If only Kilroy had more of the same qualities.
In the end, the album isn’t as bad as its band-killing reputation might make it seem. A lost classic? No. But there were worse concept albums in the period (Music From “The Elder”, anyone?).
It was definitely a step down in quality from Paradise Theatre, which was more consistent in writing performance, writing and theme. It also experienced a drop in sales, but it still went platinum. Certainly the situation was recoverable, had the band held together.
And as for that, it’s not as if the issues during Kilroy popped up out of nowhere. Bands break up. People move on. It happens.
As for the show-opening film, that didn’t help the album. It’s an obvious extended music video (shot well by cinematographer Stephen Goldbatt in his period of transitioning from television to feature films). Styx showed that, as actors, they were fine musicians. There’s sincerity that doesn’t land. “You can’t kill the music, you bastards!” is delivered by Tommy Shaw in a manner suggesting that he wanted to be anywhere in the world other than failing an audition for an ABC Afterschool Special.
DeYoung at times mugs like he wishes he were the Lost Marx Brother, which creates a tonal mess for what’s supposed to be a commentary on right-wing authoritarianism. His segments also include supremely cringeworthy “wacky comedy”. I speak particularly of the moment where Kilroy kicks off his prison escape fromthe Japanese robot by kneeing it in the testicles (a tactic conveniently shown in the shot of a page titled “What Not To Do To Your Roboto”).
Yes, in Styxland, the weak point of dystopian robots of the future, even ones designed by future four-time Oscar winner Stan Winston, is the crotch shot. On top of that, the robot responds, in an accent that would have to give Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s pause, “Kawasaki! Fuck! Fuck! Ack. Scrotum hurtum! Oh, my balls!”
Kiss Meets The Phantom, this ain’t.
Shaw left during the subsequent tour, which was cut short. The band broke up, disappearing for six years, never to have its classic lineup of DeYoung, Shaw, Young, drummer John Panozzo and bassist Chuck Panozzo again.
Styx returned with 1990’s Edge of the Century, but without Shaw, who was in Damn Yankees with Night Ranger’s Jack Blades and future Old Man Yells At Cloud Ted Nugent.
John Pannozzo’s health problems forced him to retire a year before his death from liver failure in 1996.
Shaw returned to the fold when Styx reformed again, but the same differences in artistic direction remained. DeYoung was gone a year after 1999’s disappointing Brave New World, a departure/firing that eventually had lawyers getting involved. There was acrimony with DeYoung on one side and Shaw and Young on the other.
Things eventually settled. Shaw and Young have led the band with a stable lineup since — Sucherman on drums since John Panozzo’s departure, DeYoung’s replacement Lawrence Gowan and Ricky Phllips and Chuck Panozzo sharing bass duties (the latter’s HIV status has kept him from full-time touring duties). They’ve remained active through numerous classic rock tour bills and the occasional studio album. As it turned out, their last two albums — 2017’s The Mission and 2021’s Crash of the Crown — were returns to form that were their best since Paradise Theater.
DeYoung didn’t return to the same type of solo career he had in the ’80s, instead doing the completely unsurprising move of going into theater — performing as Pontius Pilate in a run of Jesus Christ Superstar, recording an album of show tunes and composing the score for a musical version of Hunchback of Notre Dame.
It wasn’t until 2007 that he returned to the rock well with One Hundred Years From Now, its title not an allusion to how long it had been between rock albums for him. It was two years before the album was released in the U.S. It was 13 years before he returned to the studio. He closed his recording career with two volumes of 26 East (named after his childhood address in Illinois). As with their predecessor, they were a reminder that whatever his theatrical inclinations, he was best served marrying them to rock music.
It might not be inaccurate to say Kilroy Was Here inadvertently broke up Styx. But in retrospect, it’s also probably not inaccurate to say that breakup would have happened at some point anyway.
Whatever the circumstances of the breakup, Kilroy Was Here is, for its flaws, still a memorable bow out and there will always be the hits.
And there it is in your brain again. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.
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One thought on “Heavy Metal Poisoning: Styx’s Kilroy Was Here at 40”
I love Heavy Metal Poisoning!!!!! Best song ever!!!!