Rock Album by Styx (1983)

Rock fans were scared in the 1980s. Jerry Falwell and the so-called Moral Majority inflamed true believers across the United States with the terror of wicked rock bands, satanic lyrics, and secret evil messages embedded in the songs. Meanwhile, the (more-reasonable but still quite reactionary) PMRC, headed by Tipper Gore pushed for legislation to label albums containing objectionable words, images, or themes. Songs and videos began to feature themes inspired by the likes of George Orwell and Ray Bradbury.

Enter the eclectic art rock band Styx and their ambitious rock opera Kilroy Was Here. Whether it was a successful artistic effort or not largely depends on whom you ask.

Kilroy Was Here is a dystopian futuristic story in the manner of Orwell's classic 1984 or (more appropriately, I think) Logan's Run. It is the take of a renegade rock star named Robert Orin Charles Kilroy (played by lead singer Dennis De Young—note the initials!). In this nightmarish future, rock music has been outlawed by the fiendish Majority for Musical Morality, led by the mad Dr. Everett Righteous (portrayed by James Young). Kilroy has been arrested and confined to a sort of rock gulag or prison, attended by Japanese-made mechanical guards called Mr. Roboto's*. In this prison, Kilroy is subjected to constant mind-control courtesy of Dr. Righteous' cable network.

Of course, we Americans were also afraid of Japan. With their strong work ethic and excellent educational system, the Japanese became one of the superpowers of technology and manufacturing in the 80s. American businesses could not keep up and people envisioned a future dominated by Japanese business (some science fiction even envisioned the yen as the world currency in the near future).

The Robotos exist on every level of society; in addition to their role as prison guards, the Robotos act as butlers and majordomos for people of the dystopia, simplifying life to the point where people become soft, dependant and complacent. Well, I presume my readers can see where this is leading!

An underground sect of rebel rockers, led by the boyishly handsome Jonathan Chance (portrayed by boyishly handsome guitarist Tommy Shaw) comes to Kilroy's rescue. Like the Death Star in Star Wars, or the Greek hero Achilles, the Robotos have a major weakness. In the case of these robots, their vulnerability is a karate chop to the back of the neck. After Chance relays the info to Kilroy, it is not difficult for him to disguise himself in a roboto's metal exoskeleton and slip away.

On the outside, Kilroy and Chance begin plans for the ultimate coup: a rock concert to bring down the mad Dr. Righteous and his minions once and for all. Meanwhile, they play a deadly game of cat and mouse with the sinister Lt. Vanish (Chuck Panozzo) and Colonel Hyde (John Panozzo).

As I recall it, and it has been a few years since I've seen the stage show, the ending is kind of ambiguous, with Shaw singing the song Haven't We Been Here Before and then a finale that involves the entire cast doing a reprise of the song Don't Let it End.

Track listing for the album:
Mr. Roboto
Cold War
Don't Let it End
High Time
Heavy Metal Poisoning
Just Get Through This Night
Double Life
Haven't We Been Here Before
Don't Let it End (reprise)

The songs are solid, but the lyrics are often silly. The plot is a bit hard to work out from just the album (although the band has helpfully included the plot to this rock opera in the liner notes), so some of the songs just don't stand alone. Haven't We Been Here Before is a gorgeous piece (reminiscent of Crystal Ball) which is wonderful on its its own merit. Heavy Metal Poisoning, on the other hand, is goofy enough to make every fan cringe, featuring classic lines such as "First we'll spank your big behinds/then we'll blow your little minds." No, I did not make that up.

Styx seems to have had a long internal battle between campy, stagy theatrical work and hard rocking machismo. On albums such as Paradise Theatre (1981) and Pieces of Eight (1978), they struck a careful balance, like a television drama cautiously treading the line between light-hearted moments and bleak tragedy. With Kilroy, it seemed that lead man Dennis de Young's love of musical theatre had pushed the sound of Styx too far over the top.

With its campy, Broadway-inspired flair, a lot of fans saw Kilroy as a kind of a nadir for the boys from Chicago. I have it on good authority that the Kilroy was Here tour, particularly in the context of a many-act rock festival, was a bit of a weird show-stopper, complete with stilted dialogue and often silly lyrics. Add to that the fact that none of the members of Styx were particularly good actors, and this piece had the effect of leaving the fans scratching their heads and praying for the next act to hurry up and take the stage.

* The Robotos are kind of buck-toothed, slanty-eyed affairs. A Japanese acquaintance (very hard to offend guy) confirms to me that yes, they actually are offensive! Good, I wasn't just being overly sensitive.

Reworked: November, 2009