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32 Years Ago: Styx Come Apart with ‘Kilroy Was Here’

Styx were one of the biggest American rock groups of the ’70s, with a string of hit albums and songs including “Lady,” “Come Sail Away,” “Renegade“ and “Blue Collar Man.” The group scored two of their biggest successes with concept albums — 1977′s The Grand Illusion and Paradise Theatre in 1981. On Feb. 28, 1983, Styx released Kilroy Was Here, their most ambitious concept album yet. But within a year, tensions in the group came to a breaking point, bringing the classic era of Styx to an end.

Styx leader Dennis DeYoung felt the only way for the group to top the No. 1 success of Paradise Theatre was to capture the band on film. To that end, he developed an ambitious concept that touched on themes of censorship, totalitarianism and the dangers of increasing technology. Kilroy Was Here would star DeYoung as a rock star named Robert Orin Charles Kilroy (note that the initials spell “ROCK”) imprisoned in a future where rock and roll has been banned.

The story was partially inspired by an incident in which a pair of conservative televangelists had tried to garner publicity by accusing Styx of “backward Satanic masking.” The character of the totalitarian dictator Dr. Everett Righteous — the leader of the fictional Majority for Musical Morality — was DeYoung’s backhanded swipe at Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.

Listen to ‘High Time’

When DeYoung presented his idea to the group, it met with resistance. Concept albums had been commercially viable in the ’70s, but were viewed as passe in the new decade. Kiss had only recently experienced an enormous downturn in their career from a concept album titled Music From ‘The Elder and Styx guitarists Tommy Shaw and James “JY” Young both feared another concept album after Paradise Theatre would pigeonhole the band.

But as the author of most of Styx’s most successful work, DeYoung was in a position to insist, and he went full steam ahead into the project with the rest of the band somewhat reluctantly in tow. The result was a very divisive experience for the group. “I have many times bemoaned the fact that I, through my sheer will, dragged the group into that,” DeYoung admitted in an episode of Behind the Music. “It’s always best when everyone in the group is on the same page.”

DeYoung dominated the record, contributing not only the concept and story, but also both of the hits from the album. “Mr. Roboto” (video above) was the first single, announcing a new direction for Styx right out of the gate. The song’s techno-pop sound was not at all to the liking of Shaw or Young, and DeYoung later said it was only meant as a transition from the film into the live Kilroy show. But when the record company did some test marketing, audiences chose “Mr. Roboto” as the single, and the song shot to No. 3 in the pop charts, creating a new generation of Styx fans — but also alienating some of the group’s existing fans.

DeYoung also brought in “Don’t Let It End,” a melodic pop power ballad in the vein of previous hits like “Babe“ and “The Best of Times.” Released as the album’s second single, it went to No. 6 in the Top 40. DeYoung’s “High Time” was the album’s third and final single, which fizzled at No. 48 in the charts.

Listen to ‘Don’t Let It End’

James Young portrayed Dr. Righteous, and he wrote “Heavy Metal Poisoning“ as a tongue-in-cheek introduction to the character. JY’s other contribution was “Double Life,” a synth-pop track quite unlike the hard-rocking guitarist’s usual fare, demonstrating a previously untapped ability to write a pop chorus.

Tommy Shaw struggled with the concept and his portrayal of rock rebel Jonathan Chance, ultimately turning in three songs for the album, but lacking a standout rock track like some of his previous contributions to Styx. The closest he came was “Cold War,” a pop-rock track that served as a live vehicle for a long guitar solo. His other songs for the album were in a more melodic vein and actually far stronger. “Just Get Through This Night“ was a mid-tempo pop song with an unusual guitar solo and one of Shaw’s best-ever vocal performances, while “Haven’t We Been Here Before” was a showcase for a duet between Shaw and DeYoung that A&M Records wanted to release as the album’s third single. The label even sprang for an expensive video for the track, but Shaw ultimately refused the song’s release.

Despite the group’s internal struggles, Kilroy Was Here was a hit upon its release, selling a million copies and reaching No. 3 in the Billboard 200. But the tour in support of the album proved the final straw for Shaw, who was also battling with drugs and alcohol. The live show featured a 10-minute film as the opening act, which then segued into live action in which DeYoung and Shaw acted out the concept’s finale live onstage each night, delivering scripted lines in costume as their characters. It was a task for which Shaw had neither any taste nor any particular ability. He finally snapped on stage at the Capital Centre in Landover, MD, smashing his guitar, throwing the pieces into the audience and storming off stage.

Watch the ‘Kilroy Was Here’ Short Film

At a hastily convened meeting the next day, Shaw sealed the band’s fate by announcing that he was quitting and shortly after that, the tour wrapped early. Though no formal announcement was made in regard to Styx splitting, DeYoung, Shaw and Young all began working on solo albums. Seven years would pass before Styx would release another studio album — and then without Shaw, who didn’t return to Styx until 1996. Even then, such was Shaw and Young’s distaste for the Kilroy album that they steadfastly refused to play any of the music from it.

In an interesting twist of fate, the song that had helped to hasten the end of Styx also revitalized the band’s career after “Mr. Roboto” was featured in a Volkswagen ad in 1998. The track has gone on to become one of the songs most associated with Styx in popular culture, appearing in countless films, television shows, and even being referenced at the Academy Awards. Styx split with DeYoung permanently in 1999, and though the band — now led by Shaw and Young — still refuse to play the song live, DeYoung gleefully performs it in all its campy glory at his solo shows.

Update: On April 12, 2015 Dennis DeYoung posted a lengthy response to this story on his Facebook page. We’ve included the entire statement below:

“Hey everybody
Clarification Kilroy clarification
Why do I even bother? I saw this article recently so here goes. But first you must read the article, it’s not bad as these things go.
No, I said NO the band did not object to another concept album. We had just scored our biggest grossing tour both financially and critically with a our first number album so there was no resistance concerning concept albums. The band objections came from two directions, the acting (totally understandable)and the cost( also understandable).
There was never any discussion about any of the songs on the album regarding musical style, not even “Roboto”. We had first put our toes in the water of techno on Too Much Time with the synth bass driving the track to great success giving Tommy his first official top ten song. We all contributed to “Roboto’s” arrangement and had a fun time trying something completely new. Remember “Roboto” was never intended to be a single. Tommy had brought the vocoder to the band on “Paradise Theater” and if I am not mistaken and I could be, he did the voice in Roboto’s intro. The “tonight tonights” etc. on “A.D. 1958″ and “Best of Times” I believe was him as well. We mixed it together with all hands on deck with everybody having a duty during the mix because there was no automation then and it had so many difficult changes. We mixed it three separate times three days each mix because it was so different from anything we had ever done. We ended up using the first mix.
I did not dominate the album musically. I wrote three songs plus the reprise, Tommy wrote three songs, and JY two. As I have said before we were woefully short a rock tune in the vein of “Renegade”. What a difference that would have made, after all the concept was about banning rock music so where the hell was the rock music. The producer should have seen that. Oh Dennis!
“Haven’t We Been Here Before” was supposed to be the third single, not God forbid “High Time”. “High Time” should have never been released as a single because it is in my opinion the weakest track. But Tommy opposed “Haven’t We Been Here Before” wanting instead a live version of Cold War. The record company overruled us and chose “High Time”. Good grief.
Finally A&M reported to us at that time that Kilroy had sold 2 million copies and they never tell you more cause then they’ll have pay you on it. Still it was one third less sales then what we had become accustomed to. Ah the curse of great expectations. It has been said that after “Thriller” Michael Jackson was always disappointed by the sales of his subsequent releases. That is a pretty high bar to vault I must say. cheers dennis”

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