There have always been extremely successful artists that were so unlikeable, unappealing or unoriginal that it became fashionable to hate them. Nickelback, Creed, Dave Matthews Band, Coldplay, Michael Bolton, Phil Collins, Limp Bizkit, Train, and more recently, Justin Bieber, Imagine Dragons and the Chainsmokers have generated significant amounts of vitriol from critics and the general public — all while stockpiling hits and performing sell-out shows before thousands of adoring fans. If anything, the widespread hatedom only makes their fans love them even more.
Before them, Styx was the one that it was cool to hate.
Critics, in particular, despised them and commonly referred to the band as “Stynx” (one memorable review compared their music to a parking lot full of whale vomit – something that may very have inspired the famous “Shit Sandwich” scene in This is Spinal Tap).
Despite that, Styx sold tons of records and performed countless sold out shows. From 1972 to 1982, the band amassed 11 Top 40 hits, including their sole #1 hit, the polarizing “Babe,” as well as four RIAA-certified gold and five platinum albums. Starting off as a progressive rock group, the band found success when it moved to a more arena-friendly (some would argue, “corporate”) sound, merging hard rock with synth pop while displaying a flair for the dramatic (or melodramatic, as their detractors might argue). Even as it found mainstream success, Styx retained some of its prog leanings, writing thematic, narrative style songs, while releasing a series of concept albums throughout the late 70s and early 80s.
With 1983’s Kilroy Was Here, Styx took on its most ambitious and risky project yet. A concept album about a dystopian future where religious and political fascists have outlawed rock music and use technology to enslave mankind, Styx planned an elaborate live show that would be part rock-opera, part concert, part multimedia spectacle. If the boys from Chicago could pull it off, they would set themselves up to be the spiritual successors to Pink Floyd or The Who.
They did not pull it off.
In a sense, Styx was like a tale of two bands. On the one hand, you had the theatricality and sentimentality of keyboardist and co-frontman Dennis DeYoung, who sounded like he should have been on Broadway instead of in a rock band. The Chicago native was responsible for some of the band’s biggest hits, including emotive ballads “Lady,” “Babe,” and “The Best of Times,” as well as fantasy-tinged half-ballad “Come Sail Away.”
On the other hand, you had guitarists and secondary lead singers Tommy Shaw and James “J.Y.” Young, who leaned towards hard rock, as evidenced by songs like “Renegade,” “Too Much Time On My Hands,” “Half-Penny, Two-Penny” and “Miss America.” While this analysis might have been somewhat simplistic (DeYoung wrote a number of songs with Young and Shaw and claims he was the one who came up with the idea to make “Renegade” a rock song), there is some element of truth to it.
And it caused quite a bit of tension within the band — to the point where DeYoung was actually fired in 1980. They quickly backtracked and unfired him, but according to VH1’s Behind the Music, the damage was done. DeYoung came back with a more defiant attitude and, given his track record of success (he wrote and sang lead on almost all of the band’s big hits), the rest of the band had little choice but to go along.
“Do I think that I know what’s best for Styx as a collective? In most cases, yes,” DeYoung said on Behind the Music.
DeYoung flexed his creative muscle by driving the band towards more grandiose and ambitious projects. In 1981, he spearheaded Paradise Theater, a concept album about the rise and fall of the famous theater in Chicago that served as a representation of America as it transitioned from the 70s to the 80s. The album was a hit, going triple-platinum while generating two Top Ten singles (“The Best of Times” and “Too Much Time On My Hands”).
So when DeYoung came up with his vision for Kilroy Was Here, resistance was futile as far as the rest of the band was concerned. It didn’t matter that they weren’t on board or even understood what the album was about. “I really just kind of came up empty, I just couldn’t think of songs about robots,” Shaw said on Behind the Music. “There was a conflict within the group over that concept, because no one was sure what the concept was,” bassist Chuck Panozzo said about Kilroy on Behind the Music.
To be fair, robots weren’t the only things he could have written about. According to the backstory in the liner notes (which they made into a mini-movie the that played at the beginning of the band’s shows during the Kilroy tour), rock music has been outlawed by the Majority for Music Morality (a not-so-subtle swipe Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority – although there’s a line in the story about how the MMM’s leader, Dr. Everett Righteous, was “charismatic, entertaining, and above all, he understood the media,” something that would definitely apply to future leaders like Donald Trump). Righteous (Young) is a religious fascist who enforces his will through his henchmen (Chuck Panozzo and drummer John Panozzo) and, of course, his not-so-secret police force of evil Asian-looking robots. The story begins when Righteous frames and imprisons famous rock star, Robert Orin Charles Kilroy (DeYoung — his initials are R.O.C.K., get it?). Rebel leader Jonathan Chance (Shaw) is tasked with rescuing him but is seemingly captured by one of the Robotos. But all is not as it seems as the robot reveals his true identity, which segues into the album opener (“Mr. Roboto”).
Got all that? As far as rock operas go, it’s hardly original. But Styx had one big advantage that its predecessors lacked: MTV. The network was the perfect vehicle for the band to promote Kilroy. Styx’s videos were already fairly theatrical, so Kilroy would just be more of the same. Between that and the burgeoning home video market, you’d think the band would have taken the opportunity to shoot videos for each of the nine songs on the album, pushed them aggressively on MTV and then packaged them and the introductory mini movie for sale or rent.
Instead, the band made just four videos for Kilroy: “Mr. Roboto,” “Don’t Let it End,” “Heavy Metal Poisoning,” and “Haven’t We Been Here Before?” Only the first three listed relate to the Kilroy storyline; as for “Haven’t We Been Here Before?” both the song and video are completely disconnected from the overall storyline — in fact, the video seems like a weird parody of The Sting that is jarringly out of place with the robots and fascists. While “Haven’t We Been Here Before?” is the only song to explicitly depart from the main plot, it underscores a lack of consistency from start to finish and is a big reason why this concept album fails to make the grade.
Which is a shame since the songs, by themselves, aren’t terrible — certainly no worse than usual Styx fare. Plenty has been written about “Mr. Roboto,” arguably Styx’s most famous song. Sounding almost like a novelty tune, “Mr. Roboto” was a huge departure for the band and unlike anything they’ve ever recorded. It’s, perhaps, the ultimate good bad song and has become such an indelible part of pop culture that it’s hard to be objective about it. Meanwhile, second single “Don’t Let it End” is typical a Dennis DeYoung Styx song. It’s overwrought and dramatic and you’ll either love it or hate it. DeYoung’s other song on the album “High Times,” is a more of a narrative song that is there to move the story forward. For some reason, they decided to release it as the third single (albeit without a video), which illustrates the level of control and influence DeYoung had over the project. There’s a fourth DeYoung song on the album, but it’s a reprise of “Don’t Let it End” and also incorporates the melody of “Mr. Roboto.”
James Young is, arguably, the only other member of the band that shines on this record. His two songs were written in character as the evil Dr. Righteous, and his introductory piece, the megalomaniacal “Heavy Metal Poisoning,” is one of the best tracks on the album. He’s also the only one who seems to really get his character and is comfortable performing on stage and on film. His second song, “Double Life,” is the typical “villain-realization” song and contains, possibly, the best hook on Kilroy.
On the other hand, Tommy Shaw seems like he wants to go ahead and let the robots win so he can he put out of his misery. Not only did he have problems with the overall concept, he looks about as comfortable on stage as a shy fifth grader performing in his first school play. His songs aren’t great, either. “Cold War,” which he tried to get released as the third single, is a generic rock song with very general lyrics that provide a tenuous link to the central plot. “Just Get Through the Night” is more of the same and sounds like it could have been a mantra Shaw repeated to himself as he had to deal with DeYoung and his sci-fi fantasies.
His third contribution, the aforementioned “Haven’t We Been Here Before?” sounds like another one of Shaw’s laments. The song also features DeYoung and Shaw singing co-lead, and I know Styx fans think those two sound like Simon & Garfunkel, but I think their voices sound shrill together. In fact, a big reason why I’ve never cared for Styx is that I don’t like how they sound vocally. Whether it’s singing in unison or in harmony, they always seemed a bit too high pitched and tenor heavy. By contrast, I’ve always loved how Shaw’s voice blended with the slightly lower-register Jack Blades in Damn Yankees.
Of course, the whole reason why Shaw even joined Damn Yankees was because Kilroy was the final straw for him as far as Styx was concerned. While the album was certified platinum and yielded two big hit singles (“Mr. Roboto” hit #3 and “Don’t Let it End” reached #6 on the Billboard charts), the tour was a different story.
To properly stage their multimedia extravaganza, the band had booked a series of small Broadway-style theaters. Shows would start with the mini-movie and then several minutes of acting before moving into the first song. The decision to do these intimate venues instead of the usual arenas or stadiums caused the band to take a bath, financially. To compensate, they did a few stadium dates and rock festivals, but rather than adjust their set list or show to accommodate their new surroundings, they stubbornly insisted on doing a strict adaptation of their theater act. It did not go well.
It was the first time we heard an angry crowd, this was quaaludes, Jack Daniels and show us your t–s, they did not want to see robots in rubber suits and ‘actors.’ By the end of ‘Roboto,’ you could see that there was a traffic jam trying to get away from the stadium version of Kilroy. It was depressing, it was heartbreaking, but we had to press on and take Shakespeare into a football stadium? Disaster. Maybe the worst Styx gig I’ve ever been at. No, I take it back, the next night in Houston was worse.Jim Cahill, former promotions director for Styx, about the band’s performance at the 1983 Texxas Jam at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, on Behind the Music.
Styx broke up shortly after the tour and Shaw, Young and DeYoung all pursued solo careers. The band reunited in 1990 without Shaw, who was riding high with Damn Yankees at the time. Shaw eventually came back to the fold and, in the late 90s/early 00s, the band rode a wave of nostalgia into a successful reunion tour.
Well, most of the band. After DeYoung wanted time off to deal with various ailments, the band responded by firing and replacing him. But first, they fulfilled an existing obligation and made what turned out to be an incredibly awkward appearance at a charity telethon, which included an interview segment where the rest of the band had to smile and act cool while their soon-to-be ex-frontman lobbed some passive aggressive comments at them that went unnoticed by the audience at the time. “When you get a certain group of guys together some magic happens. The parts are not replaceable,” DeYoung said at the telethon while Shaw and Young tried their best not to make eye contact. Relations haven’t improved much since then, making a reunion unlikely.
As for Kilroy, the album and the entire period remain a point of contention between DeYoung and the band he once fronted. While DeYoung has never shied away from his songs from the album (according to Setlist.fm, “Mr. Roboto” has been his most frequently performed song and “Don’t Let it End” has also been a staple of his solo shows), Styx almost never performs anything off Kilroy. The band hasn’t played “Don’t Let it End,” “Cold War,” “Heavy Metal Poisoning,” or “Haven’t We Been Here Before” since 1983 and went through a period where it rarely did “Mr. Roboto,” although it’s become a more regular part of the setlist in recent years. Despite that, DeYoung has expressed regret for forcing everyone in the band to go along with his grand plans on Kilroy. “I have many times bemoaned the fact that I, through my sheer will, dragged the group into that,” said DeYoung on Behind the Music. “It’s always best when everyone in the group is on the same page.”
Sadly for DeYoung, everyone in Styx does seem to be on the same page when it comes to getting back together with their famous frontman. “Personality-wise, at this stage in my life, I want to be happy. I want to be around people who love me and that have my best interest at heart, and I don’t have to fight with. There’s just not enough years left that I would want to risk not having that again,” Shaw told AXS TV. “It’s clear that moment in time was a huge mistake,” Young said to Billboard. “We gave [DeYoung] enough rope to hang himself, and us, collectively, and that’s part of Styx history. We killed the golden goose, at least for the time being. It’s taken a long time to resurrect it, and we’ve succeeded, mightily. I’m not mad at [DeYoung] anymore. I’ve forgiven him and I wish the man well and happiness. I just have no desire to work with him.” Young has also said, in other interviews: “Dennis will be back in the band when they are playing hockey on the river Styx.”
Now there’s a concept. If that ever happened, Styx and DeYoung would have to do an album on it, wouldn’t they? Domo arigato, Mr. Zambono.