“I am the modren man…”
STYX – Kilroy Was Here (1983 A&M Records)
I was just 11 years old when I first heard of Kilroy.
Allan Runstedtler at school had it first. He was always talking about it…this cool song called “Mr. Roboto”. This album where the songs all told a story. It had robots in it, it was an album with pictures and a story…not unlike those Star Wars story soundtracks we used to listen to. In hindsight it seems obvious that Kilroy Was Here was my gateway drug to rock music.
I went over to Allan’s house, with my little Fisher-Price mono tape deck, as he put Kilroy Was Here on the hi-fi. I hit “record” and we all quietly left the living room…so as to not disturb the open air recording. Only once did we step downstairs, but this was only to flip sides on the LP and cassette.
You can see why it was so appealing. The robots didn’t look that dissimilar from the childhood classic film The Black Hole, plus there were robot vocals on the song, but it wasn’t guitar heavy or threatening. It was catchy though, “Mr. Roboto” being the song that hooked us in. We had the lyrics completely memorized (the handy lyric sheet was a revelation to us) and could sing any part of the song by heart.
With the benefit of hindsight, “Mr. Roboto” todays sounds quaint, a harmless boppy synth radio hit nothing like the Styx that emerged onto the scene over a decade earlier. Dennis DeYoung’s vocals are all spellbinding as ever, the man as identifiable on this as he was on “Lady”. Where’s the guitars from Tommy Shaw and James “JY” Young? I’m really not sure. There are a few things here and there, fuzzy buzzy melodies that might well be guitars. Only once in a while in the course of a 5-minute-plus song can you really hear any sort of instrument that wasn’t programmed or played with keys!
Tommy’s “Cold War” was another upbeat one we liked as kids, and yes you can hear some guitar in the intro and chorus. There’s even a solo! Otherwise, it’s just a dreadful synth pop piece, with loads of those annoying synth-claps and other assorted sounds that are supposed to sound like percussion. Tommy plays a character named Jonathan Chance on this album, and “Cold War” reads like a manifesto from that character.
The album came with a story, so it was quite easy to break it down and figure out what was happening. It’s a dystopian tale, and the setting is…”the future”. Dr. Righteous (James Young) has risen to power, using a clever manipulation of media and government. Rock N’ Roll music…is banned! Robert Kilroy (DeYoung), a legendary rock musician, is jailed for a murder he did not commit. But Jonathan Chance (Shaw), a young rebel hoping to bring back Rock N’ Roll, is using Kilroy’s image and music as a rallying cry for his cause. One night Kilroy escapes prison, and disguises himself as a “Roboto”, the labor robots pervasive in this future world.
Got all that?
Drummer John Panozzo is credited as a character named “Col. Hyde”, and bassist Chuck Panozzo as “Lt. Vanish”. I have no idea who those people are supposed to be. There was a minifilm that went with the album and tour, and opened the live shows. It’s incredibly funny and campy, the Styx version of the Star Wars Holiday Special.
“Don’t Let It End”, a DeYoung ballad is a song we always skipped as kids. I played the ballads maybe once the whole time I owned the album! But it’s actually a pretty good tune, and you can see why it was a hit. This is followed by “High Time” with DeYoung, introducing the character of Dr. Righteous:
“I flip the switch on my laser video,
And there’s the man staring back at me,
He starts to speak in a voice so righteous,
About the sins of society”
It’s a fun song, upbeat, very showtune-y, with DeYoung having a chance to cut loose a bit. It’s alright, and it sounds like the horn section are real horns, not some synth.
JY gets to be the one to bring the rock on “Heavy Metal Poisoning”. In this song, Dr. Righteous takes to the airwaves with the ironically hardest rocking song on the album.
What the Devil’s going on?
Why don’t you turn that music down,
You’re going deaf and that’s for sure,
But all you do is scream for more!
We were always amused by Dr. Righteous using heavy metal music as his musical vehicle to attack heavy metal music, and wondered if there was a hidden message there? Something about hypocrisy. Righteous complains that rock and roll will lead to sex and drugs, while punishing his guitar with some seriously heavy riffing and a smoking solo. Unfortunately, some goofy keyboard bits detract from the song and keep it from being a pure heavy rocker.
“Just Get Through This Night” is a ballad we skipped as kids, but in retrospect this is a great dramatic ballad. Tommy wrote this one, a long, atmospheric meandering 6 minute piece that would have been too long to hold our kiddie attention span anyway. Even though it didn’t do anything for us as kids, it stands as one of the bright spots on an album that so often just gets too goofy. Tommy’s guitar solo, recorded backwards, is a highlight on this song.
Our second-favourite song was next: “Double Life” written and sung by JY. It’s certainly one of the highlights on the album, a menacing, dark stomp with the synths this time supporting rather than fighting the song. No idea how this fits into the story, but who cares!
Tommy’s final ballad, “Haven’t We Been Here Before” is kinda skip-worthy, although it’s nice when Dennis accompanies him on the chorus. There’s also a nice harmony guitar solo, but loaded down with effects, blunting its edge. Fortunately, the album ends with “Don’t Let It End (reprise)” which is actually a reprise of “Mr. Roboto”, but with Tommy singing and more guitars. The album ends on a bright note, as Jonathan Chance seemingly takes the mantel of rock leadership from Kilroy, vowing to keep Rock N’ Roll alive! Then Dennis comes in, doing his old rocker schtick, sending up Elvis, Little Richard and many more, and that’s the album. Great finish.
I think if we were to discuss this album in 1983, I would have raved and rated it 4/5 stars. I also probably would have overused the words “awesome” and “cool-a-mundo”. That was 30 years ago…man. That’s a long, long time. Listening to it now…