Kilroy Was Here
December 13, 2017
Todd: The concept album...
Clip of The Beatles - "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"
Paul McCartney: It was twenty years ago today...
Todd (VO): It's the height of artistic ambition for a rock band, a statement of intent that you are to be taken...
Clip of "Pink Floyd - Another Brick in the Wall"
Roger Waters: We don't need no education
Todd (VO): Lesser bands would try to just write a bunch of songs and put it in a decent order. [clips of Green Day - "American Idiot"...] But you have bigger dreams. You're not just some snot-nosed punk bashing out three chords, warbling out drivel about girls and dancing. [...and "David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust"] No, you are a storyteller. You're a dramatist, you're a composer, you're a cultural commentator, you're a world-builder.
Todd: You're all of those things and more. You're an [insert funny image of an...] artist! Or, if you're an act who [brief still of newspaper article: "Styx S-t-y-n-x"] the critics have never liked to begin with, you're gonna look like a pretentious bore who's disappeared up his own ass. But who knows?
Clip of Styx from Caught in the Act
Todd (VO): Maybe this is the project where everyone will finally recognize your genius. But only if you truly find that amazing mind-expanding concept that becomes beloved for decades to come and is certainly not horribly cheesy and dated.
Todd: Which brings us to the band Styx.
Clip of "Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)" from Caught in the Act'
Todd (VO): Yes, Styx. Rock group from Chicago, led by keyboardist Dennis DeYoung. Super popular in the late '70s and early '80s.
Clip of "The Best of Times"
Styx: The best of times
In 1983, they were on top of the world, coming off a string of hits and multi-platinum albums with their specific blend of midwestern arena rock, prog rock, and soft rock. But the '80s were really kicking into gear. Could they survive as new wave and hair metal began to crowd out classic rock?
Todd: The answer was yes. Yes they could...
Video for Styx - "Mr. Roboto"
Todd (VO): But only for a brief, strange moment in time. And only by making one of the weirdest, most puzzling songs in rock history, accompanied by a confused, half-baked record that made it no less baffling. A record called "Kilroy Was Here."
Dennis DeYoung: どうもありがとミスタ・ロボット、また合う日まい
Todd: This is Trainwreckords.
Trainwreckords intro, followed by album cover for Kilroy Was Here
Todd: Look, I don't like Styx. Obviously, I don't like Styx. I'm a music critic. [brief clips of "Too Much Time on My Hands" and more contemporary live footage] It's part of the licensing exam. Can't be a music critic if you like Styx. My little brother likes Styx. He's a huge fan. He's seen them in concert, like twice, has the T-shirts. I failed him.
Clip of Styx performing "The Grand Illusion" from Return to Paradise
Todd (VO): But yeah, they're just a band that I have never been able to get into. I think they're tedious. Critics described them as "pompous to the point of flatulence," they were like Queen without the fun or Yes without the complexity. Yeah, I agree with all that, but mostly I just don't like Dennis DeYoung's voice.
Clip of live performance of "Lady" from 1978
Dennis: Lady, when you're with me I'm smiling
For me, his singing is just like the death of music. [clip of "Fooling Yourself (Angry Young Man)"] And the other two vocalists, Tommy Shaw and James Young, I'm not exactly a fan of their voices either. Eh, I dunno, they got a couple of good songs I guess, if that's what you're into.
Todd: But then there's "Kilroy Was Here".
Clip from Caught in the Act
James Young as Dr. Righteous: Moms and dads, I see the future. I see a future without rock 'n roll music.
Todd (VO): When I started this project, I had one basic idea...
Todd: ...albums that flopped so hard, that they ended careers. But how do you measure a flop album? By critical success? Critics didn't like Styx to begin with, so it wasn't like a drop in form or anything. By commercial failure? "Kilroy Was Here" sold pretty well. Granted, sometimes a bad reception doesn't manifest right away. Sometimes, you can't see it in solid numbers until the follow-up. But we can't look at how the follow-up did because there wasn't one. No, the album killed the career of Styx in the most direct way possible. It broke up the band.
Clip of "Cold War" from Caught in the Act
Tommy: Cold war
Todd (VO): I honestly have no idea if there was any backlash from Styx fans. The only backlash that ultimately mattered came from just four people. [image of the band with every member except Dennis circled] These guys, who never understood the project and got burnt out trying to help Dennis DeYoung realize his stupid, stupid vision.
Todd: By the time the band reunited in 1990, their moment was officially over.
Clip of "Caught in the Act"
Todd (VO): But whether or not there was any fan backlash at the time, "Kilroy Was Here" has gone down in rock history not as a classic album, but as a bizarre, confused, half-remembered curiosity. Now I'm approaching this album as a non-fan and someone who wasn't even born yet when it came out. It's kind of difficult to tell where "Kilroy Was Here" fits in Styx's legacy, because Styx has had such an odd afterlife.
Todd: The critics never turned around on them like they have for Journey...
Clip of "Come Sail Away" from Return to Paradise
Todd (VO): ...but Styx also kinda never went away or really waned in popularity. They still tour. Their songs still get tons of play. Everyone knows at least a few of their songs, they can sing a few bars of "Come Sail Away."
Todd: But ranking up with "Come Sail Away" as their most famous tune is probably their least representative song. The lead single from this album, "Mr. Roboto."
Todd (VO): It was certainly the first song I knew from them. Well, I didn't know it, I just knew those four words.
It's such a stupid phrase. Every part of it. It's like they needed a name for their robot character, so they came up with "Mr. Robot-O." It's like naming your dog [shows image of dog with...] "Dogdog," it's one of the most inexplicable songs of the 80's. And if you know the 80's, that's saying something. But goddamn, do they sell it. It is such glorious cheese.
Todd: Domo. Domo.
Todd (VO): It's just so wonderfully ridiculous. At least that part is. When I actually listened to the whole thing, I was horrendously disappointed.
Todd: All the parts before "domo domo" they're just so bad.
Dennis: You're wondering who I am (Secret, secret, I've got a secret) Machine or mannequin (Secret, secret, I've got a secret)
Dennis: With parts made in Japan (Secret, secret, I've got a secret) I am the modren man
Dennis: I am the modren man
Todd: The-the [shows image of] margarine man? What does that mean? What is "modren?" What could that possibly mean? Is that just a typo that you never fixed?
Dennis: I'm not a robot without emotions, I'm not what you see [clip of the Chuck E. Cheese band playing]
Todd (VO): I don't know how to put it into words, but the entire main part of the song isn't the fun kind of cheese, it's just annoying. I'm not sure what it is for me exactly. Maybe it's just Dennis DeYoung's awful ear-bleeding voice again.
Dennis: Ohhhhhhh, yaaaaaaaaaah!
Todd: Or maybe it's the half-assed commentary on technology
Dennis: The problem's plain to see Too much technology
Todd: [sarcastically] What if machine bad?
Dennis: Machines to humanize
Todd: You're a synthesizer band, you goddamn hypocrites!
Todd (VO): And it turns out, this isn't even really about robots, because he's not even Mr. Roboto at all. Secret secret, he's got a secret!
Dennis: My true identity
Todd: Kilroy! Kilroy...who?!?
Dennis: I'm not a hero, I'm not a savior, forget what you know
Todd (VO): "Forget what I know?" I don't have knowledge to forget! Who are you?!
Todd: My big takeaway from "Mr. Roboto" is that it doesn't make a goddamn lick of sense.
Todd (VO): Who the hell is Kilroy? What does the roboto do? Is Kilroy a robot or a man turning into a robot or a man doing jobs to make him feel like a robot?
Todd: Well, to understand it, you have to either A) [shows image of...] read the extensive liner notes [text briefly appears: TL;DR], or B) watch the 9-minute intro film that only played during the live shows.
Clip of the Kilroy Tour intro film from "Caught in the Act"
Todd (VO): The entire opening chapters of the album's story, the entire premise, and the backstory, and the introduction to all the characters, aren't in the album [text appears: ONLY ON VHS!] But once you do get to see the intro movie, it all starts to make sense.
Todd: Well no, it doesn't, but you do get some cheap laughs about how crappy it is.
Clip of the intro film
PA Announcer: Attention. Riot in the eating area.
Todd (VO): You sure that's a riot? Are you sure it's not just the jazzercise class warming up? Well anyway, from what I can gather, it takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where rock 'n roll has been outlawed, and the world is under the thumb of the evil moralist evangelical preacher Dr. Righteous, and his army of killer robots. Now, as a sci-fi buff, I can't help but notice the similarities between this album's premise and the fictional sci-fi universe created by me in the 8th grade ("Badass Robot Rock-pocalypse!!! By Todd")
Todd: Critics rapturously praised my conceptual masterwork as "Dorktastic" (Kempsville School Gazette) and "Lame as balls" (Ronnie) before crumpling all my drawings and stuffing me in a locker.
Todd (VO): And if this whole thing wasn't corny and fanficy enough, Dennis DeYoung wrote himself as the hero, the jailed rock 'n roll star Kilroy.
Prison guard: Robert Orin Charles Kilroy
Todd: Excuse me, Robert Orin Charles...look his initials spell "ROCK." [groans] So, this character...
Video for "Mr. Roboto"
Todd (VO): ...played by a guy who looks like a Walgreen's manager, is your physical embodiment of rock. Tommy Shaw is the rebel Jonathan Chance who springs him from jail.
Clip of intro film
Tommy Shaw as Jonathan Chance: The guy's on every channel. You'll get it now, you bastard. [changes the TV to show a Styx performance] You can't stop the music, you bastard!
Todd: We will play rock! Specifically, bloated ugly 70's arena rock. Hail hail corporate rock 'n roll!
Todd (VO): And James Young is the evil Dr. Righteous, who's a stand-in for all the obnoxious bible-thumping censorship assholes of the 80's. That's right, someone's sticking it to televangelists, at last!
Todd: [sarcastically] Wait 'til you hear their jokes about airline food!
Clip of intro film
James Young as Dr. Righteous: Burn until we together have eradicated this vile plague that Elvis Presley brought down upon our nation.
Todd (VO): The actual plague that Elvis has brought down was probably a venereal disease, for the record. And the robotos, what about them? Well, here's a funny thing. They are not a part of the story, at all. "Mr. Roboto" was the first single, and the album opener, and it never comes back. Robots are to this album as breast cancer is to The Room. Even "Mr. Roboto" isn't about robots. It's about Kilroy disguising himself as a robot to escape the jail. The robots are only there as minor characters and to serve as mildly Japan-o-phobic punchlines.
Clip of Kilroy giving a robot a blow to the groin
Dennis DeYoung as Kilroy: Abra...powasakawasake! Da sama san scrotum hoto
Yeah, this is, uh...this is all kinda racist, yes. But I think a bigger point here is that the Japanese specifically engineered their robots to have vulnerable testicles. I mean, those Japanese, am I right? [album cover for Kilroy Was Here] Also, I'm starting to get really uncomfortable with this album art.
Prisoner: Hey Roboto, your mother was a Toyota. [throws a book at the robot] You got no rhythm, huh, you go no rhythm.
Todd (VO): Yeah, the whole film is just very cringy. And the amazing thing is how little it has to do with anything.
Todd: For example, let's look at the second big hit from that album, "Don't Let It End."
Clip of "Don't Let It End"
Dennis: What can I do, pictures of you still make me cry
Trying to live without your love, it's so hard to do
Todd: It's a love ballad.
Dennis: Don't let it end
Baby we could have so much more
Todd (VO): It's just a normal Styx ballad. Who's it to, any of the other characters? No, it doesn't have anything to do with that. Like, if you really stretch, I guess you can make it work with the plot and the whole concept of the album, but mostly it sounds just like any other Styx ballad. You could swap it out with [brief clips of...] "Babe" or "Lady" or any of the other horrible love ballads they put out and it'd make just as much sense.
Todd: Or take the last big hit off that album, "Renegade."
Clip of "Renegade" from Caught in the Act
Tommy: The jig is up, the news is out
They finally found me
The renegade who had it made
Retrieved for a bounty
Todd: I'm kidding, "Renegade" is from a different album.
Clip of live performance
Todd (VO): But it honestly fits better than most of the songs on this album.
Styx: Oh Mama, I'm in fear for my life from the long arm of the law
See how easily you can make that fit? Meanwhile, "Kilroy" has songs that...I guess match the theme, but only vaguely.
Todd: Like, there's one about living a double life.
Clip of live performance with "Double Life" dubbed over
Styx: Leading a double life
Friends in the daytime, strangers at night
Todd (VO): But not, like, living a double life as a robot or anything. Honestly, I'm not sure what kind of double life they're talking about. The lyrics don't explain it, there's no video.
Todd: Okay, fine. Let's look at one of the songs where they did try to work with the premise.
Clip of "Heavy Metal Poisoning"
Todd (VO): This is the villain's song, "Heavy Metal Poisoning."
James Young as Dr. Righteous: What the devil's goin' on
Heavy metal (heavy metal) poisoning (it's a poison)
It's the only time where the project actually reaches the level of awesome goofiness that "Mr. Roboto" promises.
James Young as Dr. Righteous: Dr. Righteous (Dr. Righteous), sex and drugs (and rock and roll)
Todd: Honestly, I've kinda grown to love this song. He's so evil!
James Young as Dr. Righteous: First we'll spank your big behinds
Todd (VO): But then, oh no, Jonathan Chance comes in with his fiery rebellion! [clip of Shaw as Jonathan Chance playing guitar solo] "Nooooo! He's playing rock 'n roll in my rock 'n roll song!"
Todd: The fact that the rock-hating villian sings rock music is, like, a good sign of how half-assed the whole project is.
Clip of Styx's "Behind the Music" episode on VH1
Todd (VO): See, one of the reasons this all turned out the way it did is because DeYoung wanted to make this a band project, even though the rest of the band didn't get the concept and they just had to finish their previous album which was also a concept album which they also didn't really get, and now they have to try and write about robots and shit.
Tommy: It just kinda came up empty, I just couldn't think of any songs about robots.
Video for "Heavy Metal Poisoning"
I mean, give James Young here credit, he's at least trying. He is hamming it up with gusto. As opposed to Tommy Shaw, who could just not get on board with this whole stupid enterprise at all. And boy, does it show.
Clips of the intro film and the Kilroy tour
Tommy Shaw as Jonathan Chance: You can't stop the music, you bastard! / Damn it! Damn it! / And I heard of a use to escape from prison. I knew in my heart that you've seen it when I jammed Righteous' TV show, right? / This is crazy. Why can't for once we just learn from the past?
Todd (VO): Shockingly, after the band broke up, Shaw did not pursue a film career. Shaw wrote three songs for the album, only one of which was released separately, the fourth and final single "Haven't We Been Here Before."
Clip of "Haven't We Been Here Before"
Tommy: And I (I believe if we) learn from the past, we'd say Haven't we been here before?
I have no idea how it fits in with the concept of the album, but it's the second to last song on the record and by that point I had just stopped trying to figure everything out. Even the video doesn't have anything to do with Kilroy. They had just given up at that point.
Todd: Maybe it would've made sense if you saw it the way it was originally conceived...
Clip of the Kilroy Tour
Todd (VO): ...as a multimedia staged theater musical. The problem was they had to play small theaters where they couldn't make up their extensive budget. And when they tried to bring it to the stadiums they were used to...I mean, they were up there in front of angry rednecks who just want to hear "Blue Collar Man" and they had to sit through bad dinner theater.
Dennis: This could be the longest night
"Boooo! Play 'More than a Feeling' already!" So you can understand why the band broke up after this. In hindsight, is "Kilroy" all that bad an album? Honestly, no. Despite its ambitions, it's basically just a Styx album. If you took out "Mr. Roboto" and the whole sci-fi universe, it'd just be another Styx album. The fans would like it, I would not like it, and the world would keep turning. But the whole mess of gibberish about Kilroy and Dr. Righteous and the Robotos, it all just burns the record with expectations that it can't live up to. It is tragically half-assed, even unfinished arguably, and it doesn't come close to meeting the goals it set for itself. And it's a shame, because MTV could've been really good for the theatricality of prog-rock. Instead "Mr. Roboto" is basically the genre's last gasp at popular relevance. Styx eventually reunited without DeYoung, and to this day DeYoung has not been invited to rejoin the band, so fittingly the band only plays snippets of a couple of "Kilroy" songs in concert. But even with all that I've said about it, I wouldn't want to live in a world without "Mr. Roboto," you know.
Todd: I don't ever choose to sit and listen to it, but I'm glad it exists.
Todd (VO): It's one of those bad ideas that you just can't forget and can't get rid of. If "Mr. Roboto" has any real theme, it's about the fear of becoming obsolete. And that's exactly what happened to Styx. The irony is just too delicious. Styx wanted to sound futuristic, and they ended up sounding so behind the times.
Todd: They could not adapt to the changing tide of modern music. Or "modren" music. Whatever the hell that means.
Clip of "Don't Let It End (Reprise)" from Caught in the Act
Tommy: Keep rock 'n roll alive. Keep it alive.
Ending music: Todd plays "Mr. Roboto" on piano
"Kilroy Was Here" is owned by A&M Records
This video is owned by me
THANK YOU TO THE LOYAL PATRONS!