Let’s Look at the Record: Kilroy Was Here

Time for a new, sporadically updated feature in which I pick an album from my past and talk about it more than anyone else cares. Hopefully I’ll be as entertaining as Andrew is in his sporadically updated feature, Albums That Meant Something, which I am ripping off wholesale. With Andrew, you get The Modern Lovers, The Clash, and Modern English. With me, you get

hey wait come back

Everyone knows the hit single off this album, “Mr. Roboto”, which has become something of a punchline for folks. Preserved for culture is a song about thanking robots, but lost in the swamp of trivia is why robots were being thanked.

With Paradise Theater having catapulted Styx into the ionosphere, lead singer Dennis DeYoung followed up in 1983 with Kilroy Was Here, designed to go a step further than what was happening on MTV at the time. It was an anthemic, operatic concept album in which the performers and music were united with video to create a show that bled into both mediums. The band wouldn’t just be a band, they’d be characters in a movie, and the album wouldn’t just be an album, it would be the plot of the movie. Not a bad idea for the time, and it might have even worked, in someone else’s hands.

As it is, we got a ten-minute movie in which a media-friendly fascist preacher named Dr. Righteous (played by James Young, the hard-rockinger, sasquatch-lookinger guy in the band) forms the Majority for Musical Morality, which seeks to ban all rock music. MMM goons burst into a concert by a guy named Robert Orin Charles Kilroy (who has four names so that his initials spell “ROCK”, played by Dennis DeYoung himself) and in the commotion a fan is killed. Kilroy is blamed and is sent to a prison guarded by robots with buck-toothed, slant-eyed faces called “Robotos”. A few years later, a guy named Jonathan Chance (Tommy Shaw, the blonde heartthrob of the band) leads an underground movement to bring back rock by trying to bring back R.O.C.K. He sabotages an MMM broadcast, which inspires Kilroy to overpower and disguise himself as a Roboto to escape jail. Chance and Kilroy then communicate through graffiti to arrange a meeting at the Paradise Theater.

Here’s the movie:

It’s not a bad idea, and the album did go platinum, but pretty much at the cost of the band. I don’t know or want to talk about the history of Styx here, so I’ll just say that the current DeYoung-less lineup of Styx doesn’t play any songs off this album.

Fine, so what does this have to do with me? In 1983 I was 15 years old, I was a nerd who wanted to be a Cool Kid. I already kind of liked Styx (I didn’t have much musical discernment at the time and was still happy to take whatever radio and MTV served me), but when the new album had robots, secret subliminal messages, and a Very Important Anti-Censorship theme? The only way it could involve more of what I was interested in at the time was if it included this photo of Sarah Sutton, who played Nyssa on “Doctor Who”:

I played the ever-loving hell out of this album. I mentioned it on Facebook the other day and an old schoolmate of mine reminded me that I wrote “Kilroy Was Here” on everyone’s notebooks. It was not the first album I bought for myself (that was Billy Joel’s Glass Houses) but it was the first one I really got into in a huge way. And the live show was the first concert I ever went to, resulting in the first band/concert t-shirt I ever owned.

The candle that burns the brightest burns the shortest, though, and I wouldn’t be 15 forever. In a year or so I discovered Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, and other bands of that ilk and Kilroy Was Here was be abandoned.

I hadn’t listened to it or even thought about it much for over 25 years until the other day when something on Twitter reminded me of it. I decided to listen to the whole thing on Spotify. I’d like to say that it hasn’t aged well, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that great even back then. Making fun of it, though, isn’t that appealing because you can hear Dennis DeYoung composing his heart out, putting everything he had into it. It’s so earnest and grasping you can’t help but admire it, even as tortured, ham-fisted lyrics and cliched guitar solos assault you. Seriously, Dennis DeYoung knew he could put out album after album of “Babe”s and “Too Much Time on My Hands”es and do okay, but he had a bigger vision and he went for it, so kudos to him.

If there’s an indie band out there looking for a project, I’d say to cover Kilroy Was Here, but not a direct cover. Use the idea and the songs that are — the story isn’t half bad — and take your own crack at it. I’d love to see what a group like The Arcade Fire, who know their way around a bombastic concept album, could do with it.

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