In the popular consciousness, this is the album that put a halt to Styx’s music career and caused the band to break up. While music critics can debate that assertion until the cows come home, when you actually listen to the album you can see why it’s considered a career flop. There’s no way to put it delicately: Kilroy Was Here isn’t all that good.
Ostensibly, Kilroy Was Here is a concept album. It tells the story of Kilroy (keyboardist and vocalist Dennis DeYoung) who was imprisoned by Dr. Righteous (guitarist and vocalist James Young) because rock music is outlawed and Kilroy’s a big shot rock star. He escapes and meets up with rock star Jonathan Chance (guitarist and vocalist Tommy Shaw) and the two plot to bring rock and roll back. There is barely any way you’d be able to get this plot from the album itself, as Kilroy Was Here doesn’t really explain anything anything related to this concept album gimmick in the album itself. Unlike more unified concept albums, Kilroy swings all over the place. You get the feeling that you’re missing a whole bunch of context—which, if you don’t read the liner notes, a few interviews, and watch the minifilm that Styx made to promote the album, you kind of are. It’s not a good look.
For an album about restoring rock and roll, Kilroy is weirdly sedate. At least three of the songs are midtempo, very dated, very 1980s ballads—a point of contention between DeYoung and the rest of the band. DeYoung was in favor of the ballads, Shaw and Young weren’t. The biggest hit of those ballads, “Don’t Let It End” is far too long and far too generic, as DeYoung attempts to croon his way through cliches and platitudes. The fact that there are three different slow ballads on this concept album of saving rock and roll is odd to begin with, but the fact that one of those ballads serves as part of the album’s final reprise is baffling. Each brings the album to a screeching halt as we suffer through five minutes of soft rock.
Of course, the parts that do interact with the ‘hot shot rebels save rock and roll’ concept are equally cheesy. The biggest offender is “Mr. Roboto,” a song that features an amazingly goofy chorus, a half-assed anti-technology screed, and Dennis DeYoung’s inability to pronounce the word ‘modern.’ It’s dumb as hell and “domo arigato, Mister Roboto” is an inherently silly phrase to build a song around, which is probably the reason the song’s lasted this long and wormed its way into the public consciousness.
Though believe it or not, “Mr. Roboto” isn’t the goofiest song on the album. That dishonor goes to “Heavy Metal Poisoning,” ostensibly the villain song of the piece sung by James Young as Dr. Righteous. The problem with rock musicals or rock concept albums where people try to stop the rock is that inevitably, the bad guys are going to get a rock song of their own to sing as well: case in point, We Will Rock You. “Heavy Metal Poisoning” solves that problem by not being a very good rock song to begin with. Poor James Young is trying his hardest but it’s obvious that singing isn’t his strongest suit. The melody is simple, the lyrics are childish, and the song blows right past the intended camp to something downright ridiculous. At least the song has one saving grace: the video, where James Young is obviously having the time of his LIFE.
Does Kilroy Was Here deserve the hate it gets? Not really. There are some beautiful cheesy gems hidden in there between the bad and the boring. But is Kilroy Was Here a good album? Not in the slightest. I wish that Styx had gone out on a better note, but listening to this album you can tell it was going to end fairly soon. It’s campy and goofy and slightly fun in some places, but it just isn’t good. Sorry, Styx. A band as prolific as you were should have ended on a better note.