Styx fans are saying “domo arigato” to the band for bringing “Mr. Roboto” back into the show, in its entirety, for the first time in 35 years. And the band is saying “You’re welcome” — if perhaps just a bit grudgingly.
Styx has returned the song to its show this summer after leaving it out of the setlist for many years — due to bad memories from the acrimonious Kilroy Was Here project in 1983, a concept album spearheaded by former singer-keyboardist Dennis DeYoung that polarized fans and led to a seven-year split of the band. Even now, guitarist James “J.Y.” Young tells Billboard that he’s ambivalent about the song, because of “all the bad things that went along with that record. It was just far off the mark from what I was interested in performing live — and we have plenty of material without it.”
So what brought “Mr. Roboto” back to life? Simple enough — fame and fan interest. The song, which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, got a new lease on life in a 1999 Volkswagen Golf ad featuring actor Tony Hale, and ever since then has enjoyed a revisionist, kitschy status that’s eclipsed any negative connotations it might have conveyed. Young says that fans would often request the song from Styx merchandise and crew members, and from the band when it would perform private shows, which led to a new understanding of and even appreciation for the song’s importance.
“There were young people whose first song they bought was ‘Mr. Roboto,’ and that sent them back to the previous albums,” Young says. “While [‘Mr. Roboto’] killed the momentum of the first huge wave of Styx, it actually spawned the next generation of Styx fans. A lot of people under the age of 12 bought it, and those people are now in their 30s, perhaps even older. It just became clear from an unsophisticated poll that there were people coming to our concerts that wanted to hear that song, so we just decided to try and do it.” But Young hopes that fans will note a difference between the version Styx is playing this summer and the glossy original single.
“It’s reinterpreted into something much more palatable to Tommy [Shaw] and myself and the rest of the gang,” Young says. “We were looking for something new and a curveball to throw at the audience. I can’t say 100 percent of the people love it, but… we’re embracing the fan requests and fulfill a yearning request form a lot of people over the years that we’d turned a deaf ear to.” Original bassist Chuck Panozzo says it also helps that Styx’s “newer” members — singer-keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, bassist Ricky Phillips and drummer Todd Sucherman, “come with no baggage about ‘Mr. Roboto’ or any of our stuff. (Gowan) sings it in a new and fresh light. It’s just another Styx song to them.”
DeYoung, who parted ways with Styx acrimoniously in 1999, responded to “Mr. Roboto’s” inclusion with a lengthy, celebratory social media posting that declared vindication. “It’s just two guys [Young and Shaw] finally admitting the obvious. People like it…Hallelujah.” But while Young isn’t responding to DeYoung’s jibes directly, he says that the “Mr. Roboto” return is not a harbinger of softened attitudes towards Kilroy Was Here — or DeYoung.
“It was an ugly time, but I’m not bitter about it anymore,” Young says. “It’s clear that moment in time was a huge mistake. 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. It doesn’t open that door up for me in the least.”
Styx will be on the road with Joan Jett & the Blackhearts and Tesla through July 15. The group will be releasing an expanded, 5.1 Surround Sound edition of its 2017 album The Mission on July 27, with Shaw recently released Sing For The Day with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra in both audio and video formats.