FARGO — The good news for Styx fans is that the band will be rocking “Mr. Roboto” when they play Scheels Arena on Thursday, March 21.
For decades, the group avoided playing one of their biggest songs in favor of other classics like "Lady," "Too Much Time on My Hands" and "The Best of Times."
While the band is happy to give fans what they want, "Mr. Roboto" is a bit bittersweet. It was one of the band’s biggest hits, but it also lead to the end of the group’s classic lineup.
“‘Mr Roboto’ is something that did help break up the band,” says singer/guitarist James “JY” Young. “We didn’t pay it for the first 15 years without Dennis DeYoung but we finally added it to our show in the last year. That was the most-requested song we didn’t play, so we put it in the set.”
The song was written by singer lead DeYoung for the 1983 concept album, “Kilroy Was Here.” A rock opera, the album was a jab at Christian fundamentalists and other crusaders against rock 'n' roll.
“Dennis had gigantic plans for it,” Young told the Sioux City Journal earlier this month. “Nobody really liked the idea except him. We went along with it because he had been the creative leader.”
“Kilroy Was Here” tells of a time in the future where rock music is banned by a fascist ruling party, the Majority for Musical Morality, led by Dr. Righteous, played in the music videos for the album by Young. DeYoung plays the locked-up rock star Robert Orin Charles Kilroy (that’s R.O.C.K., if you didn’t get it) who breaks out when he hears young Jonathan Chance, played by Styx singer/guitarist Tommy Shaw, is intent on bringing rock music back to the masses. Kilroy dons the mask of one of Dr. Righteous' guard robots to escape, which sets up “Mr. Roboto.”
While the album was meant to champion rock 'n' roll and the song decries the dehumanization of computers, it’s mostly a synth-pop number, something that bothered Young then and still now.
“It was a big song and a big single, but it killed our album sales. It appeals to very young people,” he says.
So how is the song going over with fans now?
"For the most part, it gets a huge response," Young told the Arizona Republic earlier this year. "I mean, we've had a few people giving us the finger in the first row, but not many."
“Kilroy Was Here” was a breaking point for the band. Shaw left the group after the tour, which featured the band acting out the story onstage. After that, the band went on hiatus.
When the group reformed later in the 1980s, Shaw had already committed to hard-rock supergroup Damn Yankees. Shaw rejoined in 1995 and the group released one more album before parting with DeYoung in 1999.
The last remaining full-time original member of the group — bassist Chuck Panozzo only plays occasionally — Young hasn’t started planning for the group’s 50th anniversary in three years. He’s pretty certain about one thing, however: Asked what the chances of a reunion with DeYoung were, he only said, “Extremely slim.”
“I was always the guy that pushed things toward rock and made the soft songs a little edgier if I could get away with it,” he says. “Dennis would take my songs and try to make them a little more melodic and lyrical. Ultimately, though we battled like crazy between us about what should and shouldn’t be on the records, I think we created a great body of work that appeals to a wide range of human beings."
In 2017, the group released a new album, "The Mission," and Young says at 69, he's still having fun playing to the fans.
"The future is still ahead of us," he says. "We’re finding more of a younger audience finding their way, people in their 20s are somehow learning about Styx. Considering our heyday ended in 1981, certainly in '83 anyway, that’s pretty amazing.”
Thank you very much, “Mr. Roboto.”
If you go
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 21
Where: Scheels Arena, 5225 31st Ave. S., Fargo
Info: Tickets from $47.50 to $81.50, plus fees; https://jadepresents.com