In almost every case, if you go to see a legacy rock group on tour in the 21st century, you can expect a certain amount of comfort food. Sure, bands may be soldiering on with patched-together lineups, they may be trying to sell new songs alongside the ones people have loved for 30 or 40 or 50 years, but you can usually rest assured you’ll hear all the major hits you paid to see. Every now and then, there’s an exception. Up until recently, Styx fell into the latter camp by dutifully filling their set with “Come Sail Away” and “Renegade” and such, but steadfastly refusing to perform their deeply goofy, very famous 1983 song “Mr. Roboto.” (The song had previously reappeared tagged onto “Edge Of The Century” back around 2000, after a 1999 Volkswagen commercial featuring Tony Hale sparked some renewed awareness of the Styx hit.) Now on tour with Joan Jett & The Blackhearts and Tesla, they’ve caved and reintroduced the song into their set.
Judging by an interview with Billboard, “caved” is very much the correct word here. Guitarist James “J.Y.” Young offered some thoughts on the band’s decision to finally resurrect the song, noting the prevalence of fan requests. In what reads a whole lot like Young trying to put a positive spin on it for himself, he asserts that while the song was symbolic of a pretty much catastrophic, career-derailing period in the Styx story, it also served as an introduction to a younger generation of then-new fans who are now getting older themselves and really want to hear “Mr. Roboto” when they go to see Styx in 2018.
At this juncture, you might be asking “Why do Styx have such a thing against ‘Mr. Roboto,’ anyway?” After all, almost every once-embarrassing chapter of rock history has been exhumed and re-embraced in some way by now. Styx may be one of the only significant remaining exceptions there, part of the cheesy, overblown ’70s prog era, but also one of the groups who drifted into schmaltz-y soft rock. History can forgive a lot of creative transgressions, but even Styx’s jams can sometimes still feel like guilty pleasures.
For a bit more narrative about the whole thing, it’s worth revisiting this segment from their old Behind The Music episode. Now, if you’re a secondary or tertiary ’70s/’80s rock band with a Behind The Music episode to begin with, chances are you’re traveling in some This Is Spinal Tap-type waters. And indeed, the era that birthed “Mr. Roboto” was some cartoonish shit. Styx’s frontman/keyboardist Dennis DeYoung was wrangling creative control of the band, and insisted on crafting a rock opera called Kilroy Was Here that was about a future society in which rock music was banned and … I’m not even going to finish this. If you start reading a sentence that says someone in the ’70s or ’80s “insisted on crafting a rock opera” that involved robots, you know we’re talking about one of rock’s self-parody near-death moments.
Anyway, check out the clip below, where Young and Tommy Shaw talk about the disaster of the album and its attendant tour, in which DeYoung scripted a theatrical play for the Kilroy songs. They lost a bunch of money touring this in theaters when they could’ve been playing stadiums, and when they did take it to stadiums while touring with some harder-edged acts, they got booed. The whole thing is sort of hilarious.
Styx had been on a roll up until this point. By the end of this tour, Shaw had quit and their stock had taken a beating. After breakups and reunions and attempts to continue working with DeYoung unfolded over the rest of the ’80s and ’90s, Styx has continued on without him this century. And it’s no wonder that this song would still feel like a thorn in their side. Who would want to relive that era, especially for a song as unrepentantly corny as “Mr. Roboto?” In that Billboard interview, Young was quick to stipulate that the version they’re playing now was rearranged so that it was “more palatable” to him and Shaw.
None of this matters to DeYoung, because he is one of those mystical classic rock creatures with a complete lack of self-awareness and an overflowing sense of self-confidence even about things that really, truly, almost completely objectively suck. So, DeYoung took to Facebook and rejoiced that his old band had finally deigned to re-introduce “Mr. Roboto” — in that hallowed position of the encore, even, as DeYoung passive-aggressively notes.
A few times over, DeYoung alternates between defending the song and bemoaning all the derision it’s (rightfully) earned over the years. Overall, though, you can tell he feels vindicated, and he even throws out the distant notion of a full Styx reunion where all the old Styx hits can finally live together in peace. If that Billboard interview is anything to go by, however, Young is not having any of that shit.
“It was an ugly time, but I’m not bitter about it anymore. It’s clear that moment in time was a huge mistake,” he said. Definitely not sounding like a man who was bitter anymore, he continued: “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.”
You can revisit the original song below, if you are so inclined.