Songwriter Interviews

Dennis DeYoung

by Greg Prato

Share this post

DeYoung explains why "Mr. Roboto" is the defining Styx song, and what the "gathering of angels" represents in "Come Sail Away."

There were few rock bands that enjoyed as much success as Styx did during the late '70s and early '80s, when the band scored five Top 10 albums (including the #1 Paradise Theatre) and seven Top 10 singles (including the #1 "Babe"), and rocked arenas. And the singer for the vast majority of the band's hits was none other than Dennis DeYoung.

After departing from Styx in 1999, DeYoung has continued on as a solo artist, and in April 2020, he issued his sixth solo studio effort, 26 East (the title is a reference to the address where DeYoung grew up in Roseland, Illinois, on the far south side of Chicago). And it turns out that Mr. DeYoung was quite prolific with writing material for the album – there will be a Volume 2 arriving in the near future.

Here, DeYoung, whose hitlist includes "The Grand Illusion," "Come Sail Away" and "Desert Moon," shares his thoughts on the meanings behind those songs and gives a very revealing answer to the question "What's your favorite Styx song?"
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Do you consider 26 East a concept album? "East Of Midnight" is about your early days, but a song like "With All Due Respect" is not.

Dennis DeYoung: Yes, it's a concept album, and here's the concept: don't suck. That was it. Other than that, it's only conceptual in that it's just me, and I'm trying to tell you kids what my views are and the things I observe in life. That's all I have to give you is my point of view.

So, I sit down, try to write some notes, some chords, and some words, and tell you my story – and hope that you find yourself in my story.

Songfacts: Lyrically, I thought "With All Due Respect" is a distant relative of "The Grand Illusion." Do you agree?

DeYoung: I think it's a cry for sanity in the way news and political opinion has morphed into. These people who used to be in the news business have decided that by putting polar opposites into a room like the WWE - where cage fighting is a good idea - will help democracy. It is not. It will kill it. But they're doing it to get clicks, eyeballs, and ears, which is creating political theater that is doing damage to this great country of ours, with one goal in mind: selling beer, or whatever. That's all they care about. The more dramatic, the more ridiculous, the louder the voices, the more the theater, the conflict, the more they like it. It's dangerous and I really believe in my heart that "With all due respect, you are an asshole" [part of the song's lyric].

If anybody reads into this that I'm for one side or the other, then they're part of the problem. Because what I'm saying is they've got the answers from me and you in ruby red and royal blue. So, I just feel all of them need to take a step back and not look at the bottom line as the be-all end-all of our democracy. Human beings, as we are, are not all in little sub-groups. If politically the parties claim that either side, as they have done recently, never had a good idea, I suspect they should probably get some history books.

"The Grand Illusion" was more about, "Look at us up here on this stage in these good lights. You kids there in the audience in the 14th row, you think we know stuff? We may know a little bit, but deep inside, we're all the same. And what we're doing and what people that advertise to you on the radio, TV, and magazines, by creating illusions and images about how your life should be, those are just their fantasies, because nobody's life is like it."

So, in 1977, I decided I would tell the fans, "You know what we're selling? We're selling music, baby! We're selling T-shirts and concert tickets. So, take it for what it is. If you think we know something you don't, maybe we do, maybe we don't."

What other rock band did that? Especially in that era. A lot of bands from that era – Foreigner, Queen, Journey, Styx – they kind of get lumped. I say, "No. At times, we were like Dr. Seuss. We were trying to think the big think. Take a step back and go, 'What's going on in our country?'" That's what we did and I don't think we get any credit for it. Because? The style of music was big and dramatic... and dare I say, pompous. You're damn right it is! [Laughs]

Songfacts: How did the duet with Julian Lennon, "To The Good Old Days," come about?

Julian Lennon snapping a selfie with Dennis
DeYoung: I wrote a Beatles song as a tribute to the guys who gave me my life. I saw them on Ed Sullivan and decided that's what I'd do for a living. On my last album, I was going to write a song that was a tribute to that night and I did and it's really cool – it will be on Volume 2.

I was looking to get somebody to sing with me – a two-part harmony like Lennon and McCartney. I was going to send it to Julian and I decided not to at the last minute because I thought it would not be appropriate for him. I went to the piano and thought, "What would Julian and I sing like?" And wrote "To The Good Old Days." I sent it to him, even though I didn't know him and I never met him. He liked it and said he'd be honored to do it, and he did it! How about that for the universe spinning correctly?

Songfacts: What does the "gathering of angels" represent in "Come Sail Away"?

DeYoung: "Come Sail Away" is a song about yearning to be in a better place. How do you get there? You go on a boat, on a ship, angels waving their wings as you ascend to heaven with them. Is there something going on? A starship to the stars? Are they aliens? Is it Captain Kirk? You tell me.

What's the vehicle by which you can go from here where you are at point A and get to point B, where it is you want to be? Did you ever know that about that song?

Songfacts: No!

DeYoung: What did you think it was about?

Songfacts: It's tough to say, but I absolutely loved how that song was used in the TV show Freaks And Geeks.

The now-cult-classic TV show Freaks And Geeks ran for only a single season (and a total of 18 episodes) from 1999-2000, but helped launch the careers of director Judd Apatow, actors Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Jason Segel, and actress Linda Cardellini. Set in a Michigan town during the school year of 1980-81, the show perfectly captured the trials and tribulations of being a teen during that time, and featured a stellar soundtrack, which for two memorable scenes, showcased the music of Styx.

The "Come Sail Away" scene Dennis speaks of below takes place at a school dance; "Lady" plays when Jason Segel uses the song to open his heart to Linda Cardellini.
DeYoung: It doesn't get better than that, son. The usage of that music in that moment... I watched it cold and had tears in my eyes because of what it captured. Forget the lyrics in the song. They don't suck, but the human condition is captured beautifully with this. All we want as human beings is approval, a pat on the head, to have somebody tell us we're OK and "we love you." At that moment, it showed the vulnerability of all of us. And those goddamned Styx guys had to speed the song up!

But that's Judd Apatow. I don't know why, but a lot of comedians really like Styx. My buddy Adam Sandler, same thing. So, it's a song of yearning. Go back and listen to it and you'll hear that guy singing, "We lived happily forever so the story goes."

"Mr. Roboto" is the lead track on the 1983 Styx concept album, Kilroy Was Here, which follows a rock star (Kilroy) as he is imprisoned by an oppressive government. The "robotos" are the mechanical guards; Kilroy escapes by impersonating one of them.

Along with the album, Styx commissioned a short film that played to open their concerts on the tour, with the band picking up the action live and going into "Mr. Roboto."

Kilroy was DeYoung's brainchild. Fans loved it, but his bandmates were less enthusiastic. The band split up after the tour, and when they re-formed in 1990, it was without Tommy Shaw, the biggest of the Kilroy curmudgeons. Shaw came back into the fold in 1996, but that lineup lasted just three years; when health problems kept DeYoung off the road in 1999, the band replaced him and lopped off many of Dennis' songs from the setlist, including "Mr. Roboto." Not only were the stage shows Roboto-free, the official video was kept off YouTube until 2018, when Styx finally starting playing it again in concert.
Songfacts: Why do you think "Mr. Roboto" has endured so well?

DeYoung: Well, to start, it does have the lines:

The problem's plain to see
Too much technology
Machines to save our lives
Machines dehumanized


But, more importantly, "Domo arigato Mr. Roboto" is catchy as hell! I made the claim that if VEVO had put up "Mr. Roboto" when they put up "Come Sail Away" 10 years ago, that song would be the most-watched video in Styx's history. We would have had 50 million views on it if they had done it. They just did a couple of years ago, and already we're up to almost 15 million. That's going to be, like it or not - and I can't say I like it – the defining song over all of them. Because going forward, robots are going to matter. And once again, everybody wants to "do the robot." So, there you go.

I wrote the song because it fits a transitional piece from the backstory movie from our live show to the concert stage. I never thought it was going to be a hit record – ever. And my wife said, "Yes, it is." And I said, "No, it isn't. What are people going to think when I yell out, 'I'm Kilroy!?'" Guess what, my friend? They yell "Kilroy" like they're out of their minds at the end of the song when I play it, and I still don't know why, because I guarantee you, 75% of them have no idea what Kilroy is doing in there. Just goes to show you, we don't know nothing.

Songfacts: What's the lyrical inspiration for the song "Desert Moon"?

DeYoung: Crazy shit. A friend of mine told me they were looking for somebody to write a song for the movie Dune, so I started reading the Frank Herbert books, which my wife loves but I hate that kind of stuff. I read it, and I said, "OK. Moons, desert planet." I started to write it, and before I got anywhere, they said they'd hired somebody else. So, I thought, "Well, I've got moons and desert," and I came up with a completely different story.

Isn't that crazy? "Desert Moon" becomes an imaginary place in your past to which you desperately want to return, where life seemed simple and innocent, which is what "To The Good Old Days" is about, isn't it? I think I only have four good ideas and I just repeat them.

Songfacts: Before, you said "Mr. Roboto" is probably going to be the song that everyone remembers most from Styx, but what is your personal favorite Styx song overall?

DeYoung: I don't care, because this music is not about me – it's about you Greg, and all the people out there. Here's how it goes: I put some notes together, chords, and stick words on them. And what I do is I tell my tale. That's all I do. And then, it goes out, and it belongs to you.

What I hope you do is listen to my tale and find yourself in my story, and that's what happens when you get it right. People think it's about them. It isn't. It's about me. And if any songwriters can say it better than that, I want to know what it is. You own this music.

What's my favorite? You decide. I'm just doing this stuff. I'm easy. I'm a sucker. I want you to like me, Greg. Do you like me?

Songfacts: Yes!

DeYoung: OK! It's accomplished. You meet me, we're talking, you want me to like you, don't you? Why not? We're not looking for punishment, we're not looking for people to dislike us, we want to be loved and respected. I'm not different, and neither are you. So, if you like me, if you like this song, I'm happy for you, because I'm thinking, "Look what I did."

Sondheim said he's "finishing the hat." It's about a painter, Seurat, and he's trying to paint this hat on the canvas. It's basically saying, "I'm just making this shit up." I'm making it up, but it's me, and if you like it, it's now yours. It belongs to you. It doesn't belong to me. Because I didn't do this to have it stay in my basement. I did this looking for you.

May 13, 2020
More interviews:

Fee Waybill of The Tubes
Richard Marx
Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon
David Paich of Toto
Michael Sadler of Saga

photos: Rebecca Wolf (1), John Welzenbach (3)

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 2

  • Recordsteve from Emerald Coast, FlEnlightening interview=keep up the good work. C'ya on the flip side....
  • Chipp Ross from PdxWOW, what a great article. Thank you Dennis for all the note's,chords and word's you've gifted us.
see more comments

Butch VigSongwriter Interviews

The Garbage drummer/songwriter produced the Nirvana album Nevermind, and Smashing Pumpkins' Gish and Siamese Dream.

LecraeSongwriter Interviews

The Christian rapper talks about where his trip to Haiti and his history of addiction fit into his songs.

Neal Smith - "I'm Eighteen"They're Playing My Song

With the band in danger of being dropped from their label, Alice Cooper drummer Neal Smith co-wrote the song that started their trek from horror show curiosity to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Benny MardonesSongwriter Interviews

His song "Into The Night" is one of the most-played of all time. For Benny, it took him to hell and back.

The Punk Photography of Chris SteinSong Writing

Chris Stein of Blondie shares photos and stories from his book about the New York City punk scene.

Supertramp founder Roger HodgsonSongwriter Interviews

Roger tells the stories behind some of his biggest hits, including "Give a Little Bit," "Take the Long Way Home" and "The Logical Song."