"Mr. Roboto" was written by Styx singer/keyboard player Dennis DeYoung, who sang lead on the track. In the early '80s, the First Assembly Church of God in Ankeny, Iowa, made news by burning albums with what they considered "Satanic influences." Styx was one of their targets because of the band name: In Greek mythology, the River Styx runs through Hades (hell). This got him thinking about censorship, which formed the central concept of the song. Later, he saw a documentary on robots put to work in factories. DeYoung had been to Japan with the band and was intrigued by their culture. He merged these concepts of censorship, rototics and Japan into "Mr. Roboto," the story of a human/robot hybrid who is called upon to save the world.
Some of the lyrics are in Japanese. The first few lines translate to "thank you very much, Mr. Roboto, until we meet again. Thank you very much Mr. Roboto, I want to know your secret."
Kilroy Was Here
is a concept album that is a commentary on censorship. "Kilroy" is the main character of the album, a famous rock star who is sent to prison by a group called The Majority For Musical Morality. In jail, workers have been replaced by robots called "robotos," and Kilroy escapes inside a robot costume (thus, Mr. Roboto). This song is about his escape from jail; it makes a statement about the dehumanizing of the working class.
Mike - Winnipeg, Canada
To get the futuristic robotic sounds on this track, Dennis DeYoung used a Roland synthesizer with an arpeggiator that had just come on the market. This allowed him to hold a key and play a pattern, which is what he used to create some of the soundscape. It's a case of being one of the first to use a new synth and getting that sound out there before everyone else did. Several hits of the '80s came from presets on new synthesizers (example: "Opposites Attract
Dennis DeYoung spearheaded the "Kilroy" concept. He wrote the album like a screenplay, telling the story of a kid who forms a band after seeing Elvis and The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show
. His fellow band members were far less enthusiastic about the idea.
Along with the director Brian Gibson, DeYoung wrote a short film called Kilroy Was Here
that was shown at the beginning of shows on their tour. Footage from the film was used to make the "Mr. Roboto" video, in which each member of the band played a specific character (DeYoung was Robert Orrin Charles Kilroy - note the acronym). If you watch the film, pay close attention to the guy who plays Jimi Hendrix - that's Michael Winslow, famous for his mouth-generated sound effects and role in the Police Academy
Styx' 1983 tour was a stage production based on the album, with the Kilroy film shown at the beginning of every concert. The film ends in a scene where DeYoung's character takes off his robot helmet and reveals himself to Tommy Shaw's character, at which point the band continued the scene live on stage, with the song "Mr. Roboto" playing, rock opera style. DeYoung and Shaw engaged in some dialog midway through the song, pushing forward a storyline where the masses rise up at the very Styx concert they are playing.
Dennis DeYoung wrote this song as a transition piece to bring the audience from the short film shown at the beginning of the concerts to the live performance. He was shocked when his wife and others who heard it told him he had a hit on his hands.
He was also surprised when it went over so well in concert despite the enigmatic concept. "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," he told Songfacts.
The album title, Kilroy Was Here
, is a phrase that was graffitied all over the place in the 1940s. It went along with a drawing of a creature with a big nose peering over a wall. No one is sure what the phrase means or where it originated, but it was seen in most of Europe and even in Japan during World War II. This slogan was painted in areas that the Allies occupied during the defeat of Germany and Japan.
Patrick - Conyers, GA
Stan Winston, who became one of the most illustrious makeup artist/costume designers in Hollywood, designed the robot masks used in the video for this song. Winston went on to work on the James Cameron films Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Avatar.
The choreography for the robots was by Kenny Ortega, whose credits include Dirty Dancing and High School Musical movies.
The "secret" in the line "secret secret, I've got a secret" is that Mr. Roboto is actually DeYoung's character, who has disabled a robot and is wearing his shell. In the film, this is how he escapes and meets up with Shaw's character.
This was featured in a Volkswagen commercial
for the 1999 Golf where a man is singing along to this in his car, but because the Volkswagen is soundproof, we do not hear him until he opens the door. The star of the spot is Tony Hale, who went on to star in the TV series Arrested Development
This song and the album were very successful, but not everyone in the group was on board with the concept, especially guitarist Tommy Shaw. Every single from the album was a Dennis DeYoung composition (the others were "Don't Let It End" and "High Time"), and Shaw was not thrilled with the musical direction the band was headed, or his role at the Kilroy concerts, where he had to do some acting. When the tour ended, the band split up. They re-formed in 1990, but without Shaw, who had formed Damn Yankees. Shaw came back into the fold in 1996; three years later, DeYoung experienced serious health problems and couldn't tour, so the band hit the road without him, replacing him with Lawrence Gowan. DeYoung never returned to the group; "Mr. Roboto" became a highlight of his solo shows.
Pinocchio performs this song in the movie Shrek 2
Andy - Apex, NC
After the Kilroy Was Here tour ended in 1983, Styx went 35 years without playing this song in its entirety (they sometimes played bits of it in medleys). On May 30, 2018, the band finally put the song back in the setlist when they played it at FivePoint Amphitheatre in Irvine, California when they came on for an encore.
This song became rather prescient decades later with the rise of smartphones and voice assistants. Speaking with Songfacts in 2020, Dennis DeYoung said
: "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."