It took the members of Styx 35 years to come to terms with a song that tore the 1970s rockers apart at the seams.
But last year, James “JY” Young, Tommy Shaw and the rest of the band started playing “Mr. Roboto” again in its entirety.
It came down to the fans.
Whenever they bought a T-shirt from the concert merchandise booth or passed the lighting console within earshot of the longtime lighting director, fans would bemoan the fact that the band skipped the song.
“The merch guy who’s worked with us for years selling t-shirts got five to 10 people a night asking for the song,” Young said during a phone call last week to talk about the band’s show Thursday, July 25, at Tucson Music Hall.
But “Mr. Roboto,” the lead single off the band’s 1983 concept album “Kilroy Was Here,” was a sore spot for the band, which had built itself into one of the biggest arena rock acts of the 1970s. Beginning with its breakthrough 1977 album “The Grand Illusion,” the Chicago band scored four consecutive triple-platinum (3 million in sales) albums.
Then came “Kilroy,” which Young described as the “hard left turn on the wheel” that broke the band.
It was former band member Dennis DeYoung’s idea and Young supported it.
“I backed up Dennis doing that because he led the charge,” said the 70-year-old guitarist/co-lead singer. “He was the most significant writer; ‘Lady’ was the first hit and he sang and wrote that and I felt he deserved the benefit of the doubt. But it really broke up the band.”
Members started fighting over creative direction. It quickly became ugly.
“He had this grand scheme for the project. We spent a million dollars on a 10-minute feature film to be part of our live presentation and we spent money like water and then ‘Mr. Roboto,’ which was the lead song, alienated probably half of our male rock audience if not more,” Young recalled. “Ultimately we stopped working after that because it was an ugly battle after battle after battle, and unhappiness after unhappiness after unhappiness. We just had to go off on our own for awhile.”
Styx members went in different solo directions after the 1983 “Kilroy” tour and remained on their own until “no one succeeded like Sting or Phil Collins.”
“We thought the best thing to do was get the band back together,” he said.
The band — sans Shaw, who was recording and touring with Damn Yankees (featuring Ted Nugent, Jack Blades and Michael Cartellone) — regrouped in 1990. Shaw jumped back on in 1995 and DeYoung stuck around until 1999 when creative differences once again divided members.
Young, Shaw and founding member Chuck Panozzo have been touring throughout the 2000s. In 2003, they released “Cyclorama,” their first post-DeYoung record of new material. Fourteen years later, they released the followup, “The Mission,” but Young said there’s little incentive for the band these days to release new music; they have mostly been focused on music videos and live performance projects.
“There’s no radio outlet for (new material) and it was spending a lot of time and energy in the recording studio, beating your head against the wall to make a great album and then having no one really paying attention to it,” he said.
“Mr. Roboto” will likely fall at the end of a two-hour show, after Styx has gone through their iconic hits including “The Grand Illusion,” Miss America,” “Snowblind,” Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” “Pieces of Eight,” “Radio Silence” and “Rockin’ the Paradise” among them.
“I love being a performer and it brings me great joy to bring other people joy,” Young said, which is perhaps the biggest reason he set aside his animosity over “Roboto” and began performing it again. “People come to relive their glorious misspent youth and we were the soundtrack of that. They want to hear ‘Come Sail Away,’ they want to hear ‘Renegade,’ ‘Blue Collar Man,’ ‘Too Much Time on My Hands.’”
But there is still one big Styx hit you won’t hear on Thursday night or any other.
“We don’t play ‘Babe’ because that’s kind of Dennis DeYoung’s ode to his wife,” Young said. “And that song was a little too Barry Manilow for my tastes.”