The most expensive coffee in the world is produced in Thailand. The Black Ivory Coffee Company harvests the coffee beans and then feeds them to elephants. Enzymes in the elephant digestive tract “roast” the beans. Then, once the elephants have moved their bowels, the beans are harvested for a second time.
And then there’s Styx’s 1983 album Kilroy Was Here.
You might read that transition and think to yourself, “Holy crap, that’s harsh.” (See what I did there?) You want to believe that the album, and the cringeworthy major hit from it, “Mr. Roboto,” are better than what people say about them. And then you listen, wondering, “What were they thinking?” Actually, you might be thinking all sorts of other things, what with it being the 1980s and all…
The band Styx had just come off a creative high point, the album Paradise Theatre (1981), which combined in equal measure Tommy Shaw’s pop-rock sensibilities, Dennis DeYoung’s theatrical balladry, and James “J.Y.” Young’s heavier side. The balance, however, was upended when it was deemed that the next project would be a concept album backed by a movie musical about a rocker in a strange, future dystopia where rock and roll is not allowed. The “real” hit of the album Kilroy Was Here would be the single “Don’t Let It End,” which emotionally has threads back to Paradise Theatre‘s “The Best of Times.”
The majority of what remains is a melodramatic, hyperbolic, frequently straight-up goofy record. “Mr. Roboto” has been rendered a punchline after these many decades. The harsh synths that swallow up the majority of the sonic palette of the album have aged poorly. A lot of the blame it laid at DeYoung’s feet, he being a devotee of musical theater. Kilroy Was Here seeks to be a Rocky Horror Picture Show but ends up like a fan fiction scribble of it. And to my knowledge, the movie never got made. It would be the second disappointment for cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth in 1983, following the thudding bomb that was the movie Blade Runner. Blade Runner found appreciation over time. Kilroy Was Here does not.
But you need to plunge into that pile of elephant turd and – indulge me here – you might just find a perfect coffee bean. That would be the Shaw-sung “Just Get Through This Night,” a song so out of place on this record, it screams to be freed. It’s a pop ballad, the likes of which Styx had become known for, but it’s air of desperation was different from the likes of “The Best of Times” or the massive success that was “Babe.” In many ways, “Just Get Through This Night” has the lyrical lineage of “Renegade,” if not the pounding rock heartbeat of it.
The protagonist – one assumes – is Jonathan Chase, the hero who will bring back the once-lauded rocker Kilroy from exile, to fight the fascistic MMM (the Majority for Musical Morality), an analogue to the Conservative Right’s various wars on pop music in the ’80s. Chase dreams of all that he might accomplish if he can escape the present darkness, the totalitarianism of the MMM to “protect the innocent from the horrors and vice of rock and roll.”
“Just Get Through This Night” is nowhere near the heavy-handedness that shoves down the rest of the record, and is therefore the most effective cut. The rest of the songs seem to emulate, not satirize, the crusades of Frederick Wertheim against the moral rot of comic books; Tipper Gore’s battle against Frank Zappa, Dee Snyder, and Rob Halford; and any number of people, some of whom were well-meaning and well-intended. Others were about control, pure and simple. They did not have reign over the medium, therefore having no reign over the message, so they chose to attack said medium.
Rock music has, throughout its existence, stood in as a proxy for rebellion. It’s bizarre to hear the Kilroy songs, and practically any song that insists you “gotta stand up for the rock ‘n roll!” It is passe. It’s quaint in the way that Beach Boys songs about how great that car is now sound, or the Patti Page song about how great Old Cape Cod is, or any subject that is not directly sexual-relationship-based now seems.
“Just Get Through This Night” exerts the right amount of yearning, handily putting the rest of the record to shame, and should have been released as a single. Considering that the album was DeYoung’s baby, while this track was a Tommy Shaw concoction, that probably was never going to happen. It still saddens me that the world has come to see Kilroy Was Here as this giant mistake, but squirreled deep inside of it is a valuable gem. But who will dare stick their hand into the turd to go after it?