Styx's Setlist Has a New Addition: 'Mr. Roboto'

From left to right, original bassist Chuck Panozzo, Ricky Phillips (bass), Todd Sucherman (drums), Tommy Shaw (vocals, guitars), James “JY” Young (vocals, guitars), and Lawrence Gowan (vocals, keyboards). Not pictured: Mr. RobotoEXPAND
From left to right, original bassist Chuck Panozzo, Ricky Phillips (bass), Todd Sucherman (drums), Tommy Shaw (vocals, guitars), James “JY” Young (vocals, guitars), and Lawrence Gowan (vocals, keyboards). Not pictured: Mr. Roboto
Rick Diamond, Getty Images for STYX
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Even the staunchest opponent of Styx cannot deny that they're now a part of our cultural landscape.

The band's music is being constantly regurgitated for a new generation of fans unaware of their initial bust-up in 1984. There is South Park's Cartman singing "Come Sail Away" and Jimmy Fallon doing a shot-by-shot re-enactment of the music video for "Too Much Time on My Hands" with Paul Rudd on The Tonight Show. And "Mr. Roboto" has been used prominently in Volkswagen commercials and episodes of Futurama and Arrested Development.

The group's epochal VH1's Behind the Music episode, which chronicled Styx as the first band ever to break up over musical differences and acute embarrassment, depicted the band's successes and Spinal Tap-esque struggles and lead singer Dennis De Young's attempts to insert community theater into stadium rock. But it made fans of people that may have once blanched at ballads like "Babe."

"'Babe' was a little too soft," admits James "JY" Young, Styx's only full-time founding member. "I didn't think we should be doing it, but Dennis wanted to do it, and it became huge, our biggest hit in England."

Although the band still performs "Lady," a viable candidate for the first power ballad, other DeYoung-penned hits like "Babe," Show Me the Way," "Don't Let It End," and "The Best of Times" have not been scribbled onto a setlist since the singer's expulsion in 1999.

By now, Canadian rocker Lawrence Gowan, DeYoung's replacement, has clocked in 20 years of Styx stage time, more than either DeYoung or the band's late drummer, John Panozzo. Things are comfortable enough now that Styx felt they could make a new concept album, the kind they regularly issued when they achieved four consecutive triple-platinum albums (The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone, and Paradise Theatre), or what Young refers to as "the Mighty Four."

The new album (which was released in 2017, but it's probably new to you) is called The Mission. It's a song cycle about a manned mission to Mars. The idea tumbled out of mind of Tommy Shaw and not Young, the band member with a degree in aerospace engineering.

"For us, The Grand Illusion was our most successful record," Young says. "It's a concept record. Paradise Theatre was not a precise concept album. None of them were precise concept albums, but there were concepts through all of the Mighty Four. Then Kilroy was a story that Dennis dreamed up. It was influenced by our trip to Japan, where we saw robots doing welding in the dark, and the welders will be out of work soon. I don't know. That was the inspiration for 'Mr. Roboto.'"

Oh yes, him again.

For the first time in 20 years, "Mr. Roboto" has made its way back into the live repertoire as the first encore.

"It was by popular demand," Young says. "That song was such a hard left turn on the wheel for us that most of our male audience said, 'What happened to these guys? What is this?' But when you have members of the NFL Hall of Fame saying, 'I really like that 'Mr. Roboto's song,' I don't argue with them.

"It was Dennis's dream, and our nightmare. And it's not what I ever saw myself doing. But after going 18 or 19 concert seasons without it, we found ourselves feeling like we were playing the same thing every night. We had The Mission songs, but a year ago we thought about what could we do to make the set a little different. So we asked our lighting director and our merch guy what song does the public request at our shows. For the last 20 years, it's been 'Mr. Roboto.'

"That song alienated the first generation of Styx fans to a point, but it spawned the second generation of fans because those people went back see what else Styx has to offer. That's how they got to learn about the band and like the band. We finally said, 'If that's the only song that is being requested that we're not playing, let's toughen it up, rock it up, and make it our own more than the original one was.

"Look, I played on that record. I tried to make it as good as I could. It was the only [song] of ours that sold a million singles. In 1983, there were only three gold singles on the charts, 'Billie Jean' by Michael Jackson, 'Beat It' by Michael Jackson, and 'Mr. Roboto,' all at the same time. That says something about us."

Styx are scheduled to perform at the Celebrity Theatre on Friday and Saturday, January 10 and 11. Tickets are $40 to $105 via TicketForce.

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