Transcript 107–Mister Roboto

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, and I’m not tanned, but I am rested and ready.  

Remember to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, (ow) How Good It Is Pod.

Today’s trivia question is kind of an easy one, but who knows: maybe it will trip you up anyway. Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made For Walking” was not originally intended for her to record. So who WAS going to record the song before she talked them out of it?

I’ll have that answer to that question near the end of the show.

So if we’re going to talk about the song “Mister Roboto,” we have to put it in the broader context of the album, which is called Kilroy Was Here. And the reason for that is because Kilroy Was Here is meant to be a kind of rock opera, and a kind of object lesson. Lead singer Dennis DeYoung envisioned it as an album, and a stage show, and the show would open with a short film with that same title.

DeYoung was inspired by an incident in the early 1980s when the First Assembly Church of God in the town of Ankeny, Iowa made it into the news by holding a rally where they burned record albums which contained what they considered to be “Satanic Influences.” And simply because of their name, Styx was among the church’s targets. For those of you who don’t know, in Greek mythology, Styx is the name of the river that runs through Hades, and one had to cross the river in order to get into the underworld. So, this put DeYoung on the path to thinking about censorship in general.

Around the same time, DeYoung had been to Japan with the band, and was pretty intrigued by Japanese culture and specifically the robots that had been put to work in factories there. He took these ideas and merged them into “Mr. Roboto,” the story of a robot/human hybrid who is called upon to save the world.

So the overall story here involves a dystopian future where rock music is outlawed by a theocratic, fascist government, along with an agency called the Majority for Musical Morality, or the M M M, led by Dr. Everett Righteous, played by James “JY” Young. Dr. Righteous has imprisoned our hero, whose name is Robert Orin Charles Kilroy, performed by Dennis DeYoung. Did you catch the initials in that Robert Orin Charles Kilroy thing, there? Yeah. That’s the quality of writing we’re shooting for, here.

Anyway.

So Kilroy is in jail, and he notices that the workers have been replaced with robots, called Robotos. He learns that a young musician named Jonathan Chance, played by Tommy Shaw, is on a mission to bring rock music back. To whom, or from where, I’m not sure. So Kilroy disguises himself as a robot and manages to escape Dr. Righteous’ prison. Thus, the song “Mr. Roboto” is the part of the story where the escape takes place and at the same time it’s about the dehumanizing of the working class. So the song is basically the transition from the short film to the live concert, when the whole thing is put into a presentation context.

[MR ROBOTO]

At the end of the film, DeYoung takes off the robot helmet and reveals himself to Tommy Shaw’s character, with the whole “I’m Kilroy!” bit at the end of the single, at which point the story continues with the live band playing on stage.

From a production standpoint, in order to get the robotic sounds on this record, DeYoung used a couple of electronic devices which were brand-new at the time.

The first one was a vocoder, which wasn’t ridiculously new, but it wasn’t often used in pop music, and that’s what gives us the “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto” catchphrase…

…incidentally, are you having a tough time understanding that? That’s because it’s in Japanese. They’re saying—and for the second time in over a hundred episodes, I have to ask you to excuse my ridiculously bad Japanese:

Domo arigato misuta Roboto

Mata au hi ma-de

Domo arigato misuta Roboto

Himitsu o shiritai

Which translates to:

Thank you very much, Mr. Roboto

Until the day we meet again

Thank you very much, Mr. Roboto

I want to know your secret

The other bit of technology was, in fact, so new that nobody had used it before in a popular record. That was the robotic sounds throughout the song, and they were created by a Roland synthesizer that had an arpeggiator built in, which allows the player to hold a key and play a pattern. You can hear a similar use of the synthesizer preset technique in Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract.”

So where did the name Kilroy and the album title come from? I’m glad you asked. Back in the World War Two era, the phrase Kilroy Was Here was a phrase that was graffitied pretty much everywhere in the 1940s, and it was usually accompanied by a drawing of a bald person with a big nose peeking over a wall, and usually you’d see his fingers grabbing the top of the wall as well. Nobody is really sure where it originated, but it was both peculiar enough and popular enough that Adolf Hitler began to believe that it was a code word related to some high-level Allied spy. Kilroy is very similar to a World War One Australian graffiti signature named Foo, as in Foo was here, but at some point the legends merged together and Kilroy was the one that remained in popular culture.

Now, both the song and the album were very popular, with the song making it to Number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Number 1 in Canada. But the fact is, the rest of the band was never really on board with the concept, and the band split up at the end of the tour. Tommy Shaw in particular didn’t like the song at all and thought that Styx was alienating a big part of its audience. And it did, in fact, show in both album sales and ticket sales for the tour. When they re-formed in 1990, Tommy Shaw was with the band Damn Yankees, so he didn’t join them. However, Shaw came back in 1996 but a few years after that, Dennis DeYoung had some health issues and couldn’t tour, so the band replaced him with Lawrence Gowan. DeYoung never came back to Styx, and the band carried on. However, from the time the Kilroy Was Here Tour ended in 1983, Styx went for 35 years without playing the song in its entirety in concert, only maybe playing bits of it during a medley. But in 2018 they did return it to the lineup. JY Young notes that it does get a huge response. Sometimes it’s a few people in the front row giving them the finger, but other than that it’s done well for them when it appears, usually in the encore set.

[BOOTS]

And now, it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you to identify the person who was supposed to record “These Boots Were Made For Walking” before Nancy Sinatra talked them into giving it to her instead.

This one wasn’t too tough, I don’t think: it was the song’s writer, Lee Hazelwood. Hazelwood was a well-established artist in his own right, and they’d already done some work together, but she was looking for a solo hit and she landed on this one, which he’d written some time earlier. Nancy told Lee that “when a guy sings it, the song sounds harsh and abusive, but it’s perfect for a little girl.” So despite the fact that he’d written the song based on something he’d heard another guy say, he agreed with her and she got to record it. And, of course, the song went to Number One on the Billboard chart.

[HAZELWOOD BOOTS]

Now, Hazelwood DID record the song that same year, with some goofy asides, and originally I thought it was the same music track, but in fact it’s a little bit different…

..and, of course, it was covered many times by both men and women, including Jessica Simpson, who turned it into a Top 20 hit in many countries worldwide, including Australia and Ireland, where it peaked at Number Two.

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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we look at some songs that were inspired by books.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.