Music

Friday A/V Club: The Terrible Things That Can Happen When a Pop Act Makes a Movie

An artifact of the last great rock panic

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A&M Records

When hip hop replaced rock as young Americans' favorite form of music, it also stole rock's central place in the country's musical moral panics. We haven't had a notable rock panic in ages—maybe not since some overexcited scolds convinced themselves that Marilyn Manson was responsible for the Columbine massacre—and we haven't had a really big one since the 1980s, when senators and their spouses could get worked up about all the sex and Satanism supposedly occupying their children's ears.

That '80s panic was a doozy, though. I remember listening to a late-night radio interview with Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw, back around 1983 or so, and hearing him get exasperated when the talk turned to the controversy around the band's anti-drug song "Snowblind." In addition to allegedly containing a Satanic message that could be heard if the record was played backwards—this was a common accusation in those days—the track when played forward featured the lyrics "Harmless and innocent, you devil in white/You stole my will without a fight." Some people had taken those lines literally and decided the group was singing about submission to an actual devil. Clearly frustrated, Shaw exclaimed: "It's about cocaine, dummy!"

The band wound up plowing those frustrations into a concept album, 1983's Kilroy Was Here, and a short film that the group started showing before its concerts. Here's how Stephen Holden described the latter in The New York Times:

In the film, James Young, Styx's 33-year-old lead guitarist, plays Dr. Everett Righteous, a demagogue who turns his own cable network into a potent political base. Blaming society's ills on rock music, Dr. Righteous and his organization, the Majority for Musical Morality (MMM) gain enough power to have rock music banned in America. Any similarities between the MMM and the Moral Majority are not purely coincidental.

"Kilroy Was Here" is the brainchild of Dennis DeYoung, Styx's 36-year-old senior member, keyboardist, lead singer, and writer of most of the group's hits. Mr. DeYoung plays Robert Kilroy, a famous rock star who is falsely accused of murdering a protester at an MMM rally and sent to prison. Tommy Shaw, Styx's other guitarist, plays Jonathan Chance, the underground leader who contacts Kilroy and helps him escape. Chuck and John Panozzo, the twin brothers who make up Styx's rhythm section, play characters named Lieut. Vanish and Col. Hyde.

It's not exactly Preservation or Quadrophenia, but then, Styx wasn't exactly the Kinks or the Who. The band was better than its critical reputation—I realize that this sounds like faint praise, but if you want to listen to watered-down prog-rock mixed with the occasional radio-friendly power ballad, you're much better off with Styx than with Foreigner or REO Speedwagon—but that doesn't mean its members had a knack for acting or for writing dialogue. The fact that most of them didn't share DeYoung's rock-opera ambitions didn't help either. The movie is…bad. The performances are stiff, the satire is obvious, it features what may be the most ineptly staged prison riot in film history, and there's a weird anti-Japanese current running through it. (That was part of '80s America too.) And people had to sit through the thing before they could watch a concert.

But don't take my word for it. The film has been preserved on YouTube, allowing us to savor such lines as "You can't stop the music, you bastard!" in the digital era. I'm not sure what the most ridiculous part of the picture is, but I think I'm going to have to vote for the moment when Robert Orin Charles Kilroy (DID YOU NOTICE HIS INITIALS? HUH? DID YOU?) disables a robot by punching it in the testicles. I don't know why a robot would have testicles, but apparently it does, since it responds to the punch by moaning "Scrotum hurtum! Oh, my balls!" in an accent straight out of a yellowface comedy:

Verdict: not Satanic, just kinda dumb.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For a rather different band's reaction to the rock panics of the '80s, go here. For still more on rock paranoia, go here. And what the hell—I'll throw in some jazz paranoia here and some disco paranoia here.)

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  1. Shut it down. Completely, and for all time: There will never, ever, EVER, be another A/V post this good.

    1. For the record, I’m kilroy.

  2. I still make Domo Arigato, Mr Roboto references all the time.

    That record was sort of like “The Wall”-for-1980s-kids who were too young for “The Wall” in the 70s. (w/ more synths!) Epic-drama-rock-dystopianism which makes 12yr old sci-fi reading kids feel like something really deep is probably going on but don’t want to think too hard about it.

    Now it just makes me laugh.

    1. I’ve always liked concept albums whether they are from a good band or not.

  3. REO Speedwagon fans are not going to be happy about this post.

    1. Not to date myself, but I saw REO when they were good.

      1. Not to date myself

        Damn these euphemisms.

        1. Now that I look at it again, It was redundant too.

      2. The funny thing about REO is that until about 1979, they were an actual rock band. Then they turned into Air Supply for some reason.

        1. They caught the Chicago virus. It can destroy a band pretty quickly.

          1. How great was early Chicago?

        2. The amazing thing about 70’s rock -turned 80’s schlock is that a band like REO was on CBS Records for years with no hits, then as soon as they had one bit hit record, the label threatened to drop them if they didn’t repeat the hit sales figures with every subsequent release. I give Cheap Trick credit for only turning out two really shitty albums. Chicago and Journey suffered the same fate. Even Santana to an extent.

      3. I’m going to keep on loving you

        1. Damn you

    2. Well, they are just going to have to ride the storm out, aren’t they?

    3. F-ing Canadians!

  4. but if you want to listen to watered-down prog-rock mixed with the occasional radio-friendly power ballad, you’re much better off with Styx than with Foreigner or REO Speedwagon

    You’re a real Heartbreaker Jesse, that line was Cold as Ice

    1. Sometimes you gotta jsut Roll With the Changes.

    2. He just has double vision and is trying to ride the storm out man.

      1. I don’t know, I think he’s just a Blue Collar Man whose At War With the World

        1. Obviously a renegade.

  5. Must get in HD.
    Must.

  6. Jesse is right about Styx. Until they let Dennis Deyoung make a record without any adult supervision, they were not that bad for their time and genre. Blue Collar Man is a first rate rock song. So is Renegade for that matter. That alone is two more good songs than the bands Jesse lists for comparison ever made. Pieces of Eight and Paradise Theater were both decent records for their day.

    If you ever watch the VH1 Behind the Music on Styx (rock documentaries are a serious guilty pleasure of mine), the story of their show at the Texas Jam in 1982 is hysterical. Here they are playing at the end of the day following acts like Ted Nugent and Van Halen. So you have 60,000 drunk and stoned kids in the Cotton Bowl waiting to hear Renegade or Come Sail Away and Dennis Deyoung insists on doing the entire Mr Roboto rock opera front to back. Tommy Shaw says before he went on stage all he could think was “Oh my God I am going to die if I step on that stage”.

    1. That is one of the best Behind the Music episodes ever.

      1. Domo Arigato, Walker-san.

        *bows deeply*

      2. If you’ve never seen the Warrant BTM, I highly recommend it. Their sour grapes about missing out on the heyday of hair metal is schadenfreudley delicious.

        1. That and Jani Lane boo-hooing about how his only contribution to the USA – the only thing he’s remembered for – is, “Cherry Pie.”

          1. The funny thing is that they didn’t really miss it–“heyday” of hair metal was only about 5 years, 1986-1991, beginning with Bon Jovi and ending when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit the airwaves. Sure, there’s NWOBHM and the thrash bands of the late 70s and early 80s, but they would have slit their wrists before associating themselves with groups like Skid Row, Warrant, Winger, LA Guns, Slaughter, or Bulletboys.

            Warrant came in at just the right time in the industry to make some money, and everything they produced between DRFSR and Cherry Pie is 1989-1990 music in a nutshell. The problem is that after 1991, no one wanted to listen to that type of music anymore.

            1. My wife is this mad Bon Jovi fan. I always tell her Bon Jovi is nothing but Journey put into the hair band era. It pisses her off to no end because she loathes Journey. It is however true. Journey fell off the face of the earth in 1986 just as hair bands and Bon Jovi were starting to peak. Living on a Prayer is nothing but Don’t Stop Believing with louder guitars.

        2. The one on Poison is really great. CC Deville got off drugs and took up eating instead. There is a whole segment of him bemoaning the fact that people hold being fat against him more than they ever held being a drug addict against him.

          1. Oh yes, and how he stopped teasing his hair because he got lazy, and quit applying makeup because of the terribly skin eruptions (he did have some awful ones). He seemed annoyed the fans got ticked off about that too…

          2. Everyone’s seen the Leif Garrett episode, but have you seen the rebroadcast where they let the Pop-Up Video people annotate the Leif Garrett episode?

            1. No I haven’t. I need to find that on youtube tonight. That has to be 50 shades of awesome.

            2. The lone holdout on youtube that insists Leif Garrett secretly sang the lead vocals on “Play That Funky Music (White Boy)” by Wild Cherry. (Sadly, he has disabled comments.)

              1. Why would someone care enough about that subject to construct a conspiracy theory around it? Of all of the things.

                1. ONLY SCANDINAVIANS CAN BE THAT FUNKY!!

                  1. my personal favorite scandi (I think Swedish) band that does funky stuff

      3. The Weird Al Yankovic Behind the Music is super. Weird Al had a good childhood, became a level-headed and happy adult, and never had any real drama in his life ever (the episode was filmed before his parents died in a suspicious house fire), and it’s hilarious to watch the producers try to make the Coolio beef into a much bigger thing than it was.

        1. I remember enjoying the Oasis one as well, even though it featured Oasis.

          1. Not even the members of Oasis like Oasis.

        2. Weird Al had a good childhood, became a level-headed and happy adult, and never had any real drama in his life ever

          I actually met him briefly at a They Might Be Giants show in LA. Unbelievably nice and down-to-earth guy.

        3. “And then my next album…only went gold”

    2. rock documentaries are a serious guilty pleasure of mine

      I only watch rock documentaries that either feature Jeff Tweedy vomiting, or Martin Scorcese editing cocaine crystals out of noses.

      1. These masturbation euphemisms are getting pretty graphic.

      2. Flight 666 is a great documentary and I am not a fan of Iron Maiden. I like a few songs okay, but its not really my thing.

  7. there’s a weird anti-Japanese current running through it. (That was part of ’80s America too.)

    I don’t know… as a kid, i think i interpreted any/all references to japanese culture in 1980s media as inherently *positive* even if there were “evil scientist” stereotypes or other things today’s culturally-sensitive-types would consider demeaning or derogatory.

    The only other country on earth “worth talking about” in the 1980s was the Soviet Union, and that was only because they were a pussy-hair away from blowing up the earth. But we still had a japanese obsession which wasn’t entirely positive or negative.

    Japan was always included as a ‘3rd country’ which we knew was important – but the reasons why were complex*. it had less to do with WWII, and more that they were showing the US that they could do Capitalism just as well as we could, if not better

    Japan seemed to flipflop between being an amusing sidekick, to a potential existential threat to ‘American-ness’. Sometimes there was a Blade Runner fear for the future, or unleash a robot godzilla… and sometimes they were just that exchange student who made you laugh.

    *yes, many of these movies conflate japan/china because no one cared.

    1. **in fact the video-edit of the Vapors song is intentionally showing lots of chinese stuff just to piss people off.

  8. Working with young ones like I do, I often have to convince them that certain things are real and not just a joke I’m making: Yes, Clint Eastwood really did make a movie with an orangutan co-star (two, in fact), yes, there really was such a thing as Billy Beer, and yes, not only was Mr. Roboto a hit song, it was part of an entire album about robots.

    1. Styx, The Vapours, and Carl Macek did more to introduce Japanese culture to the US than any other market forces possible at the time. Without these, AKIRA would not have been possible.

      The language lessons and history lessons (Mommy, who’s Kilroy?) were invaluable…

      1. Especially given The Vapors song was really about masturbating and they threw all the Japanese/Oriental stuff into the video so people wouldn’t think about the lyrics.

        1. It was a great plan; it worked wonders for Culture Club, Asia, and a number of other acts jumped on that motif. Lasted long enough for Matthew Sweet’s AMVs.

    2. +1 Right Turn Clyde.

  9. I saw the Queen musical on London’s West End about 10 years ago. It is far, far worse than any early 80s, split-legged, beagle-haired synth rock band could ever dream of shitting out.

    1. Are we talking Tommy or Quadrophenia? Because Tommy was a decent Musical with a horrible adaptation, while Quadrophenia was the other way around.

  10. As a car guy, I have to point out that there actually was an REO Speedwagon:

    The REO Speed Wagon was a light motor truck manufactured by REO Motor Car Company.

    REO = Ransom Eli Olds. Yes Olds started Oldsmobile.

  11. I was in 6th grade and would base the junior high and high school kid’s toughness on the concert shirts they wore. Nobody messed with anyone wearing a Black Sabbath shirt. Alice Cooper shirts scared most other kids. Bad Company were respected. Boston you just couldn’t tell. KISS were laughed at unless they had really long hair and smelled. A Peter Frampton shirt would get your ass kicked weekly. And wearing Styx was an invite to a 6th grader who wanted to get noticed as a fighter without risking a serious beating if it went wrong.

    1. Post of the week right there.

      1. Domo Arigato.

  12. I was in 6th grade and would base the junior high and high school kid’s toughness on the concert shirts they wore. Nobody messed with anyone wearing a Black Sabbath shirt. Alice Cooper shirts scared most other kids. Bad Company were respected. Boston you just couldn’t tell. KISS were laughed at unless they had really long hair and smelled. A Peter Frampton shirt would get your ass kicked weekly. And wearing Styx was an invite to a 6th grader who wanted to get noticed as a fighter without risking a serious beating if it went wrong.

    1. Woah! Damn flashbacks.

  13. I tried using a similar technique but it failed miserably.

    It turns out that guy in the Dio shirt doesn’t really worship Satan, he’s actually a guy that just wants to smoke a joint and be left alone.

    That chick wearing the Morrissey shirt? Turns out she still has enough self esteem to turn down your sorry ass.

    That dude in the Duran Duran shirt? Turns out he’s not only straight, but he’s getting more chicks than the entire football team combined.

    And that dude in the Rush shirt isn’t that smart or cool, even if he is a Dungeon Master.

    1. I remember in junior high, a friend of mine wore a Duran Duran shirt and all the girls called him gay (or the f word)

  14. No post about 80’s rock hysteria is complete without reminding people how thoroughly Dee Snyder pwned Al Gore in a Senate Hearing.

  15. IIRC, when you played the “back-masked” message that was on Kilroy Was Here, it said “E Pluribus Unum.” It was very obviously a joke in response to all the devil-worship hysteria, by guys who were not masters of subtlety.

    I was 12 when that album came out – it was my first lesson in how unbelievably stupid culture warriors could be.

  16. Rock concept albums usually don’t age well. A few bad ones age better than some of the popular ones. Hell, I’d rather listen to Preservation than The Wall.

    Kilroy Was Here though is like masturbating while having diarrhea, the mere thought is so awful it shouldn’t actually have been carried out.

  17. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.

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