Billy Idol Is Back to Remind You How Punk He Is
Photo by Ryan Orange
From the living room of his house, high up in the Hollywood Hills, Billy Idol gazes out across the Los Angeles Basin, remembering when the city was on fire.
"Even in the daytime, you could see the smoke," he says, describing his bird's-eye view of the Rodney King riots in April 1992. "And ash was raining out of the sky."
At the time of the riots, Idol was one of the biggest stars in rock. But privately, his life had been unraveling for some time. In 1989, he separated from his girlfriend of 10 years, dancer-choreographer Perri Lister, a split that sent him plunging deeper into drug abuse. A gruesome motorcycle accident in the heart of Hollywood the following year nearly cost him his leg.
After limping through an international tour with a cane, he was back at home, struggling to stay sober as he toiled on the most ambitious album of his career, Cyberpunk, with neither of his most trusted collaborators, guitarist Steve Stevens and producer Keith Forsey, to guide him.
In the fires of the riots, Idol saw a parallel to his own life. "I'd been polluting myself with drugs. So it wasn't so different for me to start seeing the world as polluting itself."
It would take years, but Idol finally detoxed. Now he stands as an improbable survivor not only of drug abuse and motorcycle accidents but also the fickle tastes of '80s nostalgia buffs. With a new album and wildly entertaining autobiography, the rebel yeller is back.
Before there was pop-punk, there was Billy Idol. More than any other artist of his era, the man born William Broad brought the style and attitude of punk rock into the American mainstream, via massive hits including "White Wedding" and "Rebel Yell."
For this, he was both celebrated and vilified. Fans adored Idol's bad-boy image and his music's cagey mix of aggressive guitars, dance beats and pop hooks. But to his detractors, he was a fraud — the "Perry Como of punk," in Johnny Rotten's famously dismissive phrase.
Throughout his career, Idol has seldom addressed such criticisms directly. But in his latest album, Kings and Queens of the Underground, and a new memoir, Dancing With Myself, both released last October, the veteran singer clearly is shoring up his legacy. Both the book and the album's title track explore at length his role in the birth of British punk, as lead singer of the band Generation X and part of the crew that launched the Roxy, London's first punk-rock club, in 1976.
"Punk was my roots, and I would celebrate those roots for the rest of my so-called career," Idol writes.
But he also makes it clear that he never wanted punk to define or limit him. Writing about Generation X's more "girl-friendly image" (the whole band, not just Idol, was disarmingly good-looking), he notes, "That was another thing that wasn't kosher with hard-core critics and fans, who believed punk was the revenge of the rotten and ugly. Fuck them! Punk shouldn't be just one thing."
For Idol, maintaining the trappings of punk while becoming a superstar was the greatest punk-rock gesture of all.
Idol wrote Dancing With Myself on his own, without the aid of a ghostwriter, over a period of about six years. That, he explains, was a punk-rock gesture, too.
"People wouldn't expect necessarily that you could write your own book," he says, sitting on a couch in his red-walled living room. At 59, in black jeans and a black Beats & Rhymes T-shirt, he looks fit but weathered, and older than the mental image you probably have of Billy Idol. "It's like, write your own songs, start your own club, put on your own groups. The DIY ethic was huge in punk rock."
Billy Idol, bestselling author
Photo by Michael Muller
The book is divided into three sections: London, New York and Los Angeles, the three cities Idol has called home over the years. But it begins with a prologue in L.A., in 1990, at the height of his years of rock-star excess: "The party [had gone] on for two years. Two years of never-ending booze, broads and bikes, plus a steady diet of pot, cocaine, ecstasy, smack, opium, Quaaludes and reds. I passed out in so many clubs and woke up in hospital so many times...."
It's a shrewd way to start the book: a self-mythologizing confession, a mea culpa written in the lurid language of Hollywood tabloids.
The prologue climaxes with his Feb. 6, 1990, motorcycle accident at the intersection of Fountain and Gordon, which crushed his right leg. He wanted to begin the book there — not just for dramatic effect, he says, but because it was, in hindsight, a turning point.
"It woke you up to what you were doing to yourself," Idol explains. He has a tendency, especially when talking about difficult subjects, to alternate between first and second person. After a long pause, he adds, quietly, "It just wasn't so easy to shake the drug addiction. It had a powerful hold on me, it really did. You couldn't just shake that overnight."
If it wasn't for Monty Python, Billy Idol might never have existed.
In the early days of the London punk-rock scene, William Broad — then a teenage member of the "Bromley Contingent," a suburban group of Sex Pistols fans, which included future members of Siouxsie & the Banshees — took to calling himself Billy Idle, after a disapproving note one teacher had scrawled on his report card: "William is idle." But giving his first interview to the press in 1976, he changed the spelling to Billy Idol, to avoid any association with Eric Idle of the famed British comedy troupe.
"With his bleached blond hair and punk-rock pedigree," he writes in Dancing With Myself, "Billy Idol emerged."
Idol laughs now at how that spur-of-the-moment decision helped shape his career. "I didn't even really realize using the name Billy Idol was going beyond punk rock," he admits. "It wasn't Rotten or Vicious. It was picking a name that could exist beyond. It wasn't in a box."
Had Idol been a frontman in the mold of the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten, his pseudonym would have been merely ironic. Instead, it seemed too well suited, almost boastful. In a scene full of misfits, he was movie-star handsome. Introducing Idol and his band Generation X on the short-lived British TV show Marc, glam-rock icon Marc Bolan archly told the audience, "He's supposed to be as pretty as me."
Because of his name and his looks, Idol was always viewed by many in the punk-rock community with suspicion. Among the misfits, he never quite fit in.
"Punk was this moment where certain people who probably never would've gotten into the music industry got in," explains London-born, L.A.-based music critic Simon Reynolds, author of the books Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984 and Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past. "It doesn't seem like there's any other point in history that [Johnny Rotten] could've become a huge rock singer. [But] Billy Idol is this incredibly good-looking guy with a great voice. I think he would've made it in any era."
Idol himself seemed to sense this, pushing Generation X toward a sound that was more influenced by early-'70s glam and '60s mod-rock by their second album, 1979's Valley of the Dolls, and a look that was less punk and more new wave, with home-dyed T-shirts and colorful accessories. "The usual punk uniform of leather and denim had become too limiting for me," he writes.
Billy Idol at Fountain and Gordon in Hollywood, where he crashed his motorcycle in 1990 and nearly lost a leg
Photo by Ryan Orange
By 1981, his band, now rechristened Gen X, also had become too limiting. The young, cocky singer was determined to have a solo career — and he was determined to do it in America.
When Idol was 3 years old, his family moved to Rockville Centre, New York, on Long Island, before returning to England when he was 6. "My first memories are really of America," he says. "Having an American accent and a butch cut or crew cut."
Now, in the summer of 1981, he went to L.A. to work with Keith Forsey, a British producer who'd done the last Gen X album. Forsey was an odd choice for Idol's first solo material. A protégé of disco producer Giorgio Moroder, Forsey's greatest claim to fame was co-writing and playing drums on Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff." But his dance-music background intrigued Idol.
At the end of the '70s, Idol explains, "Disco was on its own, rock & roll was on its own, reggae was on its own." He punctuates the name of each genre with an expansive gesture, as though he's plucking them out of the air above his head. This is clearly a subject that still excites him. The heavy silver rings on his thickly veined hands flash as they catch the afternoon light. "Well, what about if you put all that together somehow?" He knots his fingers together, rings clinking.
"You put the influences of dub reggae in with the speed of The Ramones with the technology of Donna Summer with the weirdness of Kraftwerk. What about if you put all of those musics together? And that's what I really did."
Those 1981 sessions with Forsey yielded Don't Stop, a four-song EP that featured two Gen X songs — "Dancing With Myself" and a rerecorded version of "Untouchables" — plus a cover of Tommy James' "Mony Mony" and a vaguely rockabilly original called "Baby Talk."
But what Don't Stop possessed in attitude and polish, it lacked in originality. Some ingredient was still missing from the Billy Idol solo formula. Idol soon would find that ingredient back in New York, in the form of guitarist Steve Stevens.
Steven Schneider grew up in the Rockaway section of Queens, just a few miles from where William Broad had spent part of his childhood on Long Island. He started playing guitar at age 7; his first teacher was the sister of '60s protest singer Phil Ochs.
"My Cub Scout troop got expelled from the Cub Scouts for singing Phil Ochs songs," the man now known as Steve Stevens remembers, speaking by phone from his home in West Hollywood. "It was seen as subversive."
Hoping to encourage their son's musical interests, Stevens' parents sent him to a prestigious performing arts high school in Manhattan. But by the mid-'70s, he had dropped out to join the punk scene forming around downtown clubs such as Max's Kansas City and CBGB. "That was my education, you know?"
Stevens' training and precocious talent ran counter to the primitive three-chord rock of The Ramones and the unpolished noise of early no-wave bands such as James Chance & the Contortions. One of his biggest influences at the time was King Crimson's famously experimental guitarist, Robert Fripp.
But during his first jam session with Idol, something clicked. Within a few hours, Stevens had convinced Idol that he could be "a great guitar foil in the mold of Bowie and [Mick] Ronson," the Thin White Duke's early-'70s, glam-era guitarist.
Back in L.A. at Westlake Studios, the new team of Idol, Stevens and Forsey struck its first paydirt with "White Wedding," a song Idol says he wrote in the studio in 20 minutes. Stevens' slashing, atmospheric guitar was, as promised, the perfect foil to Idol's menacing croon, and Forsey, in Idol's words, "knitted the track together" with a pulsating bassline and ominous tom-tom drum fills.
"White Wedding" anchored Idol's 1982 self-titled debut album, and its music video, which featured him crashing through a stained-glass window on a motorcycle, made him a star. "I did one thing only: I made him look good," said the video's director, David Mallet, recalling the shoot in Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum's 2011 oral history book, I Want My MTV. "In those days, he was the greatest looker and mover since Elvis."
Over the next five years, Idol would go on to become one of the most successful solo artists of the MTV era. He hit a creative and commercial peak on his sophomore release, 1983's Rebel Yell, selling more than 2 million copies of an album that, on eerie tracks such as "The Dead Next Door" and the S&M-themed "Flesh for Fantasy," got downright weird, thanks mainly to Stevens' increasingly abstract, effects-laden solos.
"Billy was definitely anti–guitar solo," Stevens explains. "It was like, 'Fuck guitar solos! We've had it all!' He said, 'But look, if we're gonna have a guitar solo, there's gotta be a reason for it other than wheedly-wheedly-wheedly.' So that's why every time we had a solo, we'd search around for some sound or effect."
A third album, Whiplash Smile, was nearly as successful as its predecessors. But behind the scenes, Idol was struggling.
By 1986, the year he recorded and released Whiplash Smile, Idol was "a full-on cocaine and heroin addict," he writes in Dancing With Myself. "The drugs were ruling me."
Asked about Idol's condition during the Whiplash Smile sessions in New York, Stevens is deferential. "None of us were angels at that time," he says. "I'm not gonna point a finger at any of that stuff. Money was finally coming in, and none of us had any money before then. So it was the typical thing of, 'Well, we're gonna enjoy ourselves.'"
Still, by the end of the Whiplash Smile tour, in 1987, Stevens and Idol had parted ways. Soon thereafter, Idol and his girlfriend, Perri Lister, moved to Los Angeles. Idol thought he and Lister could lead a quieter life in L.A. From his first visits in the late '70s and early '80s, he thought, "L.A. was still a little bit laid-back and still a little bit hippie."
"That was the intention of coming out here ... to live less of a vampire life," he says. Then he leans forward, rubbing his hands together. His voice drops to a murmur. "You always have good intentions at first."
He and Lister had a son, Willem Wolf Broad, in 1988. But Idol could not shake his addictions, either chemical or sexual. A year later, when Lister discovered an affair, she left him for good.
With Forsey and new guitarist Mark Younger-Smith, Idol went back into the studio to record his fourth solo album, Charmed Life. The title would prove to be both apt and ironic.
During the Charmed Life sessions, Idol doubled down on his drug use and partying. In Dancing With Myself, he describes this as his "Boots and Scarves" period — the only clothing he and members of his naked entourage would wear while partying in a recording studio full of cocaine and strippers. "We orgied like Roman times," he writes.
Younger-Smith confirms Idol's account, saying, "I would not want to go into detail about the things that went on when we were making that record."
Charmed Life was yet another success, even yielding the biggest hit of Idol's career, "Cradle of Love." The song got a boost from its wildly popular, David Fincher–directed video, in which a sexy young woman strip-teases for her uptight neighbor. Idol appeared in the video only within a picture frame on the wall, shot from the waist up — because he was still in a wheelchair from his motorcycle accident.
Mark Younger-Smith and Billy Idol onstage during the Whiplash Smile tour
Courtesy of Mark Younger-Smith
After seven operations, with the aid of a cane, Idol was able to go on tour just six months after the accident. But the injury to his leg had cost him in other ways.
Confined to a wheelchair, he had to settle for a smaller role than originally planned in Oliver Stone's The Doors. And though he was James Cameron's first choice to play the malevolent, shape-shifting T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, his pronounced limp made it impossible. The part went to Robert Patrick.
Instead, Idol found new interests in the form of a then-new communications tool, the World Wide Web, and a burgeoning subgenre of science fiction called cyberpunk. Cyberpunk, he decided, would become the title and theme of his next album.
In a way, Cyberpunk is Billy Idol's most L.A. album: sleazy, futuristic, more than a little pretentious. It also marked the beginning of the darkest period in his career.
Throughout the 10-month recording process, which mostly took place in his Hollywood Hills home studio, Idol steeped himself in cyberculture and spent hours on the Internet, then still a fairly insular network of bulletin boards and discussion groups, populated mainly by academics and tech nerds.
"I think, looking back, maybe we got a little bit carried away with the whole cyberpunk thing," producer Robin Hancock admits now. But in 1992, the young British recording engineer was swept up by Billy Idol's charisma and ambition.
The "Rebel Yell"er himself
Photo by Ryan Orange
Cyberpunk's original title was Mind Fire. It would serve as the soundtrack to a science fiction film of the same name, a sequel to The Lawnmower Man, one of the first films to use virtual reality and "cyberworlds" as a plot device. Hancock remembers hanging out with the film's director, Brett Leonard, and reading William Gibson's Neuromancer for inspiration. "It was quite stimulating and intriguing."
As a producer, "I was quite green, to be honest," Hancock says, speaking by phone from England, where he and his brother-in-law now own an oyster farm and four seafood restaurants. "So I feel it was quite a risk on Billy's part."
Idol was intrigued by Hancock's early Pro Tools rig and the ability it gave them to construct most of the album's tracks on an Apple computer. They recorded much of the album at Idol's house, working at their own pace and saving on studio costs — another novelty for the time.
Fairly early in the recording process, the L.A. riots broke out. "We were up there at his house, looking out over the city, and you'd see these little fires all over the city. It was crazy," Younger-Smith remembers.
Inspired by the chaos around them, he and Idol wrote "Shock to the System," Cyberpunk's most successful single, though it was a disappointment by Idol's lofty standards. The video, directed by Leonard, featured a violent sequence based on the Rodney King beating. MTV refused to play it. "Which really hurt the cause," Younger-Smith says.
Released in June 1993, Cyberpunk was savaged by critics for what many saw as its failed attempt to mix Idol's punk-rock persona with elements of British techno and rave music. Rolling Stone called it "deadly self-parody"; Entertainment Weekly renamed it Cybergunk.
To this day, some of the criticism still rankles Idol — especially the notion that he was trying to cash in on electronic dance music's then-new popularity.
"I didn't have to jump on any fucking bandwagon," he declares. "I could've stayed doing the Charmed Life music for another 10 albums. And probably made a fortune. But is that the punk-rock spirit? No. The punk-rock spirit is to go, 'Fuck everything — I'm gonna do this.' Not staying safe and just repeating yourself."
Younger-Smith stands by Cyberpunk. "It's become kind of a cult record since its day," he notes, speaking from the recording studio he now runs in Austin, Texas. He also says it's misleading to label the album a commercial failure. "In Europe, it was his biggest-selling record. He sold 750,000 copies of that record in Germany alone. Both Billy and I were proud of that because, yes, it was a big risk to do Cyberpunk."
Besides the nation of Germany, Cyberpunk has at least one other unabashed fan: Steve Stevens.
"I thought it was great. And I could hear Billy on that, you know? It was so out there and wild that I thought, 'Ah, at least he's doing what he wants to do.'"
Hancock says that during the recording of Cyberpunk, Idol "seemed very focused. He had definitely cleaned up his act, yeah."
But after the album's release, Idol's behavior once again became erratic. He began abusing drugs again, particularly GHB, a steroid substitute. In January 1994, he was rushed to the hospital after collapsing outside a Beverly Hills nightclub. Eight months later, he was hospitalized again, this time after overdosing at home.
Sometime shortly after that — Idol is vague about the exact date — he started attending AA meetings and did a brief stint in rehab. "Things like that kind of put you off. If you have to go to rehab, I'd rather not take drugs." He lets out a booming laugh. "It's too horrible!"
In late '94, Idol and Stevens reunited to write and record the theme song to the Keanu Reeves film Speed. The pair came close to completing an album for Capitol in 1998. But after some executive shuffles at the label, Idol was dropped.
As a "fuck you" to Capitol, Idol released two completed tracks as free downloads on MP3.com, becoming one of the first well-known artists to do so. "This is what's gonna happen in the future — you're nowhere!" Idol says, shaking his fist in the general direction of the Capitol Records tower. "You can dump people like me, but we'll show you what's going on."
Since the late '90s, Idol has drifted in and out of the public eye, often in unexpected ways.
In 1998, he had a memorable cameo in Adam Sandler's The Wedding Singer, playing himself circa 1985 and surprising his critics by proving that he had a sense of humor about his carefully cultivated bad-boy image.
In 2006, he released a Christmas album, looking downright classy on the cover, sitting at a piano in a gray blazer, surrounded by presents and evergreen boughs. The Perry Como of punk, indeed.
But his autobiography might be his most unexpected move yet.
Idol's prose can sometimes get overwrought, especially when describing his most drug-addled years ("The Lioness said not a word, her huge tongue licking me as waves of orgasm hunted my soul" — this from an extended metaphor describing his drug use on the Rebel Yell tour). But the book is vivid and hard to put down, the work of a natural raconteur who has survived some wild times.
The new album, Kings and Queens of the Underground, is an enjoyable return to form as well, filled with Stevens' trademark guitar pyrotechnics. Stevens describes his working relationship now with Idol as "better than ever."
"I've been fortunate to work with so many great singers," Stevens says. "And there's nobody that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up like Billy. There really isn't. There's that whole history of rock & roll in his voice."
And what of Idol's punk-rock roots? Is he still honoring and celebrating those, even on new tracks such as the super-poppy "Can't Break Me Down," co-written and produced by Lily Allen/Kelly Clarkson collaborator Greg Kurstin?
Idol answers this question in past tense, clearly taking it to encompass not just his latest album but his entire career. "Maybe what I was making wasn't what people thought of as punk rock anymore because they had a very narrow vision of what punk was to start with. Because they got caught up in it being just The Ramones. Whereas I saw punk rock as like this..."
He makes another of his expansive gestures, his hands shooting upward and outward. He's forming a V shape, indicating that he sees punk rock as ever-expanding, radiating outward. But as he completes the gesture with his arms raised above his head, it turns into the classic, messianic, rock-star pose.
Steve Stevens answers the same question with a story. "We were in Germany after 'Rebel Yell' had become successful. We were playing a show, we're backstage, Billy's doing an interview, and this German interviewer says, 'Billy, I think you've lost your punk-rock thing.'
"The guy had his cassette recorder on the floor and Billy got up, put his foot through it and said, 'There's your punk-rock for you.'"
Billy Idol performs two sold-out shows at the Wiltern, Wednesday, Feb. 18 and Thursday, Feb. 19.
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