Back in 1985, British L.A.-based rocker Billy Idol released Vital Idol (though it didn’t come out until ’87 in the States). Groundbreaking at the time, the album collected remixed versions of some of Idol’s better-known tunes, and found favor among fans of dance music as well as rock.
Idol hasn’t necessarily etched his name into the history books as a trailblazer. His sneer and peroxide-blond hair are iconic, his early career with punks Generation X storied, and his solo tunes as anthemic as they are fun. But he’s never been thought of as a pioneer, and that’s perhaps a little unfair. Gen X were early players in the punk game, and Idol has looked to merge rock with other genres, from reggae and dub to disco and rave, regularly throughout the years.
“Back in the ’70s, I was listening to dub, reggae, roots rock — really seriously looking at what Jamaican producers and artists were doing with their songs,” Idol says. “Generation X would see how they would take a song, the A side, and then completely remix it, devolve it and use the studio effects, have a whale of a time remixing a song. One of the first things we did with our second single, ‘Wild Youth,’ we recorded the A side and then created a ‘Wild Dub’ mix for the B side. We were digging so deep in the reggae remix. That’s how I started my career, really. I’ve been involved one way or another with remixing, and then I carried it on when I started my solo career.”
For the original U.K. and U.S. releases of Vital Idol, the majority of the remixes were done in-house by Idol and his producers, with a couple of exceptions, including “Flesh for Fantasy,” which were done by Gary Langan of British synth-pop outfit The Art of Noise. To the outside world, still to this day, Billy Idol and dance music are unusual bedfellows. To the man himself, it makes complete sense.
“When the ’90s got going, rave began, and the music got separated,” he says. “We were throwing everything together in the beginning of the ’80s, taking reggae, rock, rap, R&B and mixing it all together. All the musics split up in the ’90s because grunge happened and so the rock remix fell by the wayside. But I was still watching what was going on and really liking what people were doing. I was listening to all this rave music — Future Sound of London, The Orb and all these people. I was still loving what was going on.”
With that “finger on the pulse” mentality in mind, Idol has just released Vital Idol: Revitalized, all new remixes of some of those classic songs. This time, he has relinquished control and farmed the remixes out to big names from the world of EDM.
“I just thought, ‘I wonder what would happen if a load of modern remixers got hold of it,’ and then I ran into Moby at a party,” he says. “He said he’d do one, because he was talking to me about how he loved the ‘Love Calling’ remix that was on the first solo album. I told him he could do whatever he wanted to do, and he said he’d like to do ‘(Do Not) Stand in the Shadows.’ We’d never even thought of a remix for that, so it was kinda fantastic.”
That was just the beginning. A chance encounter with Bono at a party led to Idol being introduced to St Francis Hotel. Elsewhere, Idol roped in RAC, CRAY, Tropkillaz, Shiba San and, on an excellent new version of “Rebel Yell,” The Crystal Method.
“One way or another, we’ve got a nice smorgasbord of people from all over the world,” Idol says. “A Portuguese DJ, Brazilian, French, Canadian, American and English — it’s a lot of fun. It’s turned out really great. Obviously, modern remixers don’t use a lot of guitars, so I know that a lot of guitars have been stripped away. I found that really exciting — people replaying the chords behind the songs and giving them a different feel and sense of place. I’m really enjoying the whole album. It’s a lot of fun to listen to for me. I’ve always like the idea of remix. It’s part of my history. I just hope when people listen to it they give it a chance, and have fun with it, too.”
It’s worth remembering that, between versions of Vital Idol, back in the early ’90s, Idol released the Cyberpunk album — not a commercially successful record but a fascinating one that deserves a revisit. The singer was looking to smash rock & roll together with electronic music, even back then.
“I was listening to a lot of rave from London, early Prodigy and stuff like that,” he says. “I was fusing dance music with rock on Cyberpunk. It didn’t have a hit single on it, and that didn’t help it in terms of it being successful. In other ways, I really enjoyed doing the record, and that is a reason in itself. It’s great if it sells a lot but doing it sometimes is just as important, and making a statement. Sticking to your guns in lots of ways. With Cyberpunk, I just had a great time making that record. It’s really interesting.”
Finally, we put it to Idol that he could tour these new remixes, taking them to the clubs and electronic music crowds.
“I have thought about that,” he says. “I’m wondering how to do that. It would be magic to, in one way or another. I’d love to sing the ‘Eyes Without a Face’ version with Tropkillaz or something. That version, the way he’s re-altered the chords behind the music. I can understand some people really not liking that, because some people are die-hard and want the original. But we’ve got the original. That’s the point. We have it and it’s there. The original’s in fine form. But what about seeing the fun you can have with people. For me, it’s a natural thing to want to hear people reconstruct them.”
Vital Idol: Revitalized is out now.