Today’s Guest: Billy Idol, rock star, “White Wedding,” “Rebel Yell”
(I was first introduced to the music of Billy Idol by my then-roommate, photographer Dennis Osborne, in the early 1980s. Dennis would bounce around the house to “Dancing with Myself” and it was hard to resist the song’s infectious beat and lyrics. I recently located the audio to my 1984 Music magazine interview with Billy and present it here in all its amateur glory. — Bob Andelman)
With his startling blonde spiked hair and bona-fide punk stance, Billy Idol would be about as acceptable in the Deep South today as the long-haired hero of Charlie Daniels “Uneasy Rider” was a decade ago.
But when Idol titled his latest album Rebel Yell, he caused a lot of second looks. What does a British renegade noisemaker know about confederate flags, ’shine or the Mason/Dixon Line? Not much.
The 28-year-old native of Bromley, England was considering a holler of a different kind. Coming off his first big hit, “White Wedding,” Idol was harassed by complaints that he was an anti-woman sexist pig. Rebel Yell started as a response to that stinging allegation and wound up with a lyric touching many themes, including the Statue of Liberty.
“I wrote the song to address the people who thought I was anti-women. (But) instead, I wrote it about how strong one-to-one relationships should be angled more towards women. After a while I started to think ‘she doesn’t like slavery, she won’t sit and beg’ is sort of about America, because when I was tired and lonely, she pulled me in,” Idol explained in a recent telephone interview.
BILLY IDOL interview excerpt: “The first punk bands, Generation X, The Damned, The Sex Pistols, had really positive attitudes… We went out of our way to play. People never talk about that. They always talk about the violence of the gigs.”
“I was really down after Generation X ended,” he continued, referring to the early punk band he sang for. “I came over here and people were jumping around the bars like myself. I didn’t know (about that), because we’d never been over here. It was fantastic. When people were into my music, it was what I needed to hear. I needed a bit of back-up.”
For Idol, finding a successful career in a strange country has been an unexpected pleasure. Generation X, whiIe widely acknowledged as one of the more significant of the second generation English punk bands to spring to renown in the late ‘70s, never cracked the American marketplace.
Generation X produced three albums during its four-year existence. Idol was lead singer in a group that also included Gene October and Tony James.
“We really wanted it to work, be a group forever, but it didn’t end up like that. It was a bit of a blow,” Idol admitted.
“I wrote all the music in Generation X and Tony James wrote all the words. I write a lot more of the words now. I’m singing my own words a lot more comfortably… I think I put a lot more rhythm into my music which we didn’t always have in Generation X. It was a wham! bam! but it wasn’t always rhythmy.”
Three years ago, Idol hooked up with collaborator and friend Steve Stevens, a 25·year·old New York native.
“I didn’t meet him with the intention of wow, maybe I’ll get in his band,” Stevens recalled. “I just thought he’d be an interesting character…and he turned out to be one. We hung out for a long time, played guitars together. When he went to record the Don’t Stop EP, I stayed around and bummed cigarettes.”
Don’t Stop, which included Idol’s new version of Generation X’s only hit “Dancin’ – With Myself,” was followed by a self-titled solo album, the first musical work Idol and Stevens did together. This was the record to feature “White Wedding,” the song and video which established Idol’s reputation as more than a curious punk. He demonstrated a strong voice and flair for melodic hooks.
On the strength of that album, Don’t Stop was reissued. Then came Rebel Yell and Idol has regularly found himself with a rare three-disc hat trick on the charts. Rebel Yell is also the debut of the Idol/Stevens creative team on all but one song (Idol wrote “Catch My Fall”).
“When it came time to do the first album, Billy had a stockpile of songs that he wanted to do, so I wasn’t involved,” Stevens said. Now, Idol writes the lyrics and Stevens the music, like the intro to “Rebel Yell”. I’ll write a title now and again, come up with a catch phrase. But Billy’s definitely in control of his own lyrics; he’s waited a long time. I think he’s a brilliant lyricist.
Stevens contributed a number of different musical parts to the Rebel Yell LP. Although he sticks to playing guitar on tour, he also did tracks for bass, keyboard and Casio.
“A Casio is a real, real low budget keyboard but they sound great, really trashy. The Casio has little drum sounds in them. There’s a real tacky organ sound on ‘Blue Highway’ – really tacky – that’s a Casio,” Stevens said.
Once a member of the Fine Malibus, Stevens went with with that band to record an unreleased album. Where there, he spent a lot of time hanging out with Robert Palmer, from whom contributing Idol keyboardist Jack Walman came. During the pre-Idol days, Stevens also wrote a song for Peter Criss, late of Kiss, which appeared on Criss’s second European album.
BILLY IDOL interview excerpt: “I wrote (‘White Wedding’) to address the people who thought I was anti-women. (But) instead, I wrote it about how strong one-to-one relationships should be angled more towards women. After a while I started to think ‘she doesn’t like slavery, she won’t sit and beg’ is sort of about America, because when I was tired and lonely, she pulled me in.”
Although the (Fine Malibus) weren’t an important part of my musical upbringing,” Stevens said, “that time of my life was great. It was great. It was the first time I ever lived out on my own, exposed to New York music’s dirtier side, really slumming it. We had to save up to buy chicken pot pies. It was rough, but I think those kinds of things are important to go through.”
Idol went through his own rites of passage in the punk upheaval of 1977-80. As the rare musician who still openly and defiantly declares himself to be a punker, he said there are misguided ideas in this country about what that means.
There’s all these ideas that punks are anti-music—always got a negative attitude . I don’t think that’s correct. The first punk bands—Generation X, The Damned, Sex Pistols—had really positive attitudes and were very forthcoming with people. We went out of our way to play. People never talk about that. They always talk about the violence at the gigs. We played for no money and dragged our own gear. That isn’t because you want loads of people to love you—it’s because you’re seriously interested in playing.
“To a certain extent, a lot of the press in England magnified a lot of things which came over to America. A lot of people who came after us took it seriously and went into this anti-music thing, whereas we were really into songs and soul music. We were just heavy about it (but) as interested in The Who and Tamla-Motown as Iggy Pop,” Idol concluded.
“A lot of punk rockers think Elvis wasn’t punk rock and I think that’s anti- the whole idea,” he added. “Of course it was ‘Hate Elvis’ in ’77. Why not? But big deal now. He was kind of a laugh—that graveyard, I couldn’t believe it.”
Idol is a big Presley fan. He uses one of the King’s former bodyguards, Ed Parker, and refers to Elvis as “great, he had all that energy, so exciting, great songs. He really had a kind of soul.”
The only time during this conversation that Idol paused before answering was when asked if he would ever consider covering a Presley hit.
“It’s a nice idea. But …he sang too great. I never thought of it. He made the definitive versions … Maybe, if I found one song I really felt I could do something with. That’s the problem: you’ve got to transcend what they did.”
With financial success and broader public acceptance approaching, Idol doubted his outlook on punkhood will be altered.
“I’ve got certain beliefs,” he said. “I’ve been up and down, and I still believe this way. It’s what you do with your attitude. Otherwise, you’ll be an ass with your money. You have to find a way of using that stuff and making it better for other people.”
Idol designs most of his own costumes and wears leather clothes because they are warm, comfortable and don’t show as much dirt.
“England and New York are very cold in the winter and when we started Genera tion X, without any money, the best thing to do was save up some money and get a great pair of leather trousers. You can almost live in them—lasts for years,” he claimed.
And while Idol also said, with reference to his stage outfits, “I don’t think these things out much,” it has been a valuable experience to be rejected by some people at first on the basis of his appearance and later gain acceptance for his music.
“Both me and these other people have come to terms with each other as to what we are. I think that’s good. It means a lot of prejudice has been put aside. I want to show people that I wasn’t a coldhearted person. I’m into sex, movement, into feeling things out. I want to groove, y’know?”
And, as Idol also pointed out, “I’ve got to be me. I think this way of looking is as funny as it is heavy.”