BILLY IDOL--TO BE A HUMAN
Billy Idol opens the door of his third-floor loft in a nondescript building in the Village. He’s bright-eyed and smiling. He just moved in a few weeks ago and the spacious main room is cluttered with cartons of record albums.
He even opens the interview with his own question:
“Well, which rumor do you want to discuss first?”
That’s quite a multiple choice question.
Since disappearing following the double-platinum success of his “Rebel Yell” album in 1984, Idol has been the subject of a lot of rumors.
He acknowledges that he has heard reports that he was . . .
1) The victim of AIDS.
2) A drug addict.
3) He’s dead.
4) All of the above.
5) None of the above.
“Well, being dead has got to be the ultimate rumor,” he says laughing as he sits on a sofa and lights the first of several cigarettes. “I’ve gone through a lot of (fast lane) things in my life, but never to the extent that people think.
“I guess the reason people started coming up with all these stories was that it’s unusual for someone to drop out of sight after they’ve had a big hit. They expect you to rush back out with something else to keep the momentum going.
“But I didn’t want to make the same record again . . . ‘Outlaw Call’ or whatever. I wanted to take time to sort things out . . . my music and in my personal life. And that took time. . . .”
Billy Idol’s story is a classic tale of going against the grain to fulfill your rock ‘n’ roll dreams--and pushing so hard that you alienate half the record business in the process. It’s easy to think of him as the British equivalent of Indiana’s John Cougar Mellencamp. They both pursued rock stardom with such intensity that they used arrogance as a shield when the record industry and critics tried to dismiss them as one-dimensional.
Just as Mellencamp’s music has evolved into the socially conscious, autobiographical level of Mellencamp’s “Scarecrow,” there are signs of growth in Idol’s new “Whiplash Smile” LP, which is in the national Top 10. Instead of the relentlessly macho , rebellious stance of his earlier LPs, Idol is now showing more emotional range (see Idol’s impressive showing in this month’s PopMeter ratings, Page 60).
“To Be a Lover” is one of the most dynamic singles of the year and “Sweet Sixteen,” another track from the album, is a virtual rock ‘n’ roll lullaby. Ironically, both Mellencamp and Idol (real name: William Broad) started with colorful stage names.
Idol smiles when the name Idol is brought up.
“When I started out, everyone seemed to be adopting these names . . . Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious,” he says. “I wasn’t really Rotten or Vicious or Nasty, so I wanted something a bit more funny--yet something that seemed real rock ‘n’ roll . . . something that acknowledged my ambition.”
Billy Idol, who is 31 today, talks with the energy and enthusiasm of his most strenuous records. Name any topic and he can give you a lively half hour. Name a favorite subject--like Elvis Presley--and he’s off for hours.
Raised in a middle-class town just outside of London, Idol became infatuated with pop music early. The first record he ever bought was the Beatles’ “She Loves You,” but he also mentions Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Gary Glitter, Iggy Pop and--especially--Elvis as early influences. Presley touches abound in Idol’s music, especially the new “To Be a Lover.”
Idol’s parents hoped he would attend college (he did attend briefly) and were troubled when he decided to enter the rock world. “My hair used to be real long and my parents were encouraged when I cut it,” he says with a wink. “They thought I was going ‘straight,’ but I was just getting weirder--at least in their eyes. I was getting into the punk thing.”
Idol was influenced by the Sex Pistols, and the band he formed with Tony James, Generation X, was linked in the late ‘70s with the punk contingent. Yet Generation X’s first album wed punk independence with more traditional pop melodies. It featured both a remake of John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” and a catchy anthem called “Wild Youth.”
About the popish edge, Idol explains, “I was real big on some of the R&B; things. I mean I love Dr. Feelgood as much as the Sex Pistols and I wanted to join all those things together in my music--even disco--because I love the driving beat.”
The group’s second album, “Valley of the Dolls,” was a disaster and Idol fell out of favor. “We weren’t all together musically, and that led for the press to become very cynical about it and say that we were pop opportunists,” he suggests. “We really started getting slagged off after the second album because the music didn’t come up to where it should have been. Then people started looking at our image and deciding we really were a joke.”
He became such a target that in 1980 he moved to New York, where his single “Dancing With Myself” had been a dance club favorite. He also drifted away from songwriting partner Tony James, who now is the mastermind behind the latest British pop cartoon: Sigue Sigue Sputnik.
“That was another advantage of moving here,” he says. “I knew I needed to find another musical confederate . . . someone I could really work with to draw me out and teach me--and I didn’t have the musical credibility in England. So, it was very hard to find people who wanted to work with me.”
Idol found his new partner in guitarist Steve Stevens, who co-writes most of Idol’s songs. “Steve is a great musician and most of all is that he understands me,” Idol continues. “We sort of blend our egos. With Generation X, I wrote a lot of songs by myself for the last album and Tony would feel bad about being left out of things, but Steve doesn’t mind if I write a song on my own.”
Critics here also recoiled from Idol’scartoonish macho /rebel stance, but the MTV crowd loved his videos. This guy could dance with the best of them and curl his lip more adroitly than anyone since Elvis.
But Idol, too, became tired of the one-dimensional image. He took a deliberate break after the nine-month “Rebel Yell” tour to weigh his future. He wanted to make sure he didn’t repeat the Generation X mistake of simply rushing out an album to keep the record company happy.
He had taken time out to write and record a “personal” album and when he bounced back a few weeks ago, Idol sported the same spiky platinum-blond hair style, curled lip and leather pants. Yet some songs in the “Whiplash Smile” album had a softer tone. Explains Idol:
“I am quite a romantic person really and I should have put that into my music earlier, but I was probably denying it . . . I didn’t want to be soft because I felt I had to be so hard to get people to believe in me. I guess I was also so wrapped up in my own frustrations. I wanted so much for people to pay attention.
“I always felt in the beginning that you need to create an identity for people to latch on to beyond your music. Besides, it was great fun to make things larger than life. Part of the punk attitude was that you should project your music through your whole body . . . show your personality as much as possible.”
Idol didn’t just spend the last two years making the new album. He also changed managers (from Bill Aucoin, who helped launch Kiss in the ‘70s, to Freddy DeMann, who also manages Madonna) and broke up with his girlfriend, whom he had lived with for about six years.
The first clue to the new Idol was the playfulness of his “To Be a Lover” video. In a tongue-in-cheek reference to his combative image, Idol’s shown in a boxing ring--but this time he’s actually smiling.
“Well, I felt like smiling,” he says. “I was feeling so pent up inside before that I wasn’t able to show my real self. It has sort of taken until this record to get what I really feel . . . to sing love songs and stuff. Before, I was even battling that side of myself . . . the whole punk rock thing was so anti-love that it took a long time to free me from the inhibitions of England and start realizing that I’ve got to totally follow what I believe in . . . and that’s not destruction.
“When we got together to make this album, one of the things we really wanted to do was find ‘me’ in it . . . and try to show what I’m really about. For the first time, I’ve given myself the space to be a bit more human.”