Fresh from major surgery, BILLY IDOL is ready to cast his patented sneer on British audiences as part of his Charmed Life tour. Alastair Mabbott charts his rise from punk original to LA rock star.
ately, I‘ve been thinking about the lobby that tried to make the new radio station a ‘rock‘ channel, sending out petitions and putting forward the case that ‘rock‘ is a distinct and more durable art form than ‘pop‘, and therefore deserved to be treated with a little respect. The argument sounded like a plea for a cultural ivory tower from a few middle-aged men out to protect themselves at all costs from the vulgar and transient. It was, very sensibly, defeated, but now I wonder: On which side ofthe fence would they place someone like Billy Idol?
Listen to the hits ‘Rebel Yell‘ and ‘White Wedding‘ — they‘re songs that sneer at you when you slide them out of their sleeves. They ride Harleys, drink Bourbon and hang around outside schoolyards. But they‘re rock songs of a kind that can only be put together by people who love the pop charts.
I don‘t know how seriously these serious people would take Mr Idol, but derision would be nothing new for him. His old ‘punk‘ group, Generation X (with Tony James, who adapted some of the ideas for Sigue Sigue Sputnik), followed Gary Glitter and Ziggy Stardust by five years and preceded ‘Dog Eat Dog‘ by three. Looked at retrospectively, and maybe a little selectively, they can be seen as part ofan honourable strand of British pop tradition. The streak of glamour, the larger-than-life, the Day-G10 was all directed towards reviving the spirit of the music. The problem with Generation X was that the British like it pushed all the way into camp or not at all. We like our irony. And Billy Idol was never ironic about it. He wasn‘t shy of admitting he loved rock‘n‘roll and wanted to be a star. Naturally, 1977 being what it was, Generation X were spurned by the hardline punks
America was much more amenable to Idol‘s attitude. The kind of punk they could understand over there was one who craved fame. So. after Gen X‘s demise in 1981, he headed for New York and set himself to the task of breaking it big as a solo artist. He knew all about reinventing himself — it was while at Bromley Tech. funnily enough the same school once attended by famous chameleon David Bowie, that he had made the leap from bespectacled runt to peroxide rockstar-in-waiting— but the insistence that he had to become ‘the 80s David Cassidy‘ ifhe wanted to get anywhere in America stuck in his craw. Enlisting Bill Aucoin, Kiss‘s manager, Idol stuck to his guns, and knew he was right to do so when he saw the posthumous Gen X track ‘Dancing With Myself‘ fill a Manhattan danceﬂoor. Only minor modifications were needed before the image clicked. Lead guitarist and co-writer Steve Stevens shared centre stage in videos, every inch the heavy metal guitar hero beloved of MTV. (He split with Idol before the
recording of Charmed Life to become, ofall things, a heavy metal guitar hero.)
Idol‘s eponymous solo debut spent 80 weeks on the Billboard chart, and the follow-up, Rebel Yell, has probably shifted another few thousand while you‘ve been looking at this page. Through all this, he continued to nurse a grudge against Britain. On one occasion, in London to carry out promotional chores, he smashed up his record company‘s A&R office and spray-painted the walls because he couldn‘t find any copies of Rebel Yell there. If this seems rather extreme when a memo might have sufficed, you have to understand that wanton destruction was no stranger to Idol‘s life at the time. No stranger to heroin and a boozer of staggering proportions, Billy Idol caused more chaos than he has a hope of remembering.
His album Whiplash Smile he now regards as ‘soulless’, explaining that it was made when he was using cocaine to buffer his withdrawal from heroin. His move to Los Angeles after seven years ofwhooping it up in New York wasn‘t for the coke, however, but because he‘d heard LA would be a better place for his girlfriend, ex-Hot Gossip dancer Perry Lister, to give birth to their child. Idol quickly became part ofa legion of expatriate Brits, many from failed or semi-obscure bands, who got on their leathers, left their helmets at home and drove Harley Davidsons around LA — poseurs, even by Californian standards.
His most recent album, Charmed Life, comes after a period of reassessment, during which he changed management and band, he and Lister parted and he patched things up with his parents after becoming a father to Willem Wolfe. He remarks himselfthat Charmed Life sports songs that one would expect him to write after a serious accident rather than before.
Idol, as is well known by now, smashed himself up earlier this year, his leg sustaining a compound break which pushed the bone out through the skin and required extensive surgery to mend. But he hasn‘t let it hold him back. In the video for ‘LA Woman‘, he looks surprisingly dignified with a cane and long black coat, taking the ‘rock aristocrat‘ look to Luc Besson (Subway) lengths that Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton could never hope to match. The injury meant. though. that his part in Oliver Stone‘s forthcoming Doors biopic has been reduced to a smaller role. He is still carrying on with his tour — the first time he‘s played on European soil since he went Stateside — but lacerated corneas. probably caused by grit in his contact lenses. caused cancelled gigs and blinded him for several days.
Tony James is 108. He now plays with Sisters of Mercy, a ‘rock‘ group in no uncertain terms.
Billy ldolplays lug/[sum [ix/libido): ('entre on Saturday 15. ‘I
The List 7 — 20 December [WU 11