Text by M.A. Cassata
Originally published in Goldmine February 2006
(Images from the Internet)
Billy idol is back and it’s about time! Not only has the 70s-into-80s rebel punk rocker arrived in 2005 with his latest album, Devil’s Playground it is also his first long-awaited collection of new music since 1993’s Cyberpunk. Devil’s Playground reunites him with guitarist, Steve Stevens and producer Keith Forsey (producer since Generation X). With one listen to such songs as Rat Race, Super Over-drive and the first single Scream is without a doubt many fans would agree is some of his best body of work since the mid-80s.
At a youthful 50, the roar of the crowd at a recent New York City show further exemplifies that the renowned Idol sneer is still considered just as inciting now as it was at the height of his career. His platinum hair is still cropped short and spiky to his now breathable leather pants (yes, still as black and tight as ever), this hard to forget rock star can still take his shirt off and elicit screams from women of all ages.
“Yeah! No one is getting rid of me,” he laughs. “My job is to make people be in love with the world that the music has created because I am. It’s really important to be in love with what you are, sure of what you are, proud of what you are.”
When you are talking to Billy idol, remember: Don’t ever confuse him as a product of ’80s nostalgia, or you’ll get an earful. “I’m not a retro act, he proclaims in that familiar English growl just hours before his sold-out New York City performance. “I love singing ‘Rebel Yell’. I never get tired of it. All these bands got their music and I’ve got mine— and mine is definitely more powerful!”
Billy Idol doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody anymore. He’s a veteran performer who still sells regularly out mid sized concert halls and his 2000 Greatest Hits album was expected to sell over 100, 000 copies. To the record company and Idol’s surprise, the popular hits package sold well over 940,000 units. Further impressed, VH1 awarded Idol his “Storytellers” episode.
So, for all you so-called “Pop-Punks” out there, the time has come give props to the maker himself. You can start by yelling. “Mo”, mo, mo!”
Goldmine: Hi Billy. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us… Just gotta say how great you look these days. Are you lifting weights?
Billy Idol: Well, I’ve got a bit of a regiment I’ve been doing for years, so I think it’s just kicked in, you know (laughs). I worked it a bit extra ‘cause I wanted to, I wanted it to come out, you know, the same time as the album. You always look the best at the end of everything. I didn’t want that. So I felt I was gonna get myself to the stage where I looked good at the beginning. I don’t have to do anything anymore. You’re gonna need all that stamina. It’s a lot to with energizing. Really, to think, it’shorrible to say, but my body is my instrument. I plug into me. So, in a way, I have to make sure that, I don’t know… there’s a side of me that know if I was gonna get fucked up then I would have to be able to work out (laughs).
Goldmine: So you’ve been preparing this new look for a while now?
BI: Not really, well it’s just like; I was going along for a while and then, I never thought you could look like this really. And then I really worked at it. It’s like it’s all come into place, just I realized, “Oh, it’s a matter of doing it over a long period of time.” And it’s also a matter of you find a few things that click suddenly and really start to work for you (laughs). Everybody has to find his or her own way. There’s all different ways of doing it. There’s no set way for one person. What’s good for you might not be good for me.
Goldmine: When did you first start working on Devil’s Playground?
BI: About April 2004. I did a lot of songwriting around Steve Stevens’ house or Brian Ticky’s (drummer) house. They’ve both got setups. One great thing about Brian Ticky’s setup was it was with the drums, so we had real drums and we could do a lot more.
Goldmine: Can you elaborate?
BI: I don’t know… off-the-cuff kind of things. To start, you could do a lot punkier things. You do a lot of more energetic, punkier. I don’t know… yeah. It was much more— it was interesting. It was good fun, having a drummer and a great guitarist to write songs with. It was great fun. We wrote 20 songs from November 2003 to April 2004.
Goldmine: Do you still write songs rather quickly?
BI: We try to, yeah. Write very quickly because, yeah. You know, you’re always looking for the next big thing as well.
Goldmine: Do you still write the lyrics first and then the melodies?
BI: It could come all different ways. Sometimes I come up with the chords, some of the main lyric, and then take it down there, or I’ll get down there and Brian will have a riff and then he plays to me or he’ll have a riff and a little bit of a verse. Things like that. Different ways. I come to him with just as much music and lyrics as he comes to me with just as many other ideas, you know.
Goldmine: It’s obvious most of these songs are pretty personal to you.
BI: Yes, very personal.
Goldmine: Is this the kind of album you’ve always wanted to make?
BI: At least it is a lot closer than what would’ve been done in the late 90’s. I think you have to do that if you have any kind of artistic vision. You have to stick to your guns, whether it flies or crash lands (laughs). This one’s a rocket. It’s kind of experimental. You never know if it’s gonna work or not, but you have to keep working on it.
Goldmine: What were the inspirations behind some of the songs? Let’s start with “World Coming Down.”
BI: Yeah! “World Coming Down”. That one is written from a kid’s point of view. It was like this. I would take son to school every day in the ’90s and in early 2000 and I can tell you that running up against all that authority sure makes you wanna write an anti-authority song. That’s what I was trying to do with “World Coming Down.” All through your life there’s all these different authorities± whether they are teachers or judges or nature that are out there to get you and stop you being you and penalize you for being you. You have to be in their square peg, in their round hole or whatever. So it’s really sort of just an anti-authority song. But it’s got a sense of humor about it I think. I started off thinking about the world coming down on my so, say, when he was doing his SATs or something. But I also thought about how I’ve kinda brought the world down on me in all sorts of ways, so it’s just as much about me.
Goldmine: What about the single, “Scream?”
BI: It’s totally filthy! Here it’s three o’clock in the morning and the sex beast is on the prowl, it’s a funny song… A real Billy Idol song. It really roars!
Goldmine: “Rat Race” is a good one too.
BI: Yeah, that’s the adult me talking to myself. Think about it. Our public lives turn into rat races, then you discover your private life is a rat race too, and the problem is inside yourself. So it’s easy to get sucked into things and then wonder why you are doing them, which can cause damage. Somehow you are not going to be the same person you are, the person you are proud of.
Goldmine: Isn’t “Sherrie” the first song you’ve written from a young girl’s point of view?
BI: Yeah, “Sherrie” is. I get up in the morning and start writing songs. One morning I woke up and I played “Peggy Sue” or something similar on my acoustic guitar. So, then I get to thinking, “Why don’t I write about some chick I love? Yeah, that’s what’ll do! You know, one I’m in love with. If you think about it, the song is really about all the women I’ve been in love with. I tried to capsulate it… the real love affair in it.
Goldmine: Do you encourage your son to be as individual as you are?
BI: Oh, yeah. You should always follow your own heart; otherwise whose path are you following? (laughs). My son’s got his own little group now. It’s called Lucas. He listens to Radiohead, Deftones, and things like that. The shit he listens to I don’t need to know. ‘Cause he’s following everything, you know what I mean? He’s right up there too. He’s 16 and knows what’s going on.
Goldmine: Does he come to you for advice on the music business?
BI: Yeah, well that’s he first fun part about it. We can talk about it so much. But he’s got his own mind. He’s got his own way of doing things. He’s got his own kind of vision. He’s focused and doesn’t need to know that much from me really.
Goldmine: What has your son learned from you?
BI: The main thing I’ve done is given him the equipment to work with. I said to him, “Man, I know you’re gonna do it. Get on with it yourself.” Then I’m thinking he might come here on the road and work with us—the sound guys. Yeah! This way he could work a summer job, ‘cause all the other summer jobs are the stupid manual jobs and he wouldn’t learn anything. At least this way he’s working the sound.
Goldmine: What are some of your favorite songs to perform in concert?
BI: I love “Rebel Yell” and “White Wedding”. Actually, anything like that. The new songs are pretty good fun to do too. I like doing “Rat Race” live too. It’s s a fun song. “Sherrie” too. They’re kind of screamy but they’re good fun. We’ll end up doing “Plastic Jesus” at some point.
Goldmine: Do you actually remember writing some of your older songs like “Rebel Yell”?
BI: Oh, yeah. When I wrote “Rebel Yell,” I was living in this one room. I had a little kitchen in New York in Sheridan Square. I remember, I didn’t have a bed at the time. You know there was sitting in an empty room basically. I had my trunk, my guitar, and a few clothes. I can remember sitting there and going, “ding ding ding ding” in the midnight hour she cried “more, more, more.” When I got the idea of “Rebel Yell” it was really brilliant. I was sort of friendly at that time with Ronnie Wood. That was the summer of ‘83. Perry (Idol’s girlfriend, Perry Lister) was friendly with his wife. I guess you could say we were both pals of each other.
Goldmine: So, you were hanging out with Ronnie Wood in New York City. You must have run into Mick and Keith.
BI: Yeah, I was going around there quite a lot to Ronnie’s house, which was in uptown New York. One night at Ronnie’s Mick Jagger was there. I helped Ronnie hold a birthday party for Mick Jagger. It was amazing. So standing in front of me was Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Ronnie Wood. There we were, all standing in a row all drinking. I couldn’t quite see what it was, so I was kind of bending down and following it up, trying to see what it was. I could see that there was a Confederate officer on the bottle. I saw that they had a case of it next to them. I pulled it out and it was “Rebel Yell” and said, “Wow!” Then I said to the guys, “Listen, did you have this made up or something?” And they said, “No, no, it’s real and it’s called “Rebel Yell.” And I said, “Yeah, Rebel Yell!” I mean, do you blokes mind me using that title? They all kind of looked at each before answering.
Goldmine: Did you think they were going to use it as a song title?
BI: Yeah. Well, you know you’ve got three fighting men here. You’ve got the Jumpin’ Jack Flash himself for one! They said, “No, no we don’t.” and I said, “Oh, great!” And I went on to use it. It’s just that they were all drinking it. I knew about the Civil War. I knew it was Jackson’s division that started the “Rebel Yell”. So I knew about it. That’s why it reached out to me, like, oh what a great name to use. It’s really brilliant. It’s great, a real magic way of finding something out.
Goldmine: What kind of music are you listening to these days? Anything inspiring you?
BI: I listen to a lot of things. At the moment I’m listening to reggae remix music really. It’s pretty wild listening to the old sounds. It’s refreshing too. Nowadays you’re only gonna hear these modern sounds. To hear those old analog sounds and those old funny keyboards is a treat. It’s good fun. It’s a nice place to go when you’ve been blasting yourself to death every night with your own music.
Goldmine: What else?
BI: I like to hear a lot of stuff on the radio. My son gets Radiohead and stuff like that. So it’s not like you don’t hear it. I hear new bands all the time. A lot coming from England. Because of my son, I know a lot more of the groups’ names. I’ve even played with a lot of these bands.
Goldmine: Like whom for instance?
BI: Well, I played with The Muse and I played with Franz Ferdinand. I played with the Bravery. I played with Louis XIV. I played with Jimmy Eat World. So in a way I’m sort of getting out and seeing them by rocking myself.
Goldmine: Are you still Harley riding?
BI: Oh yeah!
Goldmine: How many Harleys do you own?
BI: Just one. That’s enough!
Goldmine: Whom are you riding with these days?
BI: I really ride with my bass player Stephen McGrath. He’s a long distance motorcyclist. That’s how we became friends really, ‘cause we started to ride the cycles together. He’d been on a lot more long runs than I have, though. So far, it’s been great fun.
Goldmine: Where do you ride?
BI: We ride all over the country. We went to Yellowstone. We went to the Four Corners. We went to the Redwoods. We drove our bikes all around Chicago. Places like that. What you do is camp out or you stay at a road site or motel. My mate ’s got a slightly bigger bike than me so he can carry more supplies. We could drop by the side of the road and put up a tent in if we had to. We’re prepared. It’s very meditative at times. I love it. When you see beautiful countrysides you start thinking about your life. You sort of put your life back together while you’re out riding. Almost automatically in a way. You’re out there, and you’re already on the bike, and you are moving. It’s beautiful. Suddenly the world in your head can start turning. I wrote the song, “Summer Running” about my riding experiences.
Goldmine: Is there anything you’d like to say to the fans?
BI: Have a great time. Have a great life. Enjoy yourself. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. You never know.