Billy Idol Q&A
QUESTION: How would you describe this Greatest Hits collection?
BILLY IDOL: “Rebel Yell,” “White Wedding,” “Eyes Without A Face,” “Flesh For Fantasy,” “Shock to the System”–they are all here. The ones we picked are really the singles. They were the most essential songs. That’s what’s fantastic about this record. These are also the songs that we liked. I mean, when “White Wedding” came out, it wasn’t pro-what was going on in the music system. It was an underground, college radio hit. Even when I released “Don’t Need A Gun” and stuff, people weren’t making sort of techno-rock records at that time. And then again, something like “Cradle of Love,” that is a pure out-and-out Billy Idol pop record.
Q: On this record you reunited with Keith Forsey for “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” and you turn in a classic performance. Maybe you can tell us a little about what your thoughts are about your version of this ’80s hit.
B: Well, I always wished I could’ve had a crack at that song because my producer Keith Forsey wrote it. But because he wanted to work with other people, Keith thought he’d give Simple Minds a crack at it. But it was funny because at the time I remember there were lots of people who used to come up to me and say “I love your new single”–they thought it was me. It’s been 15 years since it came out…In doing the song, it was great watching Keith. He was able to reinvigorate the song. It wasn’t like he was struggling for ideas to make it sound modern or different. No, he didn’t have that problem. In fact, I think you can tell when you listen to it that it’s very much in a Billy Idol mode, and it just so happened that another group did it.
Q: So now with guitarist Steve Stevens there, the sound is tougher as well. Can you talk about what you feel Steve has brought to a lot of your classic hits, including this one?
B: Well, a lot of the songs I’d write would be a three or four chord trick. The great thing about Steve was that he brought a lot of musicality, not only with the guitar–through the whiz-bang-crash of the guitar breaks–but just in general, he would always add behind what I was singing. He’d throw in chords that would counter-balance what was going on, which, in a way, would create a depth in the music. So, apart from adding the energy and the fire of his solos, I think in a way he helped define the 3-D picture of the songs. And that in itself would add to the depth and the meaning of the songs. And of course, he wrote quite a lot of them too. We were a writing partnership on a lot of the main songs.
Q: Speaking of fiery performances, can you talk about your live version of “Rebel Yell” from KROQ Acoustic Christmas in ’93?
B: That was a great night. In general, a lot of people hadn’t seen or heard my music done with everything stripped away. But I’d always tell people, “You know that the songs began with an acoustic guitar.” Things like “Sweet Sixteen,” that doesn’t need a band. You can play that just on its own. And a lot of the songs are like that. It just happens that we play them as a rock band. But if you strip that right down, the energy and the meaning of the song–the fire of the song, the fire of your life–is still there. And that’s what’s great, you can play the songs. You can play them on a tin can if you wanted to and you would have the same lust for life, so it’s very easy to translate them and that’s what you can hear with this version of “Rebel Yell.” Obviously that night we did a few other songs as well, but we only put “Rebel Yell” on this album.
Q: Certainly one of the problems with the top 40 hits today is that they’re just so dependent on production–a lot of smoke and mirrors.
B: That’s one thing I can say that’s not true about my music. If you strip away the skullduggery, as we used to like to call it, you’re left with a gem.
Q: You’ve taken so many chances with your music, from starting out in punk to merging it with pop. Then, of course, there was Cyberpunk, totally ahead of its time. Looking back at your career and how you took chances-any regrets along the way?
B: No, not in the end because I think, especially listening to this collection of music, you can see that whatever we did was worth it. Of course when I left Generation X to start out on my own, you can imagine the amount of people who thought maybe I was betraying punk rock or something like that. But I believe that I took the punk rock attitude and put that into what I wanted punk rock to turn into. I always felt that punk rock in itself was brilliant for the anger, and for the gang mentality. But when you got down to a very individual personal side, it wasn’t sexy, that was another thing. You couldn’t imagine fucking your girlfriend to a lot of punk rock because it doesn’t go on long enough and sometimes you need music that pumps. Towards the end of Generation X, getting nearer to the 80’s, I started to love the idea of the extended mixes that were going on in disco. I wanted to apply that to the sort of sturm und drang of punk rock. And that’s really what Billy Idol became. We started out doing that with things like “Dancing With Myself” and it continued on. I wanted to put sex into the music. I just didn’t see that quality in a lot of music. In fact, everyone was denying it at the time, denying sex, saying it was just a lot of squelchy noises. Also, when it came down to me being a solo artist, I wanted to speak about my own experiences. A lot of them had to be a little more personal–therefore I wanted a platform to do it and I wanted to still use the fire of punk rock and the attitude but I wanted to use the pump of rhythm music. And that meant that you could extend the music, and that also meant that you could break up the music, you could remix the music. Which at that time was something nobody was doing in rock. I’m not saying I was the first but we did it in Generation X, we did it to a version of the song “Wild Youth,” and really this was just a continuation.
Q: Any comments about what led you to cover “LA Woman” by the Doors and “Mony Mony” by Tommy James? There are people who see that the Billy Idol version is the classic interpretation of the original song.
B: Yeah, well, I’ve always said that while I was first experiencing having sex with the girls in a public park, I could always hear “Mony Mony” playing in the background. That’s a great story and I’m not going to deny it now, but you can imagine that constant drumming. Anything like that, it’s just the non-stop nature, the Billy-Idol-don’t-stop nature of the music. I love that, and things like “Mony Mony,” you could take that and Idol-ize it so to speak. Even “LA Woman.” I think I did take that and make it, to an extent, my own. I know that, of course, it is a Doors classic but it was one of the few Doors songs I felt I could do that to. It was almost a little bit unfinished, the way the Doors did it, I felt. When we did that song, it was basically as an encore for years and so eventually I decided, why don’t we record it?
Q: What’s interesting in your career are the times you shared the stage with The Who, whether it was “Tommy” or “Quadrophenia.” Talk a little bit about that because that represents a chapter of your career.
B: Well, we got to know Pete Townshend and Keith Moon in particular back in the day because they were both very interested in punk rock and were hanging out in the London scene. Keith Moon even came down to a Generation X rehearsal and played the drums with us. We did (the Who classics) “I Can See For Miles,” “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” and “My Generation.” Then he played a number of ours with us called “Your Generation.” But those two guys, Pete Townshend and Keith Moon, were very much interested in punk rock, so we got to know each other. Then, later on when they were looking for the sort of evil babysitter for their charity version of “Tommy” they put on in the late 80’s, they thought of me. And then later on I was asked to be the Bellboy and Ace Face in ‘Quadrophenia.’ All these have elements of the parts that Keith Moon would’ve played. Somehow or other I felt it was great I was kind of evoking a bit of the spirit of Keith and I think they were always looking for that, too. The Who were looking for a way to get that and bring it into their music. I’m sure they miss Keith in lots of ways they probably don’t even like to talk about. It was great being able to sort of repay the favor.
Q: That’s a beautiful kind of full cycle experience.
B: The Who were one of the groups we were listening to when we were putting the music for Generation X together. They were one of the groups you could listen to because they were angry, especially their very early music. Angry young men, angry punk music, angry teenage music really. So when we were first putting the Generation X music together, we listened to them a lot so that would’ve spilled over into my own music as well.
Q: Let’s talk a little bit about what you’re up to these days. Are you in the studio?
B: Yeah, well me and Steve Stevens are playing. We stopped playing together for awhile, but we’re back playing together again now.
Q: And writing together?
B: And writing together. We’re in a brilliant position now where we could put out a new record. For a few years it just seemed that the record industry was going through a lot of turgid changes and was in itself, a revolt against itself. It was very hard for me to find a space within it, but not anymore. We can do something, and certainly me and Steve are writing together. I don’t think we’re ever going to do something that doesn’t sound like Billy Idol, I can tell you that much. It’s not as if we’re going to suddenly embrace or sound like every other band that’s out there. We’re always going to do something that when you hear it, you’re going to realize that it’s Billy Idol.
Q: Is there a timetable in your mind when you’d like to see your next record out?
B: Well, basically, I’d love to see it next year. 2002 would be great. I think that’s partly the idea for putting this Greatest Hits out is to kind of encapsulate the first part of what we did so then we can move on.
Q: It’s always fascinating when an artist puts out a greatest hits record because, on a certain level, it is the official closing of the chapter. Honoring it and closing it. It can give you that further conviction to move forward. Would you say that’s true?
B: Well yeah, I would say that. I mean, I think you are hearing some of our best work, me and Steve Stevens or whomever was on the records. And so yeah, it’s a great way to sort of cut off the excess and just give you the stripped down mean machine.
Q: Any particular music you listen to these days? Any bands stand out for you?
B: I mainly listen to mid-70’s dub reggae. But I listen to the radio a lot nowadays. You can hear all the groups on the radio. You listen to KROQ, or something like that out here (in Los Angeles)–you can more or less hear what’s going on. That’s the strange part about it. When I was starting out, you would have to search for the music but they kind of give it to you on a plate these days.
Q: If you were looking at the history book right now and wanted to look down and see what Billy Idol has achieved and what he is achieving, what would you like it to say?
B: Well, I think to a certain extent I helped to keep alive a certain aspect about rock and roll music that either had been dead or was dying. When I say rock and roll, I mean rhythm and blues, stuff like that, because my music isn’t based on heavy chords, the heavy crunch of the heavy rock. It’s based on rhythm rock and so I love the idea that I put some of the fire that I heard in rock and roll music into it. I found a way of regenerating it with my own music. So then when it came out, it came after you. You felt like you never heard it before. But to me, the music just as much reflected what I heard in Elvis, what I heard in the Velvet Underground, what I heard in Iggy Pop, what I heard in David Bowie and what I heard in the Sex Pistols. I mean, of course the music is talking about me primarily, and it was a great thing that I was able to go from a group like Generation X, which was talking about the crowd, into really talking about the individual. My own lusts, needs, wants, desires, hates, anger-it’s all there in the music. Rock and roll was always about that, about speaking the truth as far as you saw it.
Q: One final question. What do you think is the best time for somebody to listen to Greatest Hits-is it out of town, at home, driving alone somewhere?
B: I think you can be driving listening to it, you can be fucking listening to it and you can be in heaven listening to it. I think you could be dead and listening to it since it’s capable of all those things. I think it’s great for trucking music, I think it’s great for fucking music. I can’t see a place where it would be out of place because the music is basically pumping music. At the same time, it’s not sort of hitting you over the head. So I think it leaves a lot of room. It’s certainly great for having sex to.
Q: Do you feel you’re ready for a comeback?
B: Yeah, America loves a comeback, thank God. I still got Steve Stevens standing there in the wings and he’s playing better than ever so it’s not out of the question. I think we just need the right songs and the right platform, which means the right record company to do it through. The best thing is that me and Steve as a union are there and that is untouched. It hasn’t been damaged from the past. In fact, if anything it’s been made stronger by it.
Q: One of the reasons people want to see your return is because they miss the strong rhythmic feel and the fire of your performances.
B: Well, it’s hard for me to blow my own horn, but yeah, I think there was a certain sound which very much has its own place, and I don’t think it’s ever been really copied properly. Or, at least I don’t think so. And that, in itself, has always seemed to make my music timeless. It seems to me that there’s nothing about this greatest hits record that doesn’t make sense today or wouldn’t make sense in 20 years time.