British punk icon's rebel yell still reverberates with fans
American audiences might think of Billy Idol as the eternally sneering, spiky-haired rocker who dominated MTV in the 1980s and '90s. But that assumption ignores large chunks of the legendary Englishman's 35-year career. In the '70s, William Michael Albert Broad was a punk pioneer — a Sex Pistols super-fan who briefly belonged to an early incarnation of Siouxsie and the Banshees before forming his own pop- and rock-influenced band, Generation X. When Idol went solo in 1981, he was an early adopter of music video technology, scoring major hits first on TV and then on radio with anthems like "Dancing with Myself," "Mony, Mony," "Rebel Yell," "White Wedding" and "Cradle of Love." And Idol's 1993 album "Cyberpunk" — recorded on ProTools and packaged with a screensaver and email address — presaged the coming information revolution.
Idol, now 57, has certainly endured his fair share of miserable moments, too. In 1989, Thailand's military forcibly removed him from the country after a marathon three-week binge, and in 1990, he almost lost one of his legs after a serious motorcycle crash. Four years later, Idol nearly overdosed on GHB, collapsing outside a Los Angeles nightclub. Since that horrible low, Idol's career has stabilized — he had a scene-stealing turn in the 1998 dramedy "The Wedding Singer," reunited with longtime sideman Steve Stevens in 2001, and, just last month, headlined Google's I/O tech conference.
Folio Weekly: This is your first U.S. tour in nearly a year, Billy. What do you have new in store for audiences?
Billy Idol: We have two or three new songs, which we may possibly record in the autumn for an album, so these shows are a great opportunity to see the audience's reaction. Hopefully, it's exciting for old Idol fans and new ones.
F.W.: Take us back to the mid-'70s when punk first broke in Britain. How exciting and liberating were those times?
B.I.: Incredibly exciting. This whole new world opened up to people who were bored with hippies and fed up with glam rock and looking for something new that was going to speak for them. There was a feeling of this tidal wave when punk exploded in England — every sort of person could use it as a fresh start. It was like this undiscovered country — it wasn't even called punk then!
F.W.: MTV was an undiscovered country in the early '80s, too — yet you embraced the new technology from the get-go. What spurred that decision?
B.I.: In 1979, I hooked up with a manager, Bill Aucoin, who also managed KISS. Earlier in his career, he had been a TV producer, so he was very hooked into media. When I came to America in 1980-'81, he knew MTV was coming. It was very exciting because I was looking for a way to relaunch my solo career, and MTV gave me the platform. Plus, videos were really fun to do, although we used to call the two or three days [spent filming them] "video hell" — sheer, nonstop hell. [Laughs.]
F.W.: Sounds like the wild lifestyle you led for many years. What finally convinced you to give up hard drugs?
B.I.: Well, I had two children, and they woke me up to the fact that I wasn't on my own anymore. And the last thing I wanted was to die on them. I had a lot of fun, but that wild lifestyle was taking its toll — I could see the honeymoon was over. That was difficult for me to accept, but the last thing I wanted to do was spend my life going in and out of rehab. That Amy Winehouse tune? I know exactly what she was talking about. You start to go, "Man, is it worth getting that stoned? I'm going to end up in a shithole of a place, and it'll all be my own fault."
F.W.: You also wanted to keep your music career going, right?
B.I.: I'm so privileged to do what I do — the audience has given me that chance. So to spit in their face and go, "I'm just going to destroy myself"? That's not me. The real me cares about what I'm doing and wants to deliver. The last thing I want to do is get so stoned that I'm fucked up at my performances. Plus, in the mid-'90s, I started to get in-ear monitors that allowed me to really hear what I was singing like. So I had no excuse to be fucked up. It's better to go on straight — to be the real you. I respect the audience in lots of ways, and they deserve the best Billy possible. That's what I want to give 'em in St. Augustine.
F.W.: You've accomplished so much in the your career. What's left in the future?
B.I.: That's the big question. Thank God at the moment that we're able to just concentrate on coming up with new songs. That in itself is a triumph.