Thursday, April 30, 2015

BILLY IDOL: By Himself [1981 Interview]

Text by Marc Perton / FFanzeen fanzine, 1981
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

This interview was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #8, dated 1981. It was conducted and written by Marc Perton.

While I never saw Michael Broad, aka Billy Idol perform live, somewhere there is a photo of his first solo band in New York City playing Max’s Kansas City. The drummer was Steve Missal, of the Ronnie and the Jitters band, and he is wearing a FFanzeen tee-shirt. I’ve also never seen this photo, so if you have a copy somewhere, as it was published in Billboard around the time of this interview, I’d love a copy of it.

Billy Idol was a bit of a contradiction to me. In the States, many saw him in his band Generation X as a British punker, but back in the U.K. he had a reputation for being a “pretty boy” poseur, even dating back to his time as part of the Bromley Contingent. Either way, “Your Generation,” an obvious answer to the Who’s “My Generation,” was a great song. Upon the split of the re-titled Gen X after a couple of critically lambasted albums, he moved to New York, had a short fling with a good friend of mine, and then hit it big.

Most of his solo stuff is pretty obnoxious, such as “Dancing With Myself” and “Rebel Yell.” His one-sided lip curl (one might call it a sneer), short dyed-blond hair (implemented by the Spike character in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series) and fist pump became iconic thanks in part to MTV’s repetition. Some of his solo releases are actually quite good, though, like his cover of “Mony Mony” and “White Wedding,” but it’s also ironic that in this interview he talks about how turning “heavy metal” is undesirable, but he ended up jumping on that wagon. Wisely, he collaborated with Steve Stevens, a whirlwind guitar player with more stage presence than him, and is still doing so today as he tours the world, quickly approaching his 60th birthday in November.

There is one brilliant comment below that actually helped me put the difference between British punk rock and American hardcore into perspective: “it's not the same as English punk rock, because it's about how much more problems it is having things than not having them.“ For that, he’ll always have a bit of my respect. – RBF, 2015

The end was this January, when Billy Idol, almost without prior warning, left Generation X (or “Gen X” as they had taken for calling themselves). Billy left England for New York, where he began working with Bill Aucoin [d. 2010], the manager of KISS. Tony James, Billy’s songwriting partner in Gen X, did an interview shortly thereafter in which he claimed that Billy left the group quite suddenly, and that he only found out in advance “by accident.”

On this side of the Atlantic, Billy went through what his management called “five months of self-abuse” while getting used to New York. Suddenly, he released a single and began to speak to the press, who had denied a rebuttal to the charges against him. I spoke with him and found that his time in New York hasn’t consisted entirely of self-destruction.

But, first, the means.

Generation X was one of the countless punk rock bands that sprang up, almost out of nowhere, in England in late 1976. Billy idol, a member of the “Bromley Contingent,” the original Sex Pistols fan club, met up with Tony James, formerly of the London S.S., a garage band which featured, among others, the Clash’s Mick Jones, Billy and Tony, along with a singer named Gene October, who formed the group Chelsea. The band didn’t work, and Billy, Tony, and drummer John Towe left to form Generation X, along with guitarist Bob “Derwood” Andrews. Towe soon left the group and was replaced by Mark Laff. After gigging around England for a few months, the group released their first single, “Your Generation,” which was followed by an album, Generation X. The group attracted quite a sizeable following in England, where young audiences flocked to hear their anthems, “100 Punks,” “Wild Youth,” and others. They were branded “pop-punk,” and Billy’s face was splashed all over British teen magazines. Generation X was released in 1978 in America to an enthusiastic response, but the group never toured here.

In 1979, while in the midst of legal proceedings to end their relationship with their manager, Stewart Joseph, they released their second album, the much criticized Valley of the Dolls. Produced by Ian Hunter, the album marked a major stylistic change for the group. Anthems were replaced by heavy metal guitar solos and the one song on the album which retained a hint of the original Generation X style, “King Rocker,” became immortalized as an example that not all loud, fast music can be danced to. In spite of the many complaints against it, the album featured some of Billy’s best vocals (notably on “Paradise West” and “The Prime of Kenny Silvers”), and also stands as possibly the most workable synthesis of punk rock and heavy metal to date.

After Valley, Andrews and Laff left the group, and for a year, it seemed that Generation X was no more. In mid-1980, however, tales of a new Gen X began to surface. The new group was reputed to feature various guitarists, including ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones, ex-Magazine/Siouxie and the Banshees John McGeoch [d. 2004], and ex-Rich Kids Steve New [d. 2010]. Also to be featured in the group was former Clash member Terry Chimes, on drums.

The rumors proved to be not without validity, and the third Gen X album, Kiss Me Deadly, was released in late 1980. The album featured a return to pop, in the form of “Dancing With Myself” (which has been released in four versions, on eight different records). The group did a brief tour of small clubs in England with former Chelsea guitarist James Stephenson, and then Billy left. That’s my story. Here is his:

FFanzeen: How do you like New York?
Billy Idol: It’s great.

FFanzeen: What have you been doing with your time here?
Billy: Well, to be honest, I’ve been getting to know it, really. It’s a foreign country. In America, people think completely different from English people. Their whole attitude toward things is a hell of a lot different.

FFanzeen: For instance…
Billy: For instance, people in America really believe that they are creating the history of the world, while in England they’re just watching what’s’ going on. If you apply this to every form of life it makes a totally different thing. In England, the green grocer just things he’s selling fruit. The block here thinks he’s feeding the world.

FFanzeen: How do you think things are musically different here?
Billy: Of course it’s the same thing; there’s a totally different approach to music. Music here isn’t seen as something quite so serious. It can be fun as well as serious; whereas in England, people sort of make everything serious – it’s culturally stemming from some class system or something. Things can be superficial here without necessarily being bad.

FFanzeen: Your music was often more fun than serious.
Billy: Well, yeah, that’s right. Not to say that we weren’t serious, but we were interested in it being fun, because I like fun things. In some ways we were quite American in our approach, in that at times we would play candy music for candy’s sake. Other times it was deadly serious, never more so than in “Kiss Me Deadly,” which totally typified British life. And “Dancing With Myself” is totally New York. It’s just completely Quaaluded out zombie-like dance music. I don’t mean that it’s for stupid people or anything like that. I just mean that it’s got the total –

FFanzeen: Blind dance beat?
Billy: Yeah, almost like you’re never gonna stop. It’s always gonna go, Bomp bap! Bomp bap! Bomp bap! It’s about people dancing crazily, almost with themselves, because it’s easier. That’s the way you get when you get zombied out[I wonder if he uses zombies in his video for the song out of an idea he had before, or that was enlightened in this interview; see video below – RBF, 2015]. I think that’s great. That’s what I believe in. All my life I’ve got completely wrecked. Ever since I was fourteen, I’ve got drunk, pilled out, or something, so a lot of the music we made was purely because we were into high-energy excitement and watching audiences go completely crazy; jumping up and down, ripping each other to shreds, having a great time, going home and saying, “Cor! Wasn’t it fun tonight! A bit more exciting than working in the factory!” Sometimes candy music’s worthwhile because people really have great fun. But Gen X did say things, too. Like “Kiss Me Deadly” really typified British life in 1977.

FFanzeen: Is that why you called the new album Kiss Me Deadly?
Billy: Well, in a way, it was more of a joke, really. I knew it was the last one. “Kiss the group deadly.”

FFanzeen: You knew you were going to leave the group when the album came out?
Billy: Yeah.

FFanzeen: How about claims by Tony James that you didn’t tell the group you were leaving until the last minute?
Billy: Well, I didn’t say that much, I’ve got to admit – but I didn’t think it was any of their business, really. It was a lot to do with the record coming out. I more or less told Chrysalis that if they didn’t put it out that we’d have a big barmy over it; you know, we’d have trouble. And I said it wasn’t fair to the other people in the group not to put it out ‘cause we had worked on it for a year, and I had just worked at it for a month trying to make it sound good. So I made them put it out, and that’s why I couldn’t say that much to the other members of the group; ‘cause they would have said, “We don’t wanna play,” or something. And we had to do the tour to get them to put the album out. We had to do something to support it. So I did all of it a bit underhanded at first. We got the album out, and everyone like Tony and Terry, and James Stephenson and John McGeoch got paid back for being on it. I only really told them after the album was out and all we had left to do was a TV thing. The tour was over. And I think even they could see, from the way the tour went, the way we were playing together –

FFanzeen: How did the tour go?
Billy: It was pretty good. It was probably better than the Valley of the Dolls stuff. But it just wasn’t that exciting. We played really good, so [the audience] were really excited by it, but I don’t think it would have gone any further. But that’s ‘cause of the way the group was. We just weren’t feeling good. And I just wanted to get the energy back, and I wanted to do it with other people. And playing with John McGeoch, Steve Jones, makes you seem – there’s this guy, he comes in and rocks on your songs; he gets excited. He really likes it! Steve Jones is going, “I wanna play on it!” Steve New – completely out of his head – but he’s still trying to play it. Great! You start thinking, these people are excited by it, that’s who I wanna be with. Tony and them, well obviously they’re excited, but we’ve all been in that little thing for so long that it was crushing us. So [with new people] it’s good fun. When we get to the audience, we’d give them what Generation X originally gave people, which was like four blokes saying, “Yeah! Don’t stop! Come on! Always get drunk if you want to! Chaos and get away with it!” The whole thing – we loved it. But we had lost it by the time we were playing the last stuff.

FFanzeen: So you’re working by yourself now. You have a new single out, right?
Billy: Yeah. It’s an old Tommy James song called “Mony Mony,” and a new one called “Baby Talk.”

FFanzeen: You used to do “Mony Mony” with Generation X.
Billy: Well, Gen X learned it, but we only ever did it twice in a soundcheck, and it was with me playing guitar because Derwood didn’t really want to do it.

FFanzeen: How come you didn’t play guitar on the first two Generation X albums?
Billy: Well, I really believe in “everybody does their bit,” and you don’t step on someone else. At that time the whole idea was to get back to basics, so if I’m gonna be the singer, I’m gonna be the singer. If he’s gonna be the guitarist, he’s going to play guitar. Now, I might think up some bits which I’d show him, but he’s gonna play them, ‘cause the whole basic idea was to get everybody doing their role to the utmost. I play on the new album, on “Untouchables” and on “Happy People,” and a few tracks there. On the last tour I played quite a bit of guitar and got bored with it.

FFanzeen: How much of the music did you write in Generation X?
Billy: I wrote all of it.

FFanzeen: And Tony wrote the lyrics?
Billy: Yeah, he wrote all the lyrics on the first album, except for “Listen” and “Too Personal.”

FFanzeen: Neither of which appeared on the domestic [American] album.
Billy: Yeah. “Too Personal” was replaced by “Gimme Some Truth,” which was unpopular at the time because it was a John Lennon song, which was, like, old wave. He wasn’t hip in England at that time.

FFanzeen: Why did you record it?
Billy: Well, I did it because it said the right thing. Most punks didn’t realize it was a John Lennon song.

FFanzeen: How were you affected by John Lennon’s death [December 8, 1980 – RBF, 2015]?
Billy: I was a John Lennon fan, and I was a bit upset that he got shot. He made some great records; “Jealous Guy” and a lot of those ones. And a lot of Beatles stuff was good. I do think he was great. I just think it’s a bit sick that mad people shoot John Lennon, and fail when it comes to others.

FFanzeen: Meaning the president and the Pope [Ronald Reagan and John Paul II, respectively – RBF, 2015]?
Billy: Yeah, that’s right.

FFanzeen: What do you think of them?
Billy: He’s a two-bit actor who’s having a laugh on everybody. He’s got the biggest role and he’s enjoying it. And the Pope hasn’t done anything. He’s just letting the status quo stay the same. He looks smooth, going around everywhere, but he doesn’t affect anybody in the Vatican with any real power; they go along exactly as they always did. He’s like a pop star. People go “woo!” when they see him but don’t do anything after he’s gone.

FFanzeen: And Reagan?
Billy: Well, he’s very clever because underneath him he’s got all these millionaires who are secretly cultivating the economy, while he makes it look all smooth and pop-starry on top. And it’s cool for pop stars, but it’s not cool for politicians. But most Americans like him because he’s the American dream. And he’s more exciting than Jimmy Carter.

FFanzeen: So Americans have elected a pop star president. How do you feel about that?
Billy: Well, y’see, it’s almost so ridiculous that I admire it. You know that anybody can do it. And I do believe in all that. Anybody can be a pop star.

FFanzeen: Enough of American politics. What do you think of the music here?
Billy: I like the Bush Tetras. I think ESG’s [Emerald, Sapphire and Gold – RBF, 2015] brilliant. If I had a record label I’d put them on it.

FFanzeen: How about all these young [hardcore – RBF, 2015] punk groups that are sort of acting the way you did five years ago?
Billy: Well, it’s difficult for me to get into it really, because its’ not the same as English punk rock, because its’ about how much more problems it is having things than not having them. And also the fact that those people are writing about having lived in the local LA movement, or the local New York movement, whereas I’m writing about me, wherever I am, or about what I see around me.

FFanzeen: How about the kids themselves?
Billy: Well, I think they’re great because they’re really into having fun in a kind of good sort of way. New York’s a pretty tough place. It’s real expensive to live, so if these kids are walking round looking like – and they work anywhere to get the bread to say alive – it’s a real scavenger city, and that’s what I’ve always been, a bit of a scavenger. I’d always survive and scrape it together. And that’s what groups are, usually. They have their record contract, but it’s never enough money, and these people are always scrounging. These people are real good. They’ve got great attitudes. They’re really friendly and stuff. They don’t waste too much on snobbery, which you can get in London. But England has some great people. England, New York, L.A. – I’ve met some of the greatest people. Some real cruds as well.

FFanzeen: What do you think of these British bands like the Clash and [Adam and] the Ants, that have come over here and made it big?
Billy: I think it’s great, well, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s going to make it easier for me , because there are already people having similar stuff to what I do and it’s getting through on the airwaves, but it’s more because I think some of the stuff they do is good. It’s definitely preferable to REO Speedwagon.

FFanzeen: In England, punk rock was always more of a lower-class movement. How do you feel about being in America, where most of your audience is likely to be middle class?
Billy: It’s the same thing. They have to go to work and go through things they don’t really enjoy because either they haven’t got the talent to do what they really want to do, or they haven’t got the guts. I like going to the Ritz because there’s a lot of straight people out from New Jersey and places like that who are there to see the group because they like them.

FFanzeen: How did you get started in rock’n’roll?
Billy: Lots of reasons. For me, when the Beatles were 24, they said more to me than my dad who was 50, or something. Everything I liked he hated, so I thought, Christ! Either I’m right or I’m wrong. I’d better make up my mind. And I thought I’m right and I’m gonna like it. I proved that I know what I’m talking about. I can make people excited and do things for them and say things they find interesting. That’s what people who believe in the things we do have to do. We have to make other people accept us for it.

FFanzeen: Do you plan on staying in rock’n’roll for the rest of your life?
Billy: Probably, because I don’t know how long I’ll be able to last out living. It’s a lot of wear and tear. I don’t know if I’ll be doing it until I die. I think I’ll probably move onto something else. I might even go back to driving a van if I fancied. I did like driving a van; it was a laugh. But I’m gonna do it as long as I think I’ve got the energy and the right attitude. But if I ever thought I didn’t have the right attitude, I would just stop and disappear. I ain't gonna drag it out if it’s boring. That’s why I wanted to stop Generation X. I was getting bored with it. But I still got a lot in me, and there’s a lot to do. If I can push my things out to the people, and they get into it, they’ll start putting more things on the radio.

FFanzeen: Are you aiming for the mass media?
Billy: Of course. That’s what punk rock was all about: taking over. And that’s what I want to do here: Take over for the people who like music. I want to give them the opportunity not to always have to listen to REO Speedwagon; they never hear reggae here, they never hear simple rock’n’roll anymore. I don’t. It’s always heavy metal or something. It’s good to have Van Halen and all those sort of groups if you like them. But it’s great to have the Bush Tetras and ESG and Billy Idol and Johnny Rotten, and the Plastics [the Japanese band, not the more mundane, present one from South Africa – RBF, 2015]. It’s good to have everybody; Frank Sinatra [d. 1998] and all those cunts – everybody. And I just don’t think they are. You’ve got a big network out there, and not much going on. It seems a shame. I meet so many people who love it and they say, “Christ! Why is the radio so boring?” And I say I know what you mean – I thought England was bad! The whole thing about getting the power is that maybe we could put our own records out eventually, and maybe make it okay for our friends to get stuff out.

FFanzeen: “Billy Idol, record company executive”?
Billy: It wouldn’t be like that; wouldn’t think of it like that. I’d get somebody else to handle the business. But I wouldn’t mind if I had the money to put it somewhere that other people would use it. So that we could have some people out there helping to promote young groups who haven’t got any help.

FFanzeen: How did you get involved with Bill Aucoin?
Billy: Well, actually, Tony made a joke to one of the Chrysalis people, and they put us in touch with Bill Aucoin because they knew him. And we came out there and met him, and instead of him asking us the usual boring questions like, “Do you want to make a lot of money?”, he asked us the all-time classic: “Why are you doing it?”

FFanzeen: And you said –
Billy: We said we’re doing it ‘cause we’ve got something the people should have. We know how to make simple rock’n’roll.

FFanzeen: Why didn’t you ever tour America with Generation X?
Billy: Because things were never really right. We had a manager who was really more intent on having a Lamborghini than putting the money up for us to tour America. He was such a dork, such a fucking idiot, that he preferred to try to rip the record company and us off, instead of doing a little hard work.

FFanzeen: What were your problems with that?
Billy: I didn’t really like it because I felt completely divorced from it, and yet I did it, so it was my fault really. It was more like writing songs to order than doing them ‘cause you like them. We were in real trouble. I really wanted to get rid of Stewart Joseph [the band’s manager when Valley of the Dolls was released – MP, 1981]. That fucked things up a lot. And Ian Hunter, he was Tony’s idea, really, and I sort of went along with it, although I really liked Ian. It’s just that he ain’t right for me. I just didn’t like the way we were playing.

FFanzeen: Would you have preferred to do back to Martin Rushent [producer of the Generation X album – MP, 1981; d. 2011 – RBF, 2015]?
Billy: Well, really, I would have preferred to have stuck to the original Generation X style, which is what I made the group go back to.

FFanzeen: Well, you didn’t really go back to doing anthems or anything like that.
Billy: No, but we went back to simple guitar, simple bass, simple drums, rather than [turning to] heavy metal.

FFanzeen: What made you want to get the group back together and record Kiss Me Deadly?
Billy: It was a continuing attempt to go back to basics; and the other thing was, I didn’t want to leave Generation X with Valley of the Dolls.

FFanzeen: On Kiss Me Deadly, and even Valley of the Dolls, there are a lot more slow songs and ballads than on your first album. Do you plan to do a lot more slow songs in the future?
Billy: I want to do quite a lot more ballads, but not because they’re ballads. Certainly I’m not gonna do all slow songs live, it’s gonna be all fast ones. I couldn’t stand to do slow ones live; it gets boring. I’d like to do a couple more [slow songs] because I’m more adept at singing those things, and I’ve grown up slightly, so I can use it in what I’m doing. I ain't gonna ignore it, that would be pointless. That was the whole thing about punk rock: that you tell the truth, and if I’ve fallen in love, or this, that and the other thing, I ain't gonna keep pretending it’s not happening. I’ve gotta write about it because that’s what it’s still about for me. That’s why I’m still a punk rocker.

FFanzeen: When do you plan to start performing live?
Billy: I hope November. I hope we’ll have recorded some more stuff, too.

FFanzeen: Will you perform any of your old material live?
Billy: I’ll probably do “Dancing With Myself.” I might do “Wild Youth.” I’ll do some of my old stuff ‘cause it’s just as much me as anything else, but I’ll have to see what the group plays best, ‘cause it’s up to what they feel, too, really. It’s gonna take a while to get it to be as sophisticated as Generation X could be, like in “Happy People,” mixing reggae with rock.

FFanzeen: Is your new group going to be a real band, or just a bunch of people backing you up?
Billy: At first it’s gonna be mine, because the main inspiration is going to be coming from me. But if it works out properly, I hope we’ll be able to make an entity out of it. I don’t want four idiots playing with me.

FFanzeen: What does the future hold for you?
Billy: I ain’t gonna change. I’ve been wearing leather trousers too long to take them off now.

FFanzeen: You could get rich and buy some more pairs.
Billy: No, I’ve only had one pair. You only want one pair that you’ve worn for the past five years.

FFanzeen: In a simplistic sort of way, clothes are part of the Generation X image. You and Tony wore shredded, hand-painted t-shirts. That caught on, didn’t it?
Billy: Well, yeah, ‘cause it was something creative and yet simple. It was something that could be made at home. You don’t have to go out and buy an Adam and the Ants one; you can make your own Billy Idol one at home.

FFanzeen: Do you think you can get popular in America dressing like that?
Billy: I don’t know about that. Probably not.

FFanzeen: Will you change your image to get popular?
Billy: No, I’m only gonna be what I want – though I’ve got to admit I wear some flashy clothes sometimes – I don’t know. People are just touchy about too many things; they get jealous about too many things. I’m not particularly jealous about people. I don’t wish I was someone else, or wish I’ve got what someone else has got. Whatever I get, I get ‘cause I earned it. I’m not really bothered. It’s too much. They kept trying to make me bother at school and I wouldn’t. They kept telling me it was some sort of competition and I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. I ain't competing with Johnny Rotten or Robert Plant. I don’t give a shit what they do. I’m just doing what I do; they can go and do what they do as long as they leave me alone. He [Rotten] says things about me and they laugh, and I say things about him and we all say things about each other, and when it comes down to it, we don’t give a bullock about what each other’s doing as long as we can do what we want. The people who really matter are the people who come to the gigs and get excited, and a lot of people in the odd little places in England where they get pretty bored ‘cause they work in a car factory and they don’t wanna see people come along and tell them how rotten it is. They want a few people to come along and say, “Look, it is rotten, but we’re gonna have a great time tonight,” and that’s what Generation X’s thing was. I’m up here playing to make myself feel good. We said, “Look, it’s rubbish. Don’t work in a factory if you don’t want to. Try and find something else.” But if you have to work in one, which a lot of kids in England have to do, you got give them something to think about when they were young. When we were young there was punk rock; at least I can say that.

FFanzeen: What direction do you think pop music is taking today?
Billy: Well, I hope it’s taking my direction. It’s just got to get a whole lot simpler. It’s not true that people haven’t got simple problems that can be expressed in two or three verses. A lot of American people don’t listen to their own people. I mean, if you listen to Jim Morrison, he says something totally different than heavy metal bands. He doesn’t say nonsense. So many American records, the heritage is so good. So many brilliant people who made some great records. What’s the point of listening to fuckin’ Led Zeppelin when you’ve got your own guys on your doorstep? There’s a lot of good things around. It just seems a shame that there’s not a lot of bands that are like the Dolls were for their time, or Lou Reed [d. 2013] was for his time, and Iggy was for his in Detroit. There’s not really a New York sound, but maybe that’s good. There’s the Cramps, Suicide.

FFanzeen: How about rockabilly?
Billy: I’m not interested in all that. I like the old records, if I’m gonna listen to it. It think they’re all gonna change pretty soon.

FFanzeen: How about you; are you going to change?
Billy: Not me. I’ll always be just pummelling it out in one way or another – but in different sort of ways.
* * *

Shortly after this interview was conducted, Billy’s Don’t Stop LP was released. Yes, Billy is still pummelling it out, in the same way, but differently. The record features “Mony Mony,” the powerful “Baby Talk,” and new mixes of two songs from Kiss Me Deadly: “Untouchables” (a superior version), and the ever popular “Dancing With Myself.” It looks like he just might make it now, and become a successful solo performer. What Tony James and the rest of Generation X will do now is not yet known (although Andres and Laff have an album out with an AOR group called Empire). Billy, however, for better or worse, is now truly dancing with himself. – MP, 1981

[Is it me, or is this video stunningly misogynistic? – RBF, 2015]

[Celia and the Mutations, aka the Stranglers, did a great version of this, as well – RBF, 2015]

 [Now, did I get it wrong that he insulted heavy metal in the interview? – RBF, 2015] 

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