Garth Cartwright on the punk-pop crossover 80s heart-throb Billy Idol
The prettiest punk who ever walked the Earth smiles when I mention I'm a Kiwi. "I have such good memories of New Zealand," says Billy Idol. "It was one of the very first places to accept me as a solo artist – I think my debut solo album went gold, then platinum in New Zealand before any other territory." He then adds, "I've always had a good time when I'm in New Zealand" ... and anyone who remembers him sizzling on the Radio With Pictures sofa while Karyn Hay requested a rebel yell will smile at the memory of Idol as an 1980s icon.
Back then, Idol was the hottest new rocker anywhere. Hits like White Wedding, Rebel Yell and Eyes Without A Face established him as punk's brightest pop star, the new medium of rock video being perfect for a singer whose striking looks, deep voice and ability to spontaneously sneer and smile made him world famous. What many fans remain unaware of is that Idol's rise to the top was anything but easy. Having been a teenage follower of the Sex Pistols, Idol – born William Broad and raised in a solidly middle-class English family - formed the punk band Generation X at the start of 1977. His looks ensured they quickly won a record deal and plenty of media attention but Generation X failed to win over the listening public.
After three unsuccessful albums, Idol left both the band and London in early 1981, decamping to New York City and starting over as a solo artist. The odds looked stacked against Idol – the US public had shown little enthusiasm for such seminal punk bands as the Ramones and Sex Pistols and Generation X were completely unknown there – but Billy got lucky: New York clubs began playing Generation X's last single, Dancing With Myself, and then the fledgling MTV cable channel started playing the music video. This – and the support of us in Aotearoa - gave him a head start and he rushed towards fame.
"Basically, I only had the clothes on my back and the guitar I owned, so going to New York was frightening in lots of ways because I had no idea what was gonna happen," says Idol. "The only thing I did know about New York was I was likely to meet some people who were a bit like-minded because it was definitely the home of punk rock." He did, forming his band with guitarist Steve Stevens and they developed a new sound. "Once we were on MTV, we started to be in the actual charts and on the radio. We broke through and worked really hard and we stuck to our guns."
Idol rode the fame roller coaster across the 1980s yet, as he later admitted, developed debilitating drug and alcohol addictions. Combined with the arrogance and egocentricity that often afflicts the newly minted, this meant Idol increasingly made bad decisions, alienating those closest to him (including Perri Lister, his long-time girlfriend and mother of his first child – she left him in 1988 after overhearing him arranging a liaison via the baby monitor) and almost killing himself when he crashed his motorcycle in Los Angeles in 1990. The accident and his addictions sidelined Idol for much of the 1990s: while he remains a popular live performer, his recording career has never truly recovered.
"I was dealing with addiction, really," says Idol of his lost years. "In some ways I had to sort of put my music career on the back burner for a bit. I think it was really important because, otherwise, I wouldn't be here talking to you today, I wouldn't have a clear mind. Also, my children were really young and it was kind of nice being with them, so I was glad I did it. That's another thing about giving up the drugs - I want to be a real human being, not just in my own little private world."
Idol recently signed to Dark Horse Records, the label Beatle George Harrison founded that is now run by his son, Dhani, and released The Roadside, a four-track EP that features his strongest new material in decades. Indeed, lead song Bitter Taste finds Idol inhabiting a gothic country noir sound akin to the likes of Chris Isaak and Lee Hazelwood. It's a great song and one, Idol suggests, that grew out of both the pandemic and his motorcycle accident of 31 years ago.
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"I was really looking for something from the heart," he says of Bitter Taste's inception, "and I was writing the song at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. I tend to think when something's happening to you it's good to drink it in and let it marinate. And then, when the right time comes, you let it out. And I just thought about my own life and how it's 31 years now since my motorcycle accident. At one point they were nearly going to cut my right leg off! So it was, for a while, a big crisis in my life. And the reason I had the accident was, obviously, because I was high riding the motorcycle - I had to think about all these things."
Idol's gained wisdom over the years while retaining his cherubic features and resonant voice. He is, he admits, a lucky man. Last year may have seen him play New Zealand in January and then, not long after that, find all his subsequent concerts cancelled due to the pandemic. However, it was, he notes, a creative year: new songs took shape and one of these was Night Crawling, a duet with Miley Cyrus. "Miley's a lot of fun and she works really hard. I'm glad we did it."
For my final question I ask Idol if, 40 years after first setting out solo, he still feels connected to punk rock.
"The idea of punk is just a question of getting up there and starting to write songs and just finding your own way of expressing yourself," he replies. "I'm still doing it."
Bitter Taste video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFj0qmBMBa4
Radio With Pictures: https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/radio-with-pictures-billy-idol-1984