Billy Idol On Remixing Vital Idol, Finding New Life In Old Songs, And Listening To Post Malone
Tracking Down is a Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute.
Billy Idol may be a music icon, but sometimes it’s easy to forget why. Sure, he shows up on every ’80s Spotify playlist, and most people with rudimentary pop-culture knowledge will associate his sneering videos for “White Wedding” and “Dancing With Myself” with the rise of MTV and its promise that you’ll “never look at music the same way again.” What many won’t remember about the leather-clad peroxide blonde, however, is that, in addition to pioneering a punk aesthetic with glam theatrics and pop accessibility, Idol was pretty progressive about reimagining his work in the form of a remix.
Drawing influence from roots reggae of the ’60s and ’70s, Idol in 1985 famously remixed tracks from his first three studio recordings — 1981’s Don’t Stop EP, 1982’s self-titled LP, and its follow-up, 1983’s Rebel Yell — on the compilation album Vital Idol. The compulsion to revisit previously recorded songs, he says, has always been part of his musicianship, even before he moved to New York to pursue a solo career in the early ’80s.
Today, Idol has remixed his remixes on the just-released Vital Idol: Revitalized, which features a gothy, wavering take on “(Do Not) Stand In The Shadows” from Moby, a blipping, EDM-inspired revision of “White Wedding” by LA producer CRAY, and a nearly unrecognizable new look at “Mony Mony,” which, courtesy of Idol himself and longtime guitarist Steven Stevens, includes a charming mid-verse chant of “Hey, motherfucker, get laid, get fucked!”
I hopped on the phone with Idol, where we talked about his latest remix venture, how he selected the DJs to renovate his hits (apparently Bono turned him on to St Francis Hotel, who did “Flesh For Fantasy”), and how he’s been listening to a lot of Post Malone these days.
STEREOGUM: It was really fascinating, hearing the contemporary reinterpretations of songs you originally remixed in 1985. What prompted the idea to remix Vital Idol again?
IDOL: The thing is, back in the day when I was initially doing the early remixes, the Vital Idol remixes … really, they were my versions of things. We hadn’t really farmed things out to loads of up-and-coming DJs and seeing what they could turn. [But] knowing just how far along the remix world has come … There’s an established world of remix artists [now]. I kind of knew Paul Oakenfold, so I asked him to do “One Breath Away.” And I ran into Moby at a party and he was chatting to me about the “Love Calling” remix I’d done, so I asked him if he’d do something, and he chose “Do Not Stand In The Shadows.” We never did a remix of that, so I would never have imagined that. He completely reimagined the song, with the music, the chords, and everything. It’s quite a different musical experience… There’s a number of people on this album who have taken the songs and reimagined them as much as remixed them. And that, to me, is fantastic, because that’s what I couldn’t do. Me and [guitarist] Steve Stevens did do that with “Catch My Fall” back in the day, we replayed some instruments. But we never really redid the song in a different vibe. And that’s what’s happened on this album.
Tropkillaz’s “Eyes Without A Face,” he’s really reimagined the song, and in some ways it’s given it new life, especially to people who may be not into the ’80s, or into rock ‘n’ roll, but they might be into this soul side of what we were doing back then. This is a way that they can discover my music. I ran into Bono from U2 at a park, he told me about St Francis Hotel. I got them to do a “Flesh Fantasy” remix. Over time I did some listening of my own. I checked out RAC, [he] had won a Grammy Award for “Tearing Me Up” with Bob Moses’ track. And then [using] my own knowledge, I put this record together with some classic people, like Crystal Method, [as well as] someone super-new, DJ Dodger Stadium … so [we’ve] got quite a mixture of people on here in remixes. I found that really invigorating and exciting.
STEREOGUM: How long had this project actually been in the works?
IDOL: About a year and a half. At first, we were talking about what we would like to do. But also, there are certain things about some of the remixes where [the DJs] did have some sort of cred. Actually, it was great getting a female remixer — CRAY — to do “White Wedding.” She did a great version of that. She’d recently done some Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girl Like You” … so we were going to look to who’s doing interesting work that might work with my music. The great thing was that a lot of these people were seriously excited about doing the song. They actually remembered the music, maybe some of them from their childhood. But they came to it with a really great attitude.
STEREOGUM: To what extent do you keep up with electronic music and other newer stuff?
IDOL: I’ve been listening to Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys, and some of Pharrell’s N.E.R.D. [music], and I like Kendrick Lamar as well. There’s a few people I really like, and I’ve got friends who play me stuff. I like that Post Malone record a lot, so I’ve been enjoying that. I think he’s really interesting, he’s got some great melodies and hooks — rapping as well. They’re very tune-y, he’s got a lot of melody in there, so it’s really kind of lovely, I quite enjoy it.
I can imagine how much fun they’re having in the studio these days because the things you can do today, you can do in the blink of an eye — where it would take us two days [in the ’80s]. You know, “Come back in a week and I’ll have this bass line in time.” Back in the ’80s, we were technologically challenged, but we still carried on finding a way to do remixes and use the studio as a sound tool, create new visions. When I listen to this record, it’s as if I’ve found a way to cover my own songs.
STEREOGUM: How pioneering was it in the ’80s, the concept of remixing your own songs?
IDOL: We grew up with reggae remixes, you see, and with the reggae of the ’70s, the roots reggae of ’60’s and ’70s, they would have an A-side, which has the singer of the song, and on the B-side they would do an instrumental mix which they’d put through all their machines and their electronic sounds, and they would do what today we’d call a remix. Basically, they were doing remixes then, so we were very in tune with that. Even in Generation X, my punk group, we put out a single, “Wild Youth,” and on the B-side we put out a dub version where we reorganized it, re-changed it, re-edited it, add and spun the vocals, and changed the drum sound so it was nothing like the original sound and created basically a dance mix. So remixing was always part of my M.O., part of my history, really.
STEREOGUM: I’ve always regarded you as a bit of a hybridized musician, the way your punk background eventually evolved into pop, rock, and a bit of dance.
IDOL: That’s very much what we’re doing. And I think we’re kind of hearing that, the reggae people, they were [combining] all their influences in Jamaica — they could hear the Mexican and American mainland stations, and that would get into their music. And so, they were cross-pollinating music, and I think in some ways we were listening [to them] just as much as we were listening to punk-rock groups who were using traditional electric instruments — guitar, bass, and drums, keyboards. But also we were listening to people like Suicide; they were like electronic performance art from New York. And there were groups from Germany like Kraftwerk, who were completely synthesized groups. I was interested in both. For me it was like, “why not put them together?” and create this kind of hybrid, rock-dance music.
STEREOGUM: Was there anything in particular that sparked the idea for the ’85 Vital Idol original?
IDOL: Funny enough, there was a reggae record called Vital Ital that I saw in the ’70s and I always thought, “One day, I can use that.” It was kind of this cross-pollination of music to me, and that’s what we were really seriously into in lots of ways. I got into that, and a lot of other people in England got into that, thinking that’s what spawned the music of the ’80s.
STEREOGUM: How do you see that “cross-pollination,” as you put it, evolving after the ’80s in popular music?
IDOL: Well in the ’90s music kind of split up again. Grunge happened, and rock kind of departed from dance music. And then rave and everything happened. Somehow the music of the ’80s — rock-dance, dance-rock — that ended gradually as the ’90s went on. And you had rave, Fatboy Slim, and guitars didn’t figure quite so much into that kind of world. So I think it was only really when people like Britney Spears and the pop music of the 2000s occurred that you started to get people putting dance music with rap, with rock — they’re not so much rock anymore, that’s the one ingredient that’s missing. Now it’s really all put together, whether people are rapping or singing. And now people are, in a massive way, collaborating. And that’s kind of a cross-pollinating of artists, their own styles.
STEREOGUM: Do you miss the rock element in today’s popular music?
IDOL: I do, of course, because I grew up with that, and that was very much what I was joining together with dance music. I do miss that a little bit, but there again, on the Revitalized album, me and Steve Stevens did the “Mony Mony, Get Laid Get Fucked” mix. Which is very much like the old Vital Idol. There are elements of guitar on the digital version of this album, most definitely.
STEREOGUM: From my perspective, and keeping this remix album in mind, you’ve always seemed really comfortable revisiting the hits that made your career.
IDOL: It’s nice. We were doing some gigs in Vegas — we very much wanted to do a greatest-hits [set] there, [into] which we would then put some album cuts you don’t normally hear. If a first-time person came, they would hear all the hits, but if you’d been before, you’d get some songs that we’d never normally do. That was a lot of fun. But we are working on some new music, and there will be a new album or new EP [soon]. There’s so many ways today of putting out music today, compared to when I was young.
STEREOGUM: It’s exciting to hear you’re working on something new.
IDOL: Steve Stevens is getting better as a guitar player, he’s getting better as a musician, after all these years, it’s incredible. And that in itself is invigorating. I think we’ve worked really hard on the road these last 17 years or so. I think in lots of ways I’ve done a lot of work that I’ve needed to do. Most groups back in the days of the ’70s, ’60s — they would spend quite a few years on the road before they ever made a record. With punk exploding in England, a lot of people like me, we only had a few hundred gigs under our belt before we made a record.
Funny enough, I’ve put in a lot of work in the last 17 years where we have been doing some new stuff, but my stage, the kind of professionalism, the kind of the stage experience you need, I’ve really got that. I think me and Steve Stevens, there’s a lot we can do musically in this time, with me in my 60s, and him his late 50s, we’ve got a lot of places we can go with our music. And we’re in a good place physically, where we’re at the top of our game in some ways. I hope a lot of what we could be doing will really count in lots of ways in the next few years.