We’ve Got A File On You: Billy Idol
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
In the grand scheme of pop history, Billy Idol is a curious character. After his ’70s punk origins, he achieved mainstream stardom in the ’80s, partially by straddling various trends of that decade. He wasn’t always new wave, he wasn’t always hard rock, he wasn’t always glam metal, but he had a bit of all of that sitting in the middle of his music. With a handful of hit singles that existed right at the cross-section of ’80s sounds and through his ability to harness the decade’s ascendent music video format, he became an icon without being beholden or tied to any one idea of what the ’80s were.
In the decades since, Idol’s only continued to weave in and out of expectations. As he aged, he embraced classic rock. And from being a former London punk, he also became a musician rather comfortable with the role of showbiz entertainer. In addition to his musical output, Idol popped up all over the place through the years — everywhere from Oliver Stone’s Doors movie to cultural detritus like Viva La Bam to reality TV cameos in The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills. When you take a look at every little thing Idol’s done, it’s impossible to touch on all of it in one conversation.
Along the way, he’s still making music. During the pandemic, he teamed up with his longtime guitarist Steve Stevens and producer Butch Walker to make The Roadside EP. It’s his first studio release of new material in nearly seven years. Ahead of the EP’s arrival this week, we caught up with Idol over Zoom to talk about bits and pieces from across his career — from his early days following the Sex Pistols to sharing a stage with Miley Cyrus just a few months ago.
The Roadside EP (2021)
“Bitter Taste” seemed like the key song thematically here. During the pandemic you were looking back to your motorcycle accident and meditating on mortality a bit?
BILLY IDOL: That’s right. We were writing this EP around May, June of 2020. The coronavirus was quite fresh then and we were all hoping it would be over by September. We could see what was going on. A producer friend of mine, actually, Andrew Watt, he got it quite badly and he’s a young chap. He ended up in the emergency room. I could see how serious it was. It was so new and we just didn’t know where it was going. I was thinking I’d like to write something that if people were listening and the pandemic was still going on, there’d be something they could identify with.
I started to think, this pandemic is something that’s going to change a lot of people’s lives. Some people’s lives will be changed quite dramatically forever. I thought, what can I write about that was a big watershed moment for me, something that did change my life, where I did have to reappraise my life and come at things a different way? I started to think about the motorcycle accident. I always said when it happened, I’d be glad when it would be 20 or 30 years away from the accident, that far in the back mirror.
I started to think maybe that’s something I could write about. A big crisis time for me, something I had to overcome, whatever it meant for me. I thought maybe if I wrote about that, it would give people some perspective on some time in my life where I did have to get a hold of myself and change things. At least do what I’d set out to do. I’d initially come to Los Angeles in 1987 to get away from being a drug addict. I had become a bit of a drug addict from 1979 onwards — so much so that, look, there I was riding motorcycles sometimes when I was high. It’s just a total no-no. That’s one of the things I learned, you never get on a motorcycle high. Anyone who’s thinking about that, don’t. [Laughs] Look what happened to me, it was horrible. It nearly took my leg away. For a short time, it looked they were going to cut my leg off. I didn’t know what was going to happen with my whole future.
I could see that’s what was going on with the pandemic as it was going on. It was changing some people’s lives dramatically. So yeah, I thought the motorcycle accident would be something I could focus on. We wrote the song “Bitter Taste” about it. I did have to leave a part of myself on the side of that road — maybe the wild side, the not caring, the not giving a fuck about anything. I had children by this time. What was I saying to them by carrying on being a drug addict who’s willing to hurt himself this way? The accident was a wakeup call, really. It gave me a chance to reaffirm what I came out here to do. After that I did start putting the drugs on the back-burner. It took me 10 years or more to get some kind of discipline where I could be somewhere where people were drinking and be OK. You never get any kind of control. People in AA will tell you there’s no control; that’s true.
But the discipline gives you a chance you may be able to control yourself. Which means I’m here today doing music I love and singing about things that affected me, but hopefully people will listen to the song and they’ll get that feeling. You can overcome things, you can change your life for the better. I’m still here enjoying the music more than ever, really. It’s still exciting. Doing this EP was a great thing during the pandemic because we were doing something positive. I wanted to say I’m glad I’m here rather than dying in that stupid motorcycle accident.
It had been almost seven years since your last studio release. Was there material brewing for a while, or did this all come to you during quarantine?
IDOL: We were planning on doing something, but it just happened we were recording when the pandemic happened. It was timely, in a way, that we finished what we were doing on the road. We could still be doing our music because it would just be Butch, me, and Steve quarantining together in a way. It just gave us something so positive and fun.
The Bromley Contingent And Playing Guitar In Chelsea (Mid-’70s)
Back when you were starting out, you were in this group of people called the Bromley Contingent who followed the Sex Pistols around. What was the feeling of getting swept up in this before it had blown up?
IDOL: Well, that was the thing. Initially, the people who were into what was going to be punk rock… around the London area, there might’ve been a thousand people who were seriously congregating around Malcolm McLaren’s store, the Sex store. He’d done this shop — Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die — and it had become Sex, and it had all the rubber clothes. It was fashion, but it was stopping people, challenging you: “Don’t come into this store.” That was the element about punk, in a way — challenging society. But there were only a few people who were seriously into it, and that’s who we were all playing for, who were already into it as an underground thing. They had been watching what was going on in America with CBGB’s, and they had fallen in love with the New York Dolls and the Stooges. Then we started to see a scene of our own in England reflecting it.
There we were, following the Sex Pistols. Me and my mates from Bromley, we were really into music. We had gradually gone through numbers of other music, and we devolved into what we loved about punk rock. That’s what we believed. This is where it’s going, this is the new music, this is the music of our generation. We were all about 18 or something around that time. We want to make a mark now. We had watched what other people had done. We had seen the lads in the ‘60s, we had seen people in the early ‘70s. This was our time. This was our reply, if you know what I mean. But we never thought it was going to be big. We thought it was something that might go on for six months to two years, and then it would be over. We just couldn’t imagine something like exploding and going big time.
The Sex Pistols had got a record contract from EMI, and then they went on this TV show, at six o’clock in the evening. They swore on this show, and it created a furor where they were on the front page of every English daily. England’s a small country, so everyone reads the three or four newspapers. Front cover of every page was this story about the Pistols being on this show swearing. Some truck driver somewhere put a brick through his TV where he saw them swearing. Punk rock went kaboom in England. All the young people just gravitated towards it because here was the most rebellious thing they could find. It just went through the roof. It just went mega.
We all got record contracts and everything. We weren’t imagining any of that, and it was all so exciting. It was all because you were just a fan of things. You were in love with this idea of this kind of music and where it could take us. That’s what we did. We followed our muse. It was all because we loved something and we wanted to do it, whatever it meant. Then look what’s happened. You’re still here today with the chance of doing it, and I think it’s because we initially did it for the right reasons.
Receiving A Writing Credit On The Strokes’ “Bad Decisions” (2020)
People started to notice a bit of a similarity to “Dancing With Myself.” Are you a Strokes fan?
IDOL: I like the Strokes a lot. I think they’re really great. And it’s just fantastic in a way we collab’d on that song. It was nice of them to say they felt maybe there was a little bit of the song, that they got a bit of influence from “Dancing With Myself.” That’s really what it was — more of an influence. It was cool of them to morph our souls together. But at the same time, I didn’t want to take too much credit for it because it’s really their song. They did a great job with it. I really like that band, and it was nice of them they gave us credit. Those are the groups we love, that we like being involved with. It was fantastic that the song had a bit of “Dancing With Myself” in it, and we got to buddy up.
Did you ever talk to them about it after the fact?
IDOL: Not too much, no. If I run into them, I would. But it was fun to find out your music affected other artists and people you like. It’s exciting, especially the Strokes.
Playing Himself In The Wedding Singer (1998)
Did they pitch you this whole idea that you’re crucial to the climax of the movie?
IDOL: I read the script, and I was just cracking up right from the first couple pages. I’ve read quite a few scripts, and sometimes you’re left quite cold. The Wedding Singer was just a funny idea. My son was really young, but I was taking him to see Adam [Sandler]’s films, Happy Gilmore and stuff. I’m taking my son to see his films anyway, kind of fantastic to be in one, and then to be the Cupid that’s going to bring the lovers together — that’s almost hilarious. A punk rock Cupid.
Since you were bringing your son to see them, what did he think of seeing you in the next one?
IDOL: He just thought it was fantastic. We went to the premiere together, and it was killer. It was one of those great things. It’s really fun to be Billy Idol when you can do things like that.
A Role In The Doors And Covering “L.A. Woman” (1991/1990)
IDOL: I love the Doors a lot. I love Jim Morrison. No One Here Gets Out Alive, used to walk around with that in my back pocket — the guide to being a rock star. Jim Morrison was one of the people I thought about when I was coming to America in ’81. I looked at the charts, and it was bands like REO Speedwagon, these harmony bands that sang very high up. I was like, “I don’t sing anything like that, how would I connect with an American audience?” I started to think, well, Jim Morrison wasn’t singing in the stratosphere and wasn’t singing in three-part harmony. Americans like Jim Morrison. I started to listen to a lot of the Doors music, kind of drinking it all in.
When I knew Oliver Stone was doing the Doors movie, I was very excited about the idea of being in it. I thought, wow, this could be incredible. I was going to play Michael Madsen’s part. I was going to be the friend of Jim Morrison’s. Unfortunately, I had the motorcycle accident right as they were starting shooting. I did end up in it but in a much more truncated part, of Cat, one of his hanger-ons. I had a couple of lines but nothing incredible. I had a couple scenes with Val, who I thought was just doing a great job as Jim Morrison. I don’t think it’s easy to play Jim Morrison. It’s easier to play Elvis. You’ve had people who aren’t even that good-looking play Elvis, and it’s worked, somehow. But there haven’t been many successful versions of Jim Morrison. There’s an enigmatic quality, something that’s a lot more difficult. Val’s a great actor, and I thought he did probably the best job that could be done at that moment.
It was fun being in the movie. I was hanging with the Doors, and we would play some shows, I would sing during things like “L.A. Woman” and “Roadhouse Blues.” Working with Oliver Stone was just incredible. We were in love with his movies. He wrote Scarface, and there’s Platoon. The dialogue was incredible in those movies. To be in a great rock ’n’ roll movie, it was a lot of fun watching the actors work.
You were also being considered for Terminator 2. Were you more interested in pursuing acting back then?
IDOL: The one thing that stopped me from being in Terminator was I couldn’t run. They couldn’t CGI that, the part of the movie where he runs after the police car. I couldn’t do that because I had this terrible limp at the time. When I walked into Stan Winston’s place where they do all the fake heads and special effects, they had drawings of me as the Terminator. I would love to do more, especially as I’m a bit older. I’m not on television like I was back then. I could become someone else a bit more now. It was difficult for me to be anyone other than Billy Idol back then.
Playing Odin In Heavy Metal 2000 (2000)
IDOL: I don’t know if I did such a good job, unfortunately. The chap who runs the magazine wanted me to do it. It was a lot of fun doing it. I just don’t know if I successfully did that character how it should’ve been done. I could’ve done it better. It was great being involved. It’s interesting being involved in things you’re not doing all the time. I had done a lot of music, but I hadn’t done a lot of acting or voiceover.
Covering “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” (2001)
There’s this accepted narrative that goes around now that you were offered this for The Breakfast Club and turned it down, then in 2013 you tweeted that this wasn’t true. You were working with the song’s writer Keith Forsey back in the ‘80s. Did he play it for you?
IDOL: Oh, yeah, he played it for me. He was working with me. I was the one of the only artists he was working with. He was looking to expand. He really loved Simple Minds. He said to me, “I’ve written this song, and I’m hoping Simple Minds will do it, but if they don’t, maybe Bryan Ferry will.” That’s what he said to me when he’d written it. And then, yeah, Simple Minds did it. He never offered it to me, and it’s in Pitch Perfect and all this stuff that I turned it down. [Laughs]
The funny part is that, yeah, everybody said it sounded like me because it’s Keith Forsey and the production sounded like a Billy Idol song. So I did a cover in the end just to… I don’t know, to do it, really. But it wasn’t offered to me, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to turn that around. People don’t believe me or something. [Laughs] Why would I turn that song down? Then it’s #1, and I watch huge audiences doing the “La-la-la-la-la” going “God! Why didn’t he offer it to me?”
Performing In A Live Version Of The Who’s Quadrophenia (1996)
I saw a quote from you where you talked about the whole “No Elvis, Beatles, or Rolling Stones” lyric from the Clash’s “1977.” But you felt differently, right? You owned those ‘60s influences. What was it like to get into the Who’s world with them for this?
IDOL: I really like the Who. I never saw them live until 1973 or something. But I loved their attitude. When we were writing songs for Generation X, I was listening a lot to The Who Sell Out. With punk rock, I understood what the Clash meant. “No Elvis, Beatles, or Rolling Stones in 1977.” But I bought Beatles records. I liked the Rolling Stones, and I liked Them and the Animals. I felt like I couldn’t say I didn’t like those groups, even though it was year one of a revolution. In the end, they were never really the enemy, as far as I was concerned. They were just other people like me, in groups that had become successful.
I think the music the Who made was always on their own terms. I didn’t ever feel they pandered to people. Even the songs they did that were their pop hits were never pandering. They always expected the audience to come with them, up for the task of digging what they were doing. I think that’s what we felt like in punk rock. We’re going to do what we’re going to do, and it’s up to you to either come with us or reject it. You saw that attitude in some of the groups of the ‘60s.
I didn’t feel I had to say that — that it’s the revolution so we just don’t like any of that old music and we never listened to it. I found it hard to believe that Joe Strummer hadn’t listened to the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan. [Laughs] Come on, man, I know you did. They all did. I know the Clash loved the Stones. I don’t think that’s what it was about. It was more, year one of the revolution and we’re making a statement. We’re going forward from here, we’re not going back. And I’m totally down with that.
Performing On Saturday Night Live (1984)
You played on SNL way back when, with Don Rickles hosting. This would’ve been your breakthrough years. Do you remember much from that night?
IDOL: It was fantastic. I do remember some things. Don Rickles, he was ever such a nice guy. I mean, his act, it really it was an act, where he’s got racist ideas. When you meet him backstage, he was the most polite guy. His whole thing was an act, and it would be really, really outdated today, I think. Back then, we thought he was kind of a punk rock comedian. I loved that night. We were doing “White Wedding,” and it’s like, “Where am I? Live on American TV?” I had heard about it for years. When I had come to America in ’81, they’d show an old Saturday Night Live every night, so I was able to catch up with them by the time I was on the show. I knew the history. I had watched all the shows. Being on it, I knew how great it was to be on Saturday Night Live. Don was making fun of my hair, and my girlfriend had green hair. That’s what it was all about. It was a really fun night.
Working And Performing With Miley Cyrus (2016-2021)
Over the last five years, you’ve crossed paths with Miley Cyrus quite a bit. You’ve shared the stage, and you were on Plastic Hearts last year.
IDOL: We did a duet on “Rebel Yell” at iHeartRadio in ’16. We said right then, “Come on, we’ve gotta do a new song together.” When she was doing her Plastic Hearts album she said to her producer Andrew Watt, “I’d like to do a song that’s a little bit like a Billy Idol song.” Andrew and I had just met each other and he said, “Why don’t we do it with Billy?” She said “Great, because we planned on doing some kind of duet together.” But we didn’t want to do a ballad. We wanted to do an old-school Billy Idol, Keith Forsey-sounding, ‘80s-sounding Billy Idol track. I thought it was really great. I really enjoyed writing it with Andrew and Miley.
If not for coronavirus, we would’ve been doing it at festivals all last summer, but everything got cancelled. I was glad we got to do the Super Bowl and Lollapalooza this year. She’s a lot of fun. She really cares about what she does. She works really hard. She rehearses so much. She has worked so hard on her voice and her vocal performances. She’s a much stronger singer than when I initially sang with her in ’16. She’s really come along a lot. That’s exciting to see for her. She’s enjoying what she does, and she feels like she’s getting somewhere with it.
We mentioned the Strokes earlier, and now you have this ongoing thing with Miley Cyrus. Are there other young artists you feel some kind of kindred spirit with? Or what is it about someone like Miley that makes you want to collaborate so much?
IDOL: It’s just fun to see, I don’t know, that there are young people that dig what I did or what I’m doing. It’s great to know you’ve influenced people. It’s one of those things you could’ve never imagined when you started out — that we’d be a million years down the road, and it’s still fun, it’s still exciting, and you have influenced younger people. It’s continued on; it’s going on. This year was a reaffirmation of that.
Generation X Performing On Marc Bolan’s Marc Show (1977)
Do you remember this performance? It would’ve been pretty early in Generation X’s story.
IDOL: It was. David Bowie was going to be on that show. It was the last show of this series, this children’s show Marc had been doing. We got up to Manchester, but our gear was stuck halfway down the motorway and wasn’t going to make it in time for the show. We were standing there with Marc, talking about the fact that our gear was halfway down the motorway, when the producer of the show, Muriel Young, started to say — in front of us, to Marc — “Right Marc, they don’t have their gear; they can’t be on the show. I’ve got David Bowie, he’s debuting ‘Heroes,’ I don’t have time for a band that doesn’t have their equipment. That’s it, they’re not on the show.”
We were horrified. This is going to be us playing live — our first single, “Your Generation,” our first time we’re ever on TV. This was a big moment for us. We looked at Marc, and he turned to the producer and said, “If they’re not doing it, then I’m not doing it.” She said, “What’re you talking about!? We’ve got David Bowie here.” He said, “Look, calm down, I can lend them my guitar, I’m sure one of the other groups will lend them a bass, and we’ll rent some drums.” That’s what happened. So we were able to do the show.
In the intervening couple of weeks, before the show aired, Marc died unexpectedly in the car crash. Because of his death, everybody watched that last episode. Everybody saw David Bowie doing “Heroes,” but they also saw Generation X doing “Your Generation,” live on TV. I think it showed you Marc’s attitude towards other musicians. He was super into helping other young musicians and up-and-coming people. He was very into punk for that reason. He put the Damned on his tour. He put people like us and the Jam on his show. It was a shock when he died. He was making a bit of a comeback. And that attitude he showed that day. He didn’t care about David Bowie being there. We were a young band, and he was championing us. It was exciting and incredible to see. You could be in the game 10 years or more, but you haven’t lost where you came from.
A spirit you could carry forward yourself.
IDOL: Exactly. Marc hadn’t lost the true spirit of why we were doing it in the first place. We were doing it because we love music, and we were looking for a way to improve our lives, make our lives exciting, have a reason for existing beyond some daily grind.
The Roadside EP is out 9/17 via Dark Horse Records.