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Rebel with applause
The belated return of Billy Idol
Related Links

Billy Idol's official Web site

In 1993, Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk CD, along with his dreadlock hairdo, were greeted with near-universal ridicule. Ever since Idol, who’d been a latecomer to the original wave of British punk with his band Generation X, had hit MTV with his tight leather pants, trademark sneer, and rebellion-for-the-masses fist pumping, he’d been an easy target. And releasing Cyberpunk in the wake of a wave of electronica hype only confirmed that Idol (born William Broad) was a fraud willing to jump any trend for another shot at stardom. But in the early days of MTV, Idol’s high-concept, gloriously debauched productions were if not quite groundbreaking at least on the cutting edge of what was then the cutting edge. In the clip for the ballad "Eyes Without a Face," which followed "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding" into heavy MTV rotation, Idol practiced cathartic kung fu moves while being inundated by a smoke machine, spat out a colorful rap in the middle of a flaming hexagon surrounded by monks, and pumped his fists against a backdrop of red sparklers as a woman in a black dress writhed sensuously while being sprayed with water.

"We had to do things back then that were visual and cheap," Idol admits over the phone from his current home in Los Angeles, just days before embarking on a tour that’ll bring him to Bank of America Pavilion this Friday. "It was easy to dress up some extras in monk outfits. It was just to conjure up a sort of image. How are you going to create a bit of voodoo? It was the video director’s idea. He used that monk thing in a number of videos. He did create an instant image, especially with the fire. It’s making me crack up thinking about it. I loved the movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and I wanted them to do the sets all at weird angles. They sort of got it, but I wanted it to be exactly like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, where it’s a psychotic-looking set."

He continues, "I loved that band Suicide," referring to the proto-new-wave NYC underground duo. "Not that ‘Eyes Without a Face’ was anything like that. But I think I mixed what Suicide were doing with Sly & Robbie and then the whole murder-ballad thing on top. It’s a strange song."

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s become easier to see 1983’s Rebel Yell as a clever fusion of punk, hard rock, and new wave by Idol and his then sidekick/guitarist Steve Stevens. And a few years before with Generation X, he’d been just as willing to experiment with dub productions as the Clash. But MTV success seemed to soften his effect, and the follow-up to Rebel Yell, 1986’s synth-washed Whiplash Smile, didn’t fare as well despite a Top Five hit, "To Be a Lover," and a couple of coulda-been singles, "Don’t Need a Gun" and "Worlds Forgotten Boy."

In the meantime, Idol was taking the rock-and-roll lifestyle a little too far. By the early ’90s, after a motorcycle accident had almost cost him a leg, he’d gone off the deep end with heroin and crack. Cyberpunk was less a comeback than a commercial disaster. But at 50, he appears to have gotten back on track in classic VH1 Behind the Music fashion, with a new album, Devil’s Playground (Sanctuary), that reunites him with Stevens and recaptures the guitar-driven, hook-laced bravado of Rebel Yell. The single "Scream" might as well be "Rebel Yell, Part Two" — it’s vintage sneering, horny, fist-pumping Idol. "Super Overdrive" has him doing a decent approximation of the kind of slashing punk Gen X specialized in; "Lady Do or Die" is a faux country tune that finds him struggling with his best Johnny Cash impersonation. "Romeo’s Waiting," a tribute to men who fall in love with strippers, is more up his alley.

"In 1999, Steve and I started to forge a new band as I was putting out a Greatest Hits album," he says with confidence. "It actually sold a million copies, despite Capitol thinking it was only going to sell 100,000 or so. So, fuck them. We’re selling as much catalogue as we are new albums."

Idol is now signed to Sanctuary, a label that’s made a habit out of reviving the careers of bands like Blondie. He knows his fans still want to hear the old hits, and he doesn’t seem to mind. "That’s the bane of being an artist like myself," he jokes. "But we’re having a lot of fun. I saw a lot of other bands having fun, and I thought, ‘Fuck me, man. They’re having fun again. I need to get in on that.’ "

Billy Idol headlines this Friday, May 20, at Bank of America Pavilion, Northern Avenue in Boston; call (617) 931-2000.

Issue Date: May 20 - 26, 2005
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