Lately, I’ve been unable to turn the radio dial to a rock-oriented radio station without happening on the music of Billy Idol. There’s nothing wrong with that – Idol was one of the best artists of the ’80s – but it’s a bit jarring, if only because it’s hard to think of Billy Idol as a rocker, in the truest sense.
Sure, his music is dominated by some excellent guitar (usually from the axe of the fantastic Steve Stevens), and it has a bit of an edge thanks to Idol’s irrepressible snarling vocals. But Idol is not a rock guy. He’s a very overtly pop guy. He covered a few ’60s pop and R&B songs, and released them as singles. That blond, spiky hair atop his head, the skintight leather get-up and even his punk-rock past can’t disguise that he’s got as big a heart, musically, as that tough-looking guy in shop class that also sang in the glee club.
In honor of the one Idol I have no problem hearing this week (sorry, FOX Network), here’s a look at Billy’s (semi-)rockin’ catalogue from the past two decades or so. Take a look after the jump.
The Generation X years (1978-1981)
Since 1976, William Broad had been moving through the U.K. punk scene in one way or another, notably as a member of the Bromley Contingent (the infamous Sex Pistols fan group that also included Siouxsie Sioux and Steve Severin, both founding members of Siouxsie and The Banshees) and part of an early line-up of punk rockers Chelsea. Ultimately, he and bassist Tony James formed Generation X with guitarist Bob Andrews and drummer Mark Laff. Even then, the pop influence that Idol wore on his sleeve was visible; the band were one of the first punk acts on Top of the Pops and they frequently covered John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth.”
Altogether, the band recorded four albums’ worth of material, all of which was remastered and reissued in the early 2000s. Generation X (Chrysalis, 1978 – reissued 2002) and Valley of the Dolls (Chrysalis, 1979 – reissued 2002) were the first two discs, featuring the original hit U.K. albums and their respective B-sides. The band’s intended follow-up, Sweet Revenge, was shelved due to internal conflicts and Andrews and Laff were replaced by Terry Chimes (formerly of The Clash) on drums and a revolving door of guitarists (including Steve Jones, also of The Clash, and James Stevenson of Chelsea). The revamped Gen X (as they were now called) released Kiss Me Deadly (Chrysalis, 1981 – reissued EMI, 2005) and went nowhere, even though the lead single would become a favorite when it was re-released under Idol’s name: “Dancing with Myself.” (Sweet Revenge was ultimately released on a few different indie labels from 1998 on. The Strange Fruit label licensed the band’s BBC Radio 1 sessions for a release in 2002.)
Don’t Stop (Chrysalis, 1981 – reissued 1987)
Idol’s solo debut is light on content – it’s two new tracks coupled with “Dancing with Myself” and another Gen X track – but one of those new tracks, a cover of Tommy James and The Shondells’ “Mony Mony,” would be a No. 1 hit for Idol when he released a live version as a single in 1987. Later CD pressings included an interview with Billy conducted by MTV VJ Martha Quinn.
Billy Idol (Chrysalis, 1982 – reissued 2002)
The first-full length Billy Idol record unites the singer with guitarist Steve Stevens for the first time, a union which yields two classic tracks, “White Wedding (Part 1)” and “Hot in the City.” Astoundingly, the 2002 reissue followed the American track list, replacing 48-second album closer “Congo Man” with “Dancing with Myself” once again. The only real bonus tracks, remixes of the two singles, would feature elsewhere.
Rebel Yell (Chrysalis, 1983 – reissued 1999)
Idol became a full-fledged star with Rebel Yell, thanks to a series of great singles with heavy presence on MTV. “Rebel Yell,” “Flesh for Fantasy,” “Eyes Without a Face” and “Catch My Fall” were the singles, and if you still need any convincing that Idol was a pop star more than a rocker, consider that only “Rebel Yell” was a straight-ahead rock song. EMI released an expanded edition with five session takes and some nice liner notes in 1999.
Vital Idol (Chrysalis, 1985/1987 – reissued 2002)
As Idolmania continued to spread, Chrysalis released an EP of dance remixes in the U.K. during the summer of 1985. The original track list had the dance mixes to “Dancing with Myself” (the full version from Gen X’s 12″ single), “White Wedding,” “Hot in the City,” “Flesh for Fantasy,” and new remixes of “Catch My Fall,” “Love Calling” (from Billy Idol) and “Mony Mony.” When the EP was reissued in the U.S., the 12″ version of “To Be a Lover” was added (this track list is the officially recognized version on recent reissues). Bizarrely, nobody at EMI thought to include the chart-topping live take on “Mony Mony” as a bonus track.
Whiplash Smile (Chrysalis, 1986)
The only vintage Idol album that’s never gotten remastered or reissued, Whiplash Smile is nowhere near as fun as its predecessor, with little to show outside of its singles (most notably a cover of William Bell’s Stax single “To Be a Lover”). This means that at least one or two 12″ single mixes remain unreleased on CD (Notably “Don’t Need a Gun”).
Idol Songs: 11 of the Best (Chrysalis, 1988)
A pretty standard singles compilation that’s only notable for its Japanese version, subtitled “15 of the Best” and featuring four bonus 12″ remixes (three of which are hard to find on any CD but this one).
Charmed Life (Chrysalis, 1990)
The first new Idol LP without Steve Stevens and since he was involved in a serious motorcycle accident, Charmed Life actually spawned a sizeable Top 5 hit in “Cradle of Love,” which also featured in the impossibly bad film The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. Other singles “L.A. Woman” (a cover of The Doors’ song) and “Prodigal Blues” were pretty darn good too. This disc could use a reissue because the singles contained some of the only non-LP B-sides Idol ever released. Unfortunately, he followed this LP up with another relative clunker just three years later.
Cyberpunk (Chrysalis, 1993 – reissued Collectables, 2006)
At least Idol’s last record of the 1990s is an interesting clunker. The singer was increasingly interested in cyberpunk culture after his motorcycle crash, which led to a record that was both conceptualized and recorded with computer assistance (including an early build of Pro Tools) and extensively promoted through technological means (early press materials were utilized through floppy diskettes and Idol took to the Internet to discuss the growing cyberculture with users). It was not, however, a hit by any means, and was in fact excoriated by some critics who felt Idol used the subculture for financial gain. It’s not a good album, at least not compared to Rebel Yell, but it marks an interesting moment for Idol (arguably one of his only works to receive academic attention). Only a bare-bones reissue from Collectables ever surfaced, years later.
Greatest Hits (Capitol, 2001)
Arguably the best Idol compilation for your buck, it includes nearly all his singles (even “Shock to the System” from Cyberpunk) and two bonus tracks, an awesome acoustic run-through of “Rebel Yell” with Stevens from 1993 and a new cover of “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” which Idol had initially been offered to record with longtime producer Keith Forsey.
VH-1 Storytellers (Capitol, 2002)
Released during Idol’s lengthy run of reissues, this live set from the show of the same name features Idol and Stevens leading the way through their greatest hits, and even a few, welcome covers of some Generation X material. Later pressings featured a DVD of the show as well.
Devil’s Playground (Sanctuary, 2005)
After years of bumming around on movie soundtracks, Idol, Stevens and Forsey reunited for a much more rock-edged LP. It’s not terrible stuff, but again, it supports the central thesis that Idol might be best when he’s crooning poppier stuff with that rock edge, rather than the other way around.
Happy Holidays (Bodog, 2006)
Yup. A Billy Idol Christmas record. Performed unironically, even (some copies have the subtitle “The Non-Rebel Christmas Record”). For hardcore fans or hardcore jokesters only.
Idolize Yourself: The Very Best of Billy Idol (Capitol, 2008)
Essentially the 2001 hits disc without those bonus tracks and four new ones instead (two brand-new tracks, “John Wayne” and “New Future Weapon,” plus “World Comin’ Down” from Devil’s Playground and the title track to the soundtrack to Speed), this set is only worth the upgrade if you pick up the version with the DVD of most of Idol’s Chrysalis-era videos.