Billy Idol Biography

Billy Idol

He's the symbol of 80s punk rock. With flashy clothes and a mohawk, Billy Idol remains a cult favourite, starring in the hit film The Wedding Singer.

William Michael Albert Broad is a deceptively mild name for one of rock music’s danger men. A loud and pugnacious performer, with punk at his core but varnished meticulously with pop sensibilities, William had an unremarkable childhood, showing some aptitude for school in keeping with his parents’ expectations. Later, when he came to choose his stage name, he would recall a remark an exasperated teacher wrote in his report, “William is idle”, thus providing the inspiration for one of rock music’s most recognisable monikers.

The lower-middle class lifestyle of his parents frustrated Idol. He says: “My dad was one of the reasons I got into rock and roll because I was learning the ropes of his business, which was selling power tools, and I was looking for a way out from under his heel. I was like, ‘Where's the fun? Where's the glamour?’”

The punk explosion in England in 1975 gave Idol the impetus to escape suburbia and dullness. He attended Sussex University for a year before leaving to join the Bromley Contingent (from the Bromley region in London), the Sex Pistols fanatics who followed the band religiously in the heady and anarchic early days of punk rock.

The antics and words of Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, et al, gave the young Idol a purpose and philosophy, and grounded him in the punk ethic for the rest of his performing life. The Pistols brought danger, irreverence, and controversy to a 1970s music scene that was safe and manufactured, a music scene of ABBA and disco. Steven Severin, one of Idol’s contemporaries from the punk band Siouxsie & The Banshees, recalls: “There was nothing new coming through that we could identify with”.

Following the Pistols around was the opportunity for Idol to find like-minded individuals, which inevitably coalesced into Idol’s first band, dubbed Chelsea. It was in August 1976 that singer Gene October placed an advert in Melody Maker, leading to replies from Billy Idol (guitar), bassist Tony James and drummer John Towe. Their first live performance was in support of the avant-garde and experimental music group Throbbing Gristle (incidentally, a future major influence on industrial music) at London’s ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts). Two months later, the band split, leaving October to carry on Chelsea, while Idol, Towe and James formed Generation X.

Generation X weren’t as well known as the front-runners of English punk like the Sex Pistols and The Clash, but it was the launching pad for Idol’s music career. Named after a book detailing the violent rivalry between the rockers and mods in the 1960s, Generation X released three albums, and was one of the first punk bands to appear on ‘Top of the Pops’. This was due to an overt 1960s pop influence drawn from commercially accessible bands like The Beatles.

Generation X started falling apart as the group’s musical direction became ambiguous. Some members wanted to remain true to their punk roots of raw, loud and abrasive music, while others wanted to pursue a more commercial heavy rock sound. By 1979, during the initial recording of what would have been their third album, disagreements came to a head and Idol was left to carry on Generation X. The material was later released in what would be their last album, ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ (1981), featuring a version of ‘Dancing With Myself’ which would later be an Idol staple at his live shows.

After the disappointment of Generation X’s demise, Idol relocated to New York to pursue a solo career. Quickly teaming up with ex-KISS manager Bill Aucoin, he released an EP, ‘Don’t Stop’ (1981), including ‘Dancing With Myself’ and a Tommy James cover, ‘Mony Mony’. Idol’s management recognised the bad-boy appeal of Idol, as he retained his punk image if not the punk music. His partnership with guitarist Steve Stevens was perfect image-wise, with Stevens’ own flashy glam-rock looks and outrageous style of playing guitar melding perfectly with Idol’s peroxide spikes and swaggering stage manner.

Idol became an MTV darling; MTV itself was just sprouting wings at that time. The concept of the music video meant a new outlet for promoting music – the revolutionary idea of pairing music with image was perfect for Idol. Lavish videos for ‘Dancing With Myself’ and ‘White Wedding’ (off his 1983 self-titled album) brought Idol’s sneer to millions of people. ‘Billy Idol’ (1983) was swiftly followed by ‘Rebel Yell’ in 1984, Idol’s best-selling album of his career, eventually going double platinum. The anthemic title track spawned a video that was on heavy rotation on MTV, and led to Idol filling out arenas all over America.

1987’s ‘Whiplash Smile’ was also another hit, but Stevens left the band shortly after its release to focus on his own career. A best-of album, ‘Vital Idol’, was issued later the same year, resulting in one of the year's most heavily played MTV videos – a live version of the previously recorded cover of ‘Mony Mony’ – which helped keep Idol in the spotlight. Idol spent the next few years working on his fourth studio release, but reappeared in the summer of 1989 as part of an all-star rendition of The Who's ‘Tommy’, with Idol playing the role of the sadistic character Cousin Kevin.

1990 saw Idol release ‘Charmed Life’, ironically titled, as in February Idol was involved in a serious motorcycle accident, nearly losing a leg in the process. As the album was due to be released, the video for the album's lead single, ‘Cradle of Love’, had to be filmed. Since he couldn’t walk, Idol was shot from the waist up. Prior to the crash, Idol had also been involved in negotiations with Oliver Stone to appear in Stone’s movie about The Doors; a smaller part was written for him in view of his injury.

1993 was a low point in Idol’s career. He dropped his peroxide spikes for dreadlocks, and experimented with techno in the “dull” ‘Cyberpunk’ (The New Rolling Stone Album Guide). As the album died in the charts, Idol nearly followed suit, with at least one highly publicised drug overdose in 1994. Not much was heard about Idol between 1994 and 1998, other than playing The Ace Face in The Who's stage version of ‘Quadrophenia’. At this time, grunge, although on its last legs, was evolving into post-grunge and nu-metal, a self-obsessed introspective time where the ebullient and aggressive nature of Idol was strangely out of place.

Idol returned briefly to the public eye with an appearance in the intensely cheesy Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore romantic comedy ‘The Wedding Singer’ (1998). Idol played himself as a sympathetic flight passenger, and his 1983 song ‘White Wedding’ was featured in the movie as the title track. The New Rolling Stone Album Guide saw his appearance as “making the climax one of the funniest 15-minute comic sequences ever filmed.” In 2000, Idol lent his voice to a guest track (‘Into The Night’) on Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi’s self titled album, ‘Iommi’. This renewed interest in Idol’s career.

In 2001, Idol reunited with Steve Stevens to write material for a new album. In the same year, he was also the subject of a ‘VH1: Behind the Music’ special (as well as a ‘Storytellers’ episode for VH1, which was ultimately issued as a CD). He issued a more extensive ‘Greatest Hits’ set in 2001, which sold 500,000 copies in the US alone.

Idol released ‘Devil’s Playground’ in 2005, his first studio album for almost 12 years. He then toured in support of the album, first on the Vans Warped Tour (an American touring festival showcasing extreme sports and hardcore, punk, and metalcore bands), and then made an appearance at the Download Festival in Donington Park, UK.

Back in the groove once more, Idol made a guest appearance on his keyboardist’s solo album, Derek Sherinian’s (ex-Dream Theater) ‘Blood of the Snake’ (2006), covering the Mungo Jerry hit ‘In The Summertime’. A video was also filmed for ‘In The Summertime’ which featured Idol and former Guns ‘n’ Roses guitarist Slash. Later that year, in November, Idol released a Christmas album, ‘Billy Idol: Happy Holidays’ (2006) which contained carols and songs like ‘Silent Night’, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘Winter Wonderland’.

Another Greatest Hits compilation followed in 2008, ‘The Very Best of Billy Idol: Idolize Yourself’, which spanned his career hits, and included two brand new tracks, ‘John Wayne’ and ‘New Future Weapon’. His band consists of long-time collaborators Steve Stevens, Brian Tichy and Derek Sherinian, and Idol has been touring in support of the ‘Best Of’.

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