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A Punk Looks at 50

Billy Idol's mind is still the devil's workshop

If the National Park Service created a Mount Rushmore of '80s music -- and it's a travesty of public funding that it hasn't happened already; write your congressman! -- it would probably feature the chiseled visages of The Boss, Madonna, Michael and Prince. Perhaps in the case of Jackson, the face would be chiseled and rechiseled and chiseled some more, but that's another story. But Billy Idol would rate at least a large statue in the nearby park -- likely next to the ladies' restroom. Just think of the challenge to the sculptor: how to capture just perfectly the spiky hair, dangling crucifix earrings, mild bondage garb and, of course, the curled upper lip?

But the eternally puckish 45-year-old Idol doesn't want to be just a nostalgia act, and 2001 finds his comeback bid in high gear. With the near-simultaneous release of his Greatest Hits record, an episode of Behind the Music that rivals Mötley Crüe's for delicious debauchery, a Storytellersthat previews his current summer tour and a planned 2002 album of new material, the synergistic engine of his comeback is coughing to life.

"It's been great fun already, and the audiences have been fantastic," Idol says a handful of dates into the tour. "It would be different if I walked out there and the audiences were absolutely uninterested. And we try and do a lot of the songs in a different light, where we used to just blast through things helter-skelter."

Harley wrecks, legions of groupies and the Thai army can't stop Idol.
Albert Sanchez
Harley wrecks, legions of groupies and the Thai army can't stop Idol.

The "we" refers mainly to journeyman guitarist Steve Stevens, back in the Idol camp after a parting of ways. The flashy axman, who has knocked a few floors off his spiky Sears Tower mane, has always been more a partner than a mere sideman. "He brings a real depth of character to the music, and I can rely on that and play off of it," says Idol. "I want more than just a session guy playing my music." As for the current state of the guitarist's locks, Idol explodes in what is the first of many raspy laughs during the interview. "Yes, he's stopped torturing the ozone with it -- and that's good news for all of us!"

During the show, the pair, along with a backing band, bring out most of Idol's big guns: "White Wedding," "Rebel Yell," "Dancing with Myself," "Eyes Without a Face" and the like. And, of course, the cover of the execrable "Mony Mony" -- ironically his only No.1 hit. But the show also reaches back to Idol's catalog with Generation X, and a couple of new tunes.

While it's impossible to hear most of these songs without their music video images -- hot brides riding hogs, swirling confetti cyclones, overheated bimbos in leather, also riding hogs -- playing along in your head, Idol wants to prove that they have a life beyond the Reagan era.

Born and raised in England's middle-class Home Counties (although he lived in the States from age three to seven), the budding Jack the Lad needed constant stimulation, his moods swinging from hyperactivity to intense boredom. (A teacher's famous report card note, "William is IDLE," inspired his more familiar moniker.)

Of course, many familiar with his solo hits have no idea of Idol's role in England's early punk scene in 1976. He gathered with like-minded souls (including Susan Dallion, later Siouxie Sioux) as the ragtag "Bromley Contingent" of fans who showed up at every primordial punk gig. After a brief stint as the guitarist with a band called Chelsea, Idol and Tony James left to form Generation X. But when Idol stepped out as front man, his male-model good looks and the band's eclectic tastes spurred some purists to denounce them as too pretty and too pop for punk, a Bay City Rollers in leather, studs and safety pins.

"Yeah, well, time's taking care of that and the critics," he deadpans. "The thing about punk rock, some people think it should all be one thing. But a lot of us in the bands didn't want to be carbon copies of each other; it's whatever punk meant to you. In America, you had the Talking Heads, and in England there was Magazine. The Clash were about politics, and the Sex Pistols about street life."

Idol's broad tastes are no more evident than when looking down the list of his hits. Hard rock, pop, dance and ballads are all represented. Idol says British radio at the time, which played wildly disparate genres on the same station, helped broaden his musical sensibilities from an early age. "We heard it all, and they played it all. I think that's something [unique] about growing up in England," he says. "But we were also just as much in love with American rock and roll as English."

Idol left Generation X in 1981 and headed for punk's epicenter in New York City, though he had already determined to broaden his appeal beyond the genre. When longtime producer Keith Forsey and Idol fashioned an extended mix of the band's "Dancing with Myself" as an Idol solo number, it began to get a lot of play in clubs. On Storytellers, Idol remembers trying to order a drink at a crowded bar when the song came on. Everyone rushed to the dance floor, leaving him with a lot of elbow room and more than a little stunned.

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