By Steve Newton
Thirty years ago tomorrow–on March 29, 1984–Billy Idol played the University of British Columbia’s War Memorial Gym. The 28-year-old Brit was touring behind his second solo album, Rebel Yell, which boasted the hit singles “Eyes Without a Face”, “Flesh for Fantasy”, “Catch My Fall”, and the title track. His videos were getting a shitload of play on MTV at the time.
I remember that UBC show because afterwards I went backstage and the platinum-blonde dude greeted me with a bit of ‘tude. Hey, once a punk….
The week before his Vancouver show Idol called me on the phone and I did a full-page story on him for the Georgia Straight. Anyone remember full-page stories?
Your video for “Dancing with Myself” was directed by Tobe Hooper of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Why did you choose him?
Well, I liked Texas Chainsaw, more because there was heavy bits of humour–really black humour, but it was almost funny. And of course I liked Poltergeist.
And when you’re looking around for people to do videos, it’s really hard to figure out exactly who is capable of doing what. So of course it’s better to use your own judgement. I did know that Texas Chainsaw was an independent film originally–and that he got really ripped off–so there’d be a lot of things we both know personally about getting done in. So it just seemed like–apart from being a good director–he’d be the sort of person I could work with, just because he’d know “the truth about life” kinda thing.
So you worked with him writing the script?
Oh yeah, of course. I have to do that. It’s to do with my personality, really. I’m not an actor, you know. If I’m not involved in it, I wouldn’t be able to put it across. And of course they are my songs. Without me feeling involved, I just wouldn’t want to do it. They have to listen to what I say, otherwise they don’t do it. It is my video; it’s not their film.
Do you like the idea of doing videos?
Well, yeah, I do, because in America they didn’t really know that much about me, and it gave me a relationship with the American public, and brought my image through. People are only now just starting to get used to the idea that there’s a new sort of music scene for the eighties. They still thought that images which were a bit strong could be faked up or controlled. MTV has helped me get through and show them that I’m a real person–at least to the extent that I can do interviews on there.
MTV gave me access to the media, which I didn’t have with the radio. Radio wouldn’t play my records because I had spikey hair on the cover, which is a bit like censorship. The censorship that’s on MTV, you can get ’round it–at least I can, because I’m not black, for starters. I can’t smoke on MTV, but that’s not really an important issue for me.
Why did you move from your native England to New York?
It was for a lot of reasons, really, but the main one was that England had been pretty well much a closed scene. all the little trend things that were happening had really closed it down it down in terms of finding about new people or people being fresh. I was getting a new group together, so it seemed that the best idea was to go somewhere else.
So New York seemed the next best bet, because a lot of my favourite people come from there. The New York Dolls, Suicide, Alan Vega and the Cramps came from there originally. And Talking Heads.
What do you think of the state of punk today? Does it still exist?
Well I don’t think hardcore punk is punk–it’s hardcore. You know, I think I still play punk-rock music really. Punk-rock music was always the Sex Pistols, Generation X, the Damned, the Clash, and a coupla other groups. I mean the people who came after never played the same type of music, they always played much more negative music, music which always said, “Everything is so bad it’s never gonna get good”. Whereas we didn’t. We sang about positive things. Even the Sex Pistols talked about how to make things better.
We started the punk-rock scene, so our whole idea was to be positive. Our whole thing was to really say “We’ve got to do it ourselves. No one’s gonna do it for us.” And I just felt that these groups after us, once they got a record deal they had instant notoriety because of what we were doing. Whereas when we started something, no one wanted anything new–or they didn’t know they wanted something new. They were just in the doldrums, in nowheresville, till we came along and pushed something new on them which they discovered they needed.
So looking back, are you happy with what Generation X accomplished in the music scene?
Well, yeah, as much as I can be. I mean we had a really bad problem after the Valley of the Dolls album in the sense that we were being ripped off by our manager. And it took me a year to persuade the group it was the truth. It didn’t help our relationships much. Then after that it took a year-and-a-half to get rid of him.
So in those two-and-a-half years a lot of things in the group changed. Me and Tony James, who’s the other major member of Generation X, we had to change the drummer and guitarist. And the last album I wanted to make because I really like to dance–it was “myself” type music. I wanted to do that album because I wanted it to be Generation X music.
But by the time it was finished I realized there wasn’t really a true group anymore–it was just me and a lot of friends. And that’s cool and all that, but a group has to have an excitement, a life of its own, and Generation X had lost that.
What’s the message of “White Wedding”?
It’s really just saying that you can’t rely on conventions for security, and I used marriage as a symbol of that. You can’t really rely on authority for justice even. Not unless you’ve got a good lawyer [chuckles]. You know, there’s no security, there’s no fairness really–you’re sort of at the mercy of things. And I only used the marriage thing to show how women were at the mercy of men a lot of the time. The sort of freedom they’re looking for isn’t there.
And in “Rebel Yell” I sort of replied to what I’m talking about in “White Wedding” by stating that people can’t have slavery, they can’t sit and beg, they’ve got to be their own people. So in both songs I’m talking about the same kind of thing in that you can’t rely on conventions to give you the things you need–you have to have them there already. Your own personality has to be strong enough to be able to top those things rather than letting other people do it for you.