Vare, Ethlie Ann. "Billy Idol." Popular Musicians. Ed. Steve
Hochman, et al. Hackensack, NJ: Salem Press, 1999.
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BORN: Stanmore, Middlesex, England; November 30, 1955
FIRST ALBUM RELEASED: Generation X, 1978 (with Generation X)
FIRST SOLO ALBUM RELEASE: Don't Stop, 1981
MUSICAL STYLES: Punk rock, pop rock
Of all the young British punks who adulated the Sex Pistols in the late 1970'sthe Bromley Contingent, as they were calledonly Billy Idol found mainstream pop stardom. His trademark sneer, platinum hair, and tough image helped him sell millions of albums.
Early Days. William Broad, a middle-class, chubby child with dull brown hair and thick glasses, wanted to be David Bowie. He became a vegetarian in order to lose weight, replaced his glasses with contact lenses, and dyed his hair platinum. He dropped out of Sussex University and moved to London, taking the name Billy Idol.
In 1975, punk rock was becoming fashionable. Groups such as the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned were responsible for London's burgeoning punk scene. Idol and his friends Susan Dallion and Tony James began following the Sex Pistols to all of their shows, emulating the punk rockers by composing their own songs and occasionally jumping on stage. "They can't get rid of you if you write your own songs," was Idol's credo. Dallion renamed herself Siouxsie Sioux and formed her own band, the Banshees. James and Idol joined Mick Jones (later of the Clash) and Brian James (later of the Damned) and started a dance-punk group called Chelsea.
Chelsea performed throughout 1976, but soon Jones and Brian James broke away, leaving Idol, Tony James, and guitarist Bob Andrews to form Generation X, named after the Douglas Copeland novel. Most important, the group brought in Keith Forsey as producer, and it was he who shaped the power-pop-punk-dance hybrid that was Generation X. With the hit club tune "Dancing with Myself," Gen X, as they were known, rode to the top of the British charts and went on to record three albums (plus a few greatest-hits collections) before their demise in 1981.
Idol Solo. Tony James went on to form Sigue Sigue Sputnik, while Idol went to New York City to start a solo career. His timing was perfect. With his cover-boy cheekbones, his Elvis Presley sneer, his Jim Morrison baritone, and his black leather jacket, he was perfect for the nascent music video business. He first attracted attention with an extended-play single, Don't Stop, in which he rerecorded the Generation X hits "Dancing with Myself" and "Mony Mony."
In New York, Idol signed with manager Bill Aucoin, who had previously steered Kiss to stardom. Utilizing that same sense of cartoonish exaggeration, Idol snarled more and became blonder and more punk. He draped his leather jacket with rosaries: "I'm making fun of religion," he said, "but I'm also making people think. Of course, they also look good." Next, Idol got together with hard-rock guitarist Steve Stevens, who would help shape his rough, tough, danceable sound. By the time the Chrysalis debut, Billy Idol, was released in the United States in 1982, Idol had a distinctive, eye-catching style. Thanks to video hits such as "White Wedding" and "Hot in the City," Billy Idol spent two years at the top of the charts. Idol's touring schedule was erratic, marred by missed dates caused by his drug and alcohol habits.
Rebel Yell (1983) was an even bigger hit for Idol, yielding the power ballad "Eyes Without a Face" and enabling him to cross over to mainstream radio. "Eyes Without a Face" even won an American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Award as a Most Played Song in 1984.
Charmed Life. Idol spent the 1980's living his dream, being a famous rock star. Whiplash Smile (1986) continued his string of album successes. He had a child, Willem Wolfe, with actress and singer Perri Lister. He graced the cover of numerous fan magazines. In 1990 he released the album Charmed Life and had a small role in the Oliver Stone film The Doors. Although Charmed Life was successful, Idol's heyday as a rock star was over. Years of hard living had marred the poster-boy features. Plaid shirts and well-worn skateboarding shoes had replaced studded leather jackets and boots. Idol's 1993 attempt to capitalize on the multimedia revolution, Cyberpunk, was a failure.
Idol's songs would continue to receive airplay throughout the late 1990's, but Idol himself remained out of the spotlight. He did appear briefly with the Who in a stage revival of Quadrophenia, and he portrayed himself in the 1998 film The Wedding Singer. Billy Idol remains an exemplar of the 1980's, a monument to self-obsession and excess.
Ethlie Ann Vare
with Generation X
Generation X, 1978
Valley of the Dolls, 1979
Kiss Me Deadly, 1981
Billy Idol, 1982
Rebel Yell, 1983
Whiplash Smile, 1986
Charmed Life, 1990
SEE ALSO: Clash, The; Sex Pistols, The.
For the Record
Film director Oliver Stone asked Billy Idol to appear in a major studio motion picture, The Doors. However, just before filming started in February, 1990, Idol was racing his Harley-Davidson motorcycle home from a mixing session on the (ironically named) Charmed Life album and suffered injuries in an accident. Idol fractured his left forearm and injured his right leg. He ended up performing in The Doors film after all, in a smaller role and on crutches.