OK, I’m not going to pull any punches on this one: I adore the work of Billy Idol. If you’re curling your lip in disgust at me now, it can only be for one of the following reasons: you take yourself way too seriously, you’re lying to yourself, or you just weren’t there to begin with. By “there,” of course, I mean the 1980s–that unsettling time warp available to us only in our strangest and most guilty memories now, back when coke was the new booze and people like Idol fist-pumped their way to leather-clad glory on FM stations across the globe.
I vividly recall sitting in the backseat of my mother’s car as my then-teenage sister twisted the knob of the stereo in frenzied pursuit of the next pop station, all five feet of her frizzed-out hair glowing with calculated shades of blue, blonde and black. My mother, for her part, spent most days donned in a spandex unitard with thick purple socks scrunched halfway up her shins en route to teach another aerobics class, eliciting not a single second glance nor chuckle on the way.
You could get away with that sort of thing back then–it was the 80s, when vaguely androgynous strangelings in Kimonos and pirate costumes told you that you spin him “like a record baby round round” on some fledgling concept called MTV, a band called “A Flock of Seagulls” could storm the charts with a synth-drenched tune about alien abduction, and we elected a bemused octogenarian in the throes of Alzheimer’s to the presidency (well, Reagan wasn’t quite in his ninth decade just yet–but you get the picture.)
Billy Idol: “Scream,” Devil’s Playground (2005)
Back at that gym where my mother helped the housewives of Brooklyn work their gluts in double time, the women spent as much energy doing crunches as they did conspiring to leave their husbands in clustered circles of gossip by the restroom. Most of them followed through on those threats, of course, and the neuroses of an entire generation were born in broken homes.
Yet how unfortunate it is that Billy Idol’s inarguably huge presence amid all the cultural dross of that most peculiar decade is so inextricably tied to our private nostalgias, hand-cuffed to a past he defined so thoroughly that we’ll never forgive him for it now, despite the sizzling set of new rock songs he put out back in 2005 called Devil’s Playground, subsequently treating audiences around the world to some of the most energetic shows any 50-year-old man has ever performed. Idol isn’t helping matters by releasing his second greatest hits package in seven years, Idolize Yourself (out June 24 from Capitol Records), cashing in on dated glories once again just as he exhibits every capacity to generate new ones.
When Weird Al put out a cover of Idol’s cover of Tommy James’s “Mony Mony” and called it “Alimony” on his Even Worse album, Billy was already well on his way to becoming some sort of running joke by 1988. By the time he put out the disastrous and universally ignored Cyberpunk album in 1993, flannel and self-loathing sold a hell of a lot better than the new wave excess of a dead era, and Idol promptly made himself scarce for the rest of the decade after recovering from a near-fatal drug overdose (cue cheesy VH1 “Behind the Music” cliches here.)
Weird Al Yankovich: “Alimony,” Even Worse (1988)
Fortunately for those who were there, however, he didn’t make himself scarce for good. For all the flack Idol has (somewhat deservedly) brought on himself over the years, 2005’s Devil’s Playground confirmed that there was some substance beneath the style, the beating heart of a true rocker who wrote his own songs and chiseled one unforgettable hook after another with the equally under-appreciated Steve Stevens, a brilliant guitarist who proves his worth on a mostly acoustic solo outing he offered in 2000, Flamenco-A-Go-Go. If you think it’s easy to do that, write your own pop song and see how it goes. It is a terribly underrated skill, and one that distinguishes Idol’s talent from that of more contemporary pop stars who walk into a studio, have a song handed to them, and are told how to sing it as some morbidly obese billionaire executive glances at his glittering Rolex behind the glass in Studio A.
2005’s Devil’s Playground came to be when reps from Sanctuary Records took Idol aside after a show of his at the Hammerstein and expressed the desire to sign him for a new album of songs in his old style (in other words, “please don’t make it sound like that Cyberpunk shit.”) Tracks like “Bodysnatcher,” “Rat Race” and “Evil Eye” exploded with a sharp-toothed and bass-rich energy that found a more-seasoned Billy Idol updating his sound without ever getting in the way, while “Romeo’s Waiting” put Idol’s skills as a songwriter on display in a way that no previous album had done:
Cocaine and innocence
And Romeo’s waiting
Candies and sugar daddies
They never stop wasting your time
Time to dance to the top
With champagne indifference
And I sit salivating
If I could touch you there
Would you be liberated?
I don’t wanna be
Even though you make be bleed
Like a Kennedy
Over the top? Of course–it’s a Billy fucking Idol song–but, in both language and sound, it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than the vast majority of the bubble gum that passes for music on FM radio today. Raw, blistering and–perhaps most importantly–completely convincing, the album marked the unsung but no-less triumphant come-back of a guy pop culture had so easily left for dead. Though it sounds hyperbolic, some of the material on Devil’s Playground quite clearly ranked among the finest work of the man’s life, and awakened legions of rock critics to an unrecognized yearning for that snarl and fist pump they’d almost forgotten. “It could conceivably be the comeback of the year,” Mojo said as Blender conceded that it was “an entertaining album” through seemingly gritted teeth.
Billy Idol Doing an Unplugged “Flesh For Fantasy” on VH1 Storytellers
Though Billy is apparently struggling to strip himself of the conviction that we need to hear yet another reissued version of “Rebel Yell” and “White Wedding” all over again on his forthcoming greatest hits package, the new single it includes, which you can stream at his website, is better by leaps and bounds than that lame cover of “Don’t You Forget About Me” he slapped onto the last hits CD in 2001.
Idol’s got a penchant for really terrible covers–if you’ve somehow managed to endure Charmed Life’s “LA Woman” in its entirety without bleeding from the ears, you already know this. If not, well, I don’t blame you. So it is of considerable relief that he stuck to his own guns this time around with a strong new track called “John Wayne,” an eerily Cure-ish and radio-ready rock ballad that summons the ghosts of “Eyes Without A Face” and “Blue Highway.” Age isn’t something that was supposed to happen to Billy Idol; but that the man is making music as strong as “John Wayne” and Devil’s Playground as he prepares to turn 53 years-old suggests that we may have failed to see past the glitter all those years ago to catch a glimpse of the grit.