Over the years Billy Idol has been very press shy. I have tried to interview him numerous times with no luck. As I finally got to talk to him though recently for his stellar new EP, The Roadside, his reticence to do interviews previously becomes crystal clear.
Going from being a U.K. punk rocker with Generation X in the late ’70s to being a worldwide TV star as one of the faces of early MTV caused a lot of problems for Idol, as he explains in this incredibly candid conversation about the pitfalls of fame.
But now 65, a grandfather and completely sober, Idol is ready to confront his past as he does on the new EP’s “Bitter Taste,” a song that looks back on the 1990 motorcycle accident that caused extensive injuries.
It may have been a long wait to speak to Idol, but it was well worth the years it took to make this interview happen. As you will read, Idol is honest, thoughtful, intelligent and wise as he discusses the EP, his battles with fame and getting back to making music for the art, not for fame.
Steve Baltin: What made this the right time to write about this motorcycle accident now in “Bitter Taste”? Was it something that you gained a new perspective on being older? Or it just felt like the right time?
Billy Idol: Probably, a combination of those two things. We were sort of writing the EP at the beginning of the Coronavirus, it was like May/June, when we were writing the EP last year 2020. For me, when things happen, it always takes me a bit of time to kind of take them in, let them marinate, and then you can sort of write a song about them, but it doesn’t always happen immediately. Also, it was May, June. At that time, we really didn’t know that much, and we all had hopes it would all be over by September or something. So we really didn’t know a lot, and so I thought, “Well, I wanna write something that people could identify with during this time.” I could see that there’s already people dying and everything, and some people I knew had got it really badly, some young people that I knew. A producer, Andrew Watt, he was one of the first people I knew who’s a young man, who’s nothing wrong with him, and he got the Coronavirus really badly, so much so he had to go to the emergency room. Anyway, there was all that going on, but it was a lot of confusion as well. So, I just thought, like, “Well, I can’t really write.” Then I started to think about, “Well, what can I write about? That was a big moment in my life, like a crisis moment, a problem time, something where I had to readjust my whole life in a way, once it happened.” Then I started to think about the motorcycle accident. I always said it’d be great when it’s 20 years or 30 years away from the motorcycle accident, just because it’s so far in the back mirror and then I did manage to recover okay. So the motorcycle accident was something I could write about that was a big crisis in my life, that was a bit of a watershed moment and also, yeah, it changed my life a little bit. So I’ve had 30 years to reflect on it and really sort of come to terms with it and be able to talk about in a song really. And yeah, it came out really great, that’s the thing about “Bitter Taste,” it really came out great.
Baltin: Now with that perspective are there things you see differently about that time that you may not have even thought about 30 years ago?
Idol: Yeah, I’d actually come out to Los Angeles from New York where I’ve been living a bit of a vampire existence. It’s not New York’s fault, it was really to do with me becoming so well-known on MTV and stuff. Just because you walked outside your door, and I’d never really thought about it. As a musician, it was like a little under the radar. Being a television star was nutty, it was crazy. It was difficult going out because it wasn’t just music people who knew about you. As MTV got bigger and bigger it was like the whole of the world could recognize you, just from your voice or your hair or something. So there was a lot of things like that going on and I’d come out to Los Angeles really to live a more daytime existence, riding motorcycles with some friends out here, and get over a lot of the things I’ve done to myself. But of course I sabotaged all that for a few years, and yes, I ended up riding motorcycles, but ended up ridding them, we were always, we were a little bit high as a kit. Which is terrible. It’s the worst thing you can do. You should never ride motorcycles high. So really I was sabotaging my own recovery in some ways, and that was one of the things that when the motorcycle accident happened, it really made me go, “Why did you come out here in the first place? It wasn’t to have an accident like this, it wasn’t to stay f**ked up, it was actually to sort of grab hold of your life.”And that’s kind of what happened after it, then gradually it took me 10 years or more of AA and a number of different things, to eventually put drugs on the back burner, where they weren’t central. You were getting some semblance of control, because there is no control. The AA people will tell you there isn’t, really. The motorcycle accident was a big watershed moment because I really did sort of address my demons, and I gradually got control of myself to where I can still be here today performing, enjoying it, recording, writing songs and enjoying it. And this is what I really love, this is what really makes us high, it’s doing the music, that’s what it’s really all about. The drugs was just something we got caught up in. Because when we were young they were romantic. There was a romanticism about them, which isn’t there anymore. Now my children can see it’s not romantic. Thank God.
Baltin: You’re coming out of Generation X where you can go anywhere, and all of a sudden there’s this new thing where it’s like you say, as John Mayer called it “airport famous.” And that is a lot to deal with.
Idol: That’s a good way of putting it. It’s so crazy, yeah.
Baltin: When you look back on it now, do you feel like you’re enjoying this more because A, you’re older, but B, it’s also about the music and you’re no longer airport famous?
Idol: That’s it exactly. It’s on a much more manageable level. It’s not crazy. It really did get crazy. And you couldn’t escape it ’cause it would be whatever you were doing. That’s right, I could enjoy it today so much more in a way because I still can do the music I love, I’m working with the people. I love working Steve Stevens still. It’s fantastic. And you haven’t got the distraction of all this kind of ridiculous fame, or fame of the moment. It’s not a real fame as well, because once you’re not on the television so much people soon forget about. It’s like just because they’re seeing you. So it’s different to the fame you had as a successful musician, that kind of lasts. But this sort of fame of being on television it’s all a bit ephemeral. It’s kind of ridiculous and just got in the way of making the music really. It was great ’cause it gave you a platform. There was a point in time where the American radio wouldn’t play my music because I had spiky hair, ’cause I had a punk rock image. And they said, “Well, punk rock music, we don’t think it sells advertising dollars, so we don’t play people who’ve got a punk rock image.” But of course once you’re on MTV and “White Wedding” was on there, and then you had Cyndi Lauper and Madonna and Prince and everybody, all the fans started calling up the radio stations, ’cause they’re seeing the videos and hearing the new music on MTV. It was a great platform, and it broke down the radio. Next minute, yeah, they’re all playing our music. But after that, yeah, I’m much more happier today because I can enjoy all the things that I was doing before MTV or whatever. But then you don’t have this ridiculous fame, that drives you a little mad and it makes you crazy, and I think it makes you have psychological problems, probably some kind of PTSD and stuff like that, because it’s weird. It’s just very weird. And so people who are massive on television, I can only imagine. I know what they go through, it’s horrible. I did think MTV stopped playing videos quite so much so, and also I retreated a bit from all of it. The paparazzi thing was just starting to go megalomaniac around 1994. It’s soon after that that you had the Britney Spears Rolling Stone cover with “American Tragedy,” and it was all about her being just absolutely tortured by the paparazzi. I could see all that starting to happen, and I didn’t want that for myself, so it was like, “Yeah, I’d rather pull back and not be successful, if that’s what it meant for a while.” So for a few years, I didn’t even play live. I just pulled right back. And then we went back on the road about 1999, and we just concentrated on the music really, and I did do a couple of videos and things over the years. But yeah, it was fun again, really, yeah. We didn’t have all that weird fame of everyone in the world knowing who you are, but they don’t necessarily love your music, just see you on television, so you’re this big TV star.
Baltin: Are there artists that you really admire, or that you’ve talked to, for the way that they’ve been able to step out of it and manage it on a level?
Idol: You’ve still got your musical abilities. There is an audience there that doesn’t go away completely ’cause you have built up an audience over that time. And it’s the audience that you’ve built on musically. It’s to do with your music and not quite so much to do with you just being this thing on television. I suppose a number of other people have had to do it in lots of ways. But I’ve got my life back in a way, and yeah, maybe didn’t play quite such big places and all, but big deal. I was in a punk rock background, so our whole thing was, “It’s not about how many people you play to, it’s the music you’re making.” And whether there’s 10 people there, or 10,000 or 10 million, it’s the same thing. It doesn’t matter how many people are there. In fact, actually, you can actually go more when there’s less people (laughs).
Baltin: On the last song, “Put Your Clothes Back On,” I love the way you put it. “All it would take is one song and one good drink.” What’s the one good song? What is the Billy Idol song?
Idol: It could be “Flesh For Fantasy.” It could be “Eyes Without A Face.” I’ve got quite a few sexy songs.
Baltin: Are there songs from this EP that you are really excited to do live? Having new music for the first time in seven years to play live has got to make it so much more exciting.
Idol: Exactly, it’s really fun. At the moment, we’re concentrating on “Bitter Taste” and “Rita Hayworth,” those are the more rocking tracks andI think you get them immediately. “Bitter Taste” is a bit more of a ballad, but and then to balance that off, “Rita Hayworth” is a great rocker.
Baltin: Are there songs of yours that after you don’t get to play it for a year-and-a-half that you appreciate in a different way?
Idol: Yes, you do feel like that. Especially the band I’ve got are really great, and feeling them in action with these songs, which are already classic Billy Idol songs, the audience just reacts amazingly to me. And “Cradle Of Love,” we kick off the show with that. That would be a song where I wouldn’t really think about the action-reaction of the audience, but yeah, it’s really a strong song the audience get. It’s easy song for me to sing too, so it’s a great start song. And “Dancing With Myself” got a new life as a bit of a Coronavirus anthem. So there were things like that happening. So you’re sort of playing something that right at this moment did mean a lot to people, even though 1980 we did that song originally.And then not playing the songs for a year and a half you sort of feel the power of them ’cause so many people like them. And a lot of people don’t realize all the songs I did, and once they come to a show, especially if they’re not diehard fans, they soon start realizing, “Oh man, I didn’t realize he did or had all these hits.” That’s the other thing I can feel too. You can feel the songs have a resonance with people.
Baltin: When you come on stage and you are seeing these kids who are 13, 14, 15, screaming their brains out to “Rebel Yell,” even though they weren’t born when it was done, does it make the song more exciting for you as well, because you see it with their fresh eyes?
Idol: Exactly, ’cause a lot of my audience come with their children. So I’m kind of seeing both generations going nuts. It’s kind of fun to see a whole family going crazy to “Rebel Yell” or something. It’s pretty fantastic.
Baltin: Do you feel like these four songs are the beginning of a more prolific wave for you?
Idol: That’s what we hope, yeah. We’re planning on doing three EPs, which then we might put them together as an album. So this is like the first one and hopefully, yeah, we’re already on our way to the second one, which should be out before next summer, ’cause we’ll be playing in Europe next summer as well. I’m looking forward to it. It’s really still fun, thank God.