35 Years Ago: Billy Idol Starts Again With Debut Solo Album
Decades after being nicknamed “Billy Idle” by a teacher for his poor learning habits, the man born William Broad wasn’t sitting still.
After becoming a British punk booster, then a British punk star (fronting the group Generation X) in the late ’70s, Billy Idol had watched his band disintegrate – an all-too-typical victim of crooked management, changing trends and a falling out among the members. Frustrated, Billy took his punk rock sneer and spiky blond hair to New York to start again.
“It was a move I had to make to relearn what it’s like not to be in anybody’s papers, to actually try to get a group together because you really care, just to be your own self,” Idol told Smash Hits in 1984. “I really went through hell – but I needed to. I needed to be ripped off and to go through hell because that way I was going to understand and be strong enough to do what I’m doing now and actually last doing it.”
Idol joined forces with guitarist Steve Stevens, whose glam and metal influences balanced Billy’s rock and punk leanings. He maintained ties with Generation X’s record label Chrysalis, which would also release his solo discs. And the singer brought on manager Bill Aucoin, who had worked with Kiss and knew a thing or two about projecting a distinct image for his artists.
However, at first, Idol’s spikes and sneer were a hindrance. In 1981, punk rock was yesterday’s news in England and perceived as unsuitable for the masses in the United States. His first singles – a cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Mony Mony” and Generation X holdover “Dancing with Myself,” both of which came from the Don't Stop EP – disappointed because radio programmers were turned off by Idol’s punky look on the sleeves.
“So we took my picture off the next single, ‘Hot in the City,’ and they didn’t know who it was,” Idol recalled. Radio embraced the song, which eventually hit No. 23 on the Billboard chart.
Watch the Video for "Hot in the City"
“Hot in the City” was the lead single off Idol’s self-titled debut LP, released on July 16, 1982. Billy’s punk image was softened both on the album cover (on which a Japanese “new romantic” shirt was favored over a leather jacket) and in the music. The singer’s penchant for pop was played up, overseen by producer Keith Forsey, who emerged from the disco scene to become a master of new wave. In just a few years, Forsey would produce a handful of Idol’s albums while also co-writing “Flashdance… What a Feeling” and “Don’t You (Forget About Me).”
Although the first single from Billy Idol would do more damage on the Hot 100, it was the album’s next single that would have even greater impact. Led by a surf-rock riff from Stevens, “White Wedding (Part 1)” introduced Billy to the mainstream via a gothy, mildly controversial video clip that went into constant rotation on brand-new MTV. The tune was pop-rock with a punk attitude; dark-sounding music that remained catchy. It remains, arguably, Idol’s signature song. And it was inspired by a rather pleasant memory.
“The song itself is about not falling into convention in society. It was kind of fantasy,” Idol admitted to WNYC in 2014. “My sister had just gotten married in England, and she was actually pregnant when she went up to the altar. Which was fine because they were very much in love. But I thought, what if this was 10 years before, what if this was a shotgun wedding. What if I was the brother who was incensed, maybe there’s an incestuous thing. At that time ‘White Wedding’ became something much darker. It was just fun – I was just having a whale of a time.”
As Idol’s singles and videos were riding high, Chrysalis re-released “Dancing With Myself,” which became a minor chart hit, and placed it as a bonus track on an ’83 re-release of Billy Idol. Between its two releases, the LP went gold in the U.S. and platinum in Canada – although Idol’s homeland of England remained to be conquered. But he’d soon return, with a Rebel Yell.
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