Who's the real Billy Idol? Well, everybody knows Billy Idol is a punk rocker, founder of Gen X, the toughest kid in the Sex Pistols gang, one of the first and best of the wild boys of 70s Britain. No, thats not it at all, Billy Idol is a pop star, the fist-pumping sex symbol of MTV, the flesh on the fantasy of a million girls (and boys) growing up in the 80s. But no, Billy Idol is a classic rock star, a 90s road warrior who can bring down the house in any hall from Texas to Manchester and back, his black-clad sidekick Steve Stevens ripping out the leads that inspire legions of guitar worshippers.
The world got its first eyeful of Billy Idol--known to his parents as William Broad--when he was one of the "Bromley Contingent", an assortment of nascent punks who were often present at the live shows of the then-unknown Sex Pistols--supporters whose passion and style imparted social substance to the new music they followed. Supporting punks central dictate ("anybody can be in a band, even you!"), Billy soon turned up as a guitarist (!) in the seminal band Chelsea.
Despite this impeccable punk pedigree, Billy Idol was rarely accorded the respect he deserved in England. Generation X--the band he and Tony James left Chelsea to start--had a string of some of the best singles of the early punk era, were the first band of its kind to be on Top of the Pops, were the first to explore multicultural territory, and were early supporters of Rock Against Racism. But their unabashed love of the 50s and 60s pop culture was a triple no-no, because punk: a) having no future, could'nt have a past either; b) detested the commercialism of pop; and c) was anti-culture.
One suspects that Billy Idols good looks, peroxided hairstyle and arrogant name (actually an ironic play on one teachers evaluation of Billy Broad as "idle") didnt help much either. Punk was meant to be a revenge of the "grotty". Gen X was perceived to be punklitically incorrect, and Billy Idol was treated like an imposter in a scene he had helped bring into being.
When the guitarist-come-vocalist quit the band and decamped for New York, who could blame him? The tastemakers thought they'd seen the last of him, but that was only one of many miscalculations. In the Big Apple he hooked up with Bill Aucoin. Aucoin saw an image he immediately knew would connect with the American public. With Keith Forsey as part of the team, they set about making it happen.
But what would be able to break him onto the popular music scene? As it turned out, a track they already had provided a place to start. Dancing with Myself had been the last Gen X single, but it had failed (twice) to scale the UK charts. The song became a club hit and helped establish Billy as a solo personality. Even more influential was the emergence of MTV, which seemed hand-tailored to fit the photogenic Idols attributes. The quality mocked by Brit crits as "cartoonish" actually exploded on the music video screen (and later on arena projection screens)--an image at once menacing and goofusly endearing.
In 1982, the full-length solo album simply called Billy Idol was released. Here the tone was set by the guitars of New Yorker Steve Stevens, leaving trendy synths to supply a secondary texture--a crucial turning point for the music. More importantly, this is where Billy Idol came into his true voice, the rock & roll croon with a sinister undertow--a voice to match his signature sneer.
Once Billy Idol got to the top of the mountain, he did something the critics hated most of all--he stayed there. What the critics could'nt do to Billy Idol, a 1990 motorcycle crash almost accomplished. But he rebounded from the career (and life) threatening mishap.
One thing is for certain, there will be more to come from Billy Idol. He is one of rocks great "synthesizers", an artist able to incorporate any fresh input into his own distinctive personality. If there's one thing people should have learned about Billy Idol by this time, its never to underestimate him.
Success is still the sweetest revenge.