In those hazy days of the early 1980s when I worked at Berea's short-lived radio station WDNA, I did an alternative/new wave/punk mix show called "Birds in the Trees". It was there, in the not-inconsiderable WDNA vinyl library, that I discovered the already-defunct British punk-mod band Generation X. I was stunned to find that their lead singer was none other than Billy Idol, who was a "new" artist to us at the time - he had just taken the world by storm with his strangely 10cc-ish "Hot in the City". The cognitive dissonance of seeing a blond cross between James Dean, Elvis and Sid Vicious belting out this borderline-disco number was strangely appealing in that crazy mixed-up time, but we didn't really think he'd amount to much more. We were wrong. Soooo wrong.
To this day, I still hold Mr. Idol in very high esteem for some splendid timeline-blurring metachronistic records he put out for a good long run in the 80s and 90s. What makes Billy Idol truly one of the greats of our time can be broken down thus:
1. He gets the mix just right. Most of the time, anyway. I know of no other musical act that ever managed to mix elements of pop, punk, glam, techno, disco, new wave, garage, goth, metal, mod and crooner-balladry together and make it work as a unified sound without feeling eclectic or uneven, for as many years as he did.
2. The Voice. Unlike, say, Mick Jagger, who can only do the funky and rough stuff, Billy could and would abruptly snap into a smooth and soft crooning style that not only summons up shades of Elvis and Conway Twitty, but even goes further back to Bing Crosby and Whispering Jack Smith.
3. Steve Stevens. Every Strummer needs a Jones, and Steve Stevens provided much of the hair-metal cred to the Idol band for most of its glory years, pulling some wacked-out solos out of nowhere that melded the weirdest aspects of the styles of Steve Vai, Eddie Van Halen, and Hank Marvin.
4. Lyrical genius. He's a poet warrior. Billy wouldn't have been half the star he was if not for the fact his songs made you sit up and listen intently to what he's saying (as opposed to bands with simplistic lyrics like, say, Aerosmith, Motley Crue and yes, even KISS) and curse him for not including a libretto. From the nilihistic surrealism of "White Wedding" to the consummately spooky swagger of "All Summer Single" (which has been #1 in my car all week this week!), B.I. has a grip on a certain reality principle. I remember many years ago, sitting on a greyhound bus listening to him on my walkman and being struck by the absurd Blakean transcendence of this couplet:
I'm on a bus on a psychedelic trip,
Reading murder books, trying to stay hip.
It's easy to forget just how many bonafide hits our boy blammed in there over the years - for some reason you never hear stations playing "Cradle of Love", "Don't Need A Gun", "Eyes Without a Face", "L.A. Woman", "Rebel Yell", "Sweet Sixteen", "Flesh for Fantasy" or "To Be A Lover" (which he sang from a boxing ring, both in the original video and live on the 1986 Grammys. Billy also scored a huge hit with his cover to Tommy James & The Shondells' "Mony Mony", which in turn led to into membership of that most holy brotherhood of people who've been parodied by Weird Al. And of course, his quintessial career-defining song, "Dancing with Myself", with its memorable Blade Runner-ish video in which Billy zaps zombies from atop a crumbling skyscraper in a dystopian future.
And there's still plenty more rockin' Billy sides to be explored, like
"Baby Talk" (think of it as the hyperactive nephew of "Dancing With Myself"), "Blue Highway", (Jack Kerouac meets David Lynch), "Do Not Stand in the Shadows" (best S.S. solo ever!), "Speed" (the video for which he's actually wearing a T-Rex t-shirt) and "Fatal Charm" (which almost morphs into Elvis' "Viva Las Vegas" at points.)
But late at night, sipping Zwack, like right now, with all the windows open, listening to the sounds of the woods outside, I remember that Bill is a master of what Hasil Adkins called night music. Hear his haunting cover of the Jody Reynolds 50's cult classic "Endless Sleep". Harken to the melancholy magick of his "Catch My Fall". Tune into the shortwavelength of his mysterious "One Night, One Chance" transmission. Witness how Billy was Chill-Channel before there was a Chill-Channel with numbers like "Beyond Belief". And approach at your peril the knowledge that William was an idiot savant with his Fukushima-prophetic lyrics in 1983's The Dead Next Door:
Sunday was hot
Monday was not
For the dead next door
and we're the dead next door.