Born William Broad on November 30, 1955, in Stanmore, England; son of a salesman; children: Willem Wolf Broad. Addresses: Record company--Sanctuary Records, Sanctuary House, 45-53 Sinclair Rd., London, W14 0NS, website: http://www.sanctuaryrecords.com/. Website--Billy Idol Official Website: http://www.billyidol.com.
A product of the late 1970s British punk movement, Billy Idol has become one of the most popular and successful vocalists in contemporary rock. His group, Generation X, was extremely popular in the United Kingdom, while his subsequent solo career has developed a worldwide following. Along with his guitarist, Steve Stevens, he has created hard-driving albums, electrifying live shows, and unique videos.
Idol was born William Broad in Stanmore, England, and spent four years with his family in Long Island, New York, before returning to his homeland. At the age of ten his grandfather bought him a guitar at London's Woolworth store and he soon began learning chords from an instruction book. As a teenager he listened to American artists like Iggy and the Stooges, Lou Reed, the New York Dolls, and the Doors. Soon he was writing his own tunes in a similar vein. After dropping out of college, Idol began hanging out at Malcolm McClaren's Sex clothes shop on King's Road (a popular hangout for local punkers who were known as the Bromley Contingent, including Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Clash, and the Sex Pistols, among others).
Idol put an ad in Melody Maker, stating simply, "I want to form a group." Bassist Tony James answered the ad, and in August of 1976 they formed Chelsea with vocalist Gene October. The group only lasted two months, but Idol and James started another band, Generation X, the following year. In August of 1977 they released their self-titled debut LP, of which Dave Marsh wrote in The Rolling Stone Record Guide, "Billy Idol was a bit too slick to be effective."
Even though they never were big in the United States, Generation X became extremely popular in England. They recorded seven hit singles, including "Ready Steady Go," "Your Generation" (in answer to the Who's "My Generation"), and "Wild Youth," while becoming the first punk band to appear on the British Top of the Pops television show. Even then Idol could see that the punk attitude would soon burn itself out. He told Paul Gambaccini in Rolling Stone, "We have to open ourselves up as human beings. We can't just yell out our frustrations. ... What we left out was how we feel about things, rather than how we think about things. That's what we're trying to do now; put more soul, more emotion, into our music."
Because of management hassles, Generation X eventually folded after the group's third LP. In March of 1981 he moved to Greenwich Village in New York City. "I came looking for new people to play with," he told Rolling Stone. "I'd been hanging out in London for ages; it was a closed scene." He released a mini LP, Don't Stop, and the cut "Dancing with Myself" was soon heard in the city's nightclubs while the LP stayed on the charts for 50 weeks. He ran into Steve Stevens on and off for about nine months when the guitarist finally left his group, Fine Malibus, and the two began writing tunes together.
In May of 1982 Billy Idol was released and, on the strength of "Hot in the City," "White Wedding," and "Come On, Come On," the album stayed on the charts for over a year and a half. They toured the country with Phil Feit on bass and Steve Missal on drums, before bringing in a new rhythm section for Idol's second LP, Rebel Yell. The album made the top ten as keyboardist Judy Dozier, bassist Steve Webster, and drummer Tommy Price provided support on three more hits: "Rebel Yell," "Eyes without a Face," and "Flesh for Fantasy." Idol's Presley-like sneer and gut-wrenching vocals were a perfect match for Stevens's uniquely fresh guitar playing. Also acting as Idol's musical director, Stevens told Guitar World, "He's such a rock and roll fan, if he brings me something with three chords, it's got so much spirit that it makes it really exciting to work with him." The two co-wrote eight of the songs for Rebel Yell.
It would be three more years until the next LP from Idol, Whiplash Smile. The single "To Be a Lover" received heavy airplay on both MTV and FM radio, and topped out at number six on the charts, and the group then embarked on a massive arena tour. The group now consisted of Susie Davis on keyboards and Kenny Aaronson on bass, with Price continuing as drummer. Despite a reputation for being rude, nasty, and stuck-up, Idol is perhaps just putting on a front. "I don't want to mess with Billy's image," Aaronson told Guitar Player, "but he is easily the nicest 'star' I've ever worked with."
In 1987 Chrysalis issued a greatest hits package, Vital Idol, which produced two more hits for the singer: "Mony Mony" (which made it to number one in the United States) and "Sweet 16" (number 17 in the United Kingdom).
Idol released Charmed Life in 1990, and while songs like "Cradle of Love" received good exposure on MTV, the album seemed less inspired than his previous two efforts. Partly due to the departure of Steve Stevens, the album lacked the blazing guitar work that had graced early albums. Idol was also the victim of a serious motorcycle accident that severely injured one of his legs and forced him to temporarily rely on a walking cane. Still, despite these artistic and personal difficulties, Charmed Life lived up to its name, reaching platinum status. The release of 1993's Cyberpunk, however, brought Idol's career to a halt. An attempt to transform his music from popular punk to techno beat, the album was panned by critics, and found little chart success. To further complicate matters, Idol had sunk deep into drug addiction, leading to a near fatal overdose in 1994.
Throughout the remainder of the 1990s Idol remained on the sidelines. His career, however, began a slow revival following an appearance in the movie The Wedding Singer in 1998, and the issue of Greatest Hits in 2001. The real key to his comeback, however, relied on an inspired performance on VH1 Storytellers in 2001, reminding audiences how central the singer had been to the new wave scene during the early and mid-1980s.
In 2005, 12 years after the release of Cyberpunk, Idol released Devil's Playground, a recording that found the singer reunited with Stevens and returning to his roots. While the album didn't spell Idol's return to mainstream success, Devil's Playground did reach number 46 on Billboard's 200 chart. After catching one of Idol's high energy live shows, the New York Post wrote, "Yeah, the '80s are history---but with high-octane gigs like this, Idol won't be dancing with himself any time soon."
by Calen D. Stone and Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr
Billy Idol's Career
Singer, songwriter; formed Chelsea in 1976; started Generation X soon after and released three albums, including seven hit singles; moved to New York in 1981, released mini LP; hooked up with guitarist Steve Stevens and released debut LP, 1982; has since recorded three more and a greatest hits package; released Charmed Life, 1990, and Cyberpunk, 1993; appeared in the Wedding Singer, 1998; performed on VH1, leading to the release of VH1 Storytellers, 2002; reunited with guitarist Steve Stevens and released Devil's Playground, 2005.
- Selected discography
- Don't Stop (mini LP), Chrysalis.
- (With Generation X) Generation X Chrysalis, 1977.
- (With Generation X) Valley of the Dolls Chrysalis, 1979.
- (With Generation X) Kiss Me Deadly Chrysalis, 1981.
- Billy Idol Chrysalis, 1982.
- Rebel Yell Chrysalis, 1983.
- Whiplash Smile Chrysalis, 1986.
- Vital Idol Chrysalis, 1987.
- Charmed Life Chrysalis, 1990.
- Cyberpunk Capitol, 1993.
- VH1 Storytellers Capital, 2002.
- Devil's Playground Sanctuary, 2005.
- Christgau, Robert, Christgau's Record Guide, Ticknor & Fields, 1981.
- Clifford, Mike, consultant, The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Salamander, 1988.
- Lazell, Barry, with Dafydd Rees and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Banson, 1989.
- Marsh, Dave, with John Swenson, The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
- Miller, Jim, editor, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1976.
- Nite, Norm N., with Charles Crespo, Rock On, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Volume 3, Harper, 1985.
- Guitar Player, November 1984; May 1986.
- Guitar World, May 1986; July 1987.
- New York Post, September 12, 2003, p. 49.
- Rolling Stone, July 13, 1978; March 29, 1984; January 31, 1985.