After Generation X’s demise, Billy Idol packed his bags and moved to New York, got himself a manager (former Kiss svengali Bill Aucoin) and began recording with local players and producer/drummer (and Giorgio Moroder protégé) Keith Forsey. The first results of that union — a four-song EP — had only an awkward but entertaining cover of Tommy James’ “Mony Mony” and a five-minute edit of Gen X’s phenomenal “Dancing With Myself” to recommend it. (Interestingly, the belated CD credits the track, which had already been a single under the group’s name, to “Billy Idol With Generation X.”)
Billy Idol and a series of generally noxious videos made the former William Broad a huge star while providing erstwhile fans of his original band with an ideological dilemma: was he new wave’s ultimate Frankenstein mutation or an arena-metal fraud trading on his now-dubious punk roots? In any case, the record — a marriage of Moroder’s Midnight Express sequencer sound and a throbbing rock beat — proved to be a lode of memorable hits (“White Wedding,” “Hot in the City,” “Love Calling”). American guitarist Steve Stevens’ caricatured Ronson/Thunders wildness noisily matches Idol’s macho postures and sneering vocals; the powerfully built modern rock band has subtlety and near-metal strength. An album to despise while you hum along.
With only writing partner Stevens held over from the first record, Idol kept the same producer and formula on Rebel Yell, another collection of hits that run hot (the title track, “Blue Highway”), cool (“Eyes Without a Face,” “Catch My Fall”) and both (“Flesh for Fantasy”). Refined and carefully groomed for platinum success, it’s an undeniably good rock’n’roll record that is also reprehensible for its phoniness and calculation.
Whiplash Smile repeats the recipe: Forsey, Stevens and a duotone program of hard/soft songs. Characteristically, the staggering guitar riffarola of “Worlds Forgotten Boy” runs directly into the engagingly modest, sweet-voiced technobilly of “To Be a Lover.” The problem here is that there’s no wind in Idol’s sails: he takes it easy and relies too heavily on his partner’s pyrotechnics. Unlike Idol’s previous records, his vocals here lack the jism that made his hits soar with enthusiasm and energy. With second-rate material (the notable “To Be a Lover” is a non-original) and Idol out of contention, Stevens easily steals the spotlight; all of the record’s best moments are his.
Naturally, that was a cue the partnership was over. The guitarist went off and eventually made a terrible every-style-imaginable solo album with a shrill metal singer. Except for a shallow interest in the blues, the axework on Steve Stevens Atomic Playboys reveals nothing new; a carbon-copy rendition of the Sweet’s “Action” is about as clever as it gets.
The release of Charmed Life was delayed and nearly overshadowed by Idol’s serious motorcycle crash in February 1990. Haunted by the ghost of Jim Morrison (a crummy version of “L.A. Woman” is only the most overt evidence of Idol’s interest in the Doors), the Forsey-produced record has less blazing guitar than usual, reaching for a charged atmosphere rather than hooks and explosive rock power. But since the songs are deadly dull, the absence of instrumental diversion makes them seem endless. Even Billy’s ‘billy cover — Jody Reynolds 1958 “Endless Sleep” — sacrifices momentum for mood and winds up flat. The only tunes that work are an unpretentious three-chord singalong (“Love Unchained”) and “Cradle of Love,” a simple, restrained rock’n’roll single that seethes with echo and passion.
Available in the UK for two years before its American release, Vital Idol is a remixed greatest hits LP: extended versions of such Idolisms as “White Wedding,” “Mony Mony,” “Catch My Fall,” “Dancing With Myself” and “Flesh for Fantasy.” With a lot of material overlap, Idol Songs is simply a collection of hit singles in their original versions.
Whatever else Idol got up to in the ’90s (and that list would have to include criminal charges, making like a Hollywood celebrity and reading William Gibson novels), the one thing he neglected to do was make a record anyone needed to hear. Pretentiously wired into technology and fantasy trends about which Idol appears to have only the most superficial passing knowledge, Cyberpunk is third-rate self-parody (cue the synthesizers, samplers and sequencers, tell the guitar players to come back on Thursday) that trusses him up in sci-fi lingo and futurist mumbo jumbo. (Exactly how a cover of Lou Reed’s “Heroin” fits in all this is unclear.) The spoken-word segments, chanting monks, sound bites, treated voices and hypermarketing appurtenances might be forgivable if the music were any good, but songs that fixate on a single line and batter it senseless are as stimulating as a flying-toaster screen saver. “I’m out of control / I think I’m goin’ crazy / I’m out of my mind / You can see it in my eyes.” Sorry, Bill, that’s just the reflection of boredom in your contacts.
Although released more than two decades after Idol’s heyday, Devil’s Playground makes like it’s 1983 all over again. The front cover displays the leather-clad singer’s cartoon sneer and platinum spikes; the back cover captures his trademark fists-in-the-air pose. Classic. Forsey is back as producer, Stevens is on hand and Billy has conveniently forgotten all about William Gibson. The album starts strong, with the Gen X verses and Cheap Trick chorus of “Super Overdrive.” The fast and friendly “World Comin’ Down” follows in a similar “Dancing With Myself (Again)” vein. “Sherri” could be a lost track from the Valley Girl soundtrack, and the baffling “Yellin’ at the Xmas Tree” is a straight-up new wave novelty. Also reeking of novelty pretense but fun all the same is the boom-chicka-boom gallop of “Lady Do or Die,” in which Idol pulls out his Rawhide-ready Johnny Cash impersonation, with preposterous lyrics like “Tumbleweed passing by / Train whistle start to cry.” The fantastically plastic “Cherie,” which appropriates both its name and spirit from the Neil Diamond hit, is enjoyable as well. The rest is essentially ’80s pop-metal masquerading as 21st-century alt-rock, with tired Judas Priest moves, Cult culminations and Ozzy retreads. (And why he chose to cover the old folk rib-tickler “Plastic Jesus” as a power ballad is a mystery.) The most telling example of the album’s artificiality is the liner-note credit given to Idol as “stylist.” Then again, his hair does look perfect.
Stevens’ 2000 release, Flamenco a Go-Go, is a dull instrumental affair with Middle Eastern themes and delicate fretwork. This isn’t your father’s heavy metal; in fact, it’s not metal at all. A new age wander up Windham Hill. Yawn.