Billy Idol Interview
By Alexander Laurence
Billy Idol is a punk legend. He was the singer in Generation X, one the
original London based punk bands. They were the first punk band to be on Top of The
Pops and tour Japan. He was also one of the first UK rock stars to move over
to the USA and have another solo career over here. He became one of the first
stars of MTV, with his signature blonde spiked hair. His album, Rebel Yell
(1983), was a major success.
Billy Idol, now 52 years old, looks as good as ever. He plans to release a
greatest hits collection with four new tracks, and more tours in the summer of
I asked him if he ever saw any of the Bromley Contingent. He said that he
played with Siouxsie and The Banshees a few years ago at Inland Invasion. It was
an early morning for Billy. He was waking up and we were chatting during his
wardrobe changes and makeup.
He was born William Broad in 1955. England was still bleak back then, still
affected by World War II. When Idol was three years old, his family moved to
Long Island, New York for five years. He remembered America back then having
much more color. He said “We had two channels on TV, and in America your had
When he returned to the UK, Billy was a Beatles fan. The first single he
bought was “She Loves You” in 1963 and it was number one for two months. He was
depressed when the Dave Clarke Five knocked it off the top of the charts. Back
then, Billy told me, there were no record stores. So you bought records at
places that had washing machines for seven pence.
He remembered a time when JFK visited London and he saw him driving by.
Billy Idol had also seen Black Sabbath before they came out with their first
When they started Generation X, Tony James was 24 and the guitar player Bob
Derwood was 17. Back then Tony James seem much older. They called him “Old man Tony.”
Generation X was on the Marc Bolan show. They got to meet Marc Bolan. Their
gear didn’t arrive to the studio so they were able to borrow gear from the
other bands. Derwood got to use Marc Bolan’s guitar on the live version of “Your
Generation.” Most of the producers were more worried about David Bowie, who
was living in Berlin, and was doing his TV show in a while. Marc made sure that
Generation X still went on. Bolan died a few weeks later.
I have always wondered who invented the spiked hair look. Idol claimed that
Johnny Rotten was the first one to do it.
Billy Idol is definitely one of the originators of the punk movement.
Generation X is one of the few bands that young kids discover year after year when
they get into the punk rock culture.
AL: There is this movie Punk’s Not Dead. It’s 2008. What do you think about
Billy Idol: Punk’s definitely not dead, it just smells funny.
AL: You were in the Don Letts movie too? When did you do that?
Billy Idol: The original one was called DOA. It was filmed in 1976 and 77.
Then it was updated. There is the footage from the early days. I watched that,
and there was some footage that I hadn’t seen. I was wearing a black shirt. I
looked great. I saw DOA before, but he has mixed it up, and there was stuff on
there that I hadn’t seen before from that time.
AL: Many of the English punk bands like the Clash, and the Sex Pistols, and
The Damned played in America, but Generation X never came over here.
Billy Idol: We never came to America. We had a bunch of hit singles like
“Ready Steady Go” and “Wild Youth.”
AL: Did you have the idea of doing a solo career and coming to America so you
could bring the ideas and energy of punk to a wider audience?
Billy Idol: Yeah. It was all about survival. Once Generation X broke up, your
career in England was over. Things in England pass through so quickly.
Sometimes in America a single takes several months to make an impression. But in
England it’s over in three weeks. Once Generation X had broken up, it was hard to
restart something in England. It was fun to come to New York in 1981, and
come see the place where Lou Reed and the NY Dolls were from. It was cool to come
see a new scene. It was fun to see the American reaction to what we were
doing in England. That was what it was all about. There were no jobs in England.
It was all about survival and coming to America and being new again. That was
exciting for me.
AL: From the American perspective, the audience for punk and new wave wasn’t
really there until 1982.
Billy Idol: The good thing about the last Generation X record and my own
music was it was more dance oriented. We started making dance rock with songs like
“Dancing With Myself.” When I got to America I realized that I was big with
this new wave-punk-dance chart. That kept me going and gave me a lot of hope.
I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got to America. When I saw how
excited people were about “Dancing With Myself” I thought “Great. I only have to
be myself.” I didn’t have to change or be different. I just had to find out
more what was going on inside myself. That was what punk was all about. Being
yourself and not changing yourself. It was great to find out that people were
knocked out by us even though our records weren’t being played on the radio.
Things were changing at that time.
AL: At that time MTV came along and gave a bunch of new bands a chance for
exposure. The older bands from the 1970s didn’t want to do videos. You were one
of the first artists to embrace videos and work with a big director like Tobe
Hooper. What was that like?
Billy Idol: That was the great thing about MTV: it gave people like me who
were nobodies in America a platform. At that time they wouldn’t play anyone with
spiky hair on the radio. They wouldn’t play punk rock. We actually didn’t
put my picture on my first record. “Hot In The City” was number 18 in the
American charts but nobody knew what I looked like. When we put my picture on
“White Wedding” they wouldn’t play it. It happened that college radio was playing
“White Wedding.” We made a video and it got played on MTV. It kept people like
me alive. The media didn’t want to know about punk rock. MTV connected with
the kids that did want to know about punk rock and the people who were involved
with it. They were excited by it. MTV kept America alive in terms of new
AL: Many of the original punk bands had broken up by 1982. You were still
going and becoming more popular. When did you think, “Hey I am a success, and I
can relax now”?
Billy Idol: It was after Rebel Yell. Rebel Yell was a number 4 album. “Eyes
Without A Face” was a number 6 single. It was wild. I was a guy from England.
It was great to be embraced in America like that.
AL: There are people like Robbie Williams who never really made it over here.
Billy Idol: There are a lot of bands like that. I was lucky. What is
different is that I moved to America. I wasn’t just here to tour and take your money.
I was paying taxes. In England they take all your money, so I thought maybe I
should come over here to America, where there are less taxes.
AL: How long were you associated with Bill Aucoin?
Billy Idol: We just got involved with Bill Aucoin. He managed the last phase
of Generation X. When we broke up, he managed just me. I met Steve Stevens
through Bill. He was managing both of us, and he was looking for a band to put
Steve, and we got together and it worked out great.
AL: The working relationship with Steve Stevens is still solid?
Billy Idol: Yeah. You are ordinary people. Relationships are bound to go up
and down. When you have written songs with people there are bonds that go
beyond silly arguments. Not that we have had a lot. We are still playing
twenty-five years later. He is a great guitarist and I can’t think of anyone better to
AL: What do you think of this big audience for punk rock now? There are older
people like myself who were fans of Generation X and Sex Pistols when those
records came out. Now there is a whole new generation of kids who love this
stuff. Maybe there are 8 year old kids who listen to Generation X and Billy Idol
Billy Idol: It’s one of those things that you couldn’t have imagined thirty
years ago. You wouldn’t thought that it would have lasted this long. I am just
so glad because it means that our initial energy was right. It has some
credibility because it appeals to young people today. That is exciting.
AL: So that means that there will be kids who are ten now, who will revisit
this music in twenty or thirty years too.
Billy Idol: It gives people hope. If you have an ordinary job where people
tell you that you can’t be artistic. One of the things that punk taught me was
that you can be artistic. You can write songs. You can do something artistic
with your life. You don’t have to be a slave to the machine. You can create your
own machine. That was what punk was about.
AL: How did you stay so fit all these years later? Some of these older punk
rockers have a beer gut now. Tony James once said that “He wouldn’t have a fat
person in a band.”
Billy Idol: I am really lucky. I have girls in my audience. It’s worth it
keeping yourself together when there are ladies in the audience. Some of the
other groups didn’t have any ladies in the audience. They didn’t have to worry
about it. I ride a motorbike, so you have to have the strength to lift a
700-pound bike. Also when I get onstage, I don’t need a bouncing stomach in front of
me, if you know what I mean. It doesn’t help the singing. I do work out at the
gym because I go on these long tours. You just want to have your energy. You
have to have some stamina to be a rock and roll singer.
AL: Some of these guys from the punk era, like Richard Hell, have claimed to
have sex with at least 1,500 women. Do you, Billy Idol, ever put some numbers
together about your past exploits?
Billy Idol: So many. It would be ridiculous to count them all.
AL: If we created some website that asked “Who slept with Billy Idol?” Maybe
we would get a thousand women answering back?
Billy Idol: There has to be more than that. I am sure that there was a
thousand in the first few years.
AL: Were you ever married?
Billy Idol: No. I have two kids though. One girl and one boy.
AL: You are attracted to mainly American women?
Billy Idol: Yeah. Women from everywhere. When I was in Generation X, we did a
tour of Japan. We checked into a hotel. All these girls were checked into the
same floor as you. They would leave their doors open. It’s like one big
brothel. It was fantastic.
AL: You also went to Bangkok for a while too.
Billy Idol: I stayed there for a month but it felt like three years. We asked
this cab driver to get us some coke. And when he came back it wasn’t coke, it
was china white. It was a huge vial. We weren’t leaving there very quickly. I
had just broken up with Perry Lister and I was getting my revenge. You could
go to these places and pick women. It was just incredible.
AL: Number 5?
Billy Idol: Number 5, 29, and 61. We did this in 1989. They had the army
escort me out of the country. We were causing so much mayhem. I was strapped to a
gurney. It was six soldiers and an armed guard. They took me from the hotel
and took me to the airport. I had a choice of getting on the plane or going to
prison. I was lucky. It was very rock and roll.
AL: Are you playing some shows this summer?
Billy Idol: Yeah. We have a greatest hits record called IDOLIZE YOURSELF with
two new songs. One is called “John Wayne” which is an ode to the duke. We
are touring this summer. After that we will be doing a new record. There will be
a new record.
BILLY IDOL IS PLAYING JIMMY KIMMEL ON JUNE 24TH.