Idol Chatter: Billy Idol on Songwriting, Gen X, and Why Vinyl Rules

That Billy Idol agreed to speak with GP in the context of a cover story on Steve Stevens speaks volumes about the respect he has for his long-time guitarist and sonic architect.
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That billy idol agreed to speak with GP in the context of a cover story on Steve Stevens speaks volumes about the respect he has for his long-time guitarist and sonic architect. But clearly this is an important time for Idol, too, as the release of his new album coincides with the debut of his tell-all book, Dancing with Myself.

“Kings and Queens of the Underground” is kind of a reflective album,” says Idol. “And while the title track is about my career and my life, it’s not really just about me. It’s about all the people who came out of the punkrock era and sort of stamped their mark on our society. It’s a bit of an anthem for them, really. People still love, hate, feel lost and lonely, want companionship, and are searching for those ingredients in their life, and I think that’s very much a universal theme. Some of the lyrics of the album are a bit reflective, because I was writing my autobiography at the same time we were making this record. So the book rubbed off on the songs, and the writing of the songs rubbed off on the book.”

Was the songwriting process different from how you’ve written tunes in the past?

Yes. A couple of years ago, we started to work on this album as this triumvirate of writers—me, Steve Stevens, and Billy Morrison. We would get together at Steve’s apartment in Hollywood, where he can make high-class demos. The thing is that, sometimes, even if I started a song off on the guitar, Steve would go straight to the keyboard, and, for some reason or other, it started to give us much more of a flowing, cinematic, widescreen kind of sound. We not only wrote songs freeform and just between us like a little group, but we also arranged them on the technological grid, as we’ve done in the past. So we were using a combination of old-school methods and modern-recording technology—which is a standard element in all Billy Idol records. There’s a techno side to this album, and I think it’s realized in the best way possible, because everything is working together, and it doesn’t sound like things were just added on. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that we got the rock and roll working really well with the technology on this record.

What was the lineup when you started recording in England with Trevor Horn?

We did maybe half the album organically as a group with Trevor on bass, Ash Soan on drums, Steve on guitar, Billy Morrison on guitar, and me singing. Then, a number of the other songs—say, “Eyes Wide Shut” and “One Breath Away”—were done very much on a technological grid. So we kind of got the best of both worlds, and that was key to recording at SARM studios in London—which is like a return to my former stomping grounds. It’s very near Portobello Road, and that’s where Chelsea and Generation X first started rehearsing some 38 years ago.

Is that what attracted you to SARM in the first place?

Well, it’s the studio where Bob Marley recorded Exodus. He actually lived above the studio—which used to be an old church. A bunch of big ’70s records were made there—including “Stairway to Heaven”—and in the 1980s, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the Seal records were done at that studio. So it has a lot of musical history, and it was fantastic to be in a place that has all the recording options you could possibly ever dream of—not to mention Trevor Horn’s team. One of the payoffs for me was when Steve said, “Billy, I’ve had the best recording experience I’ve ever had.” Just hearing him say that—well, this album is already successful!

What do you attribute to being able to work together for so many years?

Steve is such a great guy and a great guitarist, and he works so hard at what he does. He can give me any texture I want. If I’m feeling in a flamenco mood, he can do it. Or if I’m feeling in a hard rock or punkrock mood, he can do that. He never stops improving, and he doesn’t leave things to chance. I’ve seen him with soldering iron and screwdriver in hand, and he’s taking the panels off his equipment and working on it. I know he has a tech that does a lot of that, but I’ve seen Steve get in there doing it himself. He’s just an incredible compadre to have in the musical world, and it has been wonderful all these years watching him create the Steve Stevens sound that we know and love. The only person wilder than him is Tom Morello [laughs].

Back in the day, how much did your guitar ideas steer Generation X?

Tony James used to write most of the lyrics, and I came up with the music. So I was singing the songs, but I was very connected to my guitar, as well. Obviously, Tony and I would talk about the songs and go through them together, but the guitar and my voice were very much linked together, and that has carried on ever since.

A lot of guitar players cycled through that band. Did you have any particular favorites?

John McGeoch was an incredible guitarist, and it’s sad to think he has passed away. He really helped to bring that third Gen X album to life. He wasn’t on “Dancing with Myself”—Steve Jones played on that one—but he was on most of the rest of the album. I’ve got to say that Bob Derwood Andrews—the main guitar player in the early Generation X—was incredible, too. I’ve always had a great guitar player as a foil. I’ve never worked with a crummy producer, either. They’ve always been really top level throughout my whole career, going back to Phil Weyman from the very first Generation X albums to Ian Hunter [who produced Generations X’s second album Valley of the Dolls] to Martin Rushent, and on with Keith Forsey, and, now, Trevor Horn.

What made you want to go for a solo career?

I loved the energy and the aggression of Generation X, but we had a very roller-coaster kind of sound. We had a drummer who really loved Keith Moon, and he was very much throwing in that kind of thing and breaking up the groove. So I just started to feel as we got near the ’80s that we shouldn’t be breaking up the groove so much. So that’s very much what I did in my solo career. I got rid of the roller-coaster fills, and I streamlined the music. I wanted keep the punk kind of energy, speed, and aggression, but I wanted to hone it and make a little more sexual. If it was going to be Billy Idol solo music, I wanted it to reflect me personally—especially given that I was just as much influenced by techno as by rock and roll.

Where did your techno side come from?

That’s just England for you. We grew up very much listening to rock and roll, but there was a lot of techno coming out of Germany with groups like Kraftwerke and Neu. We basically designed “Dancing with Myself” thinking of it as the new way to go. It kind of broke the group up, really, as two of the members didn’t quite get it. And I totally understand that. If you don’t want to make the music, you don’t! But I really wanted to carry on like that, and, in the end, it’s what led me into my solo career. I was able to follow it onward by writing “White Wedding,” and then with Steve Stevens, writing “Rebel Yell,” “Eyes Without a Face,” and “Prodigal Blues.” We kept pushing the boundaries of how the formula had started out, and we’ve continued that with the new record. Some of the songs have a touch of what we’ve done before—like “Can’t Break Me Down” and “Postcards from the Past”—but with “One Breath Away,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” and “Kings and Queens of the Underground,” we’re pushing the formula from what you’re used to hearing. It was one hell of a fun thing to do with this record.

Was it your idea to have more orchestration?

It was Trevor Horn’s idea to put strings on the album. In the past, we’ve used a lot of keyboard pads to achieve a similar effect, but it’s very beautiful to hear the organic nature of the strings. They’re sampled strings, but they’re great samples of an incredible orchestra, and it made it more affordable for us to have something like that on the record. I think it brought out the anthemic qualities of “Love and Glory,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” and the title track, and it helped add this sense of dimension we haven’t had before.

How much do you get involved in the mixing process?

We really do listen to a lot of mixes, but the ones that Trevor and his team did were so great that we didn’t have to question them. Right from day one, the mixes we got were virtually finished mixes. We never left things to fix in the mix, so we were always working with the finished product in a way. The touches that Trevor and his team put into the mixing were very subtle, but very deep. There’s an aural depth in this record, and if I play it on big speakers I hear one element of the album. If I play it on mid-level speakers— like the Churchill sound system on my computer—I hear something else. If I play it on my iPad, I hear something different. So I think the depth of Trevor’s mixing is really high class. I was just so knocked out, and there was none of this sending it back to ask for bit more of this or bit more of that. It was all there.

Have you always been attracted to the sound of British recordings?

Very much so. I know the depth of the aural picture that the Beatles achieved with [EMI engineer] Geoff Emerick, and it was the same with Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin records. Trevor Horn is coming from that era—he was young and playing during that time—so there are touchstones in this album that reach across the span of rock and roll.

Kudos to you for putting the resources in place to make King and Queens of the Underground more of an audiophile listening experience than you normally get these days.

Well, it’s still great to try and get this kind of depth, because there are so many more people now going back to vinyl records—or going out their way to get the CD, so they can hear the music unadulterated and not distorted by streaming. I know it’s how people listen to music now, but iTunes just destroys the depth of the aural picture. There will actually be a vinyl release of the album coming out. We were just pressing it, in fact, but there was some surface noise on side one, so we’re re-pressing it. I think it’s a very essential part of making records that you have these different ways of listening to them. The person who wants to listen to it on vinyl or CD should have that, and if they want to stream it, and don’t really care how it sounds, well, more power to ’em. We came from a time when analog music was at its highest, and then we’ve had to put up with the changes of transistorization and digitalization. And, of course, we’ve gotten further away from the best-sounding music. It will come right, eventually, but it’s good to hold onto what you initially loved about those classic albums.

THAT BILLY IDOL AGREED TO SPEAK WITH GPin the context of a cover story on Steve Stevens speaks volumes about the respect he has for his long-time guitarist and sonic architect. But clearly this is an important time for Idol, too, as the release of his new album coincides with the debut of his tell-all book, Dancing with Myself.

“Kings and Queens of the Underground” is kind of a reflective album,” says Idol. “And while the title track is about my career and my life, it’s not really just about me. It’s about all the people who came out of the punkrock era and sort of stamped their mark on our society. It’s a bit of an anthem for them, really. People still love, hate, feel lost and lonely, want companionship, and are searching for those ingredients in their life, and I think that’s very much a universal theme. Some of the lyrics of the album are a bit reflective, because I was writing my autobiography at the same time we were making this record. So the book rubbed off on the songs, and the writing of the songs rubbed off on the book.”

Was the songwriting process different from how you’ve written tunes in the past?

Yes. A couple of years ago, we started to work on this album as this triumvirate of writers—me, Steve Stevens, and Billy Morrison. We would get together at Steve’s apartment in Hollywood, where he can make high-class demos. The thing is that, sometimes, even if I started a song off on the guitar, Steve would go straight to the keyboard, and, for some reason or other, it started to give us much more of a flowing, cinematic, widescreen kind of sound. We not only wrote songs freeform and just between us like a little group, but we also arranged them on the technological grid, as we’ve done in the past. So we were using a combination of old-school methods and modern-recording technology—which is a standard element in all Billy Idol records. There’s a techno side to this album, and I think it’s realized in the best way possible, because everything is working together, and it doesn’t sound like things were just added on. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that we got the rock and roll working really well with the technology on this record.

What was the lineup when you started recording in England with Trevor Horn?

We did maybe half the album organically as a group with Trevor on bass, Ash Soan on drums, Steve on guitar, Billy Morrison on guitar, and me singing. Then, a number of the other songs—say, “Eyes Wide Shut” and “One Breath Away”—were done very much on a technological grid. So we kind of got the best of both worlds, and that was key to recording at SARM studios in London—which is like a return to my former stomping grounds. It’s very near Portobello Road, and that’s where Chelsea and Generation X first started rehearsing some 38 years ago.

Is that what attracted you to SARM in the first place?

Well, it’s the studio where Bob Marley recorded Exodus. He actually lived above the studio—which used to be an old church. A bunch of big ’70s records were made there—including “Stairway to Heaven”—and in the 1980s, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the Seal records were done at that studio. So it has a lot of musical history, and it was fantastic to be in a place that has all the recording options you could possibly ever dream of—not to mention Trevor Horn’s team. One of the payoffs for me was when Steve said, “Billy, I’ve had the best recording experience I’ve ever had.” Just hearing him say that—well, this album is already successful!

What do you attribute to being able to work together for so many years?

Steve is such a great guy and a great guitarist, and he works so hard at what he does. He can give me any texture I want. If I’m feeling in a flamenco mood, he can do it. Or if I’m feeling in a hard rock or punkrock mood, he can do that. He never stops improving, and he doesn’t leave things to chance. I’ve seen him with soldering iron and screwdriver in hand, and he’s taking the panels off his equipment and working on it. I know he has a tech that does a lot of that, but I’ve seen Steve get in there doing it himself. He’s just an incredible compadre to have in the musical world, and it has been wonderful all these years watching him create the Steve Stevens sound that we know and love. The only person wilder than him is Tom Morello [laughs].

Back in the day, how much did your guitar ideas steer Generation X?

Tony James used to write most of the lyrics, and I came up with the music. So I was singing the songs, but I was very connected to my guitar, as well. Obviously, Tony and I would talk about the songs and go through them together, but the guitar and my voice were very much linked together, and that has carried on ever since.

A lot of guitar players cycled through that band. Did you have any particular favorites?

John McGeoch was an incredible guitarist, and it’s sad to think he has passed away. He really helped to bring that third Gen X album to life. He wasn’t on “Dancing with Myself”— Steve Jones played on that one—but he was on most of the rest of the album. I’ve got to say that Bob Derwood Andrews—the main guitar player in the early Generation X—was incredible, too. I’ve always had a great guitar player as a foil. I’ve never worked with a crummy producer, either. They’ve always been really top level throughout my whole career, going back to Phil Weyman from the very first Generation X albums to Ian Hunter [who produced Generations X’s second album Valley of the Dolls] to Martin Rushent, and on with Keith Forsey, and, now, Trevor Horn.

What made you want to go for a solo career?

I loved the energy and the aggression of Generation X, but we had a very roller-coaster kind of sound. We had a drummer who really loved Keith Moon, and he was very much throwing in that kind of thing and breaking up the groove. So I just started to feel as we got near the ’80s that we shouldn’t be breaking up the groove so much. So that’s very much what I did in my solo career. I got rid of the roller-coaster fills, and I streamlined the music. I wanted keep the punk kind of energy, speed, and aggression, but I wanted to hone it and make a little more sexual. If it was going to be Billy Idol solo music, I wanted it to reflect me personally—especially given that I was just as much influenced by techno as by rock and roll.

Where did your techno side come from?

That’s just England for you. We grew up very much listening to rock and roll, but there was a lot of techno coming out of Germany with groups like Kraftwerke and Neu. We basically designed “Dancing with Myself” thinking of it as the new way to go. It kind of broke the group up, really, as two of the members didn’t quite get it. And I totally understand that. If you don’t want to make the music, you don’t! But I really wanted to carry on like that, and, in the end, it’s what led me into my solo career. I was able to follow it onward by writing “White Wedding,” and then with Steve Stevens, writing “Rebel Yell,” “Eyes Without a Face,” and “Prodigal Blues.” We kept pushing the boundaries of how the formula had started out, and we’ve continued that with the new record. Some of the songs have a touch of what we’ve done before—like “Can’t Break Me Down” and “Postcards from the Past”—but with “One Breath Away,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” and “Kings and Queens of the Underground,” we’re pushing the formula from what you’re used to hearing. It was one hell of a fun thing to do with this record.

Was it your idea to have more orchestration?

It was Trevor Horn’s idea to put strings on the album. In the past, we’ve used a lot of keyboard pads to achieve a similar effect, but it’s very beautiful to hear the organic nature of the strings. They’re sampled strings, but they’re great samples of an incredible orchestra, and it made it more affordable for us to have something like that on the record. I think it brought out the anthemic qualities of “Love and Glory,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” and the title track, and it helped add this sense of dimension we haven’t had before.

How much do you get involved in the mixing process?

We really do listen to a lot of mixes, but the ones that Trevor and his team did were so great that we didn’t have to question them. Right from day one, the mixes we got were virtually finished mixes. We never left things to fix in the mix, so we were always working with the finished product in a way. The touches that Trevor and his team put into the mixing were very subtle, but very deep. There’s an aural depth in this record, and if I play it on big speakers I hear one element of the album. If I play it on mid-level speakers—like the Churchill sound system on my computer—I hear something else. If I play it on my iPad, I hear something different. So I think the depth of Trevor’s mixing is really high class. I was just so knocked out, and there was none of this sending it back to ask for bit more of this or bit more of that. It was all there.

Have you always been attracted to the sound of British recordings?

Very much so. I know the depth of the aural picture that the Beatles achieved with [EMI engineer] Geoff Emerick, and it was the same with Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin records. Trevor Horn is coming from that era—he was young and playing during that time—so there are touchstones in this album that reach across the span of rock and roll.

Kudos to you for putting the resources in place to make King and Queens of the Underground more of an audiophile listening experience than you normally get these days.

Well, it’s still great to try and get this kind of depth, because there are so many more people now going back to vinyl records—or going out their way to get the CD, so they can hear the music unadulterated and not distorted by streaming. I know it’s how people listen to music now, but iTunes just destroys the depth of the aural picture. There will actually be a vinyl release of the album coming out. We were just pressing it, in fact, but there was some surface noise on side one, so we’re re-pressing it. I think it’s a very essential part of making records that you have these different ways of listening to them. The person who wants to listen to it on vinyl or CD should have that, and if they want to stream it, and don’t really care how it sounds, well, more power to ’em. We came from a time when analog music was at its highest, and then we’ve had to put up with the changes of transistorization and digitalization. And, of course, we’ve gotten further away from the best-sounding music. It will come right, eventually, but it’s good to hold onto what you initially loved about those classic albums.

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