Few musicians can boast the level of success that Billy Idol attained in the ’80s and early ’90s. Unfortunately, the “live hard and die young” punk rock ethos doesn’t come with a middle-age survival guide.
“When you’re young you never think you’ll be a 50-year-old rocking out with the young bands,” Idol told The Associated Press.
That’s exactly what Idol, 49, hopes to be doing next year.
The pop-punk patriarch has just released “Devil’s Playground,” his first full-length album since 1993’s unremarkable “Cyberpunk.” With five million-sellers already under his belt, Idol hopes “Playground” will return him to the top of the charts.
While not completely off the radar in the last decade (appearing in the stage production of “Quadrophenia” and the film “The Wedding Singer” in addition to some soundtrack work) there were many reasons for his lack of original material in the last decade.
“I had a couple of kids (teenage son Willem Wolfe and young daughter Bonnie Blue) and laid back during all the grunge stuff,” recalls Idol, still platinum blond. “I thought, ’God, how can I compete with that?”’
But the Seattle sound wasn’t the only force demolishing rock icons. After a near-fatal motorcycle accident and a series of overdoses, it was clear the then-bandless Brit was on his own path to self-destruction.
After some soul searching and painstaking psychical rehabilitation, Idol turned to his bike to regroup: “I started to take my motorcycle on long rides and I met my bass player (Stephen McGrath) and we were going off and playing at these biker bars and it took me out of myself.”
VH1 comes knockingWhile Idol was rediscovering his love for the stage, EMI released his greatest hits to platinum-plus sales. VH1 soon came knocking with “Storytellers” and a “Behind the Music” special.
It wasn’t long before Idol remembered his calling.
“I came off the stage and a million girls with their shirts off were there and I thought, ’We’ve got to do this seriously. Let’s forget playing the greatest hits, let’s start writing songs!”’
With longtime collaborators Steve Stevens (guitar) and producer Keith Forsey on board, Idol incorporated new talent Brian Tichy on drums and Derek Sherinian on keyboards to help reinvigorate his sound.
The result is a record that aims for the accessibility of Idol’s best-selling predecessors without losing his fist-pumping edge. The veteran considers it to be his best since 1983, with the album’s first single setting the tone.
“’Scream’ is twenty years older than “Rebel Yell” and it’s storming out of the speakers,” he barks, punctuating his sentence — as he does most — with a howl.
As confident as he may be about his music, Idol has no illusions about his age and how he may come off to critics.
“They may laugh when they see me,” he humbly admits behind his dark glasses, “you can’t make your face look young again but you can work on your body.”
'My body is my instrument'
And to counteract the decades of hard living and maintain his eye-catching six-pack, Idol swears by an unyielding exercise regimen.
“I wanted to re-energize myself and I know this sounds a bit Roger Daltrey but my body is my instrument. I mean in the old days I didn’t give a ... but I wanna be really clear-headed and in the moment now. The real drug is on that stage.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he quickly adds, “I still smoke pot, I still drink, I’m just not overdoing it. It’s about pacing myself so that I can push when I want and pull back when I want.”
Pushing now might not be a bad idea considering today’s ’80s rock revival. “Everybody is trying to come back, I know,” he smirks, “with what’s going on in the world people want a sense of fun ’cause they are concerned and maybe it’s not so bad if I can provide them with that.”
Still, despite talks with VH1, the former MTV heartthrob plans to continue to resist the urge to be on reality TV to jump-start his career like other stars of the decadent decade.
“I’m not that desperate,” he says. “Yet.”