Listen now on:
The spiked platinum hair. The Elvis lip curl, quivering leg, and upraised, shaking fist. The snarling “Rebel Yell” poster. Admit it, you (or someone you know) had a Billy Idol poster up on the wall at some point. It’s okay.
For most of the 1980s, Idol (né William Michael Albert Broad of Middlesex, England) was the bad boy of MTV. With a string of huge hits like “White Wedding,” “Rebel Yell,” “Eyes Without a Face” and “Flesh for Fantasy,” he was the Harley-riding badass every guy wanted to hang with and every girl wanted to get with.
I’m not ashamed to say I was a total Idol-ator. But, because I’m also a lifelong crate digger and completist, once I began snatching up Billy’s LPs and watching his classic videos on repeat, I was also compelled to do some pre-Internet research to see what his deal was.
In the same way that discovering my brother’s worn-out copy of Harvest drove me to buy every used Neil Young album I could find and then work backwards through CSNY, Buffalo Springfield, and the Mynah Birds, after obsessing over Billy, I discovered that he was in a pre-fame punk group called Generation X.
Idol, who is prepping a new album, an autobiography (Dancing With Myself), and world tour later this year—went mainstream rock in the ’80s. But Gen X’s classic March 1978 self-titled debut—on which Billy was already sporting his iconic bleached rooster ’do and leather getup—is one of the forgotten bridges between punk and new wave. And, not for nothing, one of my favorite albums.
Idol summarizes the album’s blank generation cool on the Benzedrine rockabilly sprint of “One Hundred Punks,” with lines like, “A hundred punks run the loaded gun/They look so sharp they look like one/If you ain’t got the look you’ll never be one.” And the low-slung greaser rumble of “Ready Steady Go” feels like a manifesto about punk’s split personality: Billy’s still in love with The Beatles, the Stones, and Bob Dylan because he’s in love with rock ’n’ roll. But he can’t stand corny things like the BBC’s late-’50s celebrity panel music series Juke Box Jury and swinging ’60s model T-T-T-Twiggy. Boooooooring!
Just a few years into a music career and improbably on his debut album, Idol already sounds fully formed. His voice betrays the slightly ragged, sneery edge that would earn him millions a decade later. Then mix in a keen melodic swing that safety pins the quivering energy of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis to the shrugging, sod-off attitude of London’s burgeoning punk scene and you can see why he didn’t burn out and fade away after Gen X’s short run.
And for those haters who might complain that Idol was a tosser just latching onto a trend, look no further than the blitz of “Day by Day,” which is like a crib sheet of first wave Union Jack punk. The finger-popping, walking bass line, lyrics about class warfare, dead-end factory jobs and “no tomorrow,” echoey, dub reggae vocal effects, and double-time rhythms are all there.
What sets Gen X apart on this album, though, is what would prove to be Idol’s calling card. Whereas the Sex Pistols survived on a volatile cocktail of uncut speed, attitude and bile, Gen X songs like “Kiss Me Deadly” balance acoustic strumming and lyrics about teenage sex, violence, and boredom with a jaundiced sentimentality that would come to define Idol’s solo albums. Yes, he’s out in the street making a loud sound, kicking over dustbins and skipping school, but he knows there’s got to be something else out there.
I remember listening to that song and trying to picture the pierced and rebellious kids Idol was singing about, using them as avatars to escape the suburban geek boredom of Ohio. And I’m sure I wasn’t alone. So, the next time you’re staring at the cubicle walls or feeling trapped by the treadmill, slap on “Youth Youth Youth,” slip on that fingerless leather glove, curl that lip and yell out the window, “Never wanna be an adult/Always wanna be in revolt!”