Rock’s Rude Boy: Billy Idol was the leading spokesman for the post-punk generation

By on June 15, 2017

In Night Flight’s Billy Idol Video Profile — which originally aired on January 19, 1985 — Idol opens up about moving to New York City four years earlier, a move called “treason” by his fellow British countrymen, but Idol says living in NYC allowed him to “experience things like a normal human being.”

This profile features our candid interview with “Rock’s Rude Boy” interspersed along with five of his videos, most of them directed by the legendary David Mallet, except for “Dancing with Myself,” which was directed by cult horror filmmaker Tobe Hooper.

Watch the Billy Idol Video Profile and other Profiles now on Night Flight Plus.

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Billy Idol — born William Broad on November 30, 1955 — is “not only recognized for his leather-clad pretty boy image,” announcer Pat Prescott says at the beginning of our video profile, “but as the leading spokesman for today’s post-punk generation.”

“In 1981, when Britain’s punk music stagnated,” Prescott continues, “Idol moved to New York. His British countrymen called the move ‘treason,’ but Idol found America receptive to his high-energy music.”

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According to a phone interview he did just a few years back with Steve Newton of The Georgia Straight, Idol also says that one of the reasons he ended up in NYC — right around the same time that MTV was launching, in August of 1981 — was that a lot of his “favourite people” came from there, saying “the New York Dolls, Suicide, Alan Vega and the Cramps came from there originally. And Talking Heads.”

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In our interview with “Rock’s Rude Boy” back in ’85, Idol himself says the move to America allowed him to move around freely while he decided how to continue his recording and touring career.

Idol: “I needed to move. Move about. I’m young, I’m excited, I’m fast. I ain’t gonna sit around. I ain’t gonna be stuck at home, with my pipe and slippers. In a way, you know, wherever you live for a number of years becomes too comfortable, and also, you don’t have the freedom to start something. Coming to New York for me meant, even for people who knew who I was, they didn’t really have… like, if I walked about, no one really knew who I was, and I was able to just go along and experience things like a normal human being, and that’s what I wanted. I’m not really into being some sort of inaccessible person, and I needed the time to think and start it again.”

Idol was apparently very visible in NYC’s rock club scene during the early Eighties, and has previously said he was on hand one night at the super trendy dance club Hurrah — located at 36 West 62nd Street — when he witnessed an empty dance floor filling up after they “wacked on ‘Dancing with Myself,'” saying, “… the bar emptied; everyone was going crazy on the dance floor.”

(For what it’s worth, Hurrah closed its doors in 1980).

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Idol also wanted to get a new group together, which he did with guitarist Steve Stevens, bassist Phil Feit, drummer Gregg Gerson and Judi Dozier on keyboards.

His U.S. record label Chrysalis released his self-titled debut album, Billy Idol, in July of 1982.

The album featured two Top Forty hits, “Hot in the City” and “White Wedding,” the video for which was directed by the legendary video director David Mallet, who would go on to lens several of Idol’s videos.

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Those videos — including “Eyes Without a Face,” “Rebel Yell,” and “Dancing with Myself” — were played in heavy rotation, making Idol an MTV staple artist and collectively he was lumped in with high-tech and pop-drenched acts like Duran Duran, Eurythmics, Culture Club, the Fixx and others originating out of the U.K. music scene in the cable network’s promotion of what they considered a “Second British Invasion.”

Idol’s “White Wedding” video was directed by the U.K.-based David Mallet, who had directed the filmed performance by Billy Idol’s band Generation X at the Marquee in London in 1977, a meeting that would prove fortuitous for the future

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Idol, in his memoir, Dancing with Myself (Touchstone; published on October 7, 2014), recalls that he’d originally reached out to director Russell Mulcahy for a concept.

However, after Mulcahy suggested blowing up a kitchen, Idol felt he had to turn elsewhere, remembering Mallet from that Marquee show.

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Mallet would go on to become one of the most popular video directors during the MTV era, working with Queen (“Radio GaGa,” “I Want to Break Free”), David Bowie (“Ashes to Ashes,” “Let’s Dance,” “Dancing In the Street” w/ Mick Jagger); AC/DC (“You Shook Me all Night Long,” “Thunderstruck”); Deff Leppard (“Photograph”); the Scorpions (“Rock Me like a Hurricane”); Joan Jett, the Boomtown Rats and many, many more.

Mallet would partner with Brian Grant, Scott Millaney and Russell Mulcahy to form the London-based MGMM production company, whose music videos were among MTV’s most popular, mostly because they were one of the first production companies to specialize in making videos when MTV went on the air in 1981. You can read more in our previous Night Flight post, “Video Killed The Radio Star: An in-depth look at the making of some of the classic 80s-era music videos.”

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Mallet’s video for “White Wedding” was a relatively low-budget affair. He described making the video in Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Mark’s 2011 oral history book, I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution:

“When I made ‘White Wedding,’ Billy Idol was an ex-punk rocker from a silly band called Generation X. He was handsome and charismatic. So I did one thing only: I made him look good. He had one of the biggest star qualities since James Dean, in my opinion. No, it hasn’t turned out right. But in those days, he was the greatest looker and mover since Elvis. Before ‘White Wedding,’ nobody would have admitted that was even possible. One look at that video and they got him.”

Perri Lister played the part of the bride in the wedding.

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She’d been one of the dancers in a dance troupe called Hot Gossip who had performed on ITV’s “The Kenny Everett Video Show” back in England, which Mallet had co-founded with Everett for Thames Television, directing episodes of the show between 1978 and 1981 (there were actually four versions of the series in total, Mallet directing episodes for the first and third versions).

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Lister’s credits now list that she’s an actress, dancer, choreographer, singer, former model and screenwriter, but at the time her other credit was appearing as a dancer in the 1980 disco comedy Can’t Stop the Music.

She had also already appeared in Mallet’s Def Leppard video, and she ended up being hired by Mallet to do choreography on Idol’s “White Wedding” video too.

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Lister may have also been the one to get the discounted price for her boyfriend’s video, as she was also quoted in I Want My MTV, saying:

“I said to David Mallet, ‘I’m dating Billy Idol. Can you do the video for ‘White Wedding’? And don’t charge what you usually charge. He hasn’t got any money.’ And so David gave him a good price.”

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Idol: “We were thinking about how to create a nightmare wedding between a Goth and a straight girl, with crosses, nails being hammered into a coffin, and me as a vampire.”

The bleached white-spiked hairdo’d Idol can be seen snarling directly into the camera lens, and occasionally shadowboxing whilst clad in leather, spikes and crucifixes in a curious mix of both vampire and Nazi imagery, even though Mallet contends that the shot where people attending the wedding that give the Nazi salute are merely “sticking their hands out towards the bride and groom.”

The video features all kind of unforgettable early MTV images: Idol on a motorcycle, crashing through a church’s stained-glass window; Lister having a barbed-wire wedding ring slipped on her finger (that’s her real blood in the shot, by the way); and, a trio of dancers in tight black leather outfits slapping their own asses in time to the music.

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Idol: “Perri and two of her dancer friends [Dominique and Alison] spank their own bums in time to the hand claps on the record. That’s the kind of thing they love in England.”

Mallet: “Yes, the girls slap their own bottoms. Why not? It was a big laugh, a piss-take on soft-porn. It was an erotic satire of sexuality. It made me laugh and it made a lot of other clever people laugh. All the sexy videos I’ve done have been comedies.”

Idol, in his memoir, writes that he suspected the video “had something to do with a fantasy about the heroin I was doing in private, but the song itself was really about not being tied down by society’s conventions.”

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Idol’s visually-stunning video for “White Wedding” turned out to be just the first of many high-voltage rock performances, setting the tone for what his fans could come to expect from him in the future.

To fully capitalize on the success of his 1982 debut album, in early 1983 Chrysalis Records re-released the title song from a 1981 EP, Dancing with Myself, and its success no doubt played a part in attracting filmmaker Tobe Hooper — director of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist, among other cult hits — towards directing Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” video.

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Idol collaborated on the script for the video for “Dancing with Myself” with Hooper, which was budgeted at $70,000.

“I’ve always been a big of rock & roll,” Hooper once explained, when asked about the video, “So when producer Jeff Abelson approached with the Billy Idol project, I had no problem saying yes, it was the most fun I’ve had shooting since doing Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

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In Billy Idol’s own memoir, he writes:

“We approached Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist director Tobe Hooper, who agreed to do it, much to my surprise. It may have been the first time a feature director helmed a video for MTV. We met with Tobe in L.A. and came up with a sketch of break-dancing zombies, a mad sledgehammer-swinging killer dad, karate-kicking kids, and a woman tied up, which was supposed to be my Octobriana tattoo in bondage.”

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“I would be the protagonist, poised atop a futuristic tower being climbed by zombies attempting to pull me down. I would then destroy them by grabbing two electrodes, which charge my body.

It was a simple idea, but there were censorship constraints being put on us by MTV, so the final result had to comply with their code or they wouldn’t play it. We had to hold back on some of the horror elements, and at times would only vaguely suggest the corruption in the world that had led to a mad sledgehammer-swinging dad killing a mother as the kids kung fu-kicked their way to the future.”

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One of the most memorable things about the video is the set design and the production values, which, it turned out, was copied from an L.A.-based production of Ann Jellicoe’s punk rock-themed play about British street punks The Sport Of My Mad Mad Mother, which had been produced by and starred Dan Shor, and featured music by an L.A. band called the Pearls (they appeared on New Wave Theatre).

Several years ago, for the TV Store Online blog, Shor — who had seen Billy Idol with Generation X in London, calling it “the greatest rock performance I’d ever seen in my life” — recalled in the interview that he’d previously co-starred in a British production of the play at the Roundabout Theater, which also featured his roommate at the time, Nigel Planer, who would go on to play “Neil” in 1980s BBC-produced sitcom The Young Ones.”

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Shor became involved as a producer for an L.A. production of Jellicoe’s play — directed by David Schweizer — choosing to transfer the setting to a rooftop in New York City, and further decided that he’d appear in this L.A. version of the play as one of the characters, basing his portrayal on Billy Idol.

It turns out that the art director on Hooper’s video for “Dancing with Myself” had seen the play and decided to copy the set used in the L.A. version of Jellicoe’s play, which was basically a seedy apartment building full of deranged tenants, including a pack of zombies that Billy Idol ends up electrocuting.

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Hooper’s participation — he’s often referred to as the first “big name” director to work on music videos, which is not only inaccurate but kind of an insult to the directors who came before him who were “big names,” just not known in the cinematic Hollywood sense — demonstrated to the world that videos could attract the kind of talent which had previously been reserved for feature films.

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“Dancing with Myself” earned Idol heavy airplay on MTV for six months and built anticipation for this next album, Rebel Yell, which was released on November 10, 1983.

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Idol says he was inspired to write the album’s title track after he attended an event and saw Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood of the Stones all taking swigs from a bottle of Kentucky straight Bourbon whiskey.

He wasn’t familiar with the brand on the bottle, but he liked the title, and so he decided to write a song called “Rebel Yell” with guitarist Steve Stevens. He’s insisted since then that he didn’t have any knowledge of the Confederacy or the battle cry used by Confederate soldiers, but simply liked the title.

Idol’s next video, for “Eyes Without a Face,” was also directed by Mallet, and featured what appeared to be a Satanic coven.

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Idol, as many have pointed out, had copped the song’s title from a French horror movie. He writes about it in his memoir, Dancing with Myself:

“I’ve always had a fascination with the titles of horror films. I had been reading a book about the genre’s history, with riveting concepts and titles such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I was particularly intrigued by the ’60s French nouvelle vague forerunner Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face), about a brilliant plastic surgeon who vows to restore the face of his daughter, who has been horribly disfigured in a car accident.”

Mallet — who usually shot in 16mm — decided that this production needed to be shot in 35mm (this was also one of Director of Photography Tony Mitchell’s first videos) and Idol’s face needed to be front and center, and that they wanted him to look like “a beauty queen.”

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Idol was given contact lenses to wear during the lengthy shoot, and according to a story told in Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Mark’s I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Idol was so exhausted after he’d been up all night shooting the video (“For three days, I didn’t see anything but dry ice, smoke, fire and naked bodies… we hardly slept”), that he ended up having to be taken to a hospital after waking up after a plane trip to Arizona, where he and the band were heading to do a gig.

He’d fallen asleep with the new lenses in his eyes, and the lenses had dried out, and Idol ended up having to have his eyes bandaged for three days until the cornea grew back.

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1984 also happened to be the year that Rolling Stone magazine renewed its continual attack on MTV and its impact on the music business, publishing a scathing essay by film critic Kenneth Turan in their last issue of the year — “The Art of Revolution: Video is Taking Over Popular Culture,” December 20, 1984 — in which Turan described music videos as “Orwellian.”

Turan complained that filmmakers were being forced to keep up with MTV, which was “creating a generation of gratification-hungry sensation junkies with atrophied attention spans,” writing that the hand-held camera and staccato-style editing associated with music television was beginning to play a pivotal role in shaping the aesthetic sensibilities of both popular audiences and young filmmakers.

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Turan (born in 1946) also wrote about “non-stop video parade of pouty cuties wearing low-cut leather bikinis or skintight skirts, their bodies sometimes chained but always concupiscent,” adding, “videos offer nothing but sexual stereotypes.”

Turan could have easily just been writing about most of Idol’s videos, which were often criticized for being very sexist and/or too damn raunchy for MTV; his video for “Hot In The City,” in particular, was turned down by MTV after numerous edits which, in the end, satisfied neither MTV or Idol.

That particular video featured a bare-chested Idol smashing a hole through his neighbor’s wall, which then allowed him to spy a throng of buxom beauties — clad in black-leather tights and negligees, of course — who sway seductively to the beat of the song, occasionally slapping each other on their asses.

Oh, and one girl is chained to a cross that raises her up to the skylight.

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Idol’s Mallet-directed video for “Catch My Fall,” however, the fourth single from Rebel Yell and the fifth of the videos featured in our Billy Idol Video Profile, didn’t rely on any nearly nubile babes for tantalizin’ and teasin’, although the video did feature a shirtless Idol (of course), who was (of course) locked up in chains.

In fact, Idol spends most of the video in a confusing state as he awakens, dizzy and disoriented, in what appears to be his very own bed. Alone.

We know, shocking.

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Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell album would reach #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 list, and would go on to become certified double platinum status, breaking him out as a superstar not just in the U.S. and the UK, but all across the world, cementing his status as an MTV staple while becoming, as Pat Prescott tells us, “the leading spokesman for today’s post-punk generation.”

Watch Night Flight’s Billy Idol Video Profile and other Profiles over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.