Billy Idol turns 60 on November 30th, but for a lot of his fans he’s perpetually in his late 20s, the age when his biggest hits were all over the radio and, probably more importantly, all over MTV. Writing about Idol’s legacy in the 2004 installment of the Rolling Stone Album Guide, critic Rob Sheffield opined, “Of all the mindless new-wave haircut rockers of the ‘80s, he was the most mindless, the most rocking, and the most ‘80s, shaking his fist, greasing his hair, and boozing and brawling through a rock-star trip that was so unironic, it had to be ironic.” And this was from someone who liked Idol’s music. Still, Sheffield hit upon what was so indelible about Idol. An icon that could have only happened in the ‘80s, he figured out how to combine bad-boy attitude, pop hooks and telegenic superficiality into one immensely appealing, disposable package. How can he possibly be 60 when he constructed an image that guaranteed he’d remain forever young?
Born in England under the name William Michael Albert Broad, Idol understood reinvention from an early age, adopting his stage name from a teacher who lamented in the boy’s report card that he was idle. (Idol later tweaked it from Idle to Idol so that people didn’t think he was related to Monty Python’s Eric Idle.) Moving to Long Island at three, he and his family returned to England a few years later, the young man getting swept up by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones before being entranced by the launch of punk with groups such as the Sex Pistols. Just as crucially, he began to understand how appearance helped inform an artist’s musical aesthetic. Talking about the Pistols’ dynamic frontman, Idol wrote in his 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, “Johnny [Rotten] started the home cut, the bad haircut that looked really good. This has remained the hair fashion statement among hip white kids to this day.”
Idol helped found the late-‘70s group Generation X, which drew as much from the pop accessibility of the Fab Four as it did the look of punk-rock. After a few minor hits in the U.K., the group disbanded and Idol went solo, the singer holding onto a desire to eschew punk’s message while embracing its spirit of anarchy. “I didn’t want to be in an ‘agit-prop’ band,” he told The Telegraph decades later. “I hated all those people in the student union, with their crummy political views, who had votes about squatting.” So it was no surprise that his solo career became a previously-unheard-of mixture of snarl and approachability. Idol’s aura suggested the dangerous vibe of an outsider, but in his heart he wanted to appeal to the masses.
His singles of the early 1980s remain perfect jewels of their time, smoothly navigating a period in which disco, rock, punk and pop were all jockeying for position. Idol let them swim in the same pool. The reworked “Dancing With Myself,” which had previously been a Generation X tune, was insanely danceable, but the alienation and guitar tones remained from the original version, giving the adolescent longing an extra oomph. With its soul-singer backup vocals, “Hot in the City” was R&B flirting with new wave. And “White Wedding” was pop-rock, keyboards and guitars melding into a sound that could please both audiences.
“Disco was on its own, rock ‘n’ roll was on its own, reggae was on its own,” Idol said recently about the rigidly segmented musical landscape of the late 1970s. That gave Idol an idea: “Well, what about if you put all that together somehow?”
His strategy reached its apex with 1983’s Rebel Yell, monster singles like “Eyes Without a Face,” “Flesh for Fantasy” and the title track adding to the following year’s colorful collection of smash Hot 100 singles like “When Doves Cry,” “Jump” and “Ghostbusters.” None of Idol’s blockbuster songs sounded quite like any of his others, but they were all linked by his pinup sex appeal and, of course, by the accompanying videos that became ubiquitous on MTV, the influential video channel that was then still in its infancy. That paid off for Idol: In Dancing With Myself, he notes of the video debut of “White Wedding”: “At the time, MTV didn’t have that many videos to program and was in need of content twenty-four hours a day. So ‘White Wedding’ was running at least once an hour, which was amazing exposure, considering that viewership was growing exponentially every day, as more and more people hooked up to cable.”
Idol didn’t make routine videos, though. He had a knack for coming up with imaginary-on-a-budget clips that told little stories or, at the very least, left an impression. “Dancing With Myself” conjures up a Blade Runner-esque dystopian hellscape in which Idol hangs out with skeletons, puppets and dancing extras who look like they’ve been beamed directly from some forgotten Mad Max sequel. In “Rebel Yell,” he enlivens the typical concert-performance clip by including fan-screamed “More! More! More!” chants during the fist-pumping chorus, bringing more energy than you usually see from that subgenre of video. As for “White Wedding,” it’s so wonderfully ridiculous in an ‘80s kind of way, the product of people so excited about trying to figure out this new art form that they cram in every half-baked idea they can without worrying about it being cohesive at all. (What does the dancing bride in that kitchen have to do with anything else? And, seriously, what’s up with Idol’s obsession with shawls?)
But what comes through most prominently in these videos is Idol himself. With his curled lip, dyed spike hair, baby face and exposed chest, he very clearly sought stardom. Boosted by longtime guitarist Steve Stevens and producer Keith Forsey (who co-wrote monster ‘80s hits like “Flashdance... What a Feeling” and “Don’t You [Forget About Me]”), Idol was part of a new generation of pop idols who deduced that the non-musical elements were as important as the musical ones, constructing not just songs but whole experiences around their tunes. If “To Be a Lover” or “Eyes Without a Face” hadn’t been galvanic in its own right, no amount of image construction would have mattered, but the videos added a crucial component. When MTV first came of age, some complained that music videos diminished a song’s power, limiting its emotional and visual potential to the crude images put together to advertise the song. For a lot of artists, that complaint holds true, but Idol’s songs were always about reaching out and making a visceral, temporary connection with his audience, and so the crowd-pleasing videos followed suit.
Idol’s final triumph was “Cradle of Love,” which everyone remembers for the soft-core video of a young temptress driving an uptight guy crazy with her sexy gyrations. Because Idol had been involved in a terrible recent motorcycle accident—he almost lost both legs—video director David Fincher only filmed him from above the waist, digitially inserting the singer into the uptight guy’s paintings. The “Cradle of Love” video helped cement Idol’s status as an MTV icon—he’s a literal work of art—but it also unintentionally signaled his end. People knew the video for the beautiful woman, not for Idol.
The reinvention continued, but Idol’s grip on the zeitgeist slipped. 1993’s Cyberpunk, a concept album about technology’s encroachment into our lives, was a dud, and soon drug addiction consumed him. Since then, he’s cleaned up and now tours. And he’s still part of the culture: He had a memorable cameo in the 1998 rom-com The Wedding Singer and, more recently, his hit 1987 cover of “Mony Mony” has received a second life as the music to a Nissan commercial in which different groups of Angelenos gleefully sing along to the song in their cars. In Idol’s version of “Mony Mony,” he emphasized its sexual innuendo, letting “I wanna ride your pony” glisten with lascivious delight. Now, it’s a line in a car ad that exuberant kids chant on a school bus. From their mouths, it sounds harmless. But in Idol’s prime, it sorta was, too.