Val Potter interviews punk icon, Billy Idol, for Ents24.
You've got a summer tour of Europe planned and you're going to be headlining the Guilfest in the UK. How does it feel to be so in demand again?
It's really fantastic. It's great to see the work you put in in the past still pays off.
You played a storming set at a Milton Keynes show with Bon Jovi in 1993, but then you pretty much disappeared from the scene. What were you doing during that time?
I'd really been rockin' for - let's see, I started in '75, so I'd been going for like twenty years by '95, so it wasn't such a crazy thing to just take a step back. Now I've put together my road show and my music again, one way or another. The first step was that I got back with (guitarist Steve Stevens. The next step was I found my drummer Brian Tichy and then, it took me a few years to get back up to steam, so to speak. Actually, we've been back on the road since 2000.
You really re-established yourself as a major artist when you played a fantastic set at the UK's Download Festival last year.
Yeah, that went off pretty well. I think that's the thing. I've got a great
band, so it's a kick-ass stage show. We're working on our new music and stuff, but the Guilfest is mainly going to be Rebel Yell, White Wedding, Eyes Without A Face, L.A. Woman - you name it, we're gonna do it!
So the audience can expect a lot of your hits in the set then?
Yeah, because it's a summertime show, so I think it would be cruel to go out there and just make people listen to stuff they don't know. We will do a couple of things, but mainly it's gonna be Hot In The City, Mony Mony, Dancing With Myself... it's a fun show.
You've also been including a cover version of Van Halen's Jump in your festival set...
We may have another surprise coming too. I don't know if I'll be able to do it, but if I can do it, we'll be doing it - and it's a total step up from Jump! Billy really tries to go where he shouldn't go. It's a surprise, so I'll blow it if I tell you now. But it's another great cover - you'll go, "I don't believe he's doing - da-da-da!" It's fun to even think about trying to do this song. We will probably do that version of Jump too, because it's such fun. I've lived long enough that I can write my own songs or I can make other people's songs my own. It's fun to be able to do that. That's a power.
The Stranglers are also going to be appearing at Guilfest. You must surely know them from your punk days?
One of the first gigs I ever did when I was in this group called Chelsea was a show at a pub in London called the Nashville and the headliners were The Stranglers. It's pretty wild that thirty years later, we'd end up on the same stage on a Sunday night! It should be fun, though.
When it was announced that you were going to be playing Download last year, there were some raised eyebrows, because you were going to be performing to what is primarily a heavy metal crowd - but you blew them away. Were you nervous before that show or did you know you could take that audience?
I was not so much nervous, but there was a level of anticipation - I hadn't played in England for a while, and it's a big show too. But I thought we had the elements of what we were trying to do - and it looked like that when I saw the crowd go nuts! I think that's half the thing of a summer show - a lot of people are out there to have a really great time. I don't want to stop that!
Do you enjoy playing summer outdoor shows as opposed to indoor venues?
It's a lot of fun to do all the different kinds of theatre one does, if you know what I mean. But yeah, at the summer gigs, people are in a particularly good mood. Maybe they haven't had to struggle quite so much to get there or something, I don't know. They're having a relaxing time - they just want to blow back a few beers, smoke a joint and shag the missus, and they can do that to Billy Idol!
You're going to be doing quite a few shows in Eastern Europe. Have you been there before?
I've never been to Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Serbia, Bulgaria or Romania before, so I think it's a really great shot. I know from my e-mail that there's a lot of fans in those countries who never got a chance to see Billy Idol. I've met some of them because they've come to the Western Europe gigs, but I know there's a load of people who can't travel, so I'm going to them! It's kind of fun for me, I think it's exciting - it's kinda romantic in a wild kind of way to see St Petersburg and other places where, at one time, you couldn't think of going.
You also attract a lot of young fans to your shows these days. It must be great to see a new generation of fans getting into your music?
It's fantastic. It's more that the songs connect to people, not to age groups. It's kind of fun to see that, because that's one of those things you always dream about as a songwriter. You always hope your songs will resonate with people, not with colours or age groups or opinions. And every time I play Rebel Yell, I can see that. People of sixty can be Rebel Yell-ing it and so can people of 16!
Out of all your many hits, do you have a favourite?
Like I said, Rebel Yell is a knock-out song to do live, but you know, Eyes Without A Face is almost a similar kind of thing, but a ballad. It is a bit of a mini-epic and has two or three phases. I have such a good time singing Sweet Sixteen or Dancing With Myself. It's the memories it conjures up for me. I'm singing like an oak tree - you can cut me and see the rings, I've been around for so long! But it gives my voice character and it's a fun place to be. I never dreamt of being this age doing this. Years ago, I could imagine being a young guy and being on Top Of The Pops - yeah, man! But I never thought of being this guy, where your voice is getting richer... and I actually can sing, which I never thought before, I was always just bluffing my way through. I think that's the fun of it. Billy Idol was always a bit about bluster, noise and wind - but then, somewhere he had something, didn't he?! It's fun for me to explore the songs. With the shape my voice is in, I've really tried to work at keeping the quality in my voice, so that live I can transport you, hopefully - or annoy the hell out of you if you didn't like it, but that's part of it too!
Do you still enjoy touring as much as you used to?
Yes, I really do. I love being on that lip of the stage. It's good fun, it's a great place to be and for that moment, I'm in control. I don't know what's going to happen to me before or after the show - but for that two hours on stage, you've got a chance of catching the real me. It's magic time for me.
Do you still see yourself as a punk rocker and a rebel?
Obviously, I started in Generation X and everything, but I hope there's an element that Billy Idol was about me growing as a human being and wasn't just about me being caught in any era. I think part of trying to put a stamp on the world with my vocal style and my song writing ability was about going beyond that time. Generation X were of that punk rock moment and I think Billy Idol was about "I'm now 24 years old, I've been in love, I've got to sing about that." He couldn't just sing about being a guy with a group of guys any more. I love romantic songs as much as I love songs telling you to f*ck off and I think that was one of the things that has enabled me to go on doing what I do, because there was that sort of ability to go another stage beyond where I started in punk rock. But I always love to think of myself as really still being that snotty-nosed kid - no one wants to grow up.
What kind of music do you like to listen to at home?
Reggae. I've gone back to listening to dread dub reggae, the stuff Don Letts first played me - Lee Perry, King Tubby, any of that stuff. It's like going into another world where I can find ideas and things that other people aren't thinking about or listening to. Also people back then still sang, so you had a kind of a black soul groove but there's a guy crooning to you. I have a lot of fun listening to that.
Before you embark on a tour, do you do any kind of training to get your body and voice in shape?
I do exactly what I do every other day. I always sing a bit every day, not necessarily the songs in the show, but I sit with my guitar and I sing for a couple of hours throughout the day - it keeps your voice alive. Also, I made a sort of bargain with myself a few years ago, which is that if I want to get f*cked up, I have to work out! That was another thing that saved me. So I'm always in some form of training, thinking about what I'm going to be doing. But I can also fall off the wagon if that's what everybody wants!
You have a teenage son and daughter. What kind of advice do you give them? And are you able to lay the law down to them, in view of the kind of life you've lived?
I haven't got a leg to stand on! Well, you're lucky if a teenager even listens to you. The one good thing is that I followed my heart with my music and I hope in some way that shows them that maybe if they follow their hearts, they will make themselves happy. But I wouldn't stand about telling them that, because they're not going to be listening!
On your forthcoming tour, you're going to be playing with a number of young artists, such as Embrace and Sandi Thom. Do you have any advice to give them?
Well, I know you've got to love it. You've got love the injuries as well as the good times. It's like being an athlete. If you love it, you keep trying to do it. I think you have to keep working your instrument, whatever that is, otherwise you lose that ability and then you couldn't do it anyway. You're partly just keeping your instrument going for the day when you do catch that great song.