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A major star in the early days of MTV, Billy Idol's punk pedigree and talent for generating memorably, hook-driven pop-rock hits with a tinge of glam and danger, led to a multi-platinum-selling career highlighted by fist-pumping anthems like "Rebel Yell," "White Wedding" and "Dancing with Myself" before the travails of fame derailed it in the mid-1990s. Idol's sneering visage and spiked, white coiffure was an offshoot of his tenure in the U.K. punk scene of the 1970s, where he launched his musical efforts as singer for Generation X, whose affinity for '60s British pop put them at odds with their anti-establishment peers. When the band petered out in the early 1980s, Idol refashioned himself as a solo performer, sanding down the rougher edges of his music while adding dance-friendly beats to his material. His insouciant charm and good looks found considerable favor with MTV viewers in the early '80s, who soon boosted him to the top of the charts in the mid-1980s. However, with Idol's rocket ride to stardom also came a debilitating drug addiction and a 1990 accident that nearly cost him his leg. By 1994, Idol's life had reached rock bottom after a near-fatal drug overdose, but after recovery, he found...
A major star in the early days of MTV, Billy Idol's punk pedigree and talent for generating memorably, hook-driven pop-rock hits with a tinge of glam and danger, led to a multi-platinum-selling career highlighted by fist-pumping anthems like "Rebel Yell," "White Wedding" and "Dancing with Myself" before the travails of fame derailed it in the mid-1990s. Idol's sneering visage and spiked, white coiffure was an offshoot of his tenure in the U.K. punk scene of the 1970s, where he launched his musical efforts as singer for Generation X, whose affinity for '60s British pop put them at odds with their anti-establishment peers. When the band petered out in the early 1980s, Idol refashioned himself as a solo performer, sanding down the rougher edges of his music while adding dance-friendly beats to his material. His insouciant charm and good looks found considerable favor with MTV viewers in the early '80s, who soon boosted him to the top of the charts in the mid-1980s. However, with Idol's rocket ride to stardom also came a debilitating drug addiction and a 1990 accident that nearly cost him his leg. By 1994, Idol's life had reached rock bottom after a near-fatal drug overdose, but after recovery, he found fame with older listeners whose teenage years had been enlivened by his palatable brand of anarchy. He remained an active presence on the concert trail, where his still-vigorous performances were potent reminders of his past as one of the most entertaining rock rebels of the 1980s.
Born William Michael Albert Broad on Nov. 30, 1955 in Stanmore, a suburb of London, England, Billy Idol was the elder of two children by salesman Bill Broad and his wife, Jane. The family relocated to Patchogue, a village on the south shore of Long Island, NY, when Idol was two years old, but returned to England four years later, settling in the Surrey market town of Dorking. By 1971, they had moved to Bromley, a large suburban district of southeast London, where Idol's growing disinterest in formal education led to poor grades and a teacher labeling him as "idle," which gave birth to his stage name. By 1975, he was studying English and philosophy at Sussex University, but devoting most of his time to the Bromley Contingent, a group of music fans devoted to the growing punk movement and the Sex Pistols in particular. The Contingent drew considerable media attention for their adherence to punk fashion, as well as their involvement in several high-profile controversies, including an infamous 1976 incident in which members of the Pistols used vulgar language on an early evening news program on Thames Television. This widespread attention convinced many members of the group to launch their own bands, including Siouxsie Sioux, who launched the punk/Gothic group the Banshees, and Idol, who teamed with like-minded aspiring players Tony James and John Towe to form Chelsea with frontman Gene October in 1976.
Within a year's time, Idol, James and Towe had split from October to form their own group, Generation X. Idol, who had played guitar in Chelsea, moved to vocals for the new act, which quickly caught the attention of both the media and music fans with their blend of punk attitude and a pop-rock sound that hewed closer to '60s-era British acts like the Rolling Stones than punk forefathers like the Clash or Ramones. This connection to the mainstream helped to gain Generation X a recording contract with Chrysalis in 1977, but also earmarked the group as commercial - a death sentence of sorts for music groups in the punk scene, which, when combined with the high rate of turnover among band members, spelled the end for the band in 1981 after releasing three modestly received albums. At the advice of KISS manager Bill Aucoin, who had also taken over management for Generation X shortly before their demise, Idol moved to New York, where he was repackaged as a New Wave musician, with no mention of his past as a punk artist. His solo debut EP, Don't Stop (1981), featured a cover of the Tommy James single "Mony Mony" as well as new versions of "Dancing with Myself" and "Untouchables," both of which had been originally recorded by Generation X.
Idol's new image, which delivered the right blend of danger and poster-friendly charm, played well on the burgeoning MTV music channel, which soon led to Idol's eponymous full-length debut album. Fueled by the glam-driven guitar work of guitarist Steve Stevens, who would become Idol's creative partner for the majority of his career, the album quickly generated a Top 25 pop single with "Hot in the City," which was soon followed by the Top 40 hit "White Wedding." The accompanying music video for the single, which played with Gothic imagery and horror movie tropes, helped to make Idol a major star on MTV, as did a darkly comic video for the reissue of "Dancing with Myself," directed by Tobe Hooper of "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" (1974) fame. The release of his second album, Rebel Yell (1984), established Idol as a genuine rock star with a Top 10 hit in the somber "Eyes without a Face" and a Top 30 follow-up with "Flesh for Fantasy," as well as a radio and concert favorite with the energetic, anthemic title track. By the following year, Idol was performing on the arena circuit and gracing the cover of Rolling Stone.
But with Idol's ascent to the peak of rock stardom also came a host of personal and professional troubles that largely undid his overnight success. His third album, Whiplash Smile (1986), was a substantial hit, with its lead single, "To Be a Lover," reaching No. 6 on the Billboard chart, and its follow-up, a collection of remixes titled Vital Idol (1987), featured a live version of "Mony Mony" that became his first and only No. 1 single. But the mantle of pop stardom did not sit well with Steve Stevens, who departed the Idol camp to launch a solo career. Idol also began a lengthy struggle with drug addiction, which came to light with a much-publicized arrest for crack cocaine possession. The birth of a child, Bonnie Blue Broad, with 19-year-old Linda Mathis in 1989 brought an end to his longtime relationship with girlfriend Perri Lister, who had appeared in many of his music videos. Idol drowned his sorrows in a self-destructive three-week binge of drugs and sex in Thailand that ended only when he was forcibly expelled from the city of Bangkok by the military.
Shortly before releasing his fourth album, Charmed Life (1990), Idol was involved in a serious motorcycle accident in Los Angeles that nearly cost him his leg. Extensive surgery and recuperation cost Idol the chance to play the T-1000 character in James Cameron's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991) and whittled down his appearance in Oliver Stone's "The Doors" to a mere cameo. Director David Fincher was also forced to shoot Idol from the waist up for his appearances in the video for "Cradle of Love," his first single from Charmed Life. Despite these setbacks, the single was a Top 5 hit in the U.S. and garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Vocal Performance. But Idol's luck ran out with his next release, Cyberpunk (1993), which was recorded in a home studio using a Macintosh computer. The album's techno-driven sound, science fiction-themed narrative and a special edition that included a press kit on a Macintosh floppy disc, was largely rejected by Idol's mainstream rock followers and the cyberculture movement, which accused the singer of blunting the impact of the term "cyberpunk." The album was a dismal failure, rising no higher that No. 48 on the Billboard 200.
The following year, Idol was hospitalized following an overdose on GBH, a potent anesthetic frequently used to enhance the effects of other narcotics. He spent the next few years recovering from his addictions while releasing music on a sporadic basis. He briefly reunited with Steve Stevens for the single "Speed," which appeared on the soundtrack to the 1994 Keanu Reeves film of the same name, and performed with the Who in a live version of their rock opera Quadrophenia in 1996. An amusing appearance as himself in "The Wedding Singer" (1998) led to revived interest in his back catalog, which he answered with a platinum-selling Greatest Hits album in 2001 and an appearance on the VH1 series "Storytellers" (1996-2006). The performance, which featured Stevens on guitar, was later released as a live album in 2002. Three years later, Devil's Playground (2005), Idol's first album of all-new material in over a decade, was released to positive reviews and chart placement at No. 46 on the Billboard 200. He was soon a staple of the rock festival circuit, playing his older material to new crowds on the 2005 Vans Warped Tour and Download Festival in the U.K., among other high-profile appearances. In 2006, he released Happy Holidays, a tongue-in-cheek collection of Christmas tunes released on Idol's website and through a distribution deal with Best Buy. Two years later, he released a new greatest hits compilation, The Very Best of Billy Idol: Idolize Yourself (2008), which featured two previously unreleased tracks. A concert DVD, "In Super Overdrive Live," culled from his performance with Stevens for the TV series "Soundstage" (PBS, 1974-1985, 2003- ), arrived in stores in 2009.
By Paul Gaita
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