Often, out of the blue, I will get interested in a subject and then need to follow it through until I tire of it. I almost always follow my gut and rarely second guess myself. I remember sitting in a friend’s back yard and all of a sudden deciding that I needed to learn about Walt Disney. Later that week I got a copy of and read Neal Gabler’s book Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. It ended up being one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. It dealt with art, commerce, the rise of the modern corporation, history, and culture. If you are in a bookstore sometime read Gabler’s introduction. That alone is fascinating and thought provoking. Anyway, I would have never read that had I not followed some strange idea that just happened to pop up in my head. It was almost as if someone was whispering in my ear. (And no I wasn’t on drugs at the time.)
Lately I’ve been driven to read everything I can get my hands on about American Indians. However, the topics are often not as lofty. For reasons unknown to myself, I have found myself diving into the world of Billy Idol. I find him fascinating and I am going to attempt to tell you why.
I think his career mirrors the music industry perfectly. It represents the highs and lows of record making. It also follows a perfect myth template. In his case Icarus. He had tremendous promise, flew too high, and burned out.
For those of you that don’t know, Billy Idol was once in a really great promising band. He was in a band called Generation X that was one of the best of the earlier British punk bands. They lacked the political righteousness of the Clash and the menace of the Sex Pistols. They were also slightly behind, time wise, both of those bands. Because of that they often were written off as lightweights. However, if you don’t know any of punk history, and you just listen to their music, it’s fantastic. Their guitar player, Derwood Andrews, was simply one of the best of that era. He could hop from beautifully written hook riffs to squalling noise solos at the drop of a hat. The bands records are also played with extreme enthusiasm. You can hear people taking flight together on tape, especially on the first two albums. Everything seemed to suggest, if drugs and commerce hadn’t gotten in their way, that they could have made some more incredible records together.
If you need further proof at what they could have achieved check out Andrews and Mark Laff’s, Generation X’s drummer, shortly lived band Empire and their album Expensive Sound Vol. 1. Empire may have lasted a moment, but they went on to influence the D.C. punk and post punk scene and therefore American indie music for years to come. Bands like Rights of Spring and Fugazi wouldn’t have sounded the same without them.
What you hear on those early Generation X records is the sound of people reacting to each other live on tape. There might be limitations in the production at times, but there is the alchemy that only other people communicating to each other in the moment can produce. The lyrics on those albums may be highly limited from a poetic standpoint, but they speak about a love of rock n roll in an enthusiastic and unpretentious way. They believed in the form and you can hear it in ever note that is played. There is piss and vinegar, blood and sweat, in those recordings.
Shortly after Generation X folded, Billy Idol went on to make his early solo records, the most well known part of his career. They are the sound of someone hungry for success, someone that is shameless enough to do whatever it takes to achieve it. That’s not to say that they are completely without merit. I’ve never been completely turned off by the sound of 80’s records. What they lack in authenticity they often make up for in atmosphere. The reverb drenched records of the 80’s are perfect for drifting off into imaginative worlds, especially on a rain soaked afternoon. Billy Idol, despite whatever artistic flaws he might have, has and always will have a unique rock voice. It’s too bad that the words so often put in his mouth are nothing but sexual innuendo and rock n roll cliché. He at least has a personality. You would never mistake his singing for someone else.
Despite the fact that I actually tend to like records that were made in the 80’s, his records are a perfect example of the worst of that decade’s impulses. If there was a cheesy and synthetic keyboard sound that was popular in whatever year one of his records was made, be sure that it is on that record and it is even more reverb drenched, synthetic, and 80’s sounding than it needs to be. That’s not to say in his career that there aren’t some great pop songs in the lot. White Wedding and Eyes Without a Face, if you hadn’t been numbed to them by a million radio spins, are really great pieces of pop art. I can’t help but think of the best of his solo lot as the musical equivalent to a Warhol painting. They often reflect back the hollowness of the culture, but are also strangely enjoyable and full of trashy beauty in their own way. They are at a minimum fun, and not just an imitation of fun. He was clearly enjoying himself on something when they were made.
It is in the splintering of Generation X that you find a really interesting tale about music in Western culture. You have part of the band going on to form Empire and you have Billy Idol’s solo career. Empire made a truly unique and artistic record, one that is not without its own pop hooks as well, and although they eventually went on to influence a good deal of musicians, faded largely from the world without a trace as far as the greater culture was concerned. Meanwhile, Billy Idol followed the trends, made records that were largely of their time, and went on to sell millions of records which to this day have not left our airwaves.
I can enjoy, for different reasons, both kinds of music. I like art and I like spectacle. Sometimes I enjoy a nice escapist movie, why should music be any different? However, why does the general public favor one form? Why do the money interests line up behind one form? Is it the fact that people are only exposed to one thing? Is something easier to sell to people because it is simpler to sell something that has fewer layers that need explained? Even if people were given equal exposure to different kinds of music would they always choose the broader less artistic choice?
Blockbuster movies make more sense. A 200 million dollar spectacle requires less out of the viewer than a slow paced interpretive indie film. But often pop music is weirder than one thinks upon closer inspection. Michael Jackson was a strange fellow by anyone’s measurements, but he managed to sell millions of records and connect with millions of people.
More involved movies, much like reading, require you to learn a language, the language of the cinema. However, music, unless we are talking about music that is primarily based around literate lyrics, is a more emotional form. That is not to say that learning more about music can’t open you up to new forms and bring added interest to things that already appeal to you. Sometimes people like certain things because they throw out certain cultural touchstones. A lot of the horrible pop country that is out there is probably successful because it is selling a lifestyle and conforming to an identity. I can’t help but think that what succeeds in music is what gets money invested in it and what gets exposure, at least up to a point.
Let’s go back to Billy Idol. Did he have a large amount of hits simply because he sold a lifestyle? Although you could argue that his image was largely based around a cartoon image of what a rock star should be, it’s hard to say that his success was based on some kind of identification with his personal life or lyrics. He really did do a mountain of cocaine and sleep with a thousand women. The average person might occasionally dream of such a life, but they can hardly identify with it.
I think his extreme popularity was partially due to circumstances surrounding his unique moment in time. He looked great on MTV, which was new at the time. He had an image that was unique to him and this made his music easy to visually translate. There is always luck in any success story. He was at the right place and right time and met the right people. However, I’m not denying that he does have certain talents. He could write pop hooks and sing with a unique voice. His music also always had a certain rock n roll enthusiasm about it, even when it was covering the fact that behind his voice was often slick candy gloss pop music.
As sort of a postscript I should also mention that he put out an album in 2005 called The Devil’s Playground. Much like his 80’s music, it displayed the worst sonic production values of our time. Often records that are made now seek to emulate earlier periods, but are often too slick, too compressed, and too cold sounding to mimic the passion of an earlier era. Listen to Steve Stevens’s guitar on this record. He often plays like a punk rock guitar player on this record, but with the edges sanded off. No kid picking up a guitar to fight the world would ever have such an expensive and polished sound. As is often the case in this day and age, we are often in danger of letting technology overwhelm us. That is not to say the record is without its merits. Billy Idol can still sing and there are a couple of pop songs that are trashy and fun enough to overcome the lyrical and musical clichés inherent in them. There are probably four or five songs on the record that I really enjoy listening for no other reason than they click that certain pleasure switch in the brain. Everyone needs cheap thrills sometimes.
Anyway, it is easy to laugh at me for spending a great amount of time thinking about such things. But I believe most things in life are interesting if viewed from a certain vantage point. Even seemingly dead end alleyways of thought can occasionally lead to strange new worlds. If not for Billy Idol’s solo career, I would never have discovered Generation X or Empire and for that I am thankful. Even cartoons need artists to draw them.