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Billy Idol--to Be A Human

November 30, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN

NEW YORK — Billy Idol opens the door of his third-floor loft in a nondescript building in the Village. He's bright-eyed and smiling. He just moved in a few weeks ago and the spacious main room is cluttered with cartons of record albums.

He even opens the interview with his own question:

"Well, which rumor do you want to discuss first?"

That's quite a multiple choice question.

Since disappearing following the double-platinum success of his "Rebel Yell" album in 1984, Idol has been the subject of a lot of rumors.

He acknowledges that he has heard reports that he was . . .

1) The victim of AIDS.

2) A drug addict.

3) He's dead.

4) All of the above.

5) None of the above.

"Well, being dead has got to be the ultimate rumor," he says laughing as he sits on a sofa and lights the first of several cigarettes. "I've gone through a lot of (fast lane) things in my life, but never to the extent that people think.

"I guess the reason people started coming up with all these stories was that it's unusual for someone to drop out of sight after they've had a big hit. They expect you to rush back out with something else to keep the momentum going.

"But I didn't want to make the same record again . . . 'Outlaw Call' or whatever. I wanted to take time to sort things out . . . my music and in my personal life. And that took time. . . ."

Billy Idol's story is a classic tale of going against the grain to fulfill your rock 'n' roll dreams--and pushing so hard that you alienate half the record business in the process. It's easy to think of him as the British equivalent of Indiana's John Cougar Mellencamp. They both pursued rock stardom with such intensity that they used arrogance as a shield when the record industry and critics tried to dismiss them as one-dimensional.

Just as Mellencamp's music has evolved into the socially conscious, autobiographical level of Mellencamp's "Scarecrow," there are signs of growth in Idol's new "Whiplash Smile" LP, which is in the national Top 10. Instead of the relentlessly macho , rebellious stance of his earlier LPs, Idol is now showing more emotional range (see Idol's impressive showing in this month's PopMeter ratings, Page 60).

"To Be a Lover" is one of the most dynamic singles of the year and "Sweet Sixteen," another track from the album, is a virtual rock 'n' roll lullaby. Ironically, both Mellencamp and Idol (real name: William Broad) started with colorful stage names.

Idol smiles when the name Idol is brought up.

"When I started out, everyone seemed to be adopting these names . . . Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious," he says. "I wasn't really Rotten or Vicious or Nasty, so I wanted something a bit more funny--yet something that seemed real rock 'n' roll . . . something that acknowledged my ambition."

Billy Idol, who is 31 today, talks with the energy and enthusiasm of his most strenuous records. Name any topic and he can give you a lively half hour. Name a favorite subject--like Elvis Presley--and he's off for hours.

Raised in a middle-class town just outside of London, Idol became infatuated with pop music early. The first record he ever bought was the Beatles' "She Loves You," but he also mentions Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Gary Glitter, Iggy Pop and--especially--Elvis as early influences. Presley touches abound in Idol's music, especially the new "To Be a Lover."

Idol's parents hoped he would attend college (he did attend briefly) and were troubled when he decided to enter the rock world. "My hair used to be real long and my parents were encouraged when I cut it," he says with a wink. "They thought I was going 'straight,' but I was just getting weirder--at least in their eyes. I was getting into the punk thing."

Idol was influenced by the Sex Pistols, and the band he formed with Tony James, Generation X, was linked in the late '70s with the punk contingent. Yet Generation X's first album wed punk independence with more traditional pop melodies. It featured both a remake of John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth" and a catchy anthem called "Wild Youth."

About the popish edge, Idol explains, "I was real big on some of the R&B things. I mean I love Dr. Feelgood as much as the Sex Pistols and I wanted to join all those things together in my music--even disco--because I love the driving beat."

The group's second album, "Valley of the Dolls," was a disaster and Idol fell out of favor. "We weren't all together musically, and that led for the press to become very cynical about it and say that we were pop opportunists," he suggests. "We really started getting slagged off after the second album because the music didn't come up to where it should have been. Then people started looking at our image and deciding we really were a joke."

He became such a target that in 1980 he moved to New York, where his single "Dancing With Myself" had been a dance club favorite. He also drifted away from songwriting partner Tony James, who now is the mastermind behind the latest British pop cartoon: Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

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