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Pop Music Review : Billy Idol--still Torso-tenacious And Sex-themed

May 08, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

SAN DIEGO — This is the age of Lobby Persuasion in pop.

Amnesty International reps pass out information about the human rights organization at U2 concerts. Farm Aid spokesmen spread the word about economic woes at Willie Nelson shows. And food bank workers explain their urgent needs at Bruce Springsteen dates.

Maybe it's time someone introduced a few "safe sex" groups to Billy Idol.

It's doubtful they'll find more people night after night with sex on their minds than at an Idol show.

Sex was a dominant theme on stage Wednesday night at the sold-out Sports Arena: The backdrop at the beginning of the 90-minute show was a pair of huge (12-foot) wooden legs, arranged to suggest a woman lying on her back.

Idol also gyrated for much of the evening with the blatant torso-tenacity that, in a tamer age, made nervous TV executives refuse to show Elvis Presley except from the waist up.

But sex was also a theme off stage. One of Idol's biggest hits is called "Flesh for Fantasy," and a good percentage of the teen-age girls in the crowd dressed with that image in mind: fishnet stockings or tight leather pants, low-cut halter tops or flimsy blouses. They didn't just walk around before the show and during intermission . . . they paraded.

It may sound like business as usual for Idol, who has often seemed like the missing link between Presley and the Beastie Boys.

Though he identifies strongly with the rebellion and sexual awakening that Elvis symbolized, he has often overstated the traits in ways that made him seem like a cartoon. Even the name was a joke: Billy Idol indeed.

But there are some significant differences between Idol's earlier shows and this tour, which continues with stops tonight at the Forum and Saturday at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.

The first breakthrough was last year's album, "Whiplash Smile," on which Idol exhibited a more human and personal style. He seemed less concerned with playing a role than with expressing his feelings. At the Sports Arena, Idol still sported his trademark spiky, platinum-blond hair and black leather clothes, but he has begun to shed the one-dimensional approach.

Lots of bands recognize that young people are searching for independence and self-identity and that they have a strong interest in sex. The exploitative ones build their acts around those themes because they know they will strike a chord.

Idol comes across as someone who uses those themes naturally--someone who was strongly moved by rock himself as a young man in England and who still finds a power and release in its rituals and frenzy. Like John Cougar Mellencamp, Idol, 31, wanted to be a rock star so badly that he really had no sense of vision when he first achieved stardom. He came across as simply arrogant and crass.

There are still moments of crudeness that will cause parents to feel uneasy about all this emphasis on sex. But there is none of the ugly, dark or demeaning images in Idol's music that are found in the most offensive heavy-metal bands.

Idol uses the wooden backdrop as a fleeting bit of outrage (the Beastie Boys are going to kick themselves for not coming up with the backdrop idea first) and then, after a few songs, has it taken down, without lingering by it or--whew!--acting out any erotic scenes a la Prince.

Where Idol once seemed relentlessly macho , however, he now comes across as almost endearing: someone who cares about his audience and helps them work out some of their own fantasies in a relatively safe and harmless fashion. Plus, he and guitarist-sidekick Steve Stevens have come up with some terrific records, including a splendid Presley-accented remake of "To Be a Lover" and the disarmingly tender "Sweet Sixteen."

Still, this obviously isn't the most high-minded art, and it was surprising to see some fans with U2 T-shirts walking around. How could they--the height of '80s rock idealism--be caught in this libidinous sideshow?

"I like U2, but there's a time when you want to to go c-r-a-z-y and that's what I like about Billy," said Ted Balde 18, Point Loma. "There's nothing held back. It's just basic rock 'n' roll energy."

Given Idol's teen orientation, it was surprising to see quite a few adults at the show.

Ingrid and Sarah Hohe looked like sisters as they leaned over an arena railing to get a better look at the stage, but they are actually mother and daughter.

Does Ingrid, 38, worry that the sexual emphasis in the show is a bad influence on her daughter, 15?

"Not at all," she said, speaking over the roar of the crowd. "The important thing is to communicate, and we communicate a lot--about everything. I think people are having a lot of fun tonight. There's nothing unhealthy about that."

And what do they like about Idol?

They looked at each other and smiled. "He's so full of life," Ingrid said. And Sarah nodded in agreement.

Anything else?

Ingrid offered, "He's sexy."

Once more, Sarah nodded.

The Cult, the English band that is the opening act on the Idol tour, also understands basic teen desires, and its presentation is laced with obvious visual and musical reference points (lead singer Ian Astbury's stage demeanor is a blend of Jim Morrison tension and Steven Tyler drive, while the band's music leans on the straightforward force of such sturdy models as AC-DC and Aerosmith). The Cult hasn't begun to work out its own identity the way Idol has, but it exhibits a basic confidence and swagger on stage that gives the group the stamp of a commercial winner. You've always got to keep an eye on a band that is so commercially oriented that it will build a whole song around a single Rolling Stones riff.

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