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Glen Ballard Throws Fallen Idol a Recording Lifeline

Alanis Morissette's producer signs 'a little older, maybe a little wiser' Billy Idol to his Java label.

July 05, 1998|Steve Hochman

Working with Alanis Morissette, producer-writer Glen Ballard gained a reputation in the pop world as an idol maker. Now, he's trying his hand as an Idol remaker.

Billy Idol, one of the quintessential pop figures of the '80s with his lip-curled snarl and bleach-blond hair, has been largely a washout in the '90s.

The decade began for him with a near-fatal motorcycle accident in which his right leg was crushed (limiting his intended large role in the Oliver Stone movie "The Doors") and continued on a bad streak of personal crises and both artistic and commercial bombs.

Now, though, he says he's been through a tough personal reassessment and is ready to come back as strong as ever. And Ballard has taken up the challenge, signing Idol to his Capitol-distributed Java Records label (where Idol joins Lisa Marie Presley and Terence Trent D'Arby on a rather idiosyncratic roster) and overseeing work on a new album that will likely be released early next year.

"I heard a couple of songs he had written that struck me with their honesty and clarity and simplicity that I had never heard from him before," says Ballard, who hooked up with Idol a few months ago at the suggestion of Gary Gersh, the now-departed Capitol president. "The whole thing of the '80s was wrapped in excess and reverb and synthesizers. In 1998 he's a little older, maybe a little wiser. I thought of this as an artist who maybe had to find a new way to express himself."

But Ballard isn't taking much of the credit for the "new" Billy Idol.

"It all started with him."

Idol, who was born William Broad, says he realized he was in a decline in which he was actually becoming the caricature that many perceived him to be.

"William Broad had to look the rock 'n' roll rake in the face and say, 'You're a little bit more than just a crazy man, aren't you?' " says Idol, 42.

Without addressing specific personal problems, Idol, who lives in Los Angeles, says he found himself in crises and needed to redirect his life--especially considering his two sons, ages 9 and 10--and his art.

"I looked at what had been going on with some younger stars and there by the grace of God goes me," he says, pointing specifically to Scott Weiland, who has had tough battles with drug addiction, and INXS' Michael Hutchence, whose hanging death last November was ruled a suicide. "With rock 'n' roll there's a million traps you can fall into, not just chemicals, but sexual or even just having a hit [record] can be a drug [because of] all the attention."

One key breakthrough came when Idol reunited with longtime co-writer and guitarist Steve Stevens. Together they've crafted new songs and new sounds, but all are rooted in the experience Idol had in rediscovering himself.

"One song, 'Faded Love,' has almost a twisted rockabilly, 'Midnight Cowboy'-Vegas kind of thing," he says. "It's a look at the man I used to be. Just me speaking about how I could have gone to Las Vegas and drank myself to death, but decided to stay alive. I had to realize I love music for all the emotions and values and conceits--all the different reasons it told you to stay alive."

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BALLARD BANTER: In addition to working with Idol, Ballard has been putting in long hours of late in working with Morissette on her follow-up to the mega-hit album "Jagged Little Pill." The new set, for which Morissette has written (or co-written with Ballard) more than 30 songs, is tentatively scheduled for a November release. Her song "Uninvited" is currently driving sales of the chart-topping "City of Angels" soundtrack.

As for Lisa Marie Presley, Ballard says he hopes to begin recording her debut album at the end of the summer.

"We'll take our time and really make sure that she's expressing herself the best way possible," he says. "I think people are really going to be knocked out. She's got an incredible voice and a lot to say, and she's ready to do it. If she wasn't, there would be no reason. She doesn't need the fame and fortune."

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OFF THE BANDWAGON: Last year amid the next-big-thing talk of techno, there were three attempts at high-profile tours presenting the music--and one relatively low-profile trek. Of the three biggies, one (Chaotica) never got off the ground and the other two (Big Top and Electric Highway) were both box-office flops. The smallest, Moonshine Over America, actually met its comparatively modest goals.

So, not surprisingly, this year there are no big tours in the works, though Moonshine is back. A new trek is set to kick off Sept. 22 at an Orange County location still being set, with L.A.-area acts DJ Keoki and Cirrus on all dates, and British deejay-artist-club owner Carl Cox on for part of the tour, which grows from 14 dates last year to 25 this time. (Cox will do a preview set Tuesday at the Viper Room.)

"We were realistic last year," says Steve Levy, president of Moonshine Music, the record company that is presenting the tour as a showcase for its artists. "We had anything from gigs with 3,000 people down to 600 people. We worked with the right promoters in the right cities on the right nights. All the dates were sold out."

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