A large part of Billy Idol’s success is a product of being in the right place at the right time. As he emerged from his punk roots as the lead singer of Generation X, MTV was a fledgling network struggling to fill its airtime. With his bleached-blond hair, slightly menacing persona, and pop sensibilities, Idol was the perfect bridge between the metal videos that dominated MTV’s early days and the mainstream pop that would make the network a cultural force. Idol’s videos married slick production, conceptual content, goth imagery, and S&M undercurrents; as a result, Idol found himself at the forefront of early ‘80s rock. Heck, Idol’s early videos practically established him as a brand. There was certainly no mistaking or misidentifying the haircut or the sneer. So you can’t separate Idol’s success from the fact that he knew how to take advantage of a new market.
More importantly, though, Idol’s hits have stood the test of time. “Dancing with Myself”, “Rebel Yell”, “Flesh for Fantasy”, and others certainly don’t sound like artifacts of a bygone age. (Well, to a point. While the ‘80s touches are minimal, rarely getting in a song’s way, they do become more prevalent as Idol’s mid-‘80s songs start coming around. The synth-filled “Don’t Need a Gun” from 1986 may be the worst offender). With a songwriting partner/foil in Steve Stevens (whose dark hair and glam-rocker appearance provided an interesting counterpoint to Idol in videos and on stage), Idol showed a remarkable knack for merging his punk tradition with stick-in-your brain pop hooks and softer moments. His legacy depends as much on subtler songs like “Eyes Without a Face”, “Sweet Sixteen”, and “Catch My Fall” as it does on more aggressive classics like “White Wedding”. As Idol’s career progressed, he would have trouble maintaining that momentum, but his first two albums are well worth checking out in their entirety.
The Very Best of Billy Idol
US: 24 Jun 2008
UK: 21 Jul 2008
Idolize Yourself charts Idol’s path from the beginning of his solo career to the present day. Differing only slightly from 2001’s Greatest Hits (losing his cover of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” and an acoustic version of “Rebel Yell” in favor of later cuts “World Comin’ Down” and “Speed”), the collection also includes two new songs. The heart of the collection, the Billy Idol hits we all know, sound as good as ever. As the track listing progresses through time, however, there’s an increasing sense that Idol was struggling to stay ahead of the curve. “Shock to the System” from 1993, and 1994’s “Speed” found him trying to regain the hard edge he’d arguably lost in the wake of pop-oriented stabs at the charts, but for all the energy, each sounds a bit like Idol trying to fit in with whatever was going on at the time. “World Comin’ Down” (2005) has the most punk energy of anything but the collection’s earliest songs, right down to Idol’s impressively snotty vocals (which, in the wake of what had become his trademarked vocal swagger, doesn’t even sound like him).
The new songs, for their part, are a mixed bag. “John Wayne” makes use of a spaghetti western vibe that never goes out of style, so there’s no trend-chasing going on there. It’s a nice midtempo track. “New Future Weapon”, however, has a few too many nu-metal flourishes, though, to ever stand a chance of not sounding dated five years from now. In the end, the later material on Idolize Yourself is “Okay”, but certainly doesn’t stand up to Idol’s best work.
But as career overviews go, Idolize Yourself does its job well. It emphasizes the right years and albums (with at least one cut from each record) and doesn’t try to make any dubious claims that certain albums, such as 1993’s Cyberpunk, need to be re-evaluated as lost treasures. A Deluxe Edition includes a DVD of Idol’s videos; it’s a nice touch, since several of Idol’s songs—for better (the “live” performance of “Rebel Yell”) or worse (the synchronized dancing of “Flesh for Fantasy”)—are now inseparable from the videos that promoted them.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article