During MTV’s salad days, synth bands like Duran Duran and the Human League presented an accessible, poppy version of Kraftwerk and Berlin-era David Bowie and found massive commercial success. Prince essentially did the same thing with funk, gifting us a glossier, sexier version of P-Funk and Rick James. Meanwhile, Joan Jett, Adam Ant, and Billy Idol were following a similar formula, chewing up the sounds and fashions of first-generation punk rock and spitting out something ready for the Top 40.
For all their gloss, Idol’s big hits (“White Wedding”, “Rebel Yell”, and “Dancing with Myself”) were iconoclastic and weird. Having played in first-wave punk bands just a few years prior, Idol credibly wore his rebel bona fides on his studded leather sleeve. He used synthesizers liberally, but always alongside the power chords and glam licks of his long-time guitarist Steve Stevens. The songs were catchy and perfectly comfortable in rotation alongside Michael Jackson and the Go-Gos, but the lyrics and accompanying visuals were vaguely gothic.
In one iconic Billy Idol video, a bride puts on a wedding ring made of barbed wire and gets a nasty nick. And Idol perpetually curled his lip into sneer that was funny, bad ass, and memorable. Novelty act? Nope, just a guy who like Duran Duran and Prince understood both the artistic and commercial potential of what in the 1970s was still music on the margins.
After a near-fatal motorcycle crash in 1990, Idol spent the subsequent decades making a few more hits (the underrated “Cradle of Love”) and a few cameos (Adam Sandler’s The Wedding Singer) and intermittently taking on a cyberpunk persona. During the pandemic, Idol got introspective and began thinking – and writing – about the motorcycle accident as a pivotal life event. Then he kept writing. His new four-song EP, The Roadside, is the result of that burst of creativity.
The EP’s first single, “Bitter Taste”, starts off sounding like a rootsy Chris Isaak ballad, with acoustic guitar and piano high in the mix. It’s initially off-putting. You wonder where the sneer went. But then the lyrics kick in, and Idol’s gothic side enters the foreground. The song meditates on life, death, and fate, as Idol seemingly wonders why he survived the accident. The chorus repeats the lines, “Hello, goodbye. There’s a million ways to die. Should have left me way back by the roadside.” The song is part death wish, part existential meditation, and part articulation of survivor’s guilt.
In his non-fiction volume On Writing, Stephen King offers a similar, and similarly haunting first-person account of an accident and near-death experience. While on a walk, King was struck by a van and critically injured. Within a body of work chock full of horrific imagery, his recounting of the accident is among the most harrowing stories King ever told. Idol pulls off the same kind of transition, from fiction to non-fiction, from macabre to memoir. Idol’s maturity on “Bitter Taste” is remarkable. His ’80s schtick could sometimes approach parody and camp, but on this single he’s dead serious: “If I cut myself open, baby, you could read all my scars” is a far cry from “Eyes without a face, got no human race.”
Idol slows things down on “Baby Put Your Clothes Back On” too, once again striving for maturity. The song is Idol’s attempt at the chaste, pump-the-brakes-on-this-relationship trope, a trope perhaps made most famous in Jermaine Stewart’s “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off”. It’s hard to imagine Idol expressing this sentiment 40 years ago during his decadent days. Again, the maturity is noteworthy, although this track seems so much slighter than the lyrically sophisticated “Bitter Taste”. Maturity can be laudable but also, well, boring, and “Baby Put Your Clothes Back On” presents like a flat power ballad. It’s the rare Billy Idol song lacking in flair.
Elsewhere on the EP, Idol’s having more fun. Uptempo opener “Rita Hayworth” opens with a purr (literally), and proceeds into familiar Billy Idol territory: glossy, Reagan-era production, Stevens’ electric licks, and a heaping dose of innuendo. “U Don’t Have to Kiss Me Like That” also harkens back to the ’80s, from the Prince-inspired spelling of “you”, to the requisite female back-up vocals. It’s fluff, but a toe-tapper nonetheless. These two snappy numbers are worthy entries in Idol’s pop-punk canon and are likely to please listeners who look back fondly on the era when you could turn on MTV and hear pop takes on funk, punk, and krautrock.
Though it’s got one clunker, The Roadside bodes well for his future. The two rockers can nicely work their way into Billy Idol’s setlists (he’s touring now) alongside similarly anarchic numbers from his commercial heyday, and “Bitter Taste” could very well prove to be one of Idol’s definitive creations, not only because it reflects on a seminal moment in Idol’s life, but because it further shows off Idol’s ambition and his smart sense of what angsty, rebellious rock and roll can do.