Billy Idol can laugh about his ridiculous success in the Eighties, when he ruled MTV with “White Wedding,” “Rebel Yell” and “Dancing With Myself.” “I played on the same bill with Bob Dylan where he supported me,” says Idol, 49, from his home in Los Angeles. “That cracked me up!” The Nineties were another story. Idol nearly died after a 1990 motorcycle crash, put out a dismal album, Cyberpunk, in 1993, and nearly died again after a drug overdose in 1994. Now, all cleaned up. Idol is unleashing Devil’s Playground, with its single, “Scream,” and hitting theaters and clubs around the country beginning this month. “We do a two-hour show,” says Idol, who talks a mile a minute, occasionally emphasizing his words with a Hulk Hogan-like growl. “It’s not like, New songs? No!’ We play about five new songs live, and the crowds have never seemed to suffer for it.”
What was the first record you bought?
The first rock & roll I was into was the Beatles. My mother played a lot of jazz and R & B. Like King Curtis and His All-Stars. But I saw the Beatles on television on the show Ready, Steady, Go! I went and bought “She Loves You” when I was seven. I was gonna buy “From Me to You,” but it was already slipping down the charts. Chart position was all-important in those days.
Seven is pretty young to be buying records.
It was six shillings and threepence halfpenny — that’s how much it cost somewhere in Worthing, England. I tried to hand the money to my dad to pay. But I had to go over to a counter with all these adults and go [in a child’s voice], “I’d like the Beatles, please, ‘She Loves You.’ “
Did girls you dated turn you on to music?
When I was eighteen I had a girlfriend named Rebecca, and one day she said, “Billy, have you heard about this bloke Lou Reed? He’s got a band that do a song called ‘Heroin.’ ” So she turned me on to the Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop and the Banshees
When you first listened to the playback of “Dancing With Myself,” did you know immediately it was a hit?
Me and Keith [Forsey, the producer] stood in the middle of the studio floor, with the music blasting through the speakers. I had a dream, but this was better than what I thought it could sound like. It was a great moment. We knew that we had a classic sound, we just had to harness it.
What do you like to dance to?
I’ve been listening to a lot of dub reggae. At the moment, my favorite is King Tubby’s in Fine Style. You can have sex to it. It’s slow and grindy. And Massive Attack’s Protection and Blue Lines.
Have terrible smells emanated from your leather pants after a gig?
Yeah [laughs]. We had a ten-month tour with Rebel Yell, and I had two pairs of leather pants. In the cases overnight, the leather would dry up. You could only get them up to your calves, then up to your knees, up over your thighs, and eventually you could get them over your bum. You had to warm them up, because they were stuck together. That’s the reason I started wearing cologne, to hide the stench of the fucking rotting, fleshy, slimy shit. And the lower half of my body was blue, because the leather would bleed onto the skin. Instead of Old Blue Eyes, they’d call me Old Blue Balls.
Yes! Seen any good shows recently?
I saw the Strokes. They’re quite good. And I saw my son’s band. They’re called Lucas. My son is sixteen, plays guitar and sings. I think he’s playing the Roxy [in L.A.] two days before me! It’s like a joke! He’s stealing all my girls! I just said, “Hey, Will! Whatcha think about my new album?” He said, “You know me, Dad. I’m into chill-out!”
What’s your favorite MTV Unplugged performance?
The Nirvana one is not bad, is it? I thought that Dave Grohl was so brilliant, in how quiet he played. At last someone realized that when you’re playing acoustic, it isn’t right for the drummer to overshadow everybody. It was magic.
Who’s the hottest chick in music these days?
Eve. I can imagine going out with her. I don’t know why Eve would find me attractive, but sometimes when you say things in print, they turn true. Wait, that chick Brody [Dalle] in the Distillers! There’s not a great many birds out there at the moment.
What hair gel holds up best under the lights?
Hold on a minute, I’ll go get some. It’s called Bed Head Hard Head Mohawk Gel for Spiking. You put it on when your hair is dry. It’s like glue [laughs]. It’s hard to get your hand out of it.
When you could pick any chick you wanted after a show, what did you look for in a girl?
When you could just grab their hand and pull them toward where you wanted to go.
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There must have been eighty girls like that.
Yeah, but some want to talk and do this and that. When we did arenas, I had a mate go out and find young ladies. AIDS fucked up everything. What did you have to worry about till then? Gonorrhea you could get rid of. Herpes was the worst.
You probably had that already.
Yeah! Let’s give it to each other and get on with it! Back then, it used to be like a Fellini film: nonstop drugs and sex, and then we’d happen to do a gig at some point. Devil’s Playground is Idol’s first album in twelve years.