Billy Idol: Rebel Yell

On Rebel Yell, BIlly Idol takes us on a wild ride down the freeway of goth, new wave, and Keith Forsey’s electronic pop.

by Marshall Bowden

A Twitter recently brought to my attention that it’s the anniversary of the release date (11/10/83) of Billy Idol’s second solo LP, Rebel Yell. It was the high watermark of his solo career, though I still enjoyed his periodic releases over the years, culminating with last years’ The Roadside and his latest EP, The Cage.

Idol came from the British punk band Generation X, and what they lacked in infamy and press they made up for in energy and well written, poppy melodies. The band’s debut was fast-hard-loud as it was supposed to be. with engaging tracks like ‘Ready steady Go’ and ‘100 Punks.’ They did a bang-up cover of Lennon’s political ‘Gimme Some Truth’ but just as with Siouxsie and the Banshees the Beatles cover let it be known that something else was going on besides the basic punk thing.

Their next record, Valley of the Dolls, was super cool, one of my favorite records of the period. Produced by Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople fame, Valley of the Dolls makes explicit the gumbo of Elvis, gothic pop, glam rock, and street poetry that Idol would base his solo career on. Opening with a Mott-like heroic guitar cadenza, the band is soon off and running, and though they are playing from the punk playbook, the record sounds much expanded from their debut, and some of that has to come down to Hunter getting details right. Valley of the Dolls is kind of the same moment for Generation X that 1973’s Mott was for Mott the Hoople. They found their sound, made the best record of their career to date, but that record contains the seeds of their destruction. Hunter only stayed for one more album after Mott, and Generation X didn’t survive long enough to cut another album before Billy Idol set out on a solo career. If you’ve not listened to Valley of the Dolls, I strongly recommend it. 

On Rebel Yell, Billy takes us into the heartland from behind the widescreen windshield of his motorbike tooling down the freeway like Mr. Mojo Risin’. His solo records through the eighties and nineties were all produced by Keith Forsey, a disciple of Giorgio Moroder who co-wrote the theme from Flashdance). Forsey was deeply interested in synthesized pop music. That driving beat underlying the title track, or the delicate glissandi in ‘Eyes Without a Face’ or the echoing depth of ‘Flesh for Fantasy’ are details that Forsey adds to give his retrobilly Elvis sneer a modern twist. While Forsey did uncredited drum programming for the entire album, a real drummer was hired, both for the record and as part of a touring band. This was Thommy Price, who worked with Idol on his records and tours from 1984-’89.

Steve Stevens’ guitar work carries the crunch of Slash and the heroics of Eddie Van Halen, and he functions as Billy’s second, the Mick Ronson to Billy’s Ziggy Stardust. As Idol’s songwriting partner he is in many ways as responsible for the singer’s persona as the man himself. 

When Joan Jett went to England she met and hit it off with Idol, partially on account of their mutual love of Tommy James. I have the same kind of affectionate feeling for Idol as I have for Jett; they are like an older sibling who kind of winks at you and says ‘yeah that’s how its done.’ Jett ended up hiring drummer Thommy Price to play in her backup band The Blackhearts, further linking the two performers. 

Rebel Yell got our attention because Billy Idol acted like a bona fide rock star, a wisecracking badass. Along with Duran Duran he was a pioneering video artist, and his videos definitely added to his overall image. Beginning with his reworking of “Dancing By Myself,” the swan song of Generation X, a single subsumed by the group’s demise, through “White Wedding,” “Eyes Without A Face,” and beyond, Idol worked punky gothic imagery like an expert, appealing readily to men and women. There was always hot female flesh on display, and there was Idol himself, as well as Stevens. 

“Dancing With Myself” was directed by horror auteur Tobe Hooper, “Rebel Yell” by Jeff Stein, a veteran TV director, and Idol used David Mallet for “White Wedding” and “Eyes Without a Face.” Mallet had previously worked with Queen on videos for “Radio Ga Ga” and “Under Pressure,” and his work provided Idol with the most detail rich visual content. By comparison, Howie Deutch’s “Flesh for Fantasy” is somewhat flat, relying on slutty costumes and shadowy lighting to convey the Idol mystique. 

Billy Idol was right on that line between the old rock paradigm that punk railed against and the new arena rock, eighties widescreen edition, that punk also railed against. It’s not easy to make a record that incorporates technology and a change from guitar oriented rock to synth oriented rock while still satisfying the tenets of one’s covenant with fans. For a brief period in the eighties Idol flew high by achieving exactly that and that’s one reason I still enjoy listening to his records.

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