Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll: Few musicians talk candidly about their rebellious days with a dramatic gusto quite like Billy Idol. Especially when it involves a few ODs and almost losing a leg. But the multi-platinum recording artist known for hits like "Rebel Yell "and "White Wedding" is a punk rocker at heart. And in punk, nothing is censored, and hardships are taken as badges.
In Dancing With Myself, the new memoir that he named after his popular 1980 song, Idol recounts everything -- from buying Beatles records as a six-year-old and spending heady days as a young punk rocker to flourishing as a pop star and struggling to kick a drug habit.
Idol's sound has transformed from underground punk and hard rock to pop -- and that transformation continues to evolve on his first album in a decade, Kings & Queens of the Underground. In a conversation with Soundcheck host John Schaefer, Idol looks back on his wild rockstar lifestyle, gives some backstory about his hit "White Wedding" and speaks candidly about his overdose and drug habits.
Billy Idol, on the spelling of his name:
Sounds writer Caroline Coon was doing a story about Sex Pistol fans which included us. We became known as the Bromley Contingent. I was going by the name Billy Idle, when everyone was having fun and changing their name. But when she came to write this article, she asked me, “Okay, what are you going to be called?” And I said, “Well I was calling myself Billy I-d-l-e.” Because a chemistry teacher wrote in capital letters, “WILLIAM IS IDLE” on a third-form report which I’ll always remember because my dad went crazy.
But years later I realized Eric Idle from Monty Python spelled it that way, and that’s his real name. I had 24 hours to make up my name and in that 24 hours I went, "I can’t use Idle... oh my God. Idol." It’s just so crazy. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and I've had a hell of a lot of fun with it.
On coming up with his first band's name, Generation X:
My mom had been to garage sale, in England we call it a rumble sale. She found this sociology book and she knew I loved '60s culture and youth culture. Years later when me and Tony James came to think up a name I showed him this book, Generation X and he said, "Well that would be a great name for our group." I asked all my friends, and nobody liked it, they all told me it was crap. The fact they all thought it was crap must mean it’s good. That shows you how crazy my mind works.
On the inception of “White Wedding”:
I thought the song was a breakthrough song. It was kind of in the style of "Dancing With Myself." I didn't even think about how people were going to take it. The video was a heroin fantasy, it was a bit dark. But the song itself is about not falling into convention in society. It was kind of fantasy. My sister had just gotten married in England, and she was actually pregnant when she went up to the altar. Which was fine because they were very much in love. But I thought, what if this was ten years before, what if this was a shotgun wedding. What if I was the brother who was incensed, maybe there’s an incestuous thing. At that time “White Wedding” became something much darker. It was just fun -- I was just having a whale of a time.
On his 1990 motorcycle accident and subsequent drug addiction:
I was in the hospital and the doctor said, "Mr. Broad how can I tell it to you, the pain medication, you’re drinking it in. Is there anything you want to tell me?" And I said, "Yes, I’m a massive drug addict." I was probably on morphine for two weeks but I was in the best place to get off it. I would be sweating all night long, it was a horrible experience coming off. It’s horrible when you have a broken leg and you’re trapped in that hospital bed and you feel like your skeleton is trying to come out, because that’s the feeling you have. If it had been a few years before they would have just cut off my leg, but they had just perfected a number of surgeries.
I do remember the OD. I know it happened because I would wake up looking at that terrible hospital ceiling and you’d go, "Oh god, I've done it again.” It happened a few times and it gradually became too much. Eventually there was a bit of a wake up call. I had young children and eventually you think about, do they want a dad who's a bit messed up? And they don't want that. It took me a long time to get myself cleaned up. I think I've got things under control, you never know ladies and gentleman, but one can only try. We weren't in groups to do drugs, we were in groups to make music. It’s so exciting to think I can be here with you today, playing a new record I’m really proud of.