It’s Nov. 30 and punk-rock icon Billy Idol is 67 today, so what is he doing on a Zoom call with a journalist? “Even on my birthday they’ve got me doing stuff,” he growls good-naturedly, but he has a happy reason to be working on his birthday: He’s talking about his Jan. 6 star ceremony on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where his presenters/speakers will include two of his closest friends, artist Shepard Fairey — who has done the artwork for many of his album covers — and punk raconteur Henry Rollins.
Idol shares thoughts about his career in his characteristic low-register rumble, the one he’s been developing since covering “Mony Mony” in 1981, with a live version six years later becoming his first and only No. 1 U.S. hit. In his 2014 autobiography, Idol says the original Tommy James and the Shondells version was playing on a transistor radio when he had sex for the first time.
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“Well, it’s just a really good story, innit?” he laughs. “But it was around that time I lost my virginity, so it’s not that far-fetched.”
Idol has been active lately, releasing a spirited, rocking EP, “The Cage,” last September on Dhani Harrison’s Dark Horse label, then performing a special show in October at L.A.’s Roxy, marking 40 years since he first graced the stage of the renowned Sunset Strip club, with longtime partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, in tow. He’s also just finished a residency in Las Vegas, along with a month-long tour of the U.K., Europe and South America. In 46 years, Idol’s look hasn’t altered — the leather jacket, the spiked dyed-blonde/dark-rooted punk coif, and the ever-present sneer, which evokes Elvis Presley, but according to the artist born in the U.K. as William Michael Albert Broad, insists comes naturally.
Idol, who dubbed his 1990 album “Charmed Life,” doesn’t miss the irony of his own longevity, almost flatlining after a motorcycle accident in the Hollywood Hills in February 1990 followed four years later by collapsing outside an L.A. nightclub from a drug overdose. The Harley-Davidson crash almost cost him a leg, forcing him to turn down major roles in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” (though he did have a reduced part in the film) and James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (“I couldn’t run”), though he did memorably star as himself with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore in “The Wedding Singer.”
“Some way or other, by hook or by crook, I finagled my way into this position where I’m still going strong and enjoying it,” cackles the grandfather of two. “We just started playing because we loved it. Maybe it would last six months or a couple, three years. And now it’s almost 50 years later. The music we’ve been putting out lately has been fantastic. Steve Stevens just keeps getting better and better. I’m grateful. Who could’ve imagined?
“We were like the Aborigines, dreaming up a country. When you do music, there is no real template. You have to make it up as you go along. There’s a sense of freedom I get from rock ’n’ roll. Freedom from the 9 to 5. And we’re still having fun and excited about what we do.”
Getting recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is a particularly American — and more specifically, Los Angeles — honor, and Idol, who became a U.S. citizen four years ago, spent the ages of 4 to 7 on Long Island — Rockville Center and Patchogue — when his father took a job here, falling in love with American movies including “Shane” and this country’s pop musical heritage.
“You can see all the stars as you walk down Hollywood Boulevard,” Billy starts singing Ray Davies’ famous refrain in “Celluloid Heroes.” “Some that you recognize, some that you hardly even heard of.”
Idol notes that even when he returned to England in the early ’60s with his family, the culture was heavily influenced by America, especially the Beatles, who were just starting to break through as Billy entered adolescence.
“They were completely into the soul music that was coming over from the States,” he says. “Everybody was grooving on what was happening in America. You were kind of luxuriating in having won the second world war, while England was still suffering. Rock ’n’ roll brought a color, a life to the drabness of Britain. We came back just as it was beginning the take off.”
Unlike the nihilistic punk movement he embraced as a member of the Bromley Contingent — the group of fans who first latched onto the Sex Pistols — Idol has always appreciated his rock forbears.
He was particularly inspired by the punk coming out of New York in the late ’70s, including the Ramones — who took their moniker from a Paul McCartney nickname — and Patti Smith, unabashedly celebrating rock’s heritage with a cover of “Gloria.”
“That’s kind of what I was doing,” he says. “I couldn’t say I didn’t like the Beatles. I know what they meant when they said, ‘No Elvis, no Beatles, no Rolling Stones.’ Even the punks grew up with rock ’n’ roll. I didn’t see those groups as the enemy.”
Billy’s mother listened to jazz including Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dinah Washington and Louis Armstrong as well as Broadway original cast albums such as “Camelot” and “South Pacific” when he was growing up. Western frontier music was another early obsession, with songs like “Billy the Kid” or “Streets of Laredo” capturing his fancy.
“Funny how that speaks to Europeans even more than it did to Americans,” he says. “We don’t have that kind of physical space in England, so it has a fascination for us.”
Billy got his name and look purely by accident. Idol came from a chemistry teacher, Bill Price, who wrote on his third-form report, “William is I-D-L-E,” only for the pop star to change the spelling to avoid being mistaken for Monty Python’s Eric Idle. It was also a take on Billy Doll (Murcia), the original drummer for the New York Dolls who died of an overdose during the band’s early U.K. tour. “It sounded better than Bill Broad, which is like a skinhead in England,” he adds.
The emergence of punk in Great Britain in 1976 turned cries of “no future” into very real career opportunities for Idol, who started Generation X with pal Tony James, his bandmate in Chelsea. It was in that band, during a mishap trying to put blue streaks in his hair that he came up with the peroxide platinum look that became his trademark, much to the horror of that band’s lead singer Gene October, who told him to change it back immediately.
“Punk allowed us to level the playing field, to lower the bar, so that we could play music, too,” Idol says. “We were encouraged to break the rules. There was a sort of brash energy to it. And then MTV helped us, too. It enabled me to live out my dream … to make music, enjoy it and continue to evolve creatively. We just wanted to be in the moment.
“That’s one thing about punk. It enables you to take risks because it’s a risk in itself. You had to find a way to carry on from that. You had to make moves … and believe in yourself.”
That led to his leaving London in 1981 to move to New York where, still suffering from heroin addiction, he signed as a solo artist with Chrysalis Records, where his early career was managed by Bill Aucoin of KISS fame; Aucoin introduced Idol to Stevens. The two began working with Giorgio Moroder engineer Keith Forsey, who helped develop the rock/dance hybrid that produced a string of hit singles, including “Hot in the City,” “White Wedding,” “Rebel Yell,” “Eyes Without a Face,” “To Be a Lover” and “Cradle of Love.”
Idol lived for six years in New York, ingratiating himself into the city’s burgeoning post-punk scene — his first performance as a solo artist was at the last night of fabled New York hot spot Max’s Kansas City — then left for Los Angeles in 1987, where he has been for the past 35 years. He is the father of two children, son Willem Wolf, a DJ, from his longtime relationship with Perri Lister; and daughter Bonnie Blue, from Linda Mathis. Blue has given him two granddaughters, 2-year-old Poppy Rebel and Mary Jane, born earlier this year. For the past several years, he has been dating China Chow, daughter of the famed Beverly Hills restaurateur Michael Chow.
“It’s very lovely being a granddad,” he says. “This weekend, I’ll celebrate my birthday with them.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — MTV contemporaries Eurythmics, Duran Duran, the Pretenders and Depeche Mode have already been inducted — is the next hurdle for Billy Idol, who has been nominated for three Grammys and 10 MTV Video Awards (winning one). The Hollywood Walk of Fame has meaning for him, especially since he’s made his home in L.A. for the past three and a half decades.
“I raised my family here and I’ve recorded a lot of my albums here,” he says. “So it’s fantastic to be honored like this. It’s something I could never have imagined or ever entered my mind. But I’ve made a lot of my creative choices here, so it makes sense.”
Like he sings in the recent “Running from the Ghost,” Billy still battles the demons of addiction, but he’s back in control of his life, drinking an occasional glass of wine at dinner or a puff of vape.
Billy Idol is not about to go off into the sunset, either. “I think we’ll do this as long as we’re being creative and coming up with new stuff worth playing, doing something we haven’t done before. We have one foot in the past and one in the future.”
WHAT: Billy Idol receives a star on the Walk of Fame.
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. Jan. 6
WHERE: 6212 Hollywood Blvd.
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