Billy the kid

October 10 2002

Girls! Peroxide! Fame! With a rebel yell, the old punk wants more, more, more ... Jon Casimir reports.

Oh dear. A woman down the front of the deluxe Double Bay function room has just asked Billy Idol what he is hoping to do while he's in Australia. It's the kind of cliched press conference question that makes the hacks roll their eyes in disbelief, but the singer spots an opportunity.

"Well, if they give me a chance," he says, calmly measuring the words in his honey-and-razorblades voice, "I'll unload my very large erection on somebody."

A half-second of silence passes as a few dozen brains wonder if they really heard what they think they heard. As the room dissolves into laughter, Idol cracks a sledgehammer grin. "Got you," it says. So he's still a cheeky bugger, then.

The answer echoes his legendary appearance on the Countdown Music Awards a decade and a half ago, when he cheerfully responded to one of Molly Meldrum's inquiries about his visit, "I've had some really heavy sex since I've been in Australia!"

Clearly, a leopard doesn't change its peroxide. Idol has always revelled in his rock-star status. Not for him the role of serious, self-regarding artiste. He will chat your ear off about songwriting, but he comes from the school of thought that says rock stars have an obligation to entertain, to be outrageous, to inspire others with their feats of recklessness and hedonistic idiocy. He believes in the myth.

And good on him. God knows, most other rock stars are personality-free zones, smaller-than-life characters desperately straining for effect. Idol is a natural. He's a funny, charismatic bloke with a swagger and a wink. He also owns, although he is rarely credited for them, a fine ear for a tune and one of the strongest voices of his time. Add to that his excellent bone structure, his cartoony sneer and the pin-cushion hairdo and it's not hard to see why he shifted records in the millions.

Away from the press conference, the 46-year-old is considerably more subdued, less inclined to perform for an audience of one, though he politely pulls any face the photographer asks for. He drinks bottled water and talks about himself in the third person.

Idol was born William Broad, in Essex in 1955, a son to salesman Bill and his wife Joan. Anyone looking for early evidence of his future career would note that Bill jnr was thrown out of the Scouts at seven when he was caught snogging a girl. He under-achieved at school, but studied English literature at the University of Sussex in 1974 for a year, before he decided to pursue music.

Living in the outer-London suburb of Bromley, he fell in with the infamous Bromley Contingent, a group of self-styled misfits whose ranks included some of punk's leading lights. He changed his name to Idol because a teacher had once written "William is idle!" on a school report.

Idol and bass-playing mate Tony James joined the band Chelsea in 1976, but soon struck out on their own as Generation X, a moderately successful punk act that survived two albums before breaking up.

As the 1980s dawned, Idol decamped to New York to be closer to new manager Bill Aucoin, a man who had once held the reins for Kiss.

"He knew what to do with me," Idol recalls. "He wasn't frightened of me or my image. Nobody in America wanted to take on a punk rocker. When my first single (a remake of Mony Mony) came out, we didn't put my picture on it because nobody would play a single by a kid with spiky hair."

What turned things around for Idol was the arrival of MTV and the instant and extraordinary cultural shift that came with it. Suddenly, there was an almost insatiable demand for telegenic rock stars, singers who understood packaging. Idol was born for that challenge. He went from being a fringe performer to a major star in a matter of months.

"Oh, yeah, I still can't believe it," he says with a shake of his head. "MTV gave me an absolute platform. It pressured the rest of the industry and society to accept me. They were sucked into having to follow this leap. If we hadn't had MTV, I think we would have found a way of igniting it, eventually, because young people would have come around one way or another."

Idol's career flooded the mid-'80s, with his Rebel Yell and Whiplash Smile albums spouting hit after hit. So visible was he that people would recognise him by pictures of his lips alone.

He says that, on reflection, he wasn't too bad at being famous. But, as with many others in his position, the pressures of being in the celebrity bubble began to drive him crazy. The situation wasn't exactly helped by the fact that as his success grew, so too did his appetite for the textbook rock lifestyle.

Idol had long been a (jokingly) self-confessed sex addict. But he also liked a drink or 200. And, when he drank, he'd change into a gratification monster, christened "Billvis" by his inner circle. Sometimes Billvis got out of hand. Then he was known as "Zuul", a reference to the demon from the 1984 movie Ghostbusters.

Added to this, Idol had his share of drug problems.

He was up for anything: cocaine, heroin, speed - if it could be swallowed, snorted or spiked, he'd do it.

He was keeping two addresses in Los Angeles, one at which he lived with his girlfriend and child, the other a secret, full-time party house.

"I'd just take the girls back there and it'd be a knockdown, drag-out orgy," he told cable channel VH1 a couple of years back. "I'm not joking. It was just like Roman times. There'd be the well-known porn artists; you name it, they were there."

At the height of his partying, in 1990, he was ejected from Bangkok with the help of the army after refusing to vacate a hotel penthouse where a three-week drug-and-sex spree had racked up a bill of about $250,000. A year later, a serious motorcycle accident broke his leg in three places, but even that didn't slow down his taste for excess.

In 1993, Idol's Cyberpunk album tanked. Soon after, his record company was sold and he found himself on the outer. His private life had bottomed out and he accepted that it was time to change. He also says the constancy of the drug-taking began to seem pointless.

"You start to live a kind of life that you can't write many songs about. There isn't much emotion going into that kind of existence. What can you write about? How nihilistic you are? There's only one song there and I think Lou Reed wrote it."

It took a long time to get himself under control and to allow himself time to rethink where he was going.

A cameo in The Wedding Singer (1998) drew so much attention that he hit the road in the US the following year. Now he's re-energised and working on a new album.

And to the journalist at the press conference who asks how he'd feel if he was called a dinosaur, he spits out a simple answer: "I don't f---ing care.

You can call me whatever you like. I don't look like a dinosaur. I've still got a few years left."

Then he grins.