Peroxide! Fame! With a rebel yell, the old punk
wants more, more, more ... Jon Casimir reports.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
to this, Idol had his share of drug problems.
was up for anything: cocaine, heroin, speed - if
it could be swallowed, snorted or spiked, he'd
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.
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."
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
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.
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
took a long time to get himself under control
and to allow himself time to rethink where he
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.
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
can call me whatever you like. I don't look like
a dinosaur. I've still got a few years