For Billy Idol, the rebel yells are still going strong

This year Billy Idol celebrates two milestones: his 50th birthday and his 30th year in rock 'n' roll.

At the rate he's going, it might be another three decades before the spiky-haired singer considers retirement. In March, Idol released his first album of new material in a decade, Devil's Playground, which he's been touting on a string of solo and festival tour dates. (Related audio: Hear a clip from Playground's first single, Scream)

At this weekend's Lollapalooza fest in Chicago, he'll share a bill with dozens of acts, including Weezer and The Pixies.'s Whitney Matheson recently caught up with Idol to chat about his scowl, his son and his aversion to spitting:

So how is touring different for you now than it was 20 years ago?

Well, you kind of have to focus everything you're doing that day on the show. Whereas I think in the past, you had energy to burn, and it was easy to just —ha-ha-ha! — live through the night, live through the day —whoo! — do a show. And also, we're taking it more — not seriously, because we're having fun — but I've got a hell of a band up there, and it really means they can kick my (expletive) if I don't do my job. (Laughs.) We've grown up a bit in the last five years playing the greatest hits, and we've got a hell of an energetic band, and you have to be fit to do it, you know what I mean?

I'm a singer. All I've got is my voice. If I haven't got my health, I'm up (expletive) street. So I think there's sort of an element of that that's crept into our lives today, which isn't that different from everybody else in the world who gets up and goes to work. Except I love doing this job, you know. Who else gets to hang out in the day and sign women's breasts?

So after the show is over, are you still scanning the crowd for women? Or has that part of it settled down, too?

Well, I'm single. (Laughs.) I mean, let's hope that something more substantial comes along in terms of a relationship, but ... I would prefer, actually, to really be in love at the moment. I'd love to fall in love with someone, Whitney.

Well, I'm married, but ...

(Expletive). Should've known that.

But anyway, let's talk about your teenage son. He's a musician too, right?

Not with me... he's in his own band. They play in L.A. and stuff, yeah.

So have you given him any sort of advice about the business?

Well, I think the main thing was, he's got to witness it firsthand. You don't have to tell them too much. But one thing I did do was I gave him a lot of equipment. And it was a bit like, you know, "Now it's up to you." He's made it all work, and he's got his own sense, he really has. I mean, he's not up there pretending to be Billy Idol Part Two or something. It's better than that. (Laughs.)

What's the craziest thing a fan has thrown onstage for you?

Someone threw this devil head the other day. ... I don't know, I get a lot of underpants and knickers and stuff like that. Bras and things. And thank God, you know, because in the punk-rock days, they used to spit at you. People would spit at you all the way through a show, so I much prefer ladies' underwear. It's much nicer. Please don't tell the Lollapalooza audience about spitting.

I don't think you have to worry about that. A lot of people who'll be at Lollapalooza probably got to know you through MTV instead of the London punk scene, where you started.

I know, yeah. I hope, in a way, that maybe by doing things like Lollapalooza a little bit, people will think, "Oh, look. He's been around a long time ... but, well, let's go back into his past. Yeah, he was doing something before MTV, and that's what links him with these other people just as much as anything else. It gives him the right to be here today." I came from the punk rock time, 1976-77.

And do you still keep in touch with any of those folks from your early career, like Siouxsie Sioux?

I'm mainly mates with Steve Severin… Siouxsie was his girlfriend. So we were very friendly and everything, we were all hanging out, but really she was always his girlfriend. (Severin and I) grew up together, we went to school together, practically. So that's who I keep in touch with.

Are there any bands you see now that remind you of those days?

I suppose there was that little flash of people a couple years ago who were sort of doing the "energy thing," if you know what I mean, in a bit more of a light rock 'n' roll sort of way. … I don't know. In all truth, you don't want there to be someone like you. You want to be the only one; they have to come to you for that thing, 'cause it's he who does it the best.

But yeah, I wish there was someone — I saw that in my son a bit, actually, that's who the frightening (expletive) was. I thought, "Jesus, I recognize those lips! He's sexy and he's not even do anything!"

Speaking of MTV, have you watched it lately?

Yeah, I'm on it. I'm on with Bam Margera (on an episode of Margera's show, Viva La Bam).

That's right – I talked to Bam a few weeks ago. He's very charming, but people like him are today's MTV stars. They don't really show videos anymore.

No. Early in the morning, I think MTV2 and VH1 or whatever, they all show them, but they're just the top 10 — not like that old variety, where they just seemed to play video after video 24 hours a day. That's what it was like when it first came out. There was no VJ, in fact, at first, if you can imagine. It was more like the songs just came on. In the evening, we used to just turn the sound down and use the screen as images while we were doing whatever we were doing.

But yeah, I mean, it's turned itself into something different. There aren't many platforms on television anymore, except for the live ones, which we've been trying to do. There's no MTV, really, not unless you're just that top 10 band. If you're outside of that … that's why something like Lollapalooza is brilliant, because it's still giving bands like me a place to play.

Are there any bands you want to see this weekend?

I've seen lots of them; some of them I've played with before. The Killers, I saw them. And I've seen Weezer before. I've seen Dashboard Confessional ... The Bravery (and) Kaiser Chiefs, so I'm kind of familiar.

I don't know the Pixies, of course. Blimey, bloody hell. We played with the Pixies years ago in Switzerland — that must've been in the early '90s — yeah, it was '91 or something. So it's like, you know, "Christ! How many years later (and) we're still going?" It's great. It's about 15 years later, and we're all playing together again. So it's kinda wild, you know?

By the way, how did that signature scowl of yours come about?

I think it was all, you had to come up with something that was memorable. (Laughs.) Because there were not just so many other groups, but so many other punk rock groups. ... We were into creating things you'd remember, images you'd remember. But that they be backed up by real emotion was important. You know, you weren't just the face of something, it was saying something.

So if a movie were made about your life, who do you think should play Billy Idol?

I know that chap Ewan McGregor said he wanted to do the Billy Idol story. I read that and I went, "Bloody hell." If someone like him wanted to do it, he could probably pull it off. And now he could do the young and the old Billy.