The dyed platinum hair looks electrified, as though Billy Idol plugged his amp into the wrong outlet. The pouty sneer suggests more sinister currents, as do the biker leathers, studded belts and the chain-link ornaments a modest Mr. T might wear. You can relax though. Billy Idol may look like a Road Warrior leftover, but that punk patina is strictly business. “I use my image to attract people,” says the 28-year-old London native. “Hell, everybody does. We’re in heavy competition here.”
Idol conducts his business on a rock ‘n’ roll stage, of course, and his competition for fans is going well. Less than four years after arriving in New York with scarcely any fanfare—or plane fare—he has pumped three albums onto the Billboard charts and become, thanks to his puckishly villainous video roles, one of the more popular players on cable’s MTV. To promote his newest album, Rebel Yell, he has taken his act onto Saturday Night Live and to SRO audiences across the country. The fan Idol-atry hasn’t yet put him into Madison Square Garden, but he has come a long way.
In recent weeks at New York’s Beacon Theatre, Idol’s blend of portentous hard rock and tough-guy posturing seemed to work to perfection. At times he is graceless on stage, his awkward lurches suggesting more stagger than swagger. (His lyrical choreography can go equally askew: “Face to face, and back to back/You see and feel my sex attack,” he sings in Flesh for Fantasy.) No matter. At the Beacon, worshipful fans stood on their seats returning each of his clenched-fist salutes and readily ignored, if they noticed, that the singer seemed to have feet of lead.
It was not always so, and Idol concedes that during his career, “I’ve had everything in the world thrown at me.” The son of an English salesman, Idol (né William Broad) began playing guitar when he was 10 and left home six years later to try his luck as a musician. “I definitely wasn’t gonna just be an idiot and slave for somebody else,” he says. Spurning London’s fast-fading hippie scene (“I couldn’t even grow a beard”), he began hanging out with a group of punk rockers and dyeing his hair successive shades of black, red and, finally, blond.
In 1976 Idol formed his own band, Generation X, and hit upon his nom de punk, a device to twit rock’s cult of celebrity. “I can be an idol just by calling myself one; that’s how flimsy it all is,” he reasoned. But after three Gen X albums Idol jumped ship and headed for the New York offices of impresario Bill Aucoin, the man who had managed Kiss to stardom. If celebrity was foolishness, it was the kind of foolishness Idol wanted, and his approach impressed Aucoin. “A lot of times when you meet artists, it’s like you’re talking to someone who should be behind a desk,” the manager notes. “The first day I met him, he was Billy Idol, no question about it.”
With Aucoin firmly on his side, Idol teamed up with guitarist Steve Stevens, now his co-writer, and formed a new band. Ironically, one of their first hit singles was a warmed-over Generation X tune titled Dancing With Myself, bolstered this time around by a video from director Tobe Hooper of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame. In it, Idol plays his usual chest thumper, sporting more studs than a set of snow tires. It is a stage role he clearly relishes—profitably. As for nonbelievers in the punk pinup-boy image, “They can laugh if they think I look stupid,” says Billy magnanimously. “If they get a laugh out of it, that’s kinda cool.”