First he was a Sex Pistols fanboy, then he became a punk rocker in his own right, and now he's 40+ years into a solo career that's taken him to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with "Mony Mony" and into the top 10 a few times as well, courtesy of "Eyes Without a Face" (#4), "To Be a Lover" (#6), and "Cradle of Love" (#2). These days, Billy Idol may not find himself in the upper reaches of the charts as often as he once did, but his popularity over the decades has kept him in the public eye. So, for that matter, has his willingness to work with younger artists, including Miley Cyrus, with whom he collaborated on her song "Night Crawling." But his latest endeavor - a concert film called State Line , now available for your (paid) viewing enjoyment through Veeps - is particularly newsworthy, as it finds him performing a show at a venue so exclusive that, frankly, it's never actually been utilized as a venue before: The Hoover Dam.
Whilst promoting the film, Billy was kind enough to hop on the phone with Q for a conversation, one which led to discussions about how much fun he had doing the concert, how concerned he is about the environment impact of the recent drought in California, how misunderstood his Cyberpunk album was, how close he came to playing the T-1000 in Terminator 2, and how he's enjoyed keeping his fans guessing with what musical direction he might take next.
What was the impetus behind this concert film? Was it just an idea that you came up with? Or did someone pitch you on the idea of doing a concert at the Hoover Dam?
The last concert film we did was, like, in 2010, and it was inside an old theater in Chicago in the middle of August with no air conditioning. [Laughs.] It was quite a different thing. We hadn't really done one for, like, 13 years, so we were really thinking that we wanted to do an updated concert, so we started to think about, "Well, you know, the last one we did was inside this old theater. What can we do this time that's different?" And what we were gonna do... There's a famous bridge here in Los Angeles, and we were going to do it there, but then we were having trouble with the city because of the coronavirus and stuff. And then the one place we found we could do somewhere was the Hoover Dam, and it was kind of incredible, the idea of doing something connecting with this terrible drought.
This drought... It's been going on for 30 years, really, but we got a bit of a reprieve last winter, which... I don't know, it made it seem like things aren't as bad as they are. But this isn't just a momentary thing. The drought is going to continue, you know? And we kind of knew that we were in a lot of trouble. We were all dealing with water shortages and having to, y'know, mind how much water you use, how long you shower or even wash your hands and stuff like that. So we were just really aware of it, and it just made sense. If we could do something that kind of wasn't just a concert...
Because, as I say, we'd done that. We'd done that in 2010. And this would highlight what's going on out here with this drought, which is becoming chronic, really, and it's gonna lead to a number of things down the line. So we started becoming more and more aware of just what's going on, and it just seemed, like, "Great, if we can do something..." So It wasn't just a concert, it was something that underlined what's going on here, not only in California, but the other states affected [Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming], not to mention however many indigenous tribes.
As far as putting together the setlist, how did you go about deciding what you were going to include?
Well, we did we did a couple of EPS during the Coronavirus - we put out one in '20 and one in '23 - so we had basically nearly an album's worth of stuff, really. So it was great being able to sort of put some of the new songs in - "Running From the Ghost," "Bitter Taste,. "Cage" - and sort of highlighted some of the newer music we're doing. Plus, we got some special guests to come. Like, Jonesy, Steve Jones of the [Sex] Pistols, played on the original "Dancing with Myself," so he came and played on that, and then we got Tony [Kanal] from No Doubt to play on "One Hundred Punks," because we always play a Generation X song. He played on that and "Dancing with Myself" as well.
And Alison Mosshart, we did a song, "John Wayne," that was on a greatest-hits (2008's The Very Best of Billy Idol: Idolize Yourself] that she wanted to do. It's nothing really to do with John Wayne the person. [Laughs.] It's his screen persona. Y'know, where he kicks things over and barges through doors. So it's kind of a fun thing, and it was just really great to work with them. We didn't do anything like that on the last concert film that we did, so it was really fun having these special guests, and then doing something like a duet with Alison Mosshart came out incredible. We're actually recording an album right now, which'll come out next year, and it went so well with Alison that we're gonna do a version of it for the album. Because it's a bit of an unknown Billy Idol track.
But it was fantastic to have these guests, and it was a really special thing for our fans. 250 of them could come and be on the helipad. We sort of played on a helipad thing that was, like, a good half a mile away from the dam. But the dam's in the background, with the Billy Idol logo on it. It was just really fun. I mean, when I was at school, we actually learned about the New Deal. You know, we learned about Roosevelt, the New Deal, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Hoover Dam. Yeah, so funnily enough, it's something I've always known about!
You mentioned Jonesy a moment ago. When you were part of the Bromley Contingent, did you ever imagine you'd ever be able to hold your own with a couple of Pistols someday?
Well, no, of course not. I was a fan, really. No, never! [Laughs.] But it was fantastic. That was what was great about those days, that you could get Jonesy to come and play on "Dancing with Myself" and add his wall of sound to it. We didn't have a guitarist on the last Generation X album [Kiss Me Deadly], so I was playing the guitar, and then we got we got sort of guest stars to come play on the album, and Jonesy was one of them. And John McGeoch was another one. So the combination of them was great. It's just magic, having Jonesy playing on "Dancing with Myself" and then sort of just revisiting that live... It was really good fun.
I was curious: because of the fact that Jonesy knew you as kind of a fanboy first, did you ever have any problems with him taking you seriously as a musician?
Oh, no. We always used to jam together. I used to get up with Jonesy and Cookie [Paul Cook] sometimes and jam. Like, Christmas '78, I think we did one Christmas weekend with him. It was Jonesy, Cookie, Youth from Killing Joke, and me singing. So over the years, we've done lots of little jams together. And with Shepard Fairey, the artist, we opened a couple of his art shows that were sort of featuring punk rock in particular. he did one, "SID: Superman is Dead." It was about Sid Vicious, really. So we did an opening for Shepard with me and Jonesy and the guy from Bow Wow Wow, Leigh Gorman, on bass. So over the years me and Jonesy have done things like this. Actually, this summer we did a Generation Sex tour, where Jonesy and Cookie and me and Tony James got together and we did a little tour of Europe, playing Generation X and Sex Pistols songs.
That's the greatest idea in the world, by the way.
[Laughs.] It's really fun, yeah!
When you mentioned playing with Youth, it reminded me that I wanted to say that I was sorry about the passing of Geordie from Killing Joke.
Yeah, we just played with them last year in England. We did a tour of Europe, and when we played in the UK, we did a few dates, and we had Killing Joke on the tour. It's sad. I was a big fan of Killing Joke, so I was really happy that they could do it. And I was sad to hear of his passing. That's what I thought: "We just played together!"
Unfortunately, on another sad note, what do you recall about the experience of working with the late Mars Williams?
Oh, it was great. He played on the first Billy Idol album, on "Love Calling," and then we got him back to play on "Catch My Fall." He was really great. I mean, he really brought it, you know? He was great with the Psychedelic Furs and the Waitresses, and through the New York scene and the English connection, I knew of Mars, and he was great. I mean, he was perfect. We didn't have a lot of sax on my records, but the one guy we had was Mars, who played on a couple of tracks. So he really did a great job and he's kind of forever enshrined on "Catch My Fall" and "Love Calling." He'll always be there. But I was sad to hear. I'm going to be 68 this year, so it's a shock when you see people who are my age passing on. It's shocking, but it's what happens.
On a happier note, when you popped up in The Wedding Singer, what kind of impact did that have on your career in terms of bringing in new fans?
I think, for a while, a lot of people were finding out about me from The Wedding Singer, believe it or not. I think a lot of people in the late '90s and early 2000s would have found out about me from that movie. It was really fun doing it. My son was, like, seven years old around that time, and I always took him to see Happy Gilmore and all the other Adam Sandler movies, so when I got the script for The Wedding Singer I just went, "Well, I might as well. We're gonna go see it anyway. I might as well be in it!" [Laughs.] And it had me cracking up right from the start.
The script was really fun to read. And it was incredible when we went and did the shooting. I took my son and his friend with me, and the director let them sit by him while we shot the scenes. Also, in Adam's trailer, he had a bass guitar and drums set up, so we jammed. And I guess it was near Halloween, because he had tons of candy and stuff in his fridge. He just piled my son and his friend up with an arm full of candy. So they were having the best time ever.
When you look at your back catalogue, is there a particular album that you consider to be underrated?
[Long pause.] Well, I think Cyberpunk was a bit misunderstood. I don't know if was underrated. It wasn't my one of my best records, really. But I think people have the wrong impression a little bit. I may have not been the best person to talk about it, but we were all sort of dealing with this sort of change that was coming in the world, really. And I could see what was going to happen, because we're already starting to deal with it in terms of recording. You know, sort of the Pro Tools system using computers to record rather than just the usual analog desks or whatever. We were starting to deal with all of that.
Trevor Rabin had an early version of ProTools, he was trying out an early version of the rig that was going to become the recording of the future, and I kind of knew about it because I was working with him, writing songs. So I could see there was this new way of recording. I could see it was gonna become the standard state of the art, eventually. And so I just decided to sort of embrace it and sort of go for it and record a whole album using this machine. And I actually did it at my house. I did it under the radar at my house, it was a very indie record, and...I think that's what people didn't get about it.
It was actually going to be a soundtrack to a movie, but it fell through. It was going to be the soundtrack to Lawnmower Man 2, but the movie company decided they weren't going to go that way, so it all fell through. and I ended up having to make it a Billy Idol album. So in some ways that got misunderstood.
A couple of years ago, Robert Patrick did an interview where he said that you had been originally cast to play the T-1000 in Terminator 2, but I don't think I've ever actually heard you discuss it.
Well, I did do an audition for it, but I'd had a really bad motorcycle accident. James Cameron always shoots the reading or the audition, whatever you want to call it. So they actually shot it, I've actually seen it, where at one point he says, "The T-1000 lives!" [Laughs.] I had the police helmet on and the shades. But the trouble was, I had to be able to run. You know, there's one point where the T-1000 runs after the car, you know that whole bit. Well, I had to be able to run, and I had a terrible limp from the motorcycle accident, so I couldn't do the movie. It was such a drag. Stan Winston's special effects department, they had drawings of me as the T-1000. But in the end, Robert Patrick brought a cold veneer that I could never have brought to it. He brought a cold veneer that was really robotic. So the right man got the job!
What do you recall about working with David Fincher on the video for "Cradle of Love"?
That was fantastic because, as I said, I'd had this terrible motorcycle accident where my right leg was messed up. I couldn't stand up. And we were wanting to do a video for "Cradle of Love." I had an album I'd finished (Charmed Life), but we were going to need to make videos and stuff. And David actually had the idea for it. You know, where a teenage girl is really into this song that she wants to play, and there's this guy, this kind of nerd, who's living next door to her, and then by playing the song, she destroys his artwork. She comes in and destroys his apartment, basically. I think, "That's perfect, because I can be a picture on the wall!" Y'know, he had me as a picture on the wall where I didn't have to... They could shoot me from the waist up. I could sit on a box! [Laughs.] So it was fantastic, because he came up with the whole idea, and it was just, like, "That's exactly what we need!" Something where I could be in it, but I didn't have to move about. And then we then we did "L.A. Woman" as well. It was fantastic working with him. It was great. I really enjoyed it. He was brilliant. And I was so excited to see when his movies that he made.
How was the experience of working with Miley Cyrus on "Night Crawling"?
Well, we wrote the song together with Andrew Watt, and I sang the second verse. It went really well. It was really fun. Andrew is really talented, for a start, and he really knew the Billy Idol music of the '80s. That's what we were kind of doing. Because Miley had said to Andrew, "Can I do something like Billy Idol?" And he said, "Well, I know Billy. Why don't we work with him? Not just do a song like him, let's actually work with him on it!" So we did. It's very Billy Idol. I think it's more Billy Idol than Miley, in a way! [Laughs.] But it was just fantastic. She was great to work with. She really worked hard at her singing, and it was fun writing the song with her, just making it a fun song about going out at night.
Is there a favorite single of yours that you always wished had done better on the charts than it did?
I suppose... [Hesitates.] I mean, they all did quite well, considering. Yeah, no, I can't... Nothing comes to my mind. They all did quite well. We were always experimenting with the Billy Idol sound as we went, so we were never giving people exactly what they just heard. Like, "Eyes Without a Face" was nothing like "Rebel Yell." "Flesh for Fantasy" was nothing like "Eyes Without a Face." "Catch My Fall" is nothing like "Flesh for Fantasy." So we were always going one more. if you know what I mean. Sometimes a lot of other people were sort of doing the same song, just replicating songs. But we always trying to sort of break the mold and start again. So we were sort of always challenging people.
Lastly, did you ever take Sting to task for doing that impression of you on Saturday Night Live?
Actually, he had a really funny story he told me! One day I went to something where him and Trudie [Styler, Sting's wife] were there together, and he told me that after he did that sketch, she said to him, "Have sex with me as Billy Idol." [Cackles.] I thought that was fantastically funny. I mean, I thought the sketch was funny...but I thought that was even funnier.