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Billy Idol

I didn't appreciate Billy Idol back in the 1980s. Part of the problem was that he was just so darned ubiquitous. Back then your music media choices were the radio station or MTV, and both venues had Billy Idol on heavy rotation throughout the entire decade.

But looking back, I enjoy a lot of his songs for what they were: jaunty pop music with a thin (very thin) veneer of punk attitude. I mean, look at him! Peroxide blonde (a fashionable choice for young punks, c.f. Sting) with a trademark mega-Elvis sneer and a lot more sweat than the circumstances would seem to warrant.

His 1982 video for "Dancing With Myself" was groundbreaking, and everybody knew it. It was the first music video to be directed by a "real" director - Tobe Hooper, who was already famous for directing Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist.

I recently re-watched the video, and was bemused. Its design epitomizes the 80s, with costume designs heavily influenced by the costume design of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video and the post-apocalyptic visions of Road Warrior.

Idol rides slowly upwards in an elevator which catches glimpses of horror movies come to life. A man is about to cave in his knitting wife's skull with a sledgehammer. A guy sharpens a straight razor while gawking at the woman he has chained to the wall behind him. Somewhere, dusty marionettes appear to laugh. This is the kind of subtlety and nuance one has come to expect from Tobe Hooper.

The zombies climb the outside of the building and confront Idol when he reaches the roof. He grabs a pair of giant spark plugs and electrocutes them off the side. They climb back up… and join Idol in dancing! Some of them do the robot. Many of the women have spiral perms and crimped hair.

It is awesome.

Idol, with his trademark sneer and single black glove, was in many ways the polar opposite of Michael Jackson. He went on to spit out hits like "Mony Mony" and "White Wedding," frothy little pop songs that utterly belie Idol's punk posturing.

Oh yeah, now I remember why I disliked Billy Idol so much: he was a total poser. How can you sing "Mony Mony" and call yourself a punk rocker with a straight face, when the Sex Pistols are busy killing themselves with heroin just a few albums over?

Poor Idol was always a few steps behind the curve. Punk peaked in the late 70s; Idol went punk in the 80s. He released an album titled Cyberpunk in 1993, a full decade after William Gibson's book Neuromancer set the world afire. By 1993, cyberpunk was a distant memory, and Idol's album tanked.

If Idol epitomized the 80s, he also epitomized its sudden end. In 1990 as the decade drew to a close, Idol ran a stop sign on his motorcycle and was hit by a car. After a long recovery he finally regained use of his leg, although he walked with a cane for years afterward.