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10 Essential Calvin Harris Songs: A Primer For 'Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 2'
Released Aug. 5, 'Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 2.' is Calvin Harris' first album in five years. Take a listen through his back catalog of solo hits and earworm-worthy collaborations.
This week, Scottish hitmaker Calvin Harris returns with his first album in five years, Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 2. The LP is a fascinating next phase for the producer born Adam Wiles, whose musical career began almost 20 years ago in the quiet U.K. town of Dumfries. With his pick of collaborators, Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 2 sees Harris perfecting a slick, polished disco-meets-funk sound that’s a long way from his scrappy 2007 debut album, I Created Disco.
Harris’ journey from playful newcomer to bonafide dance-pop phenomenon includes numerous global No. 1 singles, billions of streams, a headline slot at Coachella, five GRAMMY nominations and a win for his blockbuster Rihanna team-up, "We Found Love."
On I Created Disco and its 2009 follow-up Ready for the Weekend, the producer sang most of his songs and toured with a live band. From 2010 and beyond, Harris embraced DJing and foreground more famous voices on his anthem-heavy EDM-era albums: 18 Months (2012) and Motion (2014). Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, released in the summer of 2017, marked a new phase as pop’s go-to vibe creator.
Through all his success, Harris has kept his cool, hovering just outside both the pop world and the superstar DJ circuit. While Forbes named him the world's highest-paid DJ for six years running, he rarely appears alongside his peers at big-name dance festivals like Tomorrowland and Ultra Music Festival. The festivals he does choose are close to heart, like Creamfields in the UK or his collaborator Pharrell's Something In The Water in Washington, D.C. This summer, he's focused instead on a residency at the flashy Ushuaïa Ibiza, appearing each Friday to sold-out crowds. He's also press shy, largely skirting interviews in favor of chats with his friend Zane Lowe on Apple Music.
Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 2 doubles down on the producer's reputation as a born collaborator with a special talent for making vocals shine. A sequel to 2017's funk and boogie-flavored Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, the album is wall-to-wall with guests including Dua Lipa, Young Thug, Halsey, Pharrell, Justin Timberlake, 21 Savage and Snoop Dogg.
While Vol. 2 follows the same easy groove as its predecessor, Harris' career is full of change-ups. No matter what mode he's in, the producer's Midas touch is undeniable. In honor of his latest bid for pop glory, here are 10 essential Calvin Harris songs that capture his sonic evolution.
"Acceptable In The 80's" (2007)
Harris got his start making unpolished productions in his bedroom and uploading them to MySpace with no illusions of international fame. Harris wrote, produced, arranged and performed all the songs on his cheekily-titled debut album I Created Disco, a do-it-all approach he'd carry into the future.
His surprise breakout hit, "Acceptable In The 80's," was born on a vintage Amiga 500 Plus computer running the OctaMED sequencer. Its music video is youthful goofiness personified as Harris dances with taxidermied animals against a neon backdrop.
"I'm Not Alone" (2009)
Now working with a modestly expanded production set-up, Harris happened upon a trance preset on the Roland Juno-G that unlocked "I'm Not Alone." Pairing a huge dance riff with the producer's charmingly reticent vocals, the song became the first Calvin Harris single to go to No. 1 in the U.K.
"People didn't really know what to make of it," Harris told Music Radar in 2012. "When it first went to the radio stations, they all said, 'What the hell is he playing at? He's made a trance record!'" BBC Radio 1 host Pete Tong, however, chose "I'm Not Alone" as his "Essential New Tune."
"What I'm into at the moment is the idea of stadium dance," Harris said that year. "Playing football stadiums with massive riffs, big hands-in-the-air moments."
"You Used to Hold Me" (2010)
Released in 2010 as the final single from 2009's Ready For The Weekend, "You Used to Hold Me" marked the end of one era for Harris and the beginning of another for dance music. The song arrived just as EDM was taking hold in the U.S. mainstream, including a media storm around the significant medical emergencies at Electric Daisy Carnival in Los Angeles.
In November, Harris announced that he was giving up singing and playing live to focus on DJing and producing. "I'll do tracks with people who can sing well — proper artists, proper performers," he told Australia's Herald Sun. In a 2015 interview with Zane Lowe, Harris recalled his thinking at the time: "At the end of 2010, I decided to focus whatever ideas I had into basically one tempo, and try to work out the ideal structure for a radio dance record."
"We Found Love" - Rihanna feat. Calvin Harris (2011)
In 2011, Calvin Harris scored his biggest hit as a featured artist. "We Found Love," released as a single ahead of Rihanna's Talk That Talk album, spent 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100.
The track later won the GRAMMY Award for Best Music Video. Directed by Melina Matsoukas, the video features Rihanna and Dudley O'Shaughnessy as strung-out lovers on the run — with a cameo from Harris DJing in a muddy field.
The collaboration clicked into place when Harris supported Rihanna on a tour of Australia in 2011. "It was a risk for her, I think, 'cause it was a pretty full-on record," the producer told Fuse in 2013. "It was different sounding at that time. And also putting my name on the record as well kinda confused a lot of people."
That "full-on record" now endures as a beloved classic with over one billion YouTube views.
"I Need Your Love" - feat. Ellie Goulding (2013)
On his third album, 18 Months, Harris leaned into his promise to work with "proper performers," including Florence Welch on the GRAMMY-nominated "Sweet Nothing." The album also cemented a very good thing between Harris and English singer Ellie Goulding on "I Need Your Love," released as a single in 2013.
The song's combination of syrup and mainstage heft was right at home in a big moment for acts like Swedish House Mafia, Avicii and Zedd. Harris knew the power in Goulding's raspy vocals, which excelled again on Motion cut "Outside." In the words of one YouTube commenter: "Her voice is actually the sound of an era."
"Under Control" - feat. Alesso & Hurts (2013)
The lead single from Harris's fourth album, Motion, saw the producer team up with Alesso and Hurts vocalist Theo Hutchcraft. Its release coincided with peak EDM hysteria in the US, perfectly capturing the serotonin rush of 2013 with a melody and breakdown built for the biggest possible stages. True to the moment, Harris rounded out the year by signing an exclusive residency with Hakkasan Nightclub in Las Vegas.
"Summer" stands out on the loaded Motion tracklist as notably guest-free. Despite its lack of additional star power, it was one of Harris's biggest hits, featuring his return to vocals after quitting singing in 2010.
In contrast to the scrappy vocals on albums past, Harris sings with the easy charm of a hitmaker with nothing to prove. The song peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Top 100, while the music video — capturing Harris in heartthrob mode — has clocked 1.5 billion YouTube views. Much later, Harris revealed that in 2014 he had a near-death experience from the heart rhythm disorder arrhythmia, casting a bittersweet shadow on a triumphant year.
"How Deep Is Your Love" - feat. Disciples (2015)
In 2015, Harris hit a new level of fame unfamiliar to the DJ world, dating Taylor Swift and modeling underwear for Emporio Armani.
Amidst all that attention, and after the giddy crossover ambitions of 18 Months and Motion, he teamed up with UK trio Disciples for an understated swerve into deep house. As always, he picked his moment, tapping into a hunger for deeper styles after the excesses of EDM. At the time, Harris told Zane Lowe he was eager to skip the album format and "just release one song at a time." While that didn't exactly stay the plan long-term, "How Deep is Your Love" makes perfect sense on its own.
"Slide" - feat. Frank Ocean & Migos (2017)
After he and Rihanna pleased the pop charts with 2016's "This Is What You Came For," Harris was ready to get back in the album game. As the lead single from Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, "Slide" introduced a sound that was more California road-trip than peak-time at a dance festival.
The song stood out for its warm, disco-tinged instrumentation and the rare appearance of Frank Ocean outside his own albums, sounding light and sun-drunk. After "Slide" came out, Harris shared a video showing how he made it, casually showing off a studio a long way from an Amiga 500 in Dumfries.
"Stay With Me" - feat. Justin Timberlake, Halsey & Pharrell (2022)
In the years after Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, Harris jumped between his interests, releasing the purely pop "One Kiss" with Dua Lipa in 2018 and creating the Love Regenerator alias in 2020 to honor his rave roots. (Those decidedly non-commercial releases, including "Hypnagogic (I Can't Wait)" and "Live Without Your Love" with Steve Lacy, provided much needed escape during the pandemic.)
"Stay With Me," featuring Justin Timberlake, Halsey and Pharrell, is equal parts '70s funk and '90s pop, conjuring a carefree vibe that's sure to permeate Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 2. On Instagram, Harris shared a photo of himself standing alongside Timberlake, Halsey and Pharrell at the music video shoot, with the caption: "Ever felt like an imposter on your own video set? I have." And yet the hits don't lie.
Here Are The Nominees For Best Pop Dance Recording At The 2024 GRAMMYs
Take a look at the inaugural list of nominees for Best Pop Dance Recording — one of three new categories at the 2024 GRAMMYs — which features hits from dance legends and pop superstars.
One of three new categories debuting at the 2024 GRAMMYs, Best Pop Dance Recording will be hotly contested in its first year.
The inaugural round of Best Pop Dance Recording nominees features not one, but two David Guetta collaborations ("Baby Don’t Hurt Me" with Anne-Marie and Coi Leray, and "One In A Million" with Bebe Rexha), and the long-awaited reunion of Calvin Harris and Ellie Goulding on "Miracle." The new category also features two earworms from Australian pop dance exports: Kylie Minogue’s "Padam Padam" and Troye Sivan’s "Rush."
Ahead of the 2024 GRAMMYs on Feb. 4, 2024, get to know the five nominees in this newly minted category.
David Guetta, Anne-Marie & Coi Leray -"Baby Don't Hurt Me"
In a year defined by dance producers putting a modern spin on dance music’s past, David Guetta reached back to 1993 to interpolate Haddaway’s dance-pop hit, "What Is Love," for "Baby Don’t Hurt Me." The song is a fitting follow-up to Guetta and Bebe Rexha’s 2022 hit, "I’m Good (Blue)", which winkingly rekindled Eiffel 65’s Eurodance anthem, "Blue (Da Ba Dee)".
"Baby Don’t Hurt Me" brings Haddaway’s irresistible hook into 2023 with distinctive verses from British vocalist Anne-Marie (who memorably joined Marshmello on 2018’s smash "Friends") and fast-rising Boston rapper Coi Leray.
Paired with a video that references ‘90s clubbing and cult movie A Night at the Roxbury, "Baby Don’t Hurt Me" is a familiar sugar rush that plays to the individual strengths of its perhaps unlikely trio.
Calvin Harris featuring Ellie Goulding - "Miracle"
Calvin Harris and Ellie Goulding are a dance music dream team, having previously released "I Need Your Love" (2012) and "Outside" (2014). After waiting almost a full decade to reunite, the pair returned in 2023 with their third collaboration, "Miracle."
An out-and-out trance-meets-Eurodance throwback (think inspirations like Robert Miles' "Children"), "Miracle" aims straight for the nostalgic pleasure centers. Harris told Apple Music that he needed Goulding's "angelic" vocal talents, and the British singer skillfully plays off the song's maximal production. Working alongside his longtime studio partner Burns, Harris packs the rave euphoria into a crisp three minutes, right through to the unexpected breakbeat outro.
The non-album single signaled a new phase for Harris, and follows 2022's Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 2 as well as his ravier experiments as Love Regenerator. In July, Harris returned to the trance sounds of his teen years with "Desire" featuring Sam Smith, proving these faster tempos are not just a passing phase.
Kylie Minogue - "Padam Padam"
Now 16 albums into a glittering career, Kylie Minogue is a true icon of international pop. However, not even the most ardent Kylie fans could've predicted her 2023 glow-up, courtesy of viral sensation "Padam Padam."
The song first came to Minogue in a demo version by Norwegian singer/songwriter Ina Wroldsen and UK producer Lostboy, which immediately caught her ear. "Straightaway, I was in," she recalled to GRAMMY.com, noting that she knew it was "perfect for me."
The first single from the Australian singer's latest album, Tension, the instantly danceable beat and one-word hook of "Padam Padam" inspired countless TikTok videos and memes. "I finally get TikTok. Yes, I've been slow but I finally am there," Minogue admitted upon Tension's release.
Minogue also celebrated the queer community and Gen Z's embrace of her runaway hit. "I hope to continue having fun with that," she added. "It was really organic. I don't think you can force that. It happened and I loved every second of it."
Bebe Rexha & David Guetta - "One In A Million"
Ever since co-writing Eminem and Rihanna's "The Monster" in 2013, Brooklyn-born Bebe Rexha has mastered the art of collaboration. Over a prolific decade, including three albums of her own, the pop singer/songwriter has teamed up with a diverse range of artists, including Nicki Minaj, Doja Cat, Florida Georgia Line and Dolly Parton, to feature on her songs.
In the pop dance world, French hitmaker David Guetta is Rexha's most reliable collaborator. After striking gold on 2022's "I'm Good (Blue)" — which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 at the top of 2023 — the pair returned with a new standalone single, "One In A Million."
With a piano line that evokes Guetta's own "When Love Takes Over," "One In A Million" channels the giddy feeling of new love over a racing beat. The song arrived in a typically whirlwind year of collaborations for Guetta, who also mined the past alongside Jason Derulo, Oliver Tree and Zara Larsson.
Troye Sivan - "Rush"
After a long wait between solo releases, Australian pop chameleon Troye Sivan boldly announced a new era with "Rush." Released at the height of summer as the lead single from Sivan's third album, Something To Give Each Other, "Rush" instantly hit its mark as a celebration of queer pleasure-seeking. In a statement, Sivan described the single as an accumulation of "all of my experiences from a chapter where I feel confident, free and liberated."
The song's lusty bassline, exultant piano-house keys and chanted chorus perfectly play off Sivan's falsetto, creating a heady mood of dance floor abandon. (Fittingly, the Berlin-shot music video is a parade of sweaty bodies in motion.) A ready-made anthem, "Rush" set the stage perfectly for the assured and life-affirming Something To Give Each Other, leaving no doubt that Sivan is thriving in 2023.
The 2024 GRAMMYs, officially known as the 66th GRAMMY Awards, returns to Los Angeles' Crypto.com Arena on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, and will broadcast live on the CBS Television Network and stream live and on-demand on Paramount+ at 8-11:30 p.m. ET/5-8:30 p.m. PT.
The Recording Academy and GRAMMY.com do not endorse any particular artist, submission or nominee over another. The results of the GRAMMY Awards, including winners and nominees, are solely dependent on the Recording Academy's Voting Membership.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].