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Bruce Springsteen Essentials: 15 Tracks That Show Why The Boss Is A Poetic Rock Icon
The reach of Bruce Springsteen's cosmovision is universal. Ahead of the launch of Bruce Springsteen Live! at the GRAMMY Museum, revisit 15 hits and beloved classics by The Boss.
More often than not, the songs of Bruce Springsteen detail with stark, poetic realism the struggles, disappointments and triumphs of the anonymous heroes that make up the very fabric of American society. But the reach of his cosmovision is universal.
On the strength of his epic melodies and superb musicianship, Springsteen became a global rock'n'roll icon — an iconic status he has maintained through a consistent body of work. These 15 tracks highlight the creative brilliance and emotional honesty of an artist who was born to be called The Boss.
The music and career of the 20-time GRAMMY winner will be the subject of a new exhibit at the GRAMMY Museum in downtown Los Angeles. Bruce Springsteen Live! launches on Sat. Oct. 15 and runs through April 2, 2023.
Born To Run (1975)
After releasing two critically acclaimed but commercially underwhelming albums, Springsteen was given a healthy budget by Columbia Records as a last chance for mainstream success. He reacted by investing his notorious perfectionism into a wall-of-sound approach on Born To Run, his first international hit. The title track is the one song that Springsteen has performed the most times onstage — a classic rock narrative about speed, freedom and broken heroes.
Informed by the energy of the punk revolution that swirled around him, "Badlands" was the ferocious opening track of Darkness On The Edge Of Town — released three years after Born To Run due to a legal dispute with his former manager. Springsteen favored a more immediate approach during the prolific sessions for this album. Striving for an aggressive sound, he recorded live in the studio with the E Street Band in order to avoid excessive overdubbing.
Hungry Heart (1980)
The River was going to be a single album until Springsteen changed his mind and continued recording a sprawling double LP that switches from party pop-rock to somber storytelling. The Boss wrote "Hungry Heart" with the Ramones in mind, but decided to keep the infectious radio hit for himself. Touches of piano and Clarence Clemons’ baritone sax anchor Springsteen's voice, which was slightly sped-up in the studio to create a Beach Boys-like effect.
The River (1980)
Springsteen composed one of his most memorable songs in a New York hotel room, right after singing Hank Williams’ "My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It." Written in honor of his sister Ginny and his brother-in-law — who was unemployed due to the recession of the late ‘70s — it features one of Springsteen’s most vulnerable performances, accompanied by a plaintive harmonica solo. When he recorded it at The Power Station, mixing engineer Toby Scott started sobbing at the console.
After completing an extensive international tour in 1981, Springsteen rented a ranch by the shore of a lake in his native New Jersey. Inspired by its solitude and the writings of Flannery O’Connor, he began working on songs about gamblers, criminals and other desperate characters in a portable 4-track recorder. Sparse and introspective, the new songs were released in their original shape, without the E Street Band. Inspired by serial killer Charles Starkweather, the opening title track sets the mood with the singer’s gravelly voice, acoustic guitar and harmonica.
Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
With its bold cover, crisp '80s sound and brave examination of the American dream, Born in the U.S.A. marked Springsteen’s commercial peak as a rollicking arena-rock star. The timing was perfect, as the musically dismal decade was in dire need of a song prophet with lyrical depth. Ironically, the meaning of the title track was misunderstood by many as a paean to America’s glory. Maybe because the lyrics of reckoning and disenchantment were coupled with a call-to-arms drum beat and his rousing vocal performance.
Dancing in the Dark (1984)
Written overnight after producer Jon Landau asked him for a surefire hit, "Dancing in the Dark" touches on Springsteen’s feelings of alienation and fatigue, as well as a desire to escape. A delicate melodic gem disguised as pop-rock concert favorite, it breathes to the sound of a synth line — hopeful, ever nostalgic — played by Roy Bittan on a DX7 Yamaha. Clemons’ solo at the end enhances the bittersweet mystique.
Brilliant Disguise (1987)
Springsteen weathered the excesses of the ‘80s admirably well. The Tunnel of Love sessions found him in a contemplative mood, performing most instruments himself with the assistance of the occasional E Street Band member. He considers "Brilliant Disguise" to be the existential centerpiece of the album, a meditation on masks and identity seeped in romantic defeat.
Streets of Philadelphia (1994)
Mournful and serene, yet backed by a bouncy drum machine loop, "Streets of Philadelphia" was written at director Jonathan Demme’s request for inclusion in Philadelphia, one of the first mainstream films to deal openly with the AIDS crisis. The singer recorded a fuller version with jazz icon Ornette Coleman on sax, but then reverted to his original, low-key demo. A masterful decision, as this solo version is one of his most vulnerable recordings.
The Rising (2002)
A soaring gospel-rock anthem, "The Rising" was written when Springsteen was almost done recording the album of the same name as a reaction to the September 11 tragedy. He felt the need to write an extra tune giving voice to one of the many heroes who died trying to rescue the victims of the attack. Filled with religious imagery, the song found him reunited with the E Street Band after 18 years.
Radio Nowhere (2007)
In 2006, Springsteen released a folk album exploring the songbook of activist and singer Pete Seeger. The following year, Magic marked an explosive return to both rock’n’roll and the E Street Band. Produced by veteran alternative-rock helmer Brendan O’Brien, opening cut "Radio Nowhere" leaps out of the speakers with its distorted guitars — a sharp contrast to the lyrics, depicting a post-apocalyptic world where all communications are down.
Working on a Dream (2009)
While putting the finishing touches on Magic in Atlanta, Springsteen started writing songs for a more hopeful album. Reminiscent of Roy Orbison, title track "Working on a Dream" talks about the concerted effort that we must invest in our daily lives in order to create a better tomorrow. He performed it live in 2008 at a rally held by Barack Obama, two days before the presidential election.
We Take Care Of Our Own (2012)
Wrecking Ball, Springsteen’s 17th studio outing, was not only a critical darling — Rolling Stone named it album of the year and the record was nominated for three GRAMMY Awards — but it also climbed to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. A song about the death of illusions, "We Take Care Of Our Own" frames his soulful vocals on a wide canvas that includes glockenspiel, subtle piano, a string arrangement and female choruses.
Hello Sunshine (2019)
It is a testament to Springsteen’s stature as one of the most talented songwriters of his generation that he continues releasing gorgeous new songs. This timeless 2019 gem is one of them. Included in the bucolic Western Stars album, it recreates the effortless sophistication of ‘60s American pop, as Bruce’s voice floats in the ethereal arrangement of strings and a melancholy pedal steel guitar.
Having turned 70 in 2019, it was only natural that The Boss would gravitate to themes of aging and loss on Letter To You, his 20th album. Focusing on a more natural, organic sound, its 12 tracks were recorded live in the studio, with everyone playing together at the same time. An uplifting rock tune that sounds like an outtake from his early days, "Ghosts" talks about the joys of being in a band — and the pain of losing old friends to the inevitable ravages of time.
Photo: Beth Gwinn/Getty Images
Listen To GRAMMY.com's Outlaw Country Playlist: 32 Songs From Honky Tonk Heroes Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard & More
Ahead of the GRAMMY Museum's Dec. 5 event previewing the new documentary 'They Called Us Outlaws,' listen to a 32-song playlist of outlaw country greats.
Outlaw: a noun meaning someone unconventional, rebellious, or active outside the law.
In the mid-1970s, journalist Hazel Smith, country’s self-described "mother hen," coined the term "outlaw music" to describe artists like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings that did not fit the Music Row mold. These renegades rejected the norms — replacing saccharine sounds with storied songs.
Long before this country subgenre had a name, Hank Williams ("I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry"), Johnny Cash ("Folsom Prison Blues'') and Merle Haggard ("Mama Tried") were the original outlaws. In the early 1970s, Nelson's Shotgun Willie further forged the style of outlaw country.
Nashville initially ignored them. But, in 1976, after the compilation Wanted! The Outlaws became the first country album certified platinum, these outsiders earned industry respect. Today, the music endures. SiriusXM has a station devoted to these misfits. And a new six-part docuseries — They Called Us Outlaws: Cosmic Cowboys, Honky Tonk Heroes and the Rise of Renegade Troubadours (narrated by Jack Ingram) — will debut in 2023.
The GRAMMY Museum will hold an event on Dec. 5 to preview part of this new 12-hour documentary. Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett will lead a discussion with the filmmakers, and the evening will feature performances from Tyler Childers, John R. Miller and Abby Hamilton, Shooter Jennings and Jesse Daniel.
Photo: Suriyawut Suriya / EyeEm via Getty Images
9 Organizations Helping Music Makers In Need: MusiCares, The GRAMMY Museum & Others
Are you in a position to donate to musicians in a state of financial or personal crisis on this GivingTuesday? Check out these nine charitable organizations — beneath the Recording Academy umbrella and otherwise.
Imagine a world where care and concern is distributed in a holistic circuit, rather than being hoarded away or never employed at all. That's the paradigm that GivingTuesday is reaching toward.
Created in 2012 under the simple precept of being generous and celebrating generosity, GivingTuesday is a practical hub for getting involved in one's community and giving as freely to benefit and nourish others.
Since GivingTuesday has swelled not just from a single day in the calendar year, but a lens through which to view the other 364 days. You can find your local GivingTuesday network here, find ways to participate here, and find ways to join GivingTuesday events here.
Where does the Recording Academy come in? Helping musicians in need isn't something they do on the side, an afterthought while they hand out awards.
No, aiding music people is at the core of the Academy's mission. MusiCares, the Academy's philanthropic arm, has changed innumerable lives for the better.
And through this society of music professionals and its other major components — including Advocacy, the GRAMMY Museum and GRAMMY U — the Academy continues its fight in legislative and educational forms.
If you're willing and able to help musicians in need this GivingTuesday, here's a helpful hub of nine charitable organizations with whom you can do so.
Any list of orgs that aid musicians would be remiss to not include MusiCares.
Through the generosity of donors and volunteer professionals, this organization of committed service members has been able to aid struggling music people in three key areas: mental health and addiction recovery services, health services, and human services.
"Museum" might be right there in the name, but there's a lot more to this precious sector of the Recording Academy.
The GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles doesn't just put on immersive exhibits that honor the legacies of musical giants; it's a hub for music education.
At press time, more than 20,000 students have visited the Museum, more than 10,000 students have participated in the Museum's Clive Davis theater, and 20,000 students have participated in their GRAMMY Camp weekends.
By now, the evidence is ironclad: Giving incarcerated people access to music and art dramatically increases morale and decreases recidivism.
Give a Beat is keenly aware of this, both on direct-impact and mentorship levels.
The org hosts classes for incarcerated people, in order for them to "find healing, transformation, and empowerment" through its Prison Electronic Music Program, which helps incarcerated folks wade deep into the fields of music production and DJing.
Despite being at the heart of American musical expression, jazz, blues and roots can sometimes feel roped off on the sidelines of the music industry — and its practitioners can slip between society's cracks.
That's where the Jazz Foundation of America comes in. They aid musicians struggling to hang onto their homes, connect physicians and specialists with uninsured artists and help musicians get back on their feet after life-upending natural disasters.
Headquartered in Memphis, the Blues Foundation aims to preserve the history and heritage of the blues — which lies at the heart of all American forms. This goes not only for irreplaceable sites and artifacts, but the living, breathing people who continue to make it.
The Blues Foundation offers educational outreach, providing scholarships to youth performers to attend summer blues camps and workshops.
On top of that, in the early 2000s, they created the HART Fund to offer financial support to musicians in need of medical, dental, and vision care.
And for blues artists who have passed on, the HART Fund diverts money to their families to ensure their loved ones would be guaranteed dignified funerals.
Founded all the way back when World War I broke out, the Musicians Foundation has spent more than a century cutting checks to musicians in times of need.
This includes financial grants to cover basic expenses, like medical and dental treatments, rents and mortgages and utilities. Submitted grant applications are reviewed by their staff and a screening committee. If approved, the money is dispatched rapidly and directly to the debtor to relieve financial pressure as soon as possible.
The Musicians Foundation's philanthropic legacy is enshrined in Century of Giving, a comprehensive analysis of financial aid granted to musicians and their families by the Foundation since 1914.
Based in North Carolina, the Music Maker Foundation tends to the day-to-day needs of American roots artists — helping them negotiate crises so they can "keep roofs over their heads, food on their tables, [and] instruments in their hands."
This relief comes in the forms of basic sustenance, resources performance (like booking venues and providing CDs to sell) and spreading education about their contributions to the American roots canon.
When music people are in danger, this charitable organization sees no barriers of genre, region or nature of crisis.
If you're a musician suffering from physical, mental or financial hardship — whether it be due to a disability, an affliction like cancer, or anything else — Sweet Relief has got your back.
For any and all further information, visit their website.
The Recording Academy's concern and consideration for music people hardly stops at musicians — they're here to support all music people.
They share this operating principle with Music Workers Alliance, which tirelessly labors to ensure music people are treated like they matter — and are fairly remunerated for their efforts.
This takes many forms, like fighting for music workers at the federal, state and city level for access to benefits and fair protections, and ensuring economic justice and fair working conditions.
Music Workers Alliance also fights for economic justice on the digital plane, and aims to provide equal access for people of color and other underrepresented groups in the industry.
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].