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Songbook: How Bruce Springsteen's Portraits Of America Became Sounds Of Hope During Confusing Times

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Songbook: How Bruce Springsteen's Portraits Of America Became Sounds Of Hope During Confusing Times

In this edition of Songbook, GRAMMY.com explores how Bruce Springsteen's empathy for his working-class characters evolved alongside his own commercial success. The Boss is the subject of a new exhibit at the GRAMMY Museum, Bruce Springsteen Live!

GRAMMYs/Oct 14, 2022 - 07:00 pm

If you knew nothing else about him there’s still a good chance you’d recognize Bruce Springsteen by the name "The Boss." The nickname predates his entire career as a recording artist, going back to his days as a teenage bandleader at the Jersey Shore. In a bit of amusing irony, it’s also a name that stands in complete contrast to his 50 year canon of songs from the perspective of working-class folks. "I hate being called the boss," Springsteen admitted in a 1999 biography. "I hate bosses." 

In "The Wish," a 1987 studio outtake eventually released on Tracks in 1998, Springsteen’s narrator traces his adult prosperity as The Boss back to a single childhood Christmas when his mother bought him a "brand-new Japanese guitar." The lyrics echo Springsteen’s real-life story of his own first electric guitar — a Japanese-made Kent, that he purchased for $70 in 1964 with the help of a loan his mother had taken out. Fifty-seven Christmases later, in December 2021, Springsteen sold his fifty-year catalog of songs for a record-setting $550 million dollars.

Over the course of those 50 years, Springsteen has won 20 GRAMMY Awards, two Golden Globes, an Academy Award for Best Original Song, and a Tony Award for his one-man show "Springsteen on Broadway." Though still one EMMY Award short of a full EGOT, he’s nonetheless made do with honors like the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to him in 2016 by President Barack Obama (with whom he would later host a podcast and write a New York Times bestselling book) and a planet — 23990 Springsteen — named in his honor. 

From his inauspicious start to his initial commercial peak in the 1980s, and through a career resurgence in the early 2000s, one of the Boss’ most remarkable achievements is that his songs have never seemed to lose their blue-collar everyman perspective. If anything, Springsteen's early climb to success found him advocating more fiercely and empathetically for the American working class. Over the decades and 20 studio albums, he established an unmatched pedigree for literary power and modern everyman myth-making, — powers that would eventually put him back in the spotlight at a time when America desperately needed those types of stories.

In this edition of Songbook — and ahead of the launch of  Bruce Springsteen Live! at the GRAMMY Museum — GRAMMY.com explores how The Boss’s empathy for his working-class characters evolved alongside his own commercial success in the 1970s, and how that reputation gave way to his comeback in the 2000s.   

"A town full of losers": 1972 - 1975 

Bruce Springsteen was only 23 years old when he signed to Columbia Records in 1972, but had already been thoroughly fawned over by local live music critics and industry types who were hailing the young songwriter as something like "the next Bob Dylan." 

Although his 1973 debut Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and its September followup The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle both underperformed commercially compared to that effusive praise, the young songwriter was beginning to carve out his thematic niche, expanding granular portraits of Jersey Shore life into ambitious outsized literary dramas. The sophomore record closes on a 10-minute-long rock opera called "New York City Serenade" set in a brutal and desperate vision of the Big City that poses a constant threat to the song’s impoverished fictional protagonists: "It’s midnight in Manhattan, this is no time to get cute," Springsteen whispers. "So walk tall / Or baby, don’t walk at all."

After the commercial disappointment of the first two records, released less than a year apart, Columbia offered a massive hail mary budget to Springsteen and the newly-minted E Street Band for their third record, which they recorded over a grueling and obsessive 14 month period. When it was finally released in 1975, Born To Run became a breakthrough record for the band almost in spite of Columbia’s similarly aggressive marketing campaign. The album, which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, showed  steady growth in its first few weeks on the backs of a successful word-of-mouth radio campaign, itself based on a leaked early mix of the title track.

The real-life underdog story of Born To Run bubbles up under every beat and every word, with an inherent drama that builds gentle tracks into dense and theatrical finales. Overeager characters like the narrator of "Born To Run" talk themselves through feverish and impassioned cases for escaping the "death trap" of small town life and an existence doomed to "sweat[ing] it out on the streets / Of a runaway American dream."

The long-winded narrator of "Thunder Road" puts the stakes more bluntly: "It’s a town full of losers / And I’m pulling out of here to win." The abstraction between those characters and their authors — a young band mounting a last-ditch effort at breaking out of the local bar band circuit into a tangible future in music — allows Born To Run to point outwards to a much broader feeling of American restlessness: the particularly youthful and overzealous belief that our potential in life is limited only by our force of will.

"I ain’t nothin’ but tired": 1978-1984

As Born To Run lifted the band into steady commercial success, Springsteen's portraits of working class life were growing increasingly disillusioned and fatalistic. Throughout their 1978 followup Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen recharacterizes working class restlessness as a self-destructive impulse that drives the album’s characters into crime and compulsive thrill in a meager attempt at escaping from the endless grind of their working lives. In 1980 they released their biggest hit yet, "Hungry Heart" — a misleadingly upbeat lead single from The River in which a narrator tries to use restlessness as an excuse for suddenly abandoning his wife and kids. 

The title track of The River mines an even more devastatingly ordinary sense of realism in telling the story of a teenage couple whose relationship is eroded over the years by the whim of the volatile economic conditions around them. Like before, Springsteen dangles a symbol of escape — a nearby river where the couple used to swim in their honeymooning days — but after years of growing alienation it starts to become a symbol of a life they were never allowed to have, and a relationship that was doomed from the beginning. "Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?" Springsteen sings quietly in the climax, through clenched teeth. "Or is it something worse / That sends. me down to the river / Though I know the river is dry?"

Nebraska, released in 1982, was the first album Springsteen had ever recorded without the E Street Band. Assembled from a set of cassette demos Springsteen had recorded alone at home, the album’s stark and lonely acoustic landscapes matched an even bleaker assessment of poverty and the American Dream. Its characters — outcasts, outlaws, and children who seem doomed to become one or the other — speak through Springsteen with a soft and inarticulate reservedness about a world of  economic chaos and  violence that was both fundamental and inescapable. 

The album begins almost identically to Born To Run: the narrator pulls up to a house where a girl stands out front, and eventually they drive off together in an attempt to escape their prescribed lot in life. But where "Thunder Road" had found personal urgency in a vague sense of autobiography, "Nebraska" is a true crime story narrated from the perspective of real-life spree killer Charles Starkweather, a 19-year-old garbage collector who killed 11 people across Wyoming and Nebraska with his girlfriend in 1957 after his economic anxiety gave way to an epiphany that "dead people are all on the same level." 

Springsteen’s retelling withers the triumphant climax of "Thunder Road" into a resigned and uncertain declaration of inevitability: "They wanted to know why I did what I did," Springsteen murmurs. "Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world."

Born In The USA, Springsteen’s colorful and energetic 1984 reunion with the E Street Band, would become not only Springsteen’s best selling record, but one of the best selling records of all time. Culled largely from the same writing sessions as Nebraska, its fist-pumping maximalism only barely obscures the lyrics’ continued descent into economic fatalism.

Its widely-misinterpreted, largely ironic title track is really a seething indictment of the United States’ treatment of returning war veterans; even the bouncy pseudo-nursery rhyme chorus of "Working on the Highway" openly bears its total resignation ("Working on the highway, laying down the blacktop / Working on the highway, all day long I don’t stop"). "Dancing In The Dark," which won Springsteen his first GRAMMY in 1985, spins existential defeatism into something between a sad boy pickup line and a statement of solidarity: "I ain’t nothing but tired… Man I win’t getting nowhere / I’m just living in a dump like this," its narrator complains at first. "I’ll shake this world off my shoulders," he decides later. "Come on, baby, this laugh’s on me."

The album’s most subdued offering, "My Hometown," sheds the gentlest and most personal light on Springsteen’s hardened relationship to the conditions of the American working class as its narrator softly tangles nostalgic memories with an unflinching look at his hometown’s brutal history of racial tension and economic turmoil. When the town’s textile mill shuts down, putting a huge number of residents out of work, he finally decides to pack up his family and move away but implores his son to take one last look at where he comes from.

The second verse alludes to a real incident of racist violence that occurred in Springsteen’s own hometown of Freehold, New Jersey in the 1960s. Ironically, in 1986, two years after the song was released, Freehold closed its main manufacturing plant, a 3M factory, leaving hundreds of local laborers out of work. The Boss, at the height of his fame, returned home to perform at a benefit rally for the union workers being laid off, donating $20,000 himself. 

"Let me be your soul driver": 1987 - 1995

Over the previous 14 years, as Springsteen crawled out of Freehold and into success and stardom, the conditions for the American working class had grown steadily worse. His increasing urgency in portraying blue collar desolation during that period shows an innate understanding of that new development, in spite of his own escape. By the end of Born In The U.S.A., Springsteen had arrived at a complex and difficult truth: You can’t change where you come from, and the lucky few who manage to escape their economic circumstances will always inherently be leaving a whole "town full of losers" — many of them family — behind. 

By the early 90’s Springsteen was living in Los Angeles with his family, and had unclenched his fists a little on the three solo albums (Tunnel of Love, Human Touch, Lucky Town) that followed Born In The U.S.A. In 1995, on the heels of his first Greatest Hits collection, Springsteen released The Ghost of Tom Joad — a spiritual sequel to Nebraska that applied its sense of stark isolation and themes of a broken American dream to stories that, in several cases, highlighted the experiences of undocumented immigrants.

The album won that year’s GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and proved just another dimension in the Boss’ legacy as an empathetic and unrelenting champion of the extraordinary bravery of ordinary folks persevering in thankless lives of hard work. Not long after, Springsteen decided to move back to New Jersey to raise his kids only a short drive away from where he grew up.  

"I am the nothing man": 2002-2014 

It would be seven years until Springsteen released his next album, The Rising, his first collaboration with the E Street Band in 18 years. Inspired by the September 11th attacks and at least one Asbury Park resident’s personal plea to Springsteen that "we need you now," The Rising intentionally finds a broader and more hopeful streak in its stories of ordinary people’s capacity for perseverance. 

Dense with simple and earnest affirmations ("we’re going to find a way" / "it’s going to be okay" / "I’m going to believe") that somehow manage never to feel naïve or condescending, Springsteen and the E Street Band begin to take a more deferential perspective. That view would continue through the aughts, as the band continued to look loss and destruction in the eye but reshift focus onto the immense bravery of their characters in the face of chaos and confusion. Though the band’s bleaker songs had certainly never lacked empathy, the determination to wear it more proudly on their sleeves in The Rising marked the beginning of a commercial and creative renaissance — one which  found Springsteen more comfortably inhabiting a role as a spokesperson for the ordinary people of an increasingly turbulent America.

During the 2004 Presidential election, Springsteen finally abandoned the pretense of separating his career and his partisan politics. He toured in support of Democratic nominee John Kerry; his 2005 solo album Devils and Dust empathizes, partly, with the disorienting experiences of soldiers fighting in the Iraq War; the next year, he used a record of Pete Seeger covers (We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions) to make his most opaque and comprehensive declaration of his populist political beliefs. 

2007’s Magic, a meditation on the erosion of personal freedoms in the Bush era, uses imagery of apocalyptic premonitions and magic tricks to tell stories about the inherent humanity of ignoring warning signs in an effort to believe someone who claims to have your best interests in mind. The complexity of that project — to characterize the era by attempting to empathize with, rather than denounce, the Americans who voted to re-elect Bush — feels perfectly Springsteenian in an era where political art was rapidly becoming the partisan battleground we continue to see today.

"We’ll meet at the house of a thousand guitars": 2019-present 

During the Obama era, Springsteen and the E Street Band released three albums that returned to familiar stories of working class perseverance, with an overall attitude of building back: Working On A Dream in 2009, Wrecking Ball in 2012, and High Hopes in 2014. Then after five years (his longest gap between albums since The Rising) he released an inspired and imaginative new highlight, Western Stars — a record written and arranged in the style of the orchestral country pop of Springsteen’s youth. 

This earnestness and more personal sense of nostalgia carried over into 2020’s Letters To You, an intimate and personal record inspired by the loss of longtime E Street Stalwarts Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. In September 2022, Springsteen announced that his next record, Only The Strong Survive, would be a collection of cover songs from the classic songbook of his youth.

For any other artist of his stature and tenure, these nostalgic indulgences would probably indicate a sort of phoning-in — but for Springsteen they feel like a surprisingly immediate start to a new chapter. At worst, they’re a well-earned self-indulgence after countless albums of selfless advocacy and careful listening outside his own experiences; at best, they’re a reminder, after all that time, of his own deep and tightly-held ties back to the pantheon of characters in his songs. 

Either way, the path ahead is imminent proof of a career built on an organic ebb and flow of inspiration, imploring us to trust Springsteen in his pursuit and discovery of new forms of urgency and realism in his storytelling.

It wouldn’t be wild to argue that he’s earned that trust in his listeners. He is, after all, The Boss. 

Songbook: A Guide To Every Album By Guided By Voices' Current Lineup — So Far

A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
Franc Moody

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

list

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.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

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

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

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

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

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.

The Rise Of Underground House: How Artists Like Fisher & Acraze Have Taken Tech House, Other Electronic Genres From Indie To EDC

Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
Billy Idol

Photo: Steven Sebring

interview

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."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

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 Bamback 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].

Living Legends: Nancy Sinatra Reflects On Creating "Power And Magic" In Studio, Developing A Legacy Beyond "Boots" & The Pop Stars She Wants To Work With

Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
2023 GRAMMYs

Graphic: The Recording Academy

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Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards

The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.

GRAMMYs/Nov 23, 2022 - 03:01 pm

Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.

Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.

Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."

Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business. 

As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.

Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"

In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.

Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt." 

There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.

Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"

Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.

After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon. 

"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"

Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.

In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."

Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall. 

Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"

When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.

Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production. 

Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.

Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"

Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."

Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar. 

Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.

2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List

Listen: All Of The Latin Music 2023 GRAMMY Nominees In One Playlist
The Recording Academy

Graphic: The Recording Academy

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Listen: All Of The Latin Music 2023 GRAMMY Nominees In One Playlist

Ahead of Music's Biggest Night on Feb. 5, 2023, celebrate with this immersive playlist of every Latin Field nominee at the 2023 GRAMMYs.

GRAMMYs/Nov 22, 2022 - 11:48 pm

The Latin GRAMMYs may have just honored the genre's trailblazers in Las Vegas on Nov. 17, but the celebration will continue at the upcoming 65th GRAMMY Awards ceremony in February. There are five categories in the Latin Field of the 2023 GRAMMY nominations — and you can hear all of the nominees in one playlist.

In the Best Latin Pop Album category, are Christina Aguilera's Latin GRAMMY-winning AGUILERA will compete with Rubén Blades & Boca Livre's Pasieros, Camilo's De Adendro Pa Afuera, Fonseca's VIAJANTE, and Sebastián Yatra's Dharma+. Channeling their lively Latin roots while traversing pop landscapes, these albums all magnetically merge tradition and modernity.

Reggaeton, dancehall, hip hop, and funk coalesce in the nominated works for Best Música Urbana Album: Rauw Alejandro's Trap Cake, Vol. 2, Bad Bunny's Un Verano Sin Ti, Daddy Yankee's LEGENDADDY, Farruko's La 167, and Maluma's The Love & Sex Tape.

The genre-blending jubilation continues with the Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album category. This year's nominees are Cimafunk's El Alimento, Jorge Drexler's Tinta y Tiempo, Mon Laferte's 1940 Carmen, Gaby Moreno's Alegoría, Fito Paez's Los Años Salvajes, and Rosalía's MOTOMAMI.

For Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano), 2021 winner Natalia Lafourcade's Un Canto por México - El Musical is up against Chiquis' Abeja Reina, Los Tigres Del Norte's La Reunión (Deluxe), Christian Nodal's EP #1 Forajido, and Marco Antonio Solís' ​​Qué Ganas de Verte (Deluxe)

As for Best Tropical Latin Album, Marc Anthony — a two-time winner in the category — returns as a nominee with Pa'lla Voy, alongside pioneers Tito Nieves (nominated for Legendario), La Santa Cecilia (Quiero Verte Feliz), Víctor Manuelle (Lado A Lado B), Spanish Harlem Orchestra (Imágenes Latinas), and Carlos Vives (Cumbiana II).

Listen to all of the above albums in this comprehensive, 338-song playlist of the Latin music GRAMMY nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs.

​​Check it out on Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music — and we'll see you at Music's Biggest Night on Sunday, Feb. 5!

2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List