Photo: Michael Ochs Archives / Handout
Remembering Lamont Dozier: 6 Essential Tracks By The Prolific Motown Songwriter
Lamont Dozier helped define the sound of Motown, co-writing, arranging, and producing a string of classic hits with brothers Brian and Eddie Holland. He passed away on Aug. 8 at age 81. GRAMMY.com commemorates his legacy.
Prolific singer-songwriter Lamont Dozier penned hits for the Marvelettes, the Supremes, <a href="Marvin Gaye">Marvin Gaye</a>, Martha and the Vandellas, the Four Tops, the Isley Brothers and many more over his decades-long career. Dozier helped define the signature sound of Motown Records — one which has been covered, sampled, interpolated and used in soundtracks for generations.
Through his musical collaboration with brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, Dozier co-wrote, arranged and produced a string of classic hits in the 1960s. Among his extensive canon are songs like "You Keep Me Hangin' On," "Heat Wave," "I Can't Help Myself," and "Nowhere to Run." Without Dozier's ability to craft catchy hooks and grooves, Motown may have never become the powerhouse label that changed the course of music history.
Dozier's creative offerings inspired artists across many genres, so when his publicist announced news of his passing at the age of 81, social media was flooded with heartfelt tributes from notable collaborators and admirers of his work, including Brian Wilson, Mitch Hucknall of Simply Red, Paul Stanley of KISS, and singer-songwriter Carole King.
Diana Ross — who first met Dozier in the '60s when he co-wrote 10 No. 1 singles for the Supremes, including "Baby Love" and "Come See About Me" — paid tribute to the late songwriter on Twitter: "He will always be remembered through all the beautiful songs that he wrote for me and the Supremes, and so many other beautiful songs."
Motown Records founder Berry Gordy played a major role in getting Dozier's career off the ground. "Lamont was a brilliant arranger and producer who balanced the talents of the great Eddie and Brian Holland, helping to pull it all together," Gordy said in a statement. "H-D-H, as we called them, gave the Supremes not only their first No. 1 record, ‘Where Did Our Love Go,' but they followed that with multiple No. 1s over the next three years. Unheard of…In the 1960s, their sound became synonymous with the 'Motown Sound.'"
(L-R) Diana Ross, Lamont Dozier (at piano), Mary Wilson, Eddie Holland, Florence Ballard (seated) and Brian Holland in the Motown studio circa 1965. | Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Dozier's journey to the top of the charts began in Detroit, where he was born and raised in the Black Bottom district. Raised by a single mother who worked hard to provide for him and his siblings, Dozier was a creative, ambitious kid and a bit of a romantic — he was known as "the love doctor" at his junior high where he sold love letters to classmates. He knew he wanted to make music, so he began writing songs as he figured out his next moves.
In high school, Dozier took a major step toward achieving his music dreams when his interracial doo-wop group, the Romeos, stumbled into a recording contract with a newly formed independent label. The group's single "Fine, Fine Baby" soon caught the attention of Atlantic Records, which bought the song from them. Dozier viewed the sale as a sign of good things to come and promptly dropped out of high school to devote all of his time to making music, much to the dismay of his mother. But the Romeos' success was short-lived — Dozier overplayed his hand during negotiations with Atlantic, abruptly ending the group's collaboration with the label. They disbanded shortly thereafter.
After the group split, Dozier set out to earn a living as a solo artist. In 1960, Dozier recorded his first solo project with Anna Records, a label co-founded by Gordy's sister Gwen. He recorded two tracks for the label, a midtempo ballad and a funky B-side called "Popeye." A young Marvin Gaye played drums on "Popeye," which became a regional hit before the label was forced to pull the record because of its references to the trademarked spinach-loving cartoon character.
When Gwen and her husband sold Anna Records to Motown and in 1962, Gordy came a-knockin.' After years of circling each other, Dozier agreed to join Motown as a songwriter/performer and partnered with songwriter Brian Holland to pen tracks for the Contours and the Marvelettes. They soon recruited Holland's brother Eddie, and each H-D-H member had a critical role: Eddie would be the lyricist; Dozier, the idea man who created the lyrical concepts, and Brian would write the music.
According to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, H-D-H composed over 400 songs, 70 top 10 singles, and 40 No. 1 hits for Motown before leaving due to contract disputes in 1972. (The trio has since been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)
Though the trio continued working together infrequently under a different moniker, Dozier's focus was on his burgeoning solo career, during which he released 12 albums. While he could not replicate H-D-H's success with his own pursuits, the hitmaker earned accolades for his solo efforts and other collaborations, including an Academy Award nomination and a GRAMMY win for his work on Phil Collins' 1988 song "Two Hearts."
Alongside his creative pursuits, Dozier was heavily involved in music education throughout his career. The veteran songwriter helped develop the Pop Music Program at USC Thornton School of Music and worked closely with emerging young artists as the school's Artist-in-Residence. "I discovered that I draw a lot of energy and inspiration from working with students who love music and are hungry to learn the craft," he wrote in his 2019 memoir, How Sweet It Is.
When he wasn't composing, teaching, or spending time with his family, Dozier held multiple leadership positions within the Recording Academy and left an indelible impression on those who crossed paths with him. "Lamont poured his heart and soul into his craft, shaping the sound of Motown and eternally influencing the art of songwriting," wrote Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. "We will remember his natural ability to pen legendary music that connected people across the world."
"Lamont was a national treasure and wrote some of the most iconic songs of any generation. He was kind, humble and a leader in the Recording Academy family," adds Susan Stewart, Managing Director of the Songwriters & Composers Wing. "Most recently, he served as an Honorary Chair for the Songwriters & Composers Wing, a role that honored his love and respect for his fellow writers. He will be so deeply missed by all of us."
Over his six-decade career, Lamont Dozier helped craft a unique blend of R&B, gospel and pop music that not only defined the Motown Sound but took flight for artists beyond Motor City f. Here are some essential tracks produced, co-written and arranged by the prolific hitmaker.
"How Sweet It Is" - Marvin Gaye
Released in 1964, "How Sweet It Is (to be Loved by you)" was an instant hit for Marvin Gaye, who recorded the song in one take. The love song hit No. 6 on the singles charts and became Gaye's most successful song to date.
The single's success was bittersweet for Dozier, who had intended to record the song for his solo career. "Once Marvin had his hit with [‘How Sweet It Is'], I accepted that an artist career just wasn't in the cards for me," Dozier wrote. "I still wanted it, but I was constantly bombarded with demand for more songs, and more productions for [Motown's] growing roster of artists."
After penning countless tracks for other artists, Dozier was eventually able to make his dream come true — he released a dozen solo albums throughout his career.
"Where Did Our Love Go?" - The Supremes
The Supremes' first No. 1 hit charted for 14 weeks, but without Dozier's persistence, the group may have never recorded it. H-D-H had originally penned the track for the Marvelettes, who rejected it, which led Dozier to bring it to Diana Ross and The Supremes, who were also not fans of the sound.
The songwriter was caught between a rock and a hard place: if he couldn't sell the single, the label would make H-D-H absorb the production costs, so giving up was not an option. Luckily for H-D-H, the Supremes had yet to score a hit single, so they were in no position to pass on the song. Thanks to Dozier's tenacity and Berry Gordy's stamp of approval, the trio gave in and agreed to release the star-making hit that would launch them into the mainstream.
"You Keep Me Hangin' On" - The Supremes
A sound effect from a radio news bulletin inspired the attention-grabbing foundation of this hit song. "I remembered that staccato effect that preceded the news," Dozier wrote. So he employed a guitarist to recreate the news alert on the track. "I thought that would be a cool way for us to sonically say, ‘Hey, pay attention.'" And the world did.
The song topped the charts and inspired new iterations from artists across various genres and generations including Vanilla Fudge, Kim Wilde, Rod Stewart and Reba McEntire.
"I think that's probably one of my favorite songs in our catalog because of the way it has continued to resonate with different people through different versions for different generations over all these years," Dozier wrote.
"Baby I Need Your Loving" - The Four Tops
What came first: the music or the lyrics? In the case of "Baby, I Need Your Loving," the music came three years before the lyrics.
Dozier and Brian Holland arranged and composed the music for this hit song during a three-hour creative session, but Dozier wouldn't crack the lyrical concept until a year later when the muse deposited a couple of lines into his creative bank: "Baby, I need your love. Got to have all your love." The two iconic lines helped introduce the Four Tops to a wider audience, garnering them their first Top 20 hit. (The song peaked at No. 11.)
"Stop! In the Name of Love" - The Supremes
This classic track was inspired by an argument that Dozier had with a woman he was seeing. "I was trying to defuse the argument, and it came out, ‘Stop in the name of love,'" Dozier told Rolling Stone.
"I was trying to be facetious, but the girl didn't think it was that funny. But then I thought about it, and there was a cash register ringing. The next day I brought it into the guys, and Brian was playing this thing that seemed to fit it, and we had it right off the bat."
"Two Hearts" - Phil Collins
"Phil Collins and I became friends and admirers of one another from the first time we met," Dozier wrote. The songwriting vet partnered with the drummer-turned-solo superstar to produce this track for the 1988 motion picture "Buster," which earned the duo a GRAMMY Award, a Golden Globe, and an Academy Award nomination.
This wasn't the first collaboration between Collins and Dozier — the duo had worked on tracks for Eric Clapton's "August" — and it wouldn't be the last. Both Collins and Clapton made guest appearances on Dozier's "Inside Seduction" album.
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The Supremes Receive the Lifetime Achievement Award At The 2023 GRAMMYs
The Supremes were awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award honoring performers who have made creative contributions of outstanding artistic significance to the field of recording.
During times of significant cultural and political change, people often turn to music to process complicated feelings, briefly escape discomfort, or feel less alone. Sometimes, the music directly addresses social issues. Other times, it simply captures the spirit of the moment. Such was the case with the Supremes’ 1964 breakout single, “Where Did Our Love Go.” Released in 1964, two weeks before Lyndon B. Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act into law, the single helped define the sound of young America, and more specifically, the sound of young Black America.
“America was changing, and we were at the top of that change with ‘Where Did Our Love Go,’” Wilson said in a 2018 interview. “Martin Luther King was speaking about love, and so were we. It was a time when peace was needed; the civil rights movement was happening. The song … had a peaceful, soothing message, and it fit the times.”
But becoming the first all-female group to reach the top of the Billboard charts was only the beginning for Florence Ballard, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson of the Supremes — a trio who created the blueprint for future pop-R&B girl groups such as the Pointer Sisters, En Vogue, TLC, SWV, Destiny’s Child, and more.
A few years after signing with Motown Records in 1961, label chief Berry Gordy, the Supremes, and their songwriting/production team of Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier — had developed a nearly foolproof recipe for success that would shepherd the trio into the mainstream during a very divisive time: captivating three-part harmonies, glamorous styling, infectious melodies, and relatable, catchy lyrics.
As segregation nominally ended in 1964, the group began one of the most historic runs in pop-music history, releasing five consecutive No. 1 records from 1964–65: “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “Back in My Arms Again.”
The Supremes attracted listeners of all races with their simple message, catchy tunes, accessible choreography, and mesmerizing elegance, often playing to integrated audiences. Helping to unify a deeply divided America in the 1960s was a massive accomplishment in its own right, but their mere existence as a hitmaking trio of glamorous and talented Black female entertainers gave hope to a generation of young Black girls and women.
Today, you can hear the Supremes’ historic run of hits, including 12 total No. 1s, everywhere — streaming services, TV commercials, movies and beyond — nearly 60 years later. The group’s impact is undeniable — their enchanting performances and melodic hits gave hope to the women of their time and paved the way for future generations of female entertainers in the
industry. While the world has changed since “Where Did Our Love Go” was released in July 1962, Ballard, Ross and Wilson’s enduring message of hope continues to resonate as the fight for equality wages on.
Photo: PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images
Here's What Happened At The Recording Academy's 2023 Special Merit Awards Ceremony Honoring Heart, Nirvana, Nile Rodgers, The Supremes & More
In addition to seven music legends receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, the GRAMMY Week event honored recipients of the Music Educator Award, Trustees Awards and Technical GRAMMY Awards.
Amid the madness of GRAMMY Week, there was an air of tranquility surrounding the Wilshire Ebell Theatre on the afternoon of Feb. 4. The sunlit streets were nearly empty, the red carpet was discreetly hidden from public view. Inside the theater, music royalty, entertainment journalists and GRAMMY nominees congregated for one of the week's most emotionally charged events: the Special Merit Awards Ceremony.
Music teacher Pamela Dawson beamed as Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. handed her the 2023 GRAMMY Music Educator Award. Mama Dawson, as she is known among her students at DeSoto High School in Texas, is loved by all for her relentless positivity and encouragement. "I thank you God for giving me the gift of music," she said. "My mother believed in me even when I didn't. My heritage is a big loving heart that I can give to others."
In the Technical GRAMMY Award department, the Academy recognized the efforts of the Audio Engineering Society and Dr. Andy Hildebrand — inventor of the Auto-Tune software program.
The Trustees Awards honorees were Henry Diltz, who photographed iconic album covers of the '60s and '70s; the late Ellis Marsalis, jazz pianist and educator; and the late Jim Stewart, founder of the mythical Stax Records.
"Dad had an open-door policy that helped create a utopian reality," said Stewart's daughter Lori, addressing the label's unusual-for-the-time policy of working with talented artists regardless of their racial or ethnic background. "More than a business, Stax was a family."
Then, it was time to salute the recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award, and the gallery of selected artists painted a wondrous picture of popular music — from classic rock and grunge to soul, hip-hop, funk, jazz, and blues.
In his typical unconventional fashion, 10-time GRAMMY winner Bobby McFerrin accepted his award doing what he does best: singing. "I want to have some fun today," began the "Don't Worry Be Happy" hitmaker in his inimitable falsetto. Backed briefly on vocals by his three adult children, McFerrin smiled and improvised, surprised and delighted, crediting his late father — the first Black singer to be offered a contract at the Metropolitan Opera — as a major inspiration. "Have fun," he concluded. "Play. Don't think. Be good to yourself.'
Equally moving — but in a more grungy, Seattle kind of way — was seeing the surviving members of '90s pioneers Nirvana. "Kurt Cobain is never far away," said the band's bassist and founding member Krist Novoselic. "Just turn on the radio." He also thanked young people from all over the world for the many fan letters he continues to receive, as drummer Dave Grohl and guitarist Pat Smear stood by his side, nodding approvingly.
Legendary blues singer Ma Rainey (1886-1939) received a long-overdue induction to the Lifetime Achievement gallery. On hand to collect the award were her great nephew, Frank Nix, and great great niece Cassandra Behler. "Ma was an amazing performer and businesswoman," said Behler. "I can't imagine the sacrifices she made for her career and lifestyle."
Prolific beyond any reasonable expectation, guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers was visibly moved — almost lost for words. "I'm sorry to be so emotional," he told the crowd, which responded with an even bigger round of applause. "This journey was a series of steps."
The founder of disco-funk collective CHIC, Rodgers is known for his unmistakable guitar sound — adding waves of funk to every single genre it touches — and sensitive production work. When he thanked the musicians that he worked with, the list was regal, including David Bowie, Diana Ross, Bryan Ferry, and Beyoncé — the latter of whom he would go on to win Best R&B Song with at the 2023 GRAMMYs (and accept on her behalf!).
"Do you like my coat?," asked English-American rapper and producer Slick Rick "The Ruler," showing off an elegant, light purple coat over his suit and matching tie. "Macy's women's section." Slick's speech was as witty as his rapping. He mentioned listening to Dionne Warwick's "Walk On By" as a kid, then outlined his love for the music of the Beatles, the Supremes, Jamaican dancehall and hip-hop — and his fateful move to the U.S. in 1976.
Fittingly, the Supremes were also honorees this year. During their induction, Florence Ballard's daughter Lisa Chapman explained that she couldn't share any personal anecdotes because her mother died when she was only 3 years old. "I thank [the late] Mary Wilson, because she never left my Mom's side," she said. "They're probably sipping on the finest champagne right now," added Wilson's daughter Turkessa Babich. "They are always with us."
The last artists to be honored were two immensely talented sisters, Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart. The sibling duo changed the nature of the game for women in hard rock, and guitarist Nancy Wilson spoke of her beginnings in music. "I left college in 1974 to join the band," she recalled. "Our dream was to be the Beatles. Not to be their girlfriends, or marry one of them, but to be them — and we did it."
Wilson was effusive in praising her sister, powerhouse singer Ann. "We survived the sheer insanity of a rock 'n' roll circus. We were two military brats, two badasses, and we stood up. We rocked our butts off, and we did all of it together."
Wilson's last words — bringing the event to its conclusion — were dedicated to the fans: "You were always the reason for us to catch dreams in our butterfly nets."
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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.
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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].
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