Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
Living Legends: Zombies Singer Colin Blunstone Explains The Miraculous Second Life Of The Classic ‘60s Group
Popular 1960s Baroque-pop pioneers the Zombies had their biggest hit two years after they broke up — but 50 years later, it’s still their season. Zombies frontman Colin Blunstone reflects on their enigmatic success and what's next.
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. GRAMMY.com sat down with singer Colin Blunstone of 1960s psychedelic rock band the Zombies about the band's unlikely success and his career as a solo artist.
Colin Blunstone was fresh out of school when he recorded one of the 1960s’ most enduring hits — and a disaffected Central London office worker by the time the song broke.
"Who would have ever thought? This history is not typical of bands," Blunstone says over Zoom from his hotel room in Massachusetts while on the road with the Zombies. "Two years after the band finished, no one's working the product. It's not being promoted. It's not being marketed. And 'Time Of The Season' goes No. 1 on Cashbox, and I think No. 2 or 3 on Billboard."
That "Time Of The Season" became a hit at all was something of a miracle — and more than half a century later, Blunstone feels no less blessed. The Zombies’ other hits — "She’s Not There," the band’s first single, released in 1964, and the hypnotic "Tell Her No" — remain timeless classics, while their final album, Odessey & Oracle, celebrates its 55th anniversary in 2023. For nearly two decades, the Zombies have been bringing their hits and new works on the road; the U.S. portion of their tour concludes July 30.
"It has been a strange story. The first incarnation of the band finished in 1967, and we started quite by chance in 1999," Blunstone says. That year, he called up founding keyboardist Rod Argent to fill in on six solo gigs. "But he enjoyed it so much,” he adds, “that those six dates have grown into 23 years."
After a two-year break from the road due to COVID, the Zombies are in the middle of an international tour with stops in New York, California, northern Europe and the U.K. Before hitting the road, the band — which now consists of founding members singer Blunstone and Argent, drummer Steve Rodford, guitarist Tom Toomey, and Søren Koch on bass — recently finished recording a new album and are doing interviews for a documentary.
The Zombies’ particular alchemy is a meld of catchy songwriting with surprisingly complex arrangements — a creative fusion of rock, jazz and classical influences with a baroque bent. True to their name, the group has had something of a second life in the new millennium.
At 76, Blunstone is also experiencing renewed interest in his solo work. His 1971 debut solo album, One Year, was championed for its sensitive lyricism and largely considered a follow-up to Odessey. The album — which celebrated its 50th anniversary with an acclaimed reissued — launched a prolific solo career.
In this edition of Living Legends, GRAMMY.com spoke with Blunstone about his history with the Zombies and solo efforts, and how a Zombie stays fresh for decades.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How has this tour been and where in the world are you now?
I'm in Northampton, Massachusetts. [The tour has] been fairly extensive, but it's been fun. We started off on a cruise in the Caribbean, [and] three of the guys got COVID. And so, Rod and I had to get a two-man acoustic duo act together in his cabin an hour before we went on.
We really enjoyed it, but it was scary. Because we'd only played one concert: a live stream concert from Abbey Road in November last year. Otherwise we haven't played for two and a half years. So the first time playing was this acoustic duo on a huge cruise ship; we played to about 1,000 people and it was great. We really enjoyed it. But it certainly keeps you on your toes.
Why do you think you've been bigger in the United States than in the U.K.?
I don't know for sure, but I suspect it's the way we started. We were right out of school, and the record company presented us as school boys when bands like the Rolling Stones were starting at the same time. We were presented as teenagers — I don't think we ever quite got over that.
And the other thing is that "Time Of The Season" was never a hit in the U.K. People don't realize that even in the UK because it's been used in many commercials. … When we came to America, there was a whole new fan base for us… it was a really lovely surprise. And we've just sort of built up this fan base by playing continually. We’ve probably toured America more than anywhere else.
But the most exciting thing has been to see this incarnation of Zombies grow in stature — and not solely through chart records, though our last album did get into the top 100. It's just been through continually playing live and word of mouth.
And of course, eventually, we were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was exciting.
What is unique about this incarnation of the Zombies?
They're incredible players. Both Rod and I would say that there's more energy on the stage with this incarnation of the band [when we’re] probably in the autumn of our careers. There's more energy on stage now than there was with the original. And I think people respect that.
They also respect the fact that we're still writing and recording new material; there aren't many bands from the ‘60s that are doing that. So, it puts us in a small group of bands that are still writing and recording new material. And of course we can always play a collection of songs from Odessey and Oracle, which Rolling Stone named as one of the Top 500 Albums of All Time.
It really helps us to get across to established fans, but also to new fans. And people are always amazed when they come to our concerts and they see a cross section of ages there.
I did notice that at the New York show. Speaking of, the band sounded so great — and your voice in particular is incredibly strong. At 76, you’re doing three-part harmonies and touring the coast. Some might say that’s a young man's game.
With regard to the voice, I think that I started for a short time, as did Rod, with a singing coach called Ian Adam. You have to find the right coaches — not just go to a coach for the sake of it. Ian Adam didn't try to change his students’ voices; he tried to make their voices stronger.
And he also gave me some singing exercises, which, when I'm on the road, I do twice a day. It’s 30 minutes before soundcheck and then 35 minutes before the show. So I will have sung for probably an hour and a half or more before the show starts — so my voice is really warmed up.
I was probably in my late 40s or 50s when I started, before that it was just what I was born with. So, that has really helped me to keep my voice strong and very accurate.
For guys of our age, one of the really big things is to hydrate. And then, at the end of the show, when we were kids, we'd be hoping there'd be a party, but now there's a huge rush to get back to the hotel to get to sleep. Things have turned around. There is really an avalanche of people to try and get [through before we go] back to the hotel.
It's just common sense, really. Moderation in all things.
I'd love to learn a little bit more about the new album you're working on. I believe you had just finished recording before heading on tour.
I would take a guess and say it'll be [released] immediately after the summer. It's 10 new songs; Rod wrote nine of them and I wrote one of them — that's often the way we do things. There's a lot of rhythmic songs on there. We’re playing four songs on tour now from the new album, so there's no way people can hear these songs anywhere else in the world other than coming to our show.
And it’s not all ballads. There’s some good grooves in there – "Merry Go Round" and "Different Game," that’s probably my favorite track on the album. And it’s a rhythmic song; I don’t know whether it’s a rocker or not.
You’ve been working with Rod Argent since you were a teenager. How do you keep that music-making process fresh after so long?
I think it's an advantage because, first of all, I feel more confident when I'm working with Rod because I've worked with him for so long. He writes with my voice in mind. Rod is very careful about keys, because we both like my voice when it's singing quite high. We always work on the songs together, just him and me before we present to the band.
One of the ways that we can keep that fresh is Rod likes to challenge himself; he's always trying new things. And he pulls me along with him. He is a genius as a musician… and if you hear him playing the most complicated classical pieces, you know this is a special player. And he's [not] content with just playing the same old stuff. I mean, of course, we always play our hits and I think we're quite lucky in that our hits do have a timeless feel about them.
But we always play new stuff as well. We're always looking for deep cuts — some of the tunes that everyone's forgotten, probably including us!
Then, we'll play new songs that have just been written and you have to work on these songs…especially Rod’s songs because he's got a talent for writing songs that sound simple…[but they] are sophisticated chords. They're not C, F and G. It’s challenging material and that helps to keep it fresh, because it's not easy to perform the songs and you're always challenging yourself.
And I imagine that keeps you from just being a greatest hits band or an oldies group.
We couldn't do that. I don’t think Rod or I would be interested in doing that. We physically couldn't fulfill these kinds of tours if we were just rolling out the same old tunes. The interest, the energy and the excitement comes from the new material.
You mentioned your classical influence, which I think is an element that's across all of the Zombies' work. But did you try on any new inspiration on this upcoming record?
This was done in the pandemic, so we did have to modify things. Luckily, Rod had just built a brand-new studio in his house, and first of all, we had to make the studio work and we didn't know if it would work. He built it in an outhouse in his house; his house is a converted barn, and the studio is a converted dairy. It was starting from scratch.
Once the studio was established, Rod got into a really hot writing stream. I live about an hour away from Rod, I get the phone call: "I've got a new song. You free to come down?" He has the kettle boiling as I walk through the door, so we have a cup of tea and sit down, and we start with a piano.
Some of them are easier than others but a lot of them are quite sophisticated. And we just have to keep hammering through it. And the intriguing thing is that often I get the more complicated songs faster than I get simple ones. There's one really simple song on the album and I really struggled — he thought I would get it in five minutes.
Do you have any plans for an original lineup tour? Next year will be the 55th anniversary of Odessey and Oracle….
I didn’t realize that, but I don’t think so. I think [bassist/singer] Chris White and [drummer] Hugh Grundy have been magnificent because neither of them have lived the life of professional musicians. Chris had not picked up a bass since 1967. When we did the first celebration, I think it was the 40th anniversary of O&O, Hugh played in amateur bands, but Chris hadn't played at all.
Rod and I were saying "Before we commit to this 40th anniversary where Hugh and Chris play, we ought to all get together and just see if they can play the play." Rod and I were actually on tour and we met up with Hugh and Chris and played through the album.
Hugh and Chris were note perfect. Obviously they'd rehearsed and rehearsed and they've got it. Rod and I, the professionals who have been on tour, hadn't rehearsed at all, and we were awful, really hopeless. It was embarrassing! So that told us it would be OK for the 40th anniversary.
Originally in 2008, we were only going to play one show. And that led to three sell-out shows in London. And then people asked us to come back the next year and play across England. We weren't expecting this honestly, we were just going to do the one show, and then we came to America, and then we went around to Europe.
So, it grew into something that we really weren't expecting.
I just don't want us to overdo it [with Odessey and Oracle]. Paul Weller said to Rod in a very friendly way: be careful not to make it lose its specialness too much.
We've played Odessey and Oracle a lot of times — the last time was when we toured with Brian Wilson. I wanted him to do Pet Sounds very bad; he said he'd done it too many times. And we played Odessey and Oracle. So that was the last time we did it's a bit hard to sort of beat that.
This really did get me close to tears: I was invited to sing "God Only Knows" with Brian Wilson. He was playing piano right next to me at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles and in Seattle. That was a highlight I will never, ever forget that was incredible. But daunting. One of the greatest songs ever written — what a thrill.
So to go back a few decades: The Zombies broke up in ’67 and "Time Of The Season" became a hit in 1969. Why didn't the band get back together?
We were all committed to other projects; it was kind of too late for us to get back together again.
Rod and Chris in particular were in such a rich writing vein at that particular time. [Odessey and Oracle is] 12 tracks and every song is an absolute classic — I would have been interested to know what we might have done next, but I know that the other guys didn't have any interest.
The general feeling was that the band had run its course and that we'd gone as far as we could. And it was time to move on. There was no acrimony. There was never even a discussion of whether we should reform. It was just a wonderful miracle [that] "Time of the Season" was a hit.
Two years after we broke up — who would have ever thought? There’s a kind of a mystique about the band; here we are 60 years later, still touring three or four major tours a year. I'm not quite sure how that happened. But I'm eternally grateful that it did.
It's a strange alchemy you have and maybe it's the name itself: You have multiple lives. But moving on to your career as a solo artist — where you were in your life when you wrote and recorded One Year?
[Zombies guitarist] Paul Atkinson, Hugh Grundy and myself were with a management company who were either inept, or something much darker. Having had many hit records around the world and toured as headliners around the world, we managed to be completely broke. When the band finished, all three of us had to get jobs immediately. There was no sitting at home dwelling, and in a way I think that helped me.
I went to work in a really busy office in the middle of London, and I didn't have time to dwell on the sadness of the band breaking up. After about a year, "Time Of The Season" started going up the charts in America, and that meant I started getting offers to record. A producer called Mike Hurst had just recorded the Cat Stevens' record Matthew and Son and he convinced me to go off to work at Olympic Studio in Barnes — the Stones used to record there — and I recorded a few tracks under a pseudonym, Neil McArthur. This record was released and it was a small hit.
And then I didn't have any choice: I was back in the music business. After that, I was coming home from a party with Chris White, the original bass player, [who] said "Rod and I have a production company. We've got to deal with CBS Records. Why don't you come and record?" Ros, Chris and I got back into Abbey Road’s studio three, where we'd recorded Odessey and Oracle, with Peter Vince engineering, who'd engineered most of Odessey and Oracle. It was like getting the whole team back together again.
And that's how I recorded my first album, which is called One Year. I was used to recording very fast, but for one reason or another — mostly because Rod had commitments with his band Argent — the album actually took us a year to record it. I couldn't believe that we took that long to record an album, hence the title.
You mentioned earlier that it typically is Rod writing most of the songs and you'll come in with a couple. But you wrote a majority of the tracks on One Year — were you always writing? How were you able to create something so prolific and meaningful?
Well, you know, everyone has to start somewhere! [Laughs] I was intrigued and thrilled when I realized that Rod and Chris could write. We'd been an amateur band for, I think four years before either of them acknowledged that they could write songs. Two or three days later, Rod had written "She’s Not There" and Chris wrote "You Make Me Feel Good," which became the b-side.
Watching them develop as songwriters was really inspirational. And I thought well, at least I could try!
The first song I wrote "How We Were Before;" we recorded it and it did go on an album or a b-side. Then we did a film called Bonney Lake is missing. We had to magic up some tunes and … I wrote another song quite quickly and it was called "Just Out Of Reach." So that was kind of the beginning of my writing career.
I kept on playing and kept on writing, so that I had quite a selection of songs. One Year has just been re-released to celebrate the 50th anniversary, and recently, they discovered 14 demos that I've completely forgotten about. I was a little apprehensive how people would react to these 14 demos… but the reaction has been great.
I've been encouraged, and I think I'm gonna take one or two of those ideas and expand them into proper songs and put them on a new album.
What are some of your other favorite projects you've worked on as a solo artist?
When I was working in the office when the Zombies finished, I used to have to commute. And I didn't like to talk in the morning. I'm hanging on these little strap handles and a guy I knew came up to me — I didn't even know he was a musician — He said, "Colin, I've just written a rock opera." I’m like, It’s 8 o’clock in the morning. Rock operas have tried and failed many times. "And we based it on the life of Jesus Christ."
We got together with him and his partner afterwards, and it was Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. So I was going to be Jesus Christ on the original album, but I just signed a deal with Rod and Chris with Epic Records. And they wrote to me and said, hey, you've just signed a deal with us. So we want your first release to be on CBS and Jesus Christ Superstar is going to be on MCA. So we won't give permission for you to do it. So Ian Gillan did it and he did a great job, he probably did a much better job than I would have done!
I sang on many of the Alan Parsons Projects, and Alan [Parsons] was an assistant engineer in Abbey Road when we did Odessey and Oracle so I got to know him. In New York the other night I think we would have played "Old And Wise," which is from the album Eye In The Sky, that is my favorite one that I sang [with Parsons].
There was a period in my life where I was doing quite a few jingles and commercials. I always say to people, if they're coming into the business, don't shy away from that. You learn — I wrote quite a few jingles, and you have to get a message over in 30 seconds. It's a craft, and I enjoyed it.
And you gotta eat as a working musician.
Neither Rod nor I are particularly motivated by money and we both turned down things that would have been worth a lot of money. But the other side of it is, yeah, we do need to eat. We’re really fortunate that we can tour as much as we want to, and we never have to think about how we're going to pay the rent.
But believe me for most of my life, I know what that’s like! [Laughs]
When you’re not recording with your friends and bandmates, or talking to journalists, what do you like to do with your free time?
Well, I love being at home. We've got a beautiful garden that I like to get a little bit involved in. And we've got a canal that was built in 1700 at the end of our garden, so I can go to the end of the garden and watch these canal boats going by, which is really lovely. I like to walk; I do draw and paint a little bit. I like to keep fit, although in the last few years that's gone out of a window.
When I get back… I just want to enjoy being at home. Just absorb the wonderful atmosphere, and then maybe get out in the garden.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
Graphic: The Recording Academy
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.
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.