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AC/DC in 1979
Forget The Hearse: AC/DC's 'Back In Black' Turns 40
The classic-rock mainstays' seventh studio album—their first with Brian Johnson—took a longtime trope to its ultimate conclusion: Lead singers may succumb to mortality, but rock’n’roll would never
Back In Black is not a perfect album, but it may be the perfect rock album. What does that say about rock? Probably something about its built-in sexism circa 1980, with the level of horniness both constant and complacent for a band this elemental, more akin to a hostile work environment or catcalling or "locker room talk" than any singular artistic expression of coitus or the overpowering desire for it. "You Shook Me All Night Long"—which is not at all a bad choice for the best rock'n'roll song of all time—transcends the petty bra-snapping of surroundings like "Given the Dog a Bone" and "What You Do for Money Honey" by not only giving their object of desire some description ("American thighs" is probably their most important contribution to our language) but even some dialogue ("she told me to come but I was already there"—bummer). You're not going to get apologies from a band who recorded and released their comeback album in all of five months after their lead singer died. Especially not when his replacement literally sings the words "I never die," as if explaining why he's more cut out for the position. So I digress.
AC/DC's 50-times-platinum masterpiece (25 million of which were shipped domestic) could be the definitive rock album simply for being equidistant from Led Zeppelin IV and Nevermind, in some kind of sales apex window that also includes the Eagles' Greatest Hits and Michael Jackson's Thriller but also probably tops the curve by being so meat and potatoes there might not even be spuds. Kick, snare, kick, snare, kick, snare is rarely as primitive or as powerful as when "You Shook Me All Night Long" loses its intro like tearaway pants. Slow it down to what we now know to be hip-hop speed and you get "Back In Black," a noncontroversial nomination for the greatest guitar riff of all time, which only Wayne Campbell can really decide. Ease it down even more and you get the hungover, bluesy crawl of "Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution," which didn’t really catch on as a bumper sticker but trudges the album to a close with the confidence as if it did. Back In Black being 40 perfectly parallels its most loyal demographic being in their 60s, an always-in-lockstep cosplay of themselves 20 years younger.
Bon Scott choked on his vomit in the passenger seat after a drinking binge, and less than half a year later, the guy who filled his shoes sang "Have a Drink on Me." There wasn’t any real hesitation; if anything it weirded out the record company more when AC/DC were gonna make their album cover entirely black in tribute. (They were asked to at least provide an outline of the AC/DC logo over it; oh, branding.) Brian Johnson, the new guy, was tasked with writing a tribute song, but not "morbid," so "it has to be a celebration." What a job.
"Back In Black," though, the other song on this album that wouldn’t be a bad choice for the best rock’n’roll song of all time, more than fulfills this prophecy; we may as well go ahead and nominate it for the even more likely Best Riff of All Time award. Makes a great hip-hop song too, though you wouldn’t know it from any official releases since these knuckleheads are against sampling. Search YouTube to find Eminem and the Beastie Boys kicking it like the stomping groove deserves. But those lyrics, which along with "Hells Bells" and "Noise Pollution" comprise the album's only verbiage not directed at women, are the perhaps the only time AC/DC was ever mysterious or impressionistic. Given, Steven Tyler and Anthony Kiedis rap things like "nine lives, cat’s eyes" all the time. But for a band this literal, this nearly artless in their glandular pursuits, it’s Picasso.
AC/DC identified something in punk and new wave. From Led Zeppelin to Black Sabbath to Deep Purple and even Aerosmith at their most talk-box spacy, hard rock in the 1970s was celebrated for its psychedelic excess, its pretensions. Elongated, folksy mandolin intros. The simulated endlessness of drum soloing. "Jams." But while AC/DC surely imbibed plenty of the same substances, they ran a no-nonsense assembly line of riffs compiled like car parts into well-oiled machines, no dirt or mess. There’s definitely some Ramones in that. If not for Kiss, you might even be able to say they were the first of this kind, and that Back In Black may have foreseen the coldness of Reagan in its defiance of feeling; for a tribute to a fallen friend, they didn’t even allow a single ballad. "Back In Black" may as well be about how stylish they looked at Bon Scott’s funeral. But it’s clear that Scott wouldn’t have blinked; if anything he would’ve climbed out of the casket to shriek "Shoot to Thrill" himself. And in a way, Back in Black may have taken a longtime trope to its ultimate conclusion: Lead singers may succumb to mortality, but rock’n’roll would never.
He Stuck Around: Foo Fighters' Eponymous Debut Album Turns 25
Photo: Ross Halfin
Living Legends: Def Leppard's Phil Collen Was The Product Of A Massive Transition For Music — And He Wouldn't Change A Thing
Def Leppard is out with a new collaborative album with the Royal Philharmonic, 'Drastic Symphonies.' In an interview with GRAMMY.com, guitarist Phil Collen gets in a reflective mood about their early days of hysteria — and euphoria — in the studio.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Phil Collen, the guitarist of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Def Leppard for more than four decades. Their latest studio album, Diamond Star Halos, was released in 2022; their new album with the Royal Philharmonic, Drastic Symphonies, is available May 16.
By any standard, the 1980s were a transitional era for popular music, a rubicon crossed.
That had a lot to do with emerging technology, which led some to sink and others to swim. While the drift to synths and sequencers left some classic rockers beached, artists from Madge to Prince and Paul Simon flourished. And that trial-by-digital gave us the one and only Def Leppard.
Def Leppard's new release, Drastic Symphonies, out May 16, acts as the opposite point of this arc, proving that the band is adaptable to both tech and the timeless nature of classical music.
Reimagined with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Drastic Symphonies may be a program of hits (like "Animal" and "Pour Some Sugar on Me") and deep cuts (like "Paper Sun"), but it is far from typical.
Rather, Drastic Symphonies’ splendorous, cinematic treatment provides a window into their tunes’ innate malleability and longevity — while giving their legacy something of a consolidative This Is Your Life treatment.
"It gives it that third dimension that you always want to hear,” Phil Collen, their guitarist of more than 40 years, proudly tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom. “It was a beautiful experience, I've gotta say."
Collen's head is full of memories of that pivotal decade — the one where they were "selling sometimes a million records in a week." If you imagine Def Leppard as being rowdy and recalcitrant in the studio back then, like their current tourmates Mötley Crüe — think again. Under producer extraordinaire Robert "Mutt" Lange, they were perfectionists, breathing the maximum amount of imagination into every song.
"You have this image in your head, and it was creating it for audio," Collen recalls of the era that produced classics like 1983's Pyromania and 1987's Hysteria. "[Lange] always used to say, 'Look, we've got to create Star Wars for the ears."
Operating by that celestial edict, Def Leppard succeeded and then some: they've sold more than 100 million records worldwide, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019. "We're ticking every box," Collen says. "And a lot of these boxes we didn't quite tick in the '80s."
Read on for a rangey interview with Collen about Diamond Star Halos a year on, the genesis of Drastic Symphonies and the state of Def Leppard.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What's it been like living with Diamond Star Halos over the past year?
It's been great in the fact that we've actually been touring it, and it's been getting accepted as we've been playing it. You know, when you release a new album, it's like: no one really wants to hear it live. They just want to hear all the hot chestnuts — all the older stuff. But we feel this is genuinely, fully integrated into the live set. We're doing, like, three songs, and one of them we're doing acoustically.
I love the album, looking back at it. It's amazing. We felt like we celebrated our heroes on it — everything about the Bowie, T. Rex, Queen era. I think we hit the mark with that one.
Since Def Leppard is still an actively creative enterprise, how do you navigate that tension between the old and the new? You're not devoted to, as David Crosby memorably put it, "turning on the smoke machine and playing the hits."
Well, now you gave me an idea — we'll put the smoke machine on during the new songs!
We just follow the Stones' lead on that. Every time they go out, they carefully place a new song. They know they've got to do "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Satisfaction" and all that stuff. We just do that — we integrate it in there.
You've just got to be careful. It's great doing [it as a] first song, because you can use the theatrics of "Here we are." There's a lull at a certain point, and you inject something like that. We're very careful about where and when we put them in the set.
Who were your role models in the early Def Leppard days? Who did you look to and say, "I want to perform live, or make records, or have a career like them"?
It's always been the rock-ness of AC/DC but the finesse of Queen, and the great songs that Queen had. We like to tour like the Rolling Stones but have the caliber of appreciation of Queen. We're kind of getting there, to an extent. But they are the two pillars, I guess, that we kind of base the whole thing on.
Tell me about your relationship to symphonic music, and pave the road to the Royal Philharmonic album. Def Leppard and your peers have always had something of a symphonic sweep, so this seems like the most natural thing in the world.
It is. On "When Love and Hate Collide" and "Two Steps Behind," we had an orchestra. "Let Me Be the One," a song we did in the late '90s [and released in 2002, also did]. Especially ballads lend themselves really well to that.
This came up about a year ago, when we were over in England doing promo for Diamond Star Halos and getting the whole thing sorted out. It just got suggested by the label.
[The Royal Philharmonic] was doing this series of albums of bands like Queen and Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. We wanted to be involved in it; we didn't just want an orchestra playing our stuff. So, we got into the arrangements; we got our string arranger guy who worked on Diamond Star Halos, Eric Gorfain.
It really worked. And some of the songs absolutely didn't work. They sounded wrong and kind of comical in some respects. We had to demo each song with a keyboard string arrangement, and it was really easy. It was like black or white, yes-no.
Were you in Abbey Road Studios, working with the string players on a hands-on level? What was the nature of the interchange between the band and orchestra?
They played all their stuff live. It was a year of preparation. Eric scored it all out. Ronan McHugh, our front sound guy and producer and everything, got in touch with the producer, Nick Patrick, and all of us met up at Abbey Road. We were there when strings were done.
That was really an icing-on-the-cake type thing. All the prep work had been done — on some of the songs, we'd leave guitars and drums out for whole sections and let the orchestra breathe.
But we'd done that all before, so it was just them literally playing to the conductor and us sitting in the control room hearing this wonderful cacophony coming back, of us playing with them.
Songs like "Paper Sun," which is kind of a deep cut off [1999's] Euphoria, just works so well with an orchestra. It gives it that third dimension that you always want to hear. So, yeah, it was a beautiful experience, I've gotta say.
I think we tend to think of classic songs as preordained — that they'd inevitably come into existence and bake themselves into culture. Back when you guys actually wrote and recorded hits like "Pour Some Sugar On Me," was there any attitude that would be modern standards 40 years on?
This is really funny, actually. I remember Mutt Lange, our producer, 37 years ago or something like that — someone came into the room and said, "The album's taking so long! Why do you spend so much time?" He said, "So that you'll be talking about it in 40 years." He actually said that!
Certainly, Mutt Lange had the vision of it. We were just part of his vision!
Sounds like you guys were serious perfectionists in the studio — deeply focused on the product.
We were. And I think we overdid it a little bit, because we'd be there from 10 in the morning 'til 2 the next morning and not take weekends off. As we've gotten more experience, we found that if you have a cut-off point, you actually get more done.
It was gangbusters, the whole thing. It was trying to make something that no one had ever done before in that format. It really worked, but we do have to thank Mutt Lange for that.
In what regard do you think you guys overdid it? Were you scrapping arrangement after arrangement? Were you doing take after take after take?
With the time, actually. You have this image in your head, and it was creating it for audio.
[Lange] always used to say, "Look, we've got to create Star Wars for the ears." And a song like "Rocket" literally was that. Even when we play it now, it's got such immense proportions, and we have this screen and all that stuff. You have this mental image, and you have this stacked-up vocal thing, which takes ages to do. Just singing them over and over, like Queen did.
We did that with the guitars as well. We made orchestrated guitar things, and not gratuitous. There's a big difference between just overdoing it and then doing it for a reason where it actually works and enhances the song; it always comes back down to the song.
Like I said, Mutt knew what he was doing, but back then, we were following his lead. It would be scrapping guitars and adding new parts and copying strings on a guitar with an EBow.
That reminds me of the Boston template, as per their debut album — a brainiac trying to create perfect, idealized rock songs — but it's an actual band with a producer.
About a year ago, I heard this BTS song and thought, "This actually sounds too good. It sounds almost like AI." I don't know whether it was or not.
I know these days a lot of writers will come in. There was this Beyoncé song where they said, "There's 23 writers!" and everything. And I get that. I really understand how that could be. You want to create the best that you can; you have a top-line guy that comes in, you have a drum programmer guy, you have someone writing the lyrics and all of that stuff.
We were kind of doing that back then with Mutt, but it was internal. It's like: OK, we need a melody. We've got this lyric; that works here. That was the approach, and I think it's a similar thing now.
With AI, I think that we are going to hear that. Like I said, I heard this BTS song and thought, This is so amazing. But could a person do that? I had my doubts. Maybe not. Perhaps it was a collective.
Phil Collen performing with Def Leppard in 1983. Photo: Fryderyk Gabowicz/Picture Alliance via Getty Images
With Drastic Symphonies on the way, how would you characterize the artistic and professional juncture that Def Leppard is at?
It's great. We're ticking every box. And a lot of these boxes we didn't quite tick in the '80s, when it was massive and we were selling sometimes a million records in a week, which is crazy, just the thought of it.
But there were still a few things that we didn't do. When we finally got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that kind of propelled us forward a little bit. Doing an album like this, but actually having a say in it and going, "We'll do it if we can do it this way."
We're actually doing the stadium tour now. We did one last year, which was great, with Mötley Crüe. We're still on tour with them and having such a blast. Grown-up kids at school together, just having that extreme thing.
Peter Frampton On Whether He'll Perform Live Again, Hanging With George Harrison & David Bowie And New Album Frampton Forgets the Words
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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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].
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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.