Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Genesis in 1972. (L-R) Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks, Peter Gabriel & Steve Hackett
The Genesis Essentials: 15 Songs That Highlight The Band's Influential Genre-Bending Style
On the 25th anniversary of Genesis' final album 'Calling All Stations,' GRAMMY.com celebrates 15 of the most majestic and ambitious tracks in the group's catalog.
This month, Calling All Stations — the 15th and last studio album by British group Genesis — turns 25. It offers an intriguing (yet somewhat underwhelming) conclusion to the discography of a band that infused popular music with poetry and theatricality. Genesis enjoyed two careers in one; first as prog-rock pioneers in the '70s, then mainstream hitmakers throughout the '80s and early '90s. Both chapters share a common element: songwriting that surprises at every corner and defies expectations.
After producer Jonathan King discovered the group in the late '60s, he suggested the name Genesis, implying the promise of something new. It was a time of turmoil and growth for the English music scene, as the explosion of psychedelia, acid-folk and art-pop eventually coalesced into the heyday of progressive rock.
Genesis began as a teenage pop group, and after changing a couple of members, emerged in 1971 with its definitive lineup: singer Peter Gabriel, keyboardist Tony Banks, bassist Mike Rutherford, guitarist Steve Hackett and drummer Phil Collins. Lauded for representing the limitless imagination of prog, the GRAMMY-winning band quickly ventured beyond the confines of the genre.
Gabriel left in 1975, Hackett in '77, and Collins in '96. With Banks and Rutherford as core members, the group found resilience in change, eventually selling over 100 million records worldwide across their nearly three-decade run. Their final reunion tour, with Collins back on board, ended in March of this year.
Omitting the obvious hits, this list of 15 essential tracks highlights the Genesis songbook at its most majestic and ambitious.
"The Musical Box" (1971)
The opening track of Genesis' third album Nursery Cryme, this 10-minute mini-opera features the newly arrived Collins and Hackett. It also showcases the quintet's fully formed obsessions: a preoccupation with nocturnal moods and odd time signatures, pastoral passages and lyrics that merge Lewis Carroll-like whimsy with the surreal and macabre. The story's grand finale — the aged spirit of a murdered child returns from the dead to unleash a lifetime of pent-up desire — allowed 21 year-old Peter Gabriel to create a memorable onstage moment by wearing a creepy mask resembling an old man while performing.
At the beginning, Genesis sat comfortably next to like-minded bands such as King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator. It was perhaps the staggering individual talent of its members that allowed them to transcend their prog roots and become one of the most popular rock bands in history. A deep album cut like "Harlequin" brims with promise — its vulnerable, luminous energy has aged particularly well.
"Supper's Ready" (1972)
Together with "Close to the Edge" by Yes — both released the same year — "Supper's Ready" sums up the beautiful madness of the British progressive school, its attempt to elevate rock 'n' roll into a level of complexity and ambition that was unimaginable until then. The song features music-hall extravagance, cozy folk harmonies and 12-string guitars, cutting edge 9/8 drum patterns, and the apocalypse itself ("as sure as eggs is eggs"), its 23-minute run time occupying the entire side B of the Foxtrot LP. The ending crescendo, with Gabriel in stunning vocal form, evokes the rapture of a classical symphony.
"Firth Of Fifth" (1973)
Keyboardist Tony Banks was inspired by Rachmaninoff for the hyper-romantic piano intro to this Genesis stage favorite. Only five albums into its career, the band had achieved full artistic maturity — a rare state of grace that wouldn't last long. The melodies are particularly rich on this solemn rock hymn, and Hackett's byzantine electric solo became a point of reference for generations of future guitarists like Eddie Van Halen and Brian May.
"Carpet Crawlers" (1974)
A proposed album based on The Little Prince was canned in favor of Gabriel's patchy narrative about a disaffected Puerto Rican teen in New York City. Eerily predating the punk revolution, double LP The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway found the band overreaching for the first and only time. Still, it boasts many spectacular moments — and a Brian Eno contribution — such as this dreamy ballad with nonsensical lyrics and a spectral, spiraling piano pattern. Perhaps prematurely, Gabriel decided to leave the band while playing the entire album live across America.
"Dance On A Volcano" (1976)
They considered carrying on as an instrumental unit, then held auditions in search of a new vocalist. But in the end, Genesis decided to give Phil Collins a chance as lead singer, with Yes virtuoso Bill Bruford joining behind the drum kit on tour. Released in 1976, the first two post-Gabriel albums — A Trick of the Tail and Wind & Wuthering — include some of the band's finest work; the revamped sound direct and pristine. "Dance on a Volcano" reflects the influence that the then-popular jazz-rock fusion had on Collins.
Genesis shone the brightest whenever they explored the more delicate, mournful shades of their sonic palette. From 1980 onwards, pop balladry would be the framework of choice. Before then, songs like "Ripples" combined the band's folk-rock vein with the influence of classical music. There are hints of Debussy and Ravel in the floating instrumental bridge — a passage seeped in longing, which arguably stands as the quintessential Genesis moment.
"Eleventh Earl Of Mar" (1976)
One of those rare instances when an album's title and cover sum up the specific aura of the music inside, Wind & Wuthering is misty and autumnal to the core. It is the one Genesis session most influenced by Hackett — his complex acoustic guitar contributing to the haunting mood. This was his last record with the band, followed by a string of brilliant solo albums.
Hitting a sweet spot between art-rock density and mainstream vigor, Duke showcased Genesis as champions of eccentricity — sweeping instrumental workouts next to sad ballads about getting divorced. "Duchess" uses a primitive drum machine pattern as launching pad for a saga about the inevitable decline of a veteran singer. Years of nonstop touring had opened up Collins' vocal chords, resulting in performances that sounded positively soulful.
Beginning with Abacab, Genesis abandoned individual song credits and started writing from scratch in their newly built home studio. They infuriated longtime fans by adding a brass section to a couple of hits, experimenting joyfully with noise and booming drums, and incorporating Collins' hitmaking recipes once his solo career took off. It was undoubtedly a different band, but the subterranean prog tendencies were still there. There's a new-wave polish to "Dodo/Lurker," but the grandiose melodrama of years past shines through.
"You Might Recall" (1981)
Perhaps the biggest strength of the trio's commercial heyday was its ability to begin with a small idea like a riff or melody and allow it to blossom into a pop miniature. A B-side from the Abacab sessions, "You Might Recall" underscores the grit in Collins' voice — all those Motown records that he loved growing up — as well as the ease with which Banks and Rutherford became succinct and economical, without sacrificing the magic in their songwriting.
"In The Cage Medley" (1981)
Pittsburgh '76. Zurich '77. London Lyceum '80. Some Genesis concerts became the stuff of legend among fans, boosted by breathtaking light shows and the drum duets between Collins and former Weather Report percussionist Chester Thompson. Lifting a song from The Lamb and connecting it with various instrumental sections and the somber "Afterglow," the "In The Cage Medley" was always the high point of their concerts. This version from the double album Three Sides Live is electrifying.
"Home By The Sea" (1983)
With electronic drums and a new arsenal of keyboard patches, this is the tight, quirky edition of Genesis: a trio of wealthy rockers in their '30s who played four sold-out shows at Wembley in 1987. Some of their creative choices were baffling during this period, but when the magic worked, it was the very "pictures of delight" referenced in the lyrics of "Home by the Sea." The instrumental section in the middle sums up the best of '80s Genesis — grand, funky and cohesive. Vari-Lites were invented for songs such as this one.
"The Brazilian" (1986)
At the end of their journey together, Genesis excelled in a stark brand of minimalism. The trio found precious harmonic nuggets and maximized their emotional impact through the art of orchestration. This tribal percussive workout — almost like the theme to an imaginary movie — builds up subtle variations on the same lush melody and offers a striking coda to Invisible Touch, an album filled with massive pop singles.
"Hold On My Heart" (1991)
From 1981's "In The Air Tonight" until his departure from the band, Collins juggled solo stardom with his Genesis commitments. As a result, the despondent breakup ballads for which he became famous started infiltrating the group material. Still, the contribution of Banks and Rutherford to perennial radio favorites like "Hold On My Heart" added subtlety and sophistication. The result was openly commercial, but also possessed an indelible, peculiar beauty of its own.
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.
How 1973 Shaped Classic Rock: 10 Essential Albums From British Artists
Fifty years ago, there was a creative apex in what we now call classic rock. However, the sounds of '73 were wildly progressive and diverse, with influences that ranged from blues and baroque, to free jazz and acid-folk.
Fifty years ago, a young generation of British rock 'n' rollers were ready to show the world that the lessons learned from the Beatles were not lost on them. If the kaleidoscopic Sgt. Pepper’s had proven that pop music could be anything you wanted it to be, the artists that followed took those radical ideas to a new level.
United by the vague, umbrella-like term of progressive rock, bands like Genesis, Pink Floyd, Queen and King Crimson expanded the lexicon of rock with influences that ranged from classical and baroque to free jazz and acid-folk; blues to reggae and music hall. Today, these records define the sound of classic rock.
1973 signified an absolute apex — the sweetest moment in time when everything seemed possible and each new album gleamed with the joy of innovation. Here are 10 records from British artists that marked a before and after for classic rock.
Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon
Years of psychedelic wanderings and space-rock exploration — not to mention the trauma of losing a beloved bandmate to drugs — crystallized into Pink Floyd’s unequivocal masterpiece. An album so sublime, it makes the seven LPs that preceded it sound like rough sketches in comparison.
The lyrics are wicked in their cynicism and existential malaise, and the band finally sounds tight and economical. But Dark Side's greatest virtue here is the sheer beauty of the melodies, one gauzy song leading into the other with effortless grace. "Money" was the hit single and "Time" redrew the boundaries of rock through immersive sound effects. But "The Great Gig in the Sky," with its wordless female vocals and achingly nostalgic chords, showed that the Floydian mystique was as soulful as the blues.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer - Brain Salad Surgery
Trilogy, the dreamy 1972 album by mad keyboardist Keith Emerson, bassist/vocalist Greg Lake and drummer Carl Palmer, had been constructed in the studio with layers and layers of overdubs. As a natural reaction, the trio decided their next effort should be the kind of record they could play in a live setting.
Sporting an ominous cover by Alien visual artist H. R. Giger, Brain Salad Surgery is, strangely enough, the antithesis of prog-rock pomp. Behind the epic length of multi-part symphony "Karn Evil 9" lurk visceral touches of dissonance and noise, nocturnal piano harmonics and a goofy sense of humor. At the time, ELP was vilified for its pretension to merge rock with classical. Half a century later, they deserve praise for letting their collective imagination run wild.
King Crimson – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic
Led with unspoken dictatorial fire by acerbic guitar mastermind Robert Fripp, the mid-‘70s incarnation of the ever-evolving King Crimson played abstract heavy metal for the soul. All hell breaks loose when the freeform improvisation of "The Talking Drum" gives way to the demonic groove of "Lark’s Tongues in Aspic (Part II)," enhanced by the pristine clang-clang finesse of Bill Bruford, the most intellectual drummer of his generation.
All Crimson albums drown their sorrows in an unexpected moment of pastoral bliss, and "Book of Saturday" doesn’t disappoint, the lament of vocalist John Wetton framed by Fripp’s avant-pop guitar — a song so quiet and beautiful, it almost hurts.
Camel – Camel
There was a pervasive sweetness of spirit, a caramel tint to Camel’s nimble instrumental workouts and monotone vocals. Their soundscapes were a tad too delicate and whimsical to match the imposing scale of ‘70s heavyweights like Genesis and Floyd.
In retrospect, Camel stands as the most criminally underrated band of the classic prog movement. This full-bodied debut is jazzy and psychedelic, showcasing the wide-eyed melodic sense of guitarist Andy Latimer and keyboardist Pete Bardens. Camel proved that you don’t need a powerful vocalist to make the music soar.
Genesis – Selling England by the Pound
A doorway into an enchanted world of sumptuous keyboard solos, 12-string guitars and rambunctious drum fills (hello, Phil Collins), Genesis’ fifth studio album has mystified and enthralled generations of art-rock lovers. The sonic manifesto of five young musicians at the top of their game (all of whom would eventually enjoy success as solo artists), Selling combines a wacky, quintessential British eccentricity with sweeping melodies, social satire and the surreal imagery of singer/lyricist Peter Gabriel.
Keyboardist Tony Banks found inspiration in Rachmaninoff for the majestic intro to "Firth of Fifth," while "The Cinema Show" namedrops T.S. Eliot. "The Battle of Epping Forest" turns a gang massacre over urban boundaries into a delirious mini-opera. An album of limitless imagination, it has aged remarkably well.
Queen – Queen I
Many fans prefer Queen’s early, heavier glam-rock albums over the polished commercial blockbusters that followed — and they have a point. An exhilarating debut, Queen I is deliciously rough around the edges, but at the same time brims with the grandeur and melodic genius that characterized the London quartet from its inception. "Liar" boasts the singalong melodrama that would explode in A Night at the Opera, while guitarist Brian May’s "The Night Comes Down" hums with folk-rock longing. Funky and defiant, opening cut "Keep Yourself Alive" unlocks the hit-making blueprint of a band poised to conquer the world.
Yes – Tales from Topographic Oceans
At the time of its release, Yes’ sprawling double album based on four separate volumes of ancient Hindu scriptures appeared to encapsulate the excesses of ‘70s rock — and why the punk movement would aim to counteract and destroy rock. Tales even motivated keyboardist Rick Wakeman to leave the band, claiming that he couldn’t play music that he didn’t comprehend (no worries, he would return to the fold several times.)
Five decades later, it can be appreciated for what it really is: An ambitious sonic adventure that is in no rush whatsoever to take you to the bridge. Its four, 20 minute-long "songs" are cohesive, ethereal and filled with lovely moments, from the gentle meditation of "The Remembering" to the percussion freakout that brings "Ritual" to a feverish climax. Not for everyone’s taste, sure enough, but as dense and rewarding as a Gustav Mahler symphony.
Roxy Music – Street Life
"Here as I sit at this empty café, thinking of you," croons a mournful Bryan Ferry on "A Song for Europe." As the six-minute track meanders on – torrid sax lines, grandiloquent piano, lyrics in Latin and French — the Roxy Music aesthetic blooms, fully formed.
The third of eight exquisite albums that make up the Roxy canon, Street Life betrays Ferry’s fine arts studies at Newcastle with its combination of garish pop spectacle, avant-garde esoterics and a perverse obsession with the beauty of everything — from the group’s legendary LP covers to the ornate hooks and the aural architecture of it all. And the bridge, it sighs.
Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells
Wunderkind Mike Oldfield was only 19 when he recorded the majority of this remarkable debut, performing every instrument himself. Inspired by the mystical sweep of English folk and drawn to minimalism and multi-tracking, the guitarist was in tune with the progressive trends of the time, but his long form pieces are stubbornly idiosyncratic.
Tubular’s opening theme was used in the horror movie hit The Exorcist and Oldfield became an instant rock star. Still, this album is only an intriguing opening statement for the many masterpieces that followed – most notably, Ommadawn (1975) and Incantations (1978.)
Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy
Having cemented the bulldozer-like propulsion of its hard-rock creed, Led Zeppelin spent most of 1972 making an album that reflected the current times: expansive, stylistically omnivorous, preoccupied with grander themes. Seeped in haunting Mellotron textures, "The Rain Song" is the quartet’s proggiest moment, and "D’yer Mak’er" goes reggae-rock with impeccable taste. Conservative Zep fans found solace in the rollicking opener "The Song Remains the Same," proving that hardrock still enjoyed a creative peak in 1973. They had a dream, oh yeah, a crazy dream, and we’re still grooving along.
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].