Photo by Anwar Hussein/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Kate Bush in 1985
How 'Hounds Of Love' Finally Gave Kate Bush Her Deserved U.S. Breakthrough
GRAMMY.com looks back at the reclusive, art-pop performer's groundbreaking fifth studio album
Cliched it may be to describe Kate Bush as otherworldly. But the singer/songwriter truly appeared to have been beamed in from another planet in 1978 with her swooping, shrieking take on Emily Brontë’s only finished novel.
Of course, Bush actually hailed from Bexleyheath, a London town not exactly renowned for its transcendent qualities, which perhaps explains why Britain was so quick to embrace her idiosyncratic talents. By the age of 19 she’d become the first ever female solo artist to score a self-penned U.K. number one, with "Wuthering Heights" also propelling debut LP The Kick Inside to more than a million domestic sales.
America, on the other hand, was a little more wary of this incredibly precocious enigma whose literate blend of art-pop, prog-rock and folk often needed its own CliffsNotes. Although second single "The Man with the Child In His Eyes" briefly graced the lower reaches of the US Hot 100, audiences weren’t convinced enough to pick up its parent album. And by her mid-20s she’d essentially been consigned to the status of minor one-hit wonder.
By this point, even Bush’s homeland appeared to have cooled toward her increasingly complex singular vision: 1982’s self-produced The Dreaming, once self-described as the "she’s gone mad" record, sold barely a fraction of its three predecessors and the NME would later run a slightly embarrassing piece asking "Where Are They Now?"
Whereas many of her peers would have panickingly roped in a hit-making team to restore their former commercial glories, Bush doubled down on the D.I.Y. approach for album number five. She built a 48-track studio at the 17th century Kent farmhouse she shared with musician partner Del Palmer. She further utilized the Fairlight CMI, the beast of a synthesizer that she’d first dabbled with on 1980's Never For Ever. And she reportedly presented EMI with the finished product before execs had even heard a single note. This was unarguably Bush at her most autonomous, her most liberated, her purest.
You perhaps might not have expected Hounds of Love, therefore, to reverse her chart fortunes on either side of the Atlantic. Even more so considering its ambitious two-suite concept, with the titular radio-friendlier first soon giving way to a nightmarish tale of survival dubbed "The Ninth Wave." However, the record not only returned Bush to the top of the U.K. charts, it also peaked at a then-career high of No.30 in the States, spawning a bona fide hit single in the process.
Bush had to fight tooth and nail to launch Hounds of Love with "Running Up That Hill" instead of the much-preferred "Cloudbusting." However, she did make a rare concession to her label. The battle of the sexes had originally been titled "A Deal with God" before EMI bosses convinced the singer that its religious connotations would scare off the bible belt. It was the first of several signs that Bush wanted as many people to hear the fruits of her labor as possible.
Indeed, Bush has since garnered a reputation for being so reclusive she makes Howard Hughes look like a social butterfly. But in the fall of 1985 you couldn’t turn on late-night cable TV without hearing her softly spoken English tones answering a variety of inane questions about her anything-but-inane career: she has to work overtime to hide her disdain during this particularly awkward interview on USA Network’s Night Flight.
There were also several radio appearances and, even more remarkably, a signing session at Greenwich Village’s Tower Records store. Yet it was Bush’s embracing of the music video that truly helped her connect with U.S. audiences beyond the fringes of the art-rock scene.
Bush was no stranger to the art form, of course. The theatrical videos for early hits "Wuthering Heights" and "Babooshka" were undoubtedly just as memorable as the songs they promoted. But the Hounds of Love campaign was the first time Bush had the budget to match her visual flair and subsequently the ability to court the vital network that had only been in its infancy last time around.
Not that MTV were initially on board, though. According to the star’s brother Paddy, the beautifully choreographed promo for "Running Up That Hill"—which sees Bush and Michael Hervieu perform an interpretive dance in a shadowy loft studio—was a little too abstract for a station defined by straight-to-camera performances.
Yet they couldn’t ignore the cinematic follow-up. "Cloudbusting" boasted a bona fide Hollywood star, Donald Sutherland, who’d been accosted by Bush at his Oxfordshire hotel room in another bid to raise her Stateside profile. And its depiction of the touching relationship between misunderstood scientist Wilhelm Reich and his young son Peter proved once and for all that artists didn’t need to lip-sync for their life to make a music video compelling.
By the time the promo for fourth single "The Big Sky," a self-directed blend of cosplay, sci-fi imagery and flamboyant stage performance, dropped, MTV was a fully signed-up member of the Bush fan club. They even went on to gift her consecutive Best Female Video nominations at the VMAs.
The critical response, in general, had been much kinder, too. Indeed, while Rolling Stone dismissed Hounds of Love as an album that both “dazzles and bores,” the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times were far more complimentary, with the latter describing it as "a dark and dreamy masterpiece."
Given the relatively commercial appeal of the album's four singles, it’s easy to forget just how disorienting "The Ninth Wave" gets. "Waking the Witch" finds the youngster in trouble visualize being burned at the stake amidst some demonic growls and unnerving tumbling percussion. Equally disconcerting is "And Dream of Sheep," a stark piano ballad in which she drifts in and out of consciousness as her body succumbs to hypothermia. And just as you become accustomed to the solemn tone, along comes "Jig of Life," which sounds like the kind of traditional Irish ditty you’d expect to hear blaring out of a pub on St. Patrick’s Day.
Lulling so many Americans into such a false sense of security may well be one of Bush's most impressive feats. But what’s almost as remarkable is how many stuck around: her next three LPs all went Top 50 (1993’s The Red Shoes even charted two places higher). And her status as an icon has since been cemented by several GRAMMY nods, her obvious influence on the likes of Tori Amos, Regina Spektor and Anohni and the sheer number of fans who traveled across the Atlantic to witness her first tour in 35 years.
Interestingly, Bush dedicated half of her Before the Dawn London residency setlist to Hounds of Love, performing the second suite in its entirety as well as its three biggest hits. This time around, Rolling Stone recognized that one term you can never throw at Bush is boring.
Photo: M. Caulfield/WireImage for VH-1 Channel - New York
15 Songs That Will Make You Dance And Cry At The Same Time, From "Hey Ya!" To "Dancing On My Own"
Whether it's "Tears of a Clown" or "Tears in the Club," take a listen to some of the most sneakily sad songs by Outkast, TLC, Avicii and more.
In 2003, OutKast scored their second No. 1 hit with "Hey Ya!" The timeless track has an upbeat energy that makes you want to shake it like a polaroid picture — until you happen to catch its rather unhappy lyrics.
"Are we so in denial when we know we're not happy here?" André 3000 sings on the second verse. The line that follows may sum up its contrasting nature: "Y'all don't wanna hear me, you just wanna dance."
The ability to make listeners feel (and physically react) to a wide range of emotions is part of the genius of songwriting. Tunes like "Hey Ya!" — a sad narrative disguised by an infectious melody — is one trick that has been mastered by Outkast, R.E.M., Smokey Robinson, Robyn and many more.
If you've ever happily boogied to a beat before realizing that the lyrics on top are actually a big bummer, you're certainly not alone. BBC and Apple Music both call such tracks Sad Bangers, a fitting name for what's become an unofficial genre over the past half-century.
In light of Mental Health Awareness Month this May, GRAMMY.com compiled a list of 15 songs that will both get you in your feelings and get your body moving.
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles — "The Tears of a Clown" (1967)
The upbeat music on this Motown classic was written by Stevie Wonder, a 25-time GRAMMY winner who is deft at crafting tearjerkers that will tease your body into joyful dancing. The bassoon-bottomed song registers at 128 beats per minute, a tempo that's still favored by modern dance music producers. So when Smokey sings, "The tears of a clown/When there's no one around," you'd be forgiven for also welling up just a little bit while you're in the groove.
Gloria Gaynor — "Never Can Say Goodbye" (1975)
Gloria Gaynor reimagined the Jackson 5's 1971 pop hit "Never Can Say Goodbye" for the disco era. The sweeping string arrangements and trotting beat helped to fill dance floors, and to make the poignant song about holding onto a love of her own. Other cover versions by Isaac Hayes and the Communards also capture the contradictory vibe.
Tears For Fears — "Mad World" (1983)
British duo Tears For Fears became internationally known after outfitting their first danceable hit with a depressing and dramatic chorus that's hard to shake even 40 years after its release: "I find it kinda funny, I find it kinda sad, the dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had." Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith would later release more uplifting fare, such as "Everybody Wants to Rule The World" and "Sowing the Seeds of Love."
Kate Bush — "Running Up That Hill" (1985)
Kate Bush has had three twirls through charts around the world with "Running Up That Hill," beginning with its 1985 release and then as an unlikely Summer Olympics closing ceremony song in 2012.
"And if I only could, I'd make a deal with God/And I'd get him to swap our places/Be running up that road/be running up that hill/With no problems," she sings in the chorus of the racing track, longing to be more worry-free.
More recently, a placement in the Netflix drama Stranger Things in 2022 earned the weepy, minor key-led dance number a whole new generation of fans. The English artist was recently named a 2023 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee.
Midnight Oil — "Beds Are Burning" (1988)
Midnight Oil lead singer Peter Garrett channeled the rage he felt from early climate change and the lack of Aboriginal land rights in the Australian Outback into "Beds Are Burning." The powerful dance tune flooded airwaves and dance floors around the world in the late '80s, reaching No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
"How can we dance when the Earth is turning?" he sings in the rousing chorus. "How do we sleep while the beds are burning?"
Garrett clearly had a personal connection to the song's yearning message: He later dedicated his life to environmental activism as the leader of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and became an elected Member of Australia's House of Representatives.
Crystal Waters — "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)" (1991)
A house music hit about a woman without a home, "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)" helped New Jersey singer Crystal Waters achieve international success despite a somewhat somber subject. A subsequent parody on the sketch comedy series "In Living Color" drew attention to the contrast of having happy and upbeat instrumentation with dispiriting lyrics.
"She's just like you and me/But she's homeless, she's homeless," rings the chorus. "As she stands there singing for money/La da dee la dee da…"
R.E.M. — "Shiny Happy People" (1991)
This upbeat collaboration is between rock group R.E.M. and B-52's singer Kate Pierson.The jangly guitar pop makes you want to clap your hands and stomp your feet, but the lyrics make you question if everything is indeed quite so shiny and happy.
The song is rumored to be about the massacre in China's Tiananmen Square, because the phrase "Shiny Happy People" appeared on propaganda posters. Pierson isn't so sure about that, though.
"I can't imagine that R.E.M. was thinking at the time, Oh, we want this song to be about Chinese government propaganda," she said in a 2021 interview with Vulture. "It was supposed to be shiny and happy. It was a positive thing all-around."
TLC — "Waterfalls" (1994)
"Waterfalls" was a worldwide hit for TLC in 1994, thanks to its sing-along chorus and funky bassline. The song's insistent bounce softens a firm lyrical warning that pulls people back from the edge: "Don't go chasing waterfalls/Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you're used to/I know that you're gonna have it your way or nothing at all/But I think you're moving too fast."
"We wanted to make a song with a strong message — about unprotected sex, being promiscuous, and hanging out in the wrong crowd," Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas shared with The Guardian in 2018. "The messages in 'Waterfalls' hit home. I think that's why it's our biggest hit to date."
Outkast — "Hey Ya!" (2003)
André 3000 sings about loveless relationships to a whimsical, time-shifting dance beat on this Billboard Hot 100 chart-topping smash. The seriousness of the song — which André 3000 once explained is about "the state of relationships in the 2000s" — got lost among many listeners.*
Its unhappy lyrics were masked by André's peppy singing, as well as the song's jangly guitar and keyboard-led groove, which infectiously doubles up in speed at the end of every four beats. Even Outkast themselves couldn't help acknowledging the song's juxtaposition in a 2021 tweet.
Robyn — "Dancing On My Own" (2010)
A penultimate example of a sad banger is "Dancing On My Own" by Swedish pop star Robyn. The rueful song — a top 10 hit in multiple countries — commands you to shake your stuff, while also picturing yourself watching your ex move on at the club. Calum Scott's 2016 cover really brings out the sadness that can be obscured by Robyn's uptempo version.
"Said, I'm in the corner, watching you kiss her, oh no/And I'm right over here, why can't you see me?" Robyn sings in the chorus. "And I'm giving it my all/ But I'm not the girl you're taking home."
Fun. — "Some Nights" (2012)
fun. (the trio of Jack Antonoff, Andrew Dost and Nate Ruess) is best known for the zeitgeist-grabbing pop-rock power ballad "We Are Young," which is about the relentlessly positive enthusiasm of youth out on the town. The title track to their 2012 album Some Nights (which contains "We Are Young") is a much dancier, yet sadder song.
"What do I stand for?" Ruess asks as your feet shuffle along to the beat. "Most nights, I don't know anymore."
Avicii — "Wake Me Up" (2013)
Avicii collaborated with soulful pop singer Aloe Blacc for this worldwide chart-topper that is considered one of EDM's peak anthems. The slapping beat masks the track's sad, self-reflective lyrics about being lost.
The Swedish DJ/producer's 2018 death by suicide adds an even heavier air to Blacc's impassioned chorus: "So wake me up when it's all over/When I'm wiser and I'm older/All this time I was finding myself, and I/I didn't know I was lost."
Flume featuring Kai — "Never Be Like You" (2015)
"Never Be Like You" isn't the fastest cut in Australian DJ/producer Flume's bass-heavy discography, but the wispy track still has an irresistible bump to it. Canadian singer Kai begs her lover not to leave her ("How do I make you wanna stay?"), but her lovely tone still manages to keep the song hopeful.
FKA twigs featuring The Weekend — "Tears In The Club" (2022)
Perhaps the most overt selection of this entire list is "Tears In The Club," which finds FKA twigs and The Weeknd taking to the dancefloor to shake off the vestiges of a bad relationship. The singer/dancer has been candid about being in an abusive relationship, and the song is a lowkey bop that's buoyed by despairing chants such as, "I might die on the beat, love."
Everything But The Girl — "Nothing Left to Lose" (2023)
Nearly 30 years after DJ/producer Todd Terry helped introduce Everything But the Girl to the international dance music community with a remix of "Missing," the duo leaned into their electronic side on "Nothing Left to Lose." A single from their first album in 24 years, Fuse, "Nothing Left to Lose" features a squelching electronic bassline that contrasts the song's helpless yearning.
"I need a thicker skin/ This pain keeps getting in/ Tell me what to do/ 'Cause I've always listened to you," the pair's Tracy Thorne sings on the opening verse. Later, she makes a demand that fittingly sums up the conflicts of a quintessential sad banger: "Kiss me while the world decays."
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Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
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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.