Photo: Matt Christine Photography
Living Legends: John Oates Gets Real About Reinventing Himself, The State Of Hall & Oates And The Male Struggle
As Movember approaches, John Oates — its 2022 spokesperson and self-proclaimed "patron saint of facial hair" — discusses men’s health and the real-life inspiration behind his new song, "Pushin' a Rock."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with John Oates, one half of the acclaimed rock-and-soul duo Hall & Oates and a solo artist in his own right.
As paradoxical as it might sound, men are back in the spotlight.
In the wake of movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, which were generally centered around the experiences of women, a spate of press coverage, like The New York Times' "The Crisis of Men and Boys," has illuminated the often silent suffering — and deaths of despair — of the other half of the U.S. population.
John Oates, a globally recognized musician who, decades ago, fell on hard times, sold off basically everything, and reinvented himself, is attuned to men's issues — even though, he posits, sometimes men themselves are the source of their afflictions.
"They tend to try to avoid opening up about things like that, because, maybe, it's not manly or macho," Oates, a five-time GRAMMY nominee, tells GRAMMY.com. "If I can lend any credence or open up anyone to pay more attention to the various issues that affect men, then I think that's a good thing."
That's what spurred the singer/songwriter — best known as one half of Hall and Oates — to team up with Movember, a men's health charity, for their annual November campaign where men grow mustaches to raise awareness and funds to counteract men's health issues. These include mental health, suicide prevention, and testicular and prostate cancer.
Yes, Oates' globally recognized stache (and, eventually, goatee) made him a prime candidate for their spokesperson. But far more meaningful is his firsthand understanding of what afflicts men from within — including the simultaneous traumas of a divorce and financial ruin due to association with "less-than-scrupulous money-minders."
And to this end, philanthropy is far from the only thing Oates is involved with right now. On Oct. 28, Oates will unveil "Pushin' a Rock," his new single — a fresh makeover of an older tune co-written with Nathan Chapman, called "Pushing a Rock Uphill."
The timing is no coincidence: "Movember happened, and I realized it was about struggle," Oates says. "It's using the Greek myth of Sisyphus pushing the rock uphill; that's the metaphor or inspiration behind it."
Ahead of the release of "Pushin' a Rock" — and the dawn of Movember — GRAMMY.com sat down with Oates about men's struggles, his current creative stirrings and the state of the duo that made him famous.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
With the plethora of social causes swirling around us right now, the well-being of men can get lost in the sauce. There are so many threats to and killers of men of all ages out there. Where does your thinking lie on this issue?
Well, I kind of agree with you. In a lot of ways, men are to blame for that situation, because they tend to not be very open, either physically or emotionally, on issues like that. They tend to try to avoid opening up about things like that, because, maybe, it's not manly or macho.
I think men have come a long way. If you look at the women's initiatives that go on — with breast cancer and all those sorts of things — they're well-received and well-supported in the media, and everywhere. Yet, men's-health initiatives — people are aware of them, but I don't think they're promoted the way [they should be].
Maybe women are just better promoters than men! [Laughs] And they're better communicators. Well, we already know that part.
Tell me where "Movember" comes into all of this — how your experiences fold into this initiative.
Well, aside from the obvious — that I'm the patron saint of facial hair — they reached out to me through social media and offered me the position of being their international spokesperson for this year. And I thought, Wow, this is great. You know, if I can lend any credence or open up anyone to pay more attention to the various issues that affect men, then I think that's a good thing.
I don't know how effective I'll be. But I do know that people can look at someone like me, who's been around for quite a while, who's had a lot of different experiences, a lot of success, and still know that I have things I need to overcome. Things that I struggle with. Things that I need to address on a daily basis, really.
It's not something [like], you have a bunch of hit records, you make a bunch of money, and now your life is perfect. Well, far be it from the truth. So, if I can be an example for that alone, maybe that's a good thing.
Hall and Oates in 1973. Photo: GAB Archive/Redferns via Getty Images
Can you talk about some of your struggles — physical, mental or otherwise — throughout half a century in the music industry?
If you're going to be in the music business — and the entertainment business in general — you have to develop a pretty thick skin. Because you're going to come up against a lot of adversity; [it could be] professional adversity, turning into personal adversity.
I've learned to harden myself in a lot of ways to deal with that. But at the same time, there have been things I couldn't deal with. Quite frankly, there were things that were out of my control that should have been in my control.
By that, I mean, when you allow outside forces to make critical decisions and have control of your finances or certain career choices — and you don't take care to either make yourself educated enough to understand it, or assert yourself to the point where you can control it — that's when things go wrong.
That certainly happened to me in the late '80s. And, unfortunately for me, some business things like that happened to me at the same time I was getting divorced. It was a combination of the emotional upheaval of being divorced and dealing with a lot of stuff that happened to me professionally — all at the same time.
It happened after the huge commercial success in the '80s. I ended up having to reassess where I was in my life and how to go forward in my life. Meaning, what was the next step?
It was kind of like being on this cliff way up high — you've been elevated to this place, and then making a conscious decision: "Hey, I'm going to step off this cliff, I'm going to jump to another, lower level here, and then I'm going to figure out how to get back." That was a strategy I had to develop in the late '80s and early '90s.
How do you remember getting through those twin traumas back then?
It had to do with therapy — with getting some strategies revealed to me in therapy, which I had never done before. I did it with my ex-wife before we got divorced, in kind of a couple's scenario, but it didn't help, because we were going to get divorced regardless.
But then, afterwards, I ended up going back to therapy, and delving [into] and dealing deeply with a lot of the things I hadn't addressed. That helped me, and then I made a conscious decision.
I was living in New York, I had all the trappings of being a big rock star. All the apartments and houses and airplanes and vintage car collections; all this stuff. And I just needed to change my life. I shaved my mustache; I sold everything I had. I moved to my little condo in Aspen, which is the only thing I didn't sell.
I left New York, and left a lot of the toxic environment I was involved with — and a lot of toxic people I was involved with. I left them all behind. That wasn't easy.
What was the nature of this toxicity? Was it a drug-fueled environment?
No, actually; it wasn't the drugs. I never had a drug or alcohol problem.
It was all about business. It was all about being surrounded by dishonesty and a lack of integrity that I didn't understand, because I was too focused on making records and touring. And not paying attention to the other things, which aren't as shiny and sexy, but unfortunately, very critical to having a good career.
I learned a lot during that period of time. I learned never to let that happen again, which is probably the best lesson to learn.
In the press release, you mention "a traumatizing experience that significantly impacted the way you live your life." Is that what you're referring to?
Yeah, that's exactly what I'm referring to. I got to the point where I was told that a lot of money had been… diverted. Let's put it that way. Away from me, into other things, or into the ether somewhere.
What I was left with was a ton of hard assets, luckily for me. Like I said earlier — I'll make a joke. I didn't have a lot of money, but I had a lot of s—. So, I sold all the s— and had a lot of money again.
Then, I decided, OK, I don't know if I'll make another dime. But I'm going to restructure my life so it doesn't matter whether I make another dime again. And I moved to Colorado, lived in the mountains, rode a bicycle for two years — I had no car — and made new friends.
I spent most of the '90s reinventing myself. Remarrying, having a kid, building a house — doing all the things I couldn't do when I was on the road for over 20 years.
John Oates today. Photo: Jason Lee Denton
Let's talk about your upcoming single, "Pushin' a Rock." How does that fold into these themes we're talking about?
Well, there was an interesting evolution of that song. Back around 2014, I was making a collaborative album called Good Road to Follow. The idea of the album was: I reached out to a whole bunch of people I really liked and respected. People like Vince Gill, Ryan Tedder — all sorts of people.
I said, "Hey, let's just make a single. I want to enter your world and make a record with you, however you like to make records." I just thought it would be a cool project.
So, I reached out to a guy named Nathan Chapman, who is a multiple GRAMMY winner responsible for all of Taylor Swift's early success. I met him when he was just a young musician in Nashville, when he was doing demos for, basically, a 13-year-old Taylor Swift.
At the time, I had read a story where Taylor had moved on. She had new producers she was going to work with, and she was no longer going to work with Nathan. I just had a gut instinct to call him. I called him and asked how he was doing, and he said he wasn't sure, because the creative rug had been pulled out from under him, in a sense.
I said, "Man, I'm kind of in the same place — my own version of that. Why don't we try to write a song?" He said, "I would love that."
So, I went over to his house and wrote a song, and it ended up being called "Pushing a Rock Uphill," and I recorded it on that album. It came out great — I thought the lyrics were really good, [but] my production was not that great. But nevertheless, it was OK.
Years have gone by now. During COVID, I was thinking about [how] there have been a lot of struggles in my life, again, in a different way. And I revisited the song, and I took the lyrics and got rid of the music. I said, "I'm going to write a new track. I'm going to do a new musical bed for this, and I'm going to rephrase and restructure the lyrics to fit."
That's what happened, and to differentiate it, I called it "Pushin' a Rock." I called up Nathan and said, "Hey, man. I rewrote the song. I hope you don't mind." I played it for him, and he said, "John, this is how it should have sounded from the beginning." [Laughs]
He loved it, and I liked it. Then, Movember happened, and I realized it was about struggle. It's using the Greek myth of Sisyphus pushing the rock uphill; that's the metaphor or inspiration behind it.
The whole idea is that you have to keep pushing in your life. You have to keep trying and trying and never give up. But at the same time, when you run up against something overwhelming and the rock rolls back down, you've got to step out of the way and do it again, because you can't quit. That's what the song's all about.
When you look back on your long career, what are you most proud of regarding decisions you made — personal or creative? And what would you tell yourself early on, if you could?
Well, here again, I'd go back and tell myself to look out for less-than-scrupulous money-minders. That would be the first thing. I would also tell myself to get a really good lawyer.
And then, I would say the thing I'm most proud of is: I made a move to Nashville in the late '90s, early 2000s. The move, and the musicians and people I surrounded myself with, allowed me to rediscover the musician that I was before I met Daryl Hall. Because I was a blues, folk, rootsy musician, and I tapped back into my earliest influences.
The Nashville music community supported me in that and helped me to rediscover myself. I really couldn't put a value on something like that.
Hall and Oates performing in 2019. Photo: Peter Van Breukelen/Redferns/Getty Images
How are things with Daryl today?
I guess he's OK. He's doing his thing. He did a tour with Todd Rundgren, and we still have a couple of Hall and Oates shows to play. We don't really hang out or socialize at all, but our professional relationship is still working.
Once Movember has come and gone, how can we as a society continue to address issues affecting men? What's the path forward?
You know what it is? It's building awareness little by little. Here again — keep pushing that rock uphill. You can't give up. You have to try something; you have to create awareness, and hopefully sustain it, in a way, until next time.
I think the women's movement has been very successful in getting their agendas and their initiatives across in a big, big way. If you look at breast cancer, you've got 300-pound football players wearing pink shoes. They're getting their message across, and sustaining their message.
Men don't really do that. But maybe this is a beginning for that.
What else is creatively percolating for you? What are you thinking about next, regarding your own output?
I'm sliding away from the Americana, roots-music world, although I'll never leave it. But I'm tapped a little more into my pop side.
I'm feeling like the things I'm doing — and when you hear the song, you'll understand what I'm talking about — I feel like I'm tapping into a '70s soul, R&B, rock kind of thing. For some reason, it just feels good to me.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Douglas Mason / Contributor via Getty Images
Watch Backstage Interviews At Newport Folk 2023: Turnpike Troubadours, Nickel Creek, M. Ward, Thee Sacred Souls & More
Another Newport Folk is in the books; its 2023 iteration was one of the great ones — featuring Aimee Mann, Lana Del Rey, Jason Isbell and more. Watch backstage interviews with some of its radiant artists below.
Another summer, another Newport Folk. The storied bastion of American roots music flourished once again, with three days of plucks, strums, harmonies and good cheer.
Lana Del Rey enjoyed her Newport debut, James Taylor made a surprise appearance (calling it "emergency folk music") and the Black Opry made waves — and GRAMMY.com was on the grounds for all of the excitement.
Backstage, a number of artists chatted about their experiences onstage, their love of the American roots community and more.
Watch all of the interviews below — and we'll see you at Newport Folk 2024!
Gregory Alan Isakov
Indigo de Souza
Thee Sacred Souls
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].