Photo: Paul Bergen/Redferns/Getty Images
Lee "Scratch" Perry in 2018
Lee "Scratch" Perry Documentary Director Sets The Record Straight On The Reggae Icon's Legacy — Including A Big Misconception About Bob Marley
'The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee Scratch Perry,' a documentary that showcases the reggae pioneer's eccentricity, first debuted in 2008. Now streaming on Criterion Collection, co-director Adam Bhala Lough details his experience capturing a legend.
Lee "Scratch" Perry, one of the giants of reggae music, is known as the Upsetter. His musical creations, for both himself and others, upended the sound of Jamaican music and reverberated around the world for multiple generations.
"To upset people, uplift the people, and another part means to destroy them. The word can do anything; it's a two edges sword," Perry says in The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee Scratch Perry, a 2008 documentary now streaming for the first time through the Criterion Collection. Putting Perry's particular brand of genius on display, the documentary is an art piece that attempts to capture the eccentric (and sometimes mad) energy of one of reggae's greatest minds.
"People just think he was this crazy guy who's in the lab making these crazy songs," Adam Bhala Lough, who co-directed the film with Ethan Higbee, tells GRAMMY.com. "But no, he's a musical genius, a music historian, an art historian, a really brilliant mind."
Prior to his death in August 2021 at age 85, Perry was nominated for five GRAMMYs and won Best Reggae Album at the 2003 GRAMMY Awards. The Upsetter serves as something of a time capsule, capturing Perry on the verge as he returns from self-imposed obscurity and isolation to performance.
A country boy, Perry moved to Kingston, Jamaica in the early 1960s and gravitated toward the city's exploding ska scene. He worked at the three major recording houses — owned by pioneers Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid and Prince Buster — working his way up from janitor to producer and, often, uncredited songwriter. Eventually, Perry became his own musical force with a band, label and record shop.
In addition to hits for his own group — his house band, the Upsetters— Perry created hits for a young Bob Marley and the Wailers and was majorly responsible for getting the Wailers to a global stage. Perry also produced Marley as a solo act, giving him the courage and content to become a legend. At his height, Perry produced 20 songs a week for hundreds of artists, including Burning Spear and Jimmy Cliff, for five years straight.
From his home studio the Black Ark, Perry invented dub music — a genre of reggae that would serve as the forebearer to all modern electronic music. Utilizing the mixing board as an instrument, Perry pioneered manipulating sound by removing vocals, emphasizing drum and bass, and adding effects. Singers and DJs would "toast" (talk and sing in rhythm) over Perry's instrumental tracks, a style that would take flight to New York via Jamaican immigrants and form the basis of hip-hop.
Yet, a series of unfortunate occurrences — including a falling out with the group of Rastafarians living at the Ark; numerous people attempting to hustle Perry for his money; and a devastating fire at the Ark, which Perry himself set — culminated in Perry's descent into what some may call madness. The Upsetter captures much of that energy, giving ample space to Perry's rambling speeches while imbuing much of the film with a psychedelic overtone.
"We made this pretty radical decision to just give space to Lee to tell his story, whether it was factual or unfactual," says Bhala Lough. "To me, it's vitally important that if you have that type of access, you give space to that voice."
The documentary ends in 2006, 15 years before Perry passed. While much happened in that last decade-plus of his life, The Upsetter ends triumphantly, with Perry returning to the stage after a multi-year hiatus from performing. Told in his own words — with minor narration from Oscar-winning director Benicio del Toro, "the biggest Lee Perry fan in Hollywood," according to Bhala Lough — the film is an attempt to capture a peculiar, prolific man whose influence far outlasts his lifetime.
Ahead of its streaming debut on Criterion, GRAMMY.com spoke with Bhala Lough to to discuss Lee "Scratch" Perry's music, idiosyncrasies and the need to decolonize reggae music.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What was your thought process constructing this documentary? It's just Lee, in his own words, and I was kind of expecting interviews with other people.
That was a specific choice we made very early on. We only wanted Lee's voice in the film; we wanted Lee to tell his story. We really felt like the history of reggae has been, in a way, hijacked by a white perspective. It comes from such a painfully colonialist perspective. We actually went and interviewed tons of these people — from Adrian Sherwood to Chris Blackwell — as research in a way. But we just had no interest in trotting out the white man to tell the story or even comment on Lee.
I think that the Caribbean voice, the Afro-Caribbean voice, is often kind of forgotten in the story of Black history. So to have an opportunity to have a Jamaican man tell his story, the way that he lived it — whether it's correct or incorrect, or, you know, revisionist, or whatever — is, I think, a duty of a filmmaker.
What was the filming process like?
We got in touch with Lee and he basically said, "Listen, I'll do it, but you need to bring me a shoe box with $5,000 cash in it." So Ethan [Higbee, his co-director] got the advance from this Argentinian trucking company and went to London. Ethan was thinking he was going to have a normal meeting with Lee, but he ended up at a dinner with Lee and all of Lee's ex wives and all their children. [Laughs.]
He gave him the box and Lee gave him his address in Switzerland, where he was living at the time. We showed up on his doorstep — we had no way to contact him, so it wasn't like he knew we were coming. He didn't do email, he didn't text. There was a landline, but never no one ever answered it.
Day one, we pulled up, he recognized us, and he was ready to go. We spent eight days there at the house with him [in 2003 or 2004], just filming around the clock. By the end of it, we felt like part of the family. We had dinner with his wife and children every night.
We also had arrived at a very good time; he had just gone sober. Completely sober — no weed, no alcohol, no nothing. And he was very much ready to tell his story. So it was very much like a fortuitous arrival. As you can see in the film, we just kind of continued to pop in and out and travel around with him for the next, like, five or six years.
It also seems like you guys operated in the same way he did at his legendary studio in Jamaica, the Black Ark — just hanging out, coming and going as you please, creating 24/7. Did it feel like that to you at all?
That was definitely the whole vibe. And it was really quite thrilling.
Lee is eccentric, to say the least, and I felt a little unhinged watching parts of the documentary. Was that intentional?
Lee, I think, was an eccentric man from birth. I think that he played the role of a madman to a large degree to keep people away from him.
We wanted the film to be both historical and biographical, and experiential in the sense that it was almost impressionistic. At some point, the film started to become mad, in a way, in the same way he did. The process of making it was very much like a collage. It is an art piece.
I think it was misunderstood when it came out. People were very much expecting a traditional bio doc from a white European perspective, very bland VH1 style. It should be seen more as a weirdo art piece that you would stumble upon on cable access at midnight when you're drunk and stoned.
What do people misunderstand about Lee, or misconstrue, that your film best highlights?
The number one misunderstanding, that hopefully we can correct, is this idea that Chris Blackwell made Bob Marley famous and put Bob Marley on; that the American and English recording industry made Bob Marley. This is a complete fabrication of the truth. The fact is, Lee Perry made Bob Marley.
I'll watch these docs and read books [about Bob Marley] … and Lee may be mentioned in a half a chapter or there's one interview. Everything else is about how a white man came down to Jamaica and discovered him, and then another white man and America put him on and made him famous. It is such bullshit. Lee Perry created Bob Marley.
"Dreadlocks in Moonlight" — which I think is Lee's greatest song — he wrote that for Bob and he voiced it for Bob. It was actually a vocal track that Lee just put down for Bob to copy. When [Marley] heard it, he was so emotionally riveted by it that he's like, "Dude, you need to just release this yourself."
Bob would copy [Lee's] flow, the voice. We talked to some people in Jamaica, engineers and stuff like that, who couldn't tell the difference between Bob and Lee's voice at some points.
It seems that Lee was kind of tortured by his relationship with Bob over the years, because it was so up and down. Is that accurate?
I don't know if Lee would agree with that. Bob obviously got so big, and Lee would say Bob was kidnapped by the white devil — which is an extreme exaggeration, but that's how Lee would talk.
But there is something to it, right? Bob was kidnapped by a white, American, European establishment in some ways. So I think that obviously alienated Lee, because Lee would have no part of that.
Lee seems to be a bit wild, that he likes to egg people on. That final scene in the store in San Francisco, where he gets into a confrontation with a customer, was a bit confusing to me. To be honest, I'm not sure what happened or why you decided to include it in the film.
It was so unnerving; I honestly thought we were gonna have to put the cameras down and fight this guy. The guy was a racist — he was one step away from like, using the N word.
Lee is like a king, right? He's like this little king walking around with his crew and this white man just could not handle it. This is, undoubtedly, something that had probably happened to Lee hundreds of times.
Being a successful Black man who sticks out like a sore thumb — he has red hair, rings on every finger, 67 years old — he draws a lot of negative attention. He would say that he would draw out the devil. Like, evil would come for him wherever he went just as much as good.
Is there anything about Lee that differentiates him from other artists of his generation, or others in his field?
One thing about Lee that I think people overlook is just how brilliant he was. There are certain things he would do that would [make you think] he's a madman, but then he will start talking about music history, Black music history, in such a way that you're like, oh my god, he knows everything. He's very studied; his whole genius is deliberate.
People just think he was this crazy guy who's in the lab making these crazy songs. But no, he's a musical genius, a music historian, an art historian, a really brilliant mind. I think that if somebody had given him an IQ test, that would have been off the charts. He didn't really show people that side.
The Upsetter ends in 2007, but you stayed in touch with Lee through the years until his death in 2021. How did Lee evolve, if at all, during that time?
Like anyone, he softened up over the years. There was a certain way that he acted around white people that was very different than he acted around Jamaicans. If it was all Jamaicans in a room, and then us with cameras, he was very much a tough guy. I mean, I can only imagine what he went through, coming to Kingston from the country and trying to make it in the music industry. He got in a lot of physical confrontations, and he had a lot of guns stuck in his face. He definitely had kind of a thuggish persona that would come out.
The last time I saw him, he was just a big teddy bear. He was doing a live painting in Ethan's Gallery in West Hollywood and [we brought] our children, who were toddlers at the time. He had all the children painting with him.
There has been a fair amount of work about Lee "Scratch" Perry since the release of your documentary. What do you think makes your film unique and continue to be relevant?
The interview that we did with Lee at the time in his life, where he was really ready to talk, has great historical significance and will decades into the future.
The really sad thing is that Ethan's house burned to the ground in the Thomas Fire a couple years ago and we lost everything — all the mini DV tapes of that interview of that eight days, all gone.
Lastly, how did Benicio Del Toro come to narrate the documentary?
Ethan was Ryan Phillippe’s driver for the movie Crash and they became buddies. [Ethan] would play Lee Perry in the car and Ryan was like, "What's up with the Lee Perry music?" Ethan's like, "I'm doing this documentary," and Ryan was like, "You need to talk to Benicio Del Toro, he’s the biggest Lee Perry fan in Hollywood." Ryan put us in touch with Benicio and that was it.
[Benicio] rewrote all the narration, which we thought was really cool. He was so into the film; he had really studied it. We had no expectations, but since then, he's been such a great champion of the film. It's one of the few things that he loves to talk about — and that means a lot to us.
Photo: Kelly Samson, Gallery Photography
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].