Photo by Jack Bradley, Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum
'The Real Ambassadors' At 60: What Dave Brubeck, Iola Brubeck & Louis Armstrong's Obscure Co-Creation Teaches Us About The Cold War, Racial Equality & God
'The Real Ambassadors' may not be among Dave Brubeck or Louis Armstrong's most essential albums — it's the soundtrack for a musical that never got off the ground. But as a cultural artifact, it contains dimensions we're still parsing 60 years on.
While a terrifying racial spasm rocked 1960s America, Louis Armstrong dared to ponder if God could be Black.
In "They Say I Look Like God," a staggering track from the 1962 album The Real Ambassadors, backing singers send an incorporeal chant into the rafters. "God created man in his image and likeness," they intone. "In the image of God created He them." Then, in comes Pops over a smoldering minor blues. "Could God be Black? My God!" he growls. "If all are made in the image of Thee / Could Thou perchance a zebra be?" To which the vocal trio responds with a triumphal "Hallelujah!"
Dave Brubeck's wife and creative partner, Iola, wrote the tune while Jim Crow still menaced much of America. While extremely weighty feelings about racial equality permeated The Real Ambassadors — a co-creation between the Brubecks and Armstrong — she meant the "zebra" line to be humorous. It didn't come across that way. Even today, the mere evocation of the song is liable to move musicians, scholars and the Brubeck family alike to their core.
It happened to Dave and Iola's daughter, Catherine Brubeck Yaghsizian. While discussing "They Say I Look Like God" for her father's centennial, she burst into tears. Over Zoom, saxophonist and jazz historian Loren Schoenberg's jaw drops at its mention.
Even Armstrong was emotional performing it at the Monterey Jazz Festival, during its sole performance featuring the original ensemble. "I looked over to Louis and he wasn't laughing at all," Dave recalled to author Philip Clark in 2020's A Life in Time. "There were tears flowing down his cheeks." To hear Brubeck tell it, the audience (and, backstage, Dizzy Gillespie) were visibly touched as well.
Despite the monumentality of "They Say I Look Like God," it appears on a Dave album that is, well, not the most essential. Nor the fifth most. Nor the fifteenth. Despite's Dave's intention for The Real Ambassadors to be something like his magnum opus, critics rarely cite it as one of his masterpieces. It was a commercial bomb upon release.
In a sense, this is understandable. As a front-to-back listening experience, The Real Ambassadors is a tad stodgy and undercooked. This is despite the tremendous talent of the people who made it: the Brubecks; Armstrong, with his All-Stars; singer Carmen McRae; the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.
Even the Brubecks' eldest son, pianist and educator Darius Brubeck, agrees. "I say this with a great deal of respect for what the record is, but if it had been treated as a priority and they'd been given more studio time and their own schedules had gelled together and so forth, it could have been better," Darius tells GRAMMY.com. "It's a miracle it's as good as it was, but really, it was a rush job."
That said, The Real Ambassadors is more than a lumpy-yet-rewarding obscurity with a few good songs — like "They Say I Look Like God," the radiant "Summer Song" and the exuberant "King for a Day." Taken with a few supplemental materials and an open mind, the album is something of a Russian nesting doll, revealing new layers of meaning the more you pull it apart.
And given that 2022 marks its 60th anniversary, now's as good a time as any to examine it.
Spreading Jazz Abroad
The Real Ambassadors was a direct response to the U.S. State Department-sponsored jazz tours of the mid-to-late 1950s and early '60s, in which world-famous musicians Gillespie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington — as well as Dave and Satch — were sent abroad to rehabilitate America's Jim Crow-tarnished image. Their experiences on these Cold War-era tours carved out tributaries of inspiration, which flowed into the album.
"[T]hey never dreamed that the musicians would bring their own agendas," author Penny M. Von Eschen wrote in her in-depth 2004 analysis of the “jazz ambassador” tours, Satchmo Blows Up the World. "Nor did they anticipate that artists and audiences would interact, generating multiple meanings and effects unanticipated by the State Department."
The Real Ambassadors wasn't just meant to be an album — it's the soundtrack to a stage show that never took off. A closer examination of its witty and evocative lyrics unveils much more than a what-we-did-on-tour narrative. It speaks to Dave and Satchmo's passionate commitment to civil rights, as well as their intergenerational connection. And Dave's relationship with Iola. And Dave's spiritual life. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
A Life in Time author Philip Clark agrees that The Real Ambassadors has a fractal-like quality that’s not immediately apparent from simply throwing on the record. "You have what’s called, in opera, a highlights album," he explains to GRAMMY.com. "It has some of the music with none of the narrative around it."
The narrative for The Real Ambassadors musical predated the State Department tours — Iola had been kicking around the idea for a stage show for a few years before it crystallized. And Armstrong's biting and righteous words directly informed it.
Back in 1957, Armstrong canceled his state-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union after President Eisenhower refused to enforce court-ordered desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. "President Eisenhower should take these little children by the hand and lead them into that school" he erupted. "The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell." (After Eisenhower eventually acquiesced, Armstrong participated in the program.)
Spurred by Armstrong's impactful words, Iola began sketching out the musical in embryonic form. "Everywhere my mother was driving us around, to piano lessons, and just in life, she'd always had a clipboard and a notebook with her, always working on ideas," Darius says.
Originally called World, Take a Holiday, the musical centered around two couples: bandleader "Pops" Anderson and vocalist Rhonda Brown, described as a "far-out chick," and Pops' manager, Saul Hoffman, and his wife, Ellie.
In the original script, "Pops" — essentially Louis — and his band arrive in the fictional African nation of Talgalla. Believing him to be the ambassador sent by the Americans, they declared him king for a day and carried him on a throne. (Bizarrely, this actually came to pass during Armstrong's "jazz ambassador" tour in 1960, when he stopped in the Congo during its civil war, both sides declared a 24-hour truce, and fans carried him on a throne.)
Acutely aware of Armstrong's music, attitude and public statements, Dave and Iola Brubeck increasingly blurred the "Pops" character with the real-life trumpeter — who embodied the title in music, word and deed.
Wit, Emotion & Swing
Released in 1962, The Real Ambassadors was a vibrant mix of humor, social commentary and swinging music. And it couldn't have existed if Dave hadn't taken over the world with Time Out — his epochal 1959 record with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Joe Morello — because The Real Ambassadors was a passion project and almost certainly a money loser.
"Once 'Take Five' had radio airplay and was a hit single, Columbia basically let him do whatever he wanted to do," Ricky Riccardi, a Louis Armstrong expert who won a GRAMMY in 2022 for album notes on Satch, tells GRAMMY.com. Even though there was a years-long buildup to the project, "It wasn't until 'Take Five' brought in the cash that he was like, 'Pay for Louis Armstrong. Pay for Carmen McRae. Book the studio."
Although the album is but one facet of the overall The Real Ambassadors project, it catches a great deal of the light. "The whole thing is laced with irony throughout," Darius says, citing the riotous "Cultural Exchange."
He also calls "Remember What You Are" one of the cleverest moments on the record, explaining that it recalls the briefing — or, perhaps, lecture — the State Department gave the musicians. "It ironizes the contrast between the directness and honesty of the jazz musicians,” he says, “versus the very circumscribed way that they're supposed to present themselves."
Darius goes on to quote one of his mother's sardonic lines: "When controversy enters, you retreat!" And while "controversy" may not be the best word to describe the difficulty of getting The Real Ambassadors out there, it was pockmarked by unfortunate miscalculations and roadblocks.
Armstrong's wife, Lucille, a trained dancer, initially rejected the idea of her husband's participation in the stage show, thinking he wouldn't be able to prepare and would embarrass himself as a result. But her fears were eventually assuaged — it mostly involved just plain singing, not unlike in a recording studio.
After several false starts with marginally interested producers, the ensemble got a break from Monterey Jazz Festival co-founder Jimmy Lyons, who booked all the performers involved as standalone acts so they could perform the The Real Ambassadors musical together.
"When they finally stepped on stage, I'm sure Dave probably almost had a heart attack of joy: 'Oh my god! We're finally doing it!'" Keith Hatschek, who authored 2022’s The Real Ambassadors: Dave and Iola Brubeck and Louis Armstrong Challenge Segregation, tells GRAMMY.com.
While there was a camera crew present at the Monterey Jazz Festival, they, astonishingly, didn't film The Real Ambassadors. The lack of film was partly because Dave didn't have $750 — the equivalent of approximately $7,500 today — immediately on hand.
What else set the stage for The Real Ambassadors' long march into obscurity? For one, Armstrong's and Dave's manager, Joe Glaser, threw a wrench in the works. He didn't want his headliners tied up for months on Broadway when they could be making money on the road.
As Hatschek points out, such an ambitious project in 1962 would be precluded by the bottom line. "It would basically reduce everyone's income dramatically," he says. "Carmen McRae was a headliner. Louis was a headliner. Dave was a headliner. So, they would all be out touring on their own, and their booking agents would all be getting commissions and whatnot."
The stage production aside, the record represents a cultural strand that was nearing its end — two years before a certain, explosive "Ed Sullivan Show" performance in 1964.
"The Real Ambassadors is a little before Beatles time, and it's that funny moment in American popular culture where jazz was about to disappear, in terms of being a flavor in popular music," GRAMMY-winning musician and scholar Loren Schoenberg, who is the Founding Director and Senior Scholar of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, tells GRAMMY.com.
"People say jazz was once America's popular music, and I always react negatively to that. But it was a spice, a taste, a flavor that was omnipresent for about 30 years."
A Multidimensional Artifact
Where else can The Real Ambassadors lead you? Even if it only reminds you of Iola's incalculable importance to Dave's life and art, it's worth the price of admission.
"My mom was hilarious, and this is a real chance to show them as a creative team," their son, multi-instrumentalist Chris Brubeck, tells GRAMMY.com. "She was a mother of six and the person who invented the whole circuit of jazz being played in colleges. I think it was really important to Dave that Iola's talent as a lyricist and smart, smart person would be recognized."
At the end of the day, The Real Ambassadors is an invitation to commune with the deeper things of the Book of Brubeck. Jazz shorthand mostly bundles Dave with Time Out and his penchant for what he called "odd time signatures," but his discography goes so much deeper than tranquil tones and tricky meters.
The Real Ambassadors can also send you down the road of Dave's transportive religious offerings, like 1968's The Light in the Wilderness and 1969's The Gates of Justice. In fact, Christian themes ran deep in his and Iola's careers and private lives. In an era where religion and politics — much less the nexus of the two — were verboten at the dinner table, the Brubecks operated on a different plane.
"As the eldest of six children, politics and religion were about the only thing we discussed around the table," Darius says with a laugh. "Dave shut down trivial conversations when he had the chance to be with his family. He wanted to test his ideas; he wanted to challenge ours; he wanted to detect and stamp out any conditioning toward prejudice of any kind we might have been getting from our peers."
Want to shed more light on Dave's conquest for civil rights, which completely dovetailed with his Christianity? Look up the myriad instances where he stood up for his bassist, Eugene Wright, when he was mistreated and locked out of opportunities due to being Black.
Also, cue up the scene in "Ken Burns Jazz" where Dave bursts into tears, recounting his childhood experience of meeting a Black cowboy who showed Dave a brand on his chest. The Real Ambassadors wouldn't exist without that experience. "My dad said, 'These things can't happen,'"Dave remembered in the clip, his voice cracking with emotion. "'That's why I fought for what I fought for.'"
The Brubecks and Armstrong didn't just take on that fight; they lived it until their dying days. The album also proves that, in his later years, Armstrong wasn't a washup going through the motions — as decades of baked-in, unfair and untrue characterizations, busted in Riccardi’s 2011 biography What a Wonderful World, would have him.
"The Real Ambassadors shows him at 60 years old, challenging himself in a way he had never previously done," Riccardi says. "He's learning really challenging original compositions by Dave and Iola Brubeck with tongue-twisting lyrics and deep emotion."
In the past two decades, The Real Ambassadors has taken on new resonance in academia, as typified by Hatschek's, Von Eschen's and Riccardi's scholarship. Over the decades, it was performed and celebrated a few more times — albeit not with the original participants, sans one performance with Dave. And with both a modern-day civil-rights struggle and the Cold War back in public consciousness, The Real Ambassadors oddly feels riper than ever in 2022.
"It's like a plant you think is dead because there's nothing on the surface, but it keeps putting up shoots in unexpected places," Darius observes. "It's because it contains truths that are sadly relevant a whole generation later."
But that sadness aside, your journey into the center of this lopsided musical artifact is guaranteed to bring a whole lot of joy. Because at the heart of it, beneath the layers of cultural significance, a simple directive powers this music, one that you don’t need to pick up a book to understand: blow, Satchmo.
Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist
The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.
Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!
The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.
Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.
So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.
Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.
About GRAMMY U:
GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.
Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.
As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.
Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.
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].
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.