Photo: George Pimentel/WireImage
Madonna in 2000
Music Makes The People Come Together: 20 Years Of Madonna's 'Music'
Released in 2000, the Queen of Pop's five-time GRAMMY-nominated album is the work of an artist who has plenty to say, but nothing to prove—a reminder of a less complicated time and a blueprint for our future
In the year 2000, America was sharply divided. A new generation of singers had lip-synced and danced its way to the top of the charts and the front of the pop culture proscenium with material Auto-Tuned to Pro Tools perfection. The (mostly rock) music establishment loudly decried the new pop as artifice and asserted the integrity of music made with analog instruments.
At the time, assessing the validity of popular music loomed larger than the growing threat of MP3 downloads that would eventually upend the entire record industry. Madonna had been through these kinds of polemics before, herself a frequent subject of musical legitimacy debates. But nearly two decades into her career, she had seemed to quiet her most ardent critics.
Her seventh studio album, 1998's Ray of Light, had been the best-reviewed record of her career thus far, earning five GRAMMY nominations and winning three, including Best Pop Album, in 1999. Along with a pair of soundtrack singles, the album had maintained Madonna's presence on radio into the summer of 2000. On MTV's "Total Request Live," her videos played between those from upstart stars half her age, many of whom would cite her as an inspiration. In a contentious cultural landscape, Madonna occupied the highly coveted overlapping space of critical credibility and popular viability.
Ray of Light struck gold by embracing Björk- and Massive Attack-esque electronica, thanks largely to the work of the album's primary producer, William Orbit. However, as a genre, electronica had yet to live up to predictions that it would dominate the U.S. as it had Europe. In combination with Madonna's reputation for reinvention, this only drove expectations higher for how she would follow her latest career highpoint.
"Music," the lead single and title track of her eighth studio album, struck the airwaves like an intergalactic robot in August 2000, heralding a new sound for Madonna and the arrival of 21st-century pop music. With its digitally modified instruments, arpeggiated synths and a chorus Madonna says was inspired by the crowd at a Sting concert, "Music" combined elements of electronic and analog to create an anthem of unity on the dance floor. The Jonas Åkerlund-directed music video—featuring a pre-Borat Sacha Baron Cohen as his character, Ali G—seemed to skewer the decadence of late-'90s hip-hop bling while also revelling in it. We see a pimp-suited Madonna getting into the groove, relishing a night at the strip club with her girls and fending off creeps like a boss, all filmed while she was five and a half months pregnant.
On the strength of its lead single, Music released in the U.S. on September 19, 2000, via Madonna's Maverick imprint under Warner Bros. and opened at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, her highest-charting album in over a decade. Although critics didn't gush over Music with quite the same enthusiasm as they had its predecessor, the album moved millions of physical copies in its first few weeks, eventually going on to garner triple-platinum certification in the U.S. It ultimately earned five total GRAMMY nominations, including Best Pop Vocal Album and Record Of The Year for "Music" in 2001 and Best Short Form Music Video for "Don't Tell Me" in 2002. (Former Maverick Records art director and designer Kevin Reagan, who designed the album, won for Best Recording Package in 2001.)
In an effort to introduce the Queen of Pop to a new generation of fans, the album's promo campaign combined the traditional (a terrestrial radio premiere, a Rolling Stone cover story) with the new (an AOL listening party/live chat, a livestreamed club performance) over a timeline that seems enviably long by today's standards. Comparisons to more junior pop artists on the charts and airwaves swirled around her, but Madonna avoided miring herself in the muck.
Instead, for an exclusive performance at New York City's 3000-capacity Roseland Ballroom that November, Madonna took the stage wearing a Dolce & Gabbana-designed T-shirt emblazoned with the name Britney Spears. For her performance at MTV's European Music Awards later that month, she wore a similar shirt that said Kylie Minogue. "It's my celebration of other girls in pop music," she said backstage at the EMAs, praising the younger women before adding, somewhat cheekily, "I think they're the cutest."
Such spontaneous statements of support and admiration are almost boringly common now, but in an era when pop music had been denied entry into the credibility club, the moment held more weight. Though the press loved to pit female pop stars against each other at the turn of the century as much as it does now, musically, there wasn't much rivalry between them. With Spears still steeped in the sounds of Swedish pop on Oops!… I Did It Again and Minogue diving into disco on Light Years, Madonna had crafted a sound of her own on Music.
While Orbit returned for several tracks on the album, the majority of Music was co-helmed by the relatively unknown French producer Mirwais Ahmadzaï. Like his contemporaries in the French touch electronic scene (Daft Punk, Air, Rinôçérôse), Mirwais was unabashed in his affection for American music of the '70s, including the funk and R&B influences of house. Those influences, paired with his proficiency in production, worked well with Madonna's penchant for pop hooks, resulting in an LP whose sonic textures included space-age fills, guitar-washed in computerizing effects, and vocals that alternate between alien and intimate.
Music's second track, the distorted and ravey fan favorite "Impressive Instant," is a high-BPM ode to a trippy first encounter that sounded then like nothing anyone had heard before—20 years later, it still does. On the opposite end of the spectrum, closing track "Gone" is a stark and straightforward crooner made glorious by the fortitude of Madonna's vocals, selectively layered with exacting control.
As an album, Music is a masterclass in juxtaposition that disguises some of its strangest elements in familiarity. Where futuristic production might distract, it's moderated by traditional instrumentation. This plays out most noticeably on second single, "Don't Tell Me." It's hard to hear the track's opening guitar riff without thinking of the album's disco cowboy visual aesthetic come to life in the Jean-Baptiste Mondino-directed video. The record soundtracking the sparkly western shirts and synchronized line dancing is downright audacious in how it interweaves acoustic guitar—played by Madonna herself—with midtempo dance beats, cushioned by country strings, all building to a crescendo in the final chorus. "Don't Tell Me" so effortlessly realizes the misbegotten '90s vision of folktronica that it sounds just as fresh today as it did in 2000.
As a mainstay of '90s soft rock radio, Madonna was no stranger to love songs. Given the magnitude of her celebrity, the details of her personal life were bound to color how listeners heard Music's more personal lyrics. Two decades later, the declarations of love on "I Deserve It," presumably intended for then-boyfriend, husband-to-be Guy Ritchie, feel just as authentic now, long after their relationship ended. In contrast to the frequent unironic materialism expressed by today's celebrity pop stars, Music excelled at showing the former "Material Girl" in self-reflection. Its genius is how that introspection comes across as relatable and real, even when sung to highly synthesized beats by one of the biggest stars in the world.
For all its ebullience, at only 10 tracks and clocking in just under 45 minutes, Music is a model of restraint. It's the work of an artist who has plenty to say, but nothing to prove. And while her status as an innovator is deserved, Music shows how Madonna is an even better interpreter, fluent in musical languages across genres and capable of hewing them to her vision.
Although Music faces forward to the new century, its unencumbered joyfulness is a bittersweet vestige of the uncomplicated '90s. When she wielded her axe on stage for the kickoff of the Drowned World Tour in June 2001, it was a subtle statement of sorts, expressing Madonna's own defiance of music rules: She could be both rock and pop, analog and digital, acoustic and electronic. But by the time that tour wrapped in Los Angeles on September 15, 2001, nobody cared about that debate anymore.
While she had deftly eschewed the petty cultural battles between genres and generations, the world had changed dramatically in the first year since the release of Music. The message would be muddled in years to come, but in that moment, Madonna was uniquely prepared to be a voice for unity with one simple yet inarguable statement: Music makes the people come together.
Photo: Travis Bailey
Babyface Reflects On Collaborating With Whitney, Toni, Ella Mai & More: How The Legendary Hitmaker Learned To "Speak In Their Voices"
Babyface has enough Top 10 singles to keep a playlist bumping for hours. The songwriter and producer discusses his most memorable productions, many of which tell compelling stories from a woman's perspective.
You didn't have to live through the '90s to know that 11-time GRAMMY winner Babyface is the mastermind behind so many of the decade's biggest R&B hits. Whitney Houston's "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)," Boyz II Men's "End of the Road," and Toni Braxton's "You're Makin' Me High" are just a few No. 1 singles penned by the Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee.
Babyface's legendary status is driven home by 125 Top 10 writer/producer credits, top-tier collaborations with Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand, Beyoncé, and Eric Clapton, plus his own iconic hits, such as "Whip Appeal," "When Can I See You," and "Every Time I Close My Eyes." But telling compelling stories — especially from the female perspective — is arguably one of his greatest strengths, as evidenced most recently on Girls' Night Out.
The 13-track collaboration project champions some of today's brightest female R&B stars, including Ari Lennox, Kehlani, and Queen Naija. Lead single "Keeps on Fallin'" with Ella Mai is nominated for Best Traditional R&B Performance at the 2023 GRAMMYs, which means he's now surpassed 50 GRAMMY nominations. "It was a nice surprise," Babyface tells GRAMMY.com. "It inspires you to keep doing the work."
A master of his craft, Babyface did his homework before getting in the studio with each artist on Girls' Night Out. "I needed to learn how people spoke and how melodies are different. Otherwise, I don't know if I would've been able to speak in their voices," he shares. "I have a much clearer understanding of today's R&B because there is a difference, and it's not necessarily a difference that's any better or any worse. It's just a difference in terms of time, and that's what made the process enjoyable to me."
Though Babyface took more of a mentoring approach with Girls' Night Out, he's no stranger to fostering talented female singers, particularly on the soundtrack for the 1995 movie Waiting to Exhale — which exclusively features Black women. The OST boasts a string of No. 1 and Top 10 hits penned entirely by Babyface himself, including beloved classics like Braxton's "Let It Flow" and Brandy's "Sittin' Up in My Room."
Yet "Not Gon' Cry" by Mary J. Blige — who is nominated in six categories at the 65th GRAMMY Awards — remains among Babyface's most memorable productions for Waiting To Exhale. The timeless ballad, written from character Bernadine’s point of view after her husband of 11 years leaves her for another woman, emerged as the Black woman's anthem for showing resilience in the face of romantic heartbreak and betrayal, but the song almost didn't happen.
"The opening lyrics, 'While all the time that I was loving you, you were busy loving yourself,' just sounded like a real-life conversation, and it sounded like something Mary could say," Babyface explains. "I played it for Andre Harrell, and he said, 'It's okay, but I don't think it's the record for her… Mary's too young for this. She's not 47 years old and she ain't been married and all that.'"
He continues, "My answer to him was, 'Mary's singing for everyone else… and she ultimately became a voice for other women.' It wasn't her personal story, but her voice could deliver that."
Babyface's musical legacy developed further with the formation of LaFace Records in 1989 with music executive L.A. Reid. In the label’s glory days, LaFace launched the careers of Braxton, TLC, OutKast, Pink, Usher, Ciara, Goodie Mob, and Donell Jones. But one of his most impressive feats isn't talked about enough: that Whitney Houston selected Babyface to help usher in the more R&B-oriented sound of her third studio album, 1990's I'm Your Baby Tonight.
"They came to LaFace because they wanted a Blacker record, but when I was writing 'I'm Your Baby Tonight,' I wasn't thinking R&B… I was just writing a Whitney record," he says. "There's an urban flavor to it, but the truth is it wasn't that R&B, but everything is R&B if a Black artist touches it… the idea was to run away from songs like 'How Will I Know' and 'I Wanna Dance with Somebody' that were big records for her that they said weren't Black enough."
Babyface and Houston proved to be a winning musical duo, and "I'm Your Baby Tonight" was nominated for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female at the 33rd GRAMMY Awards. The collaboration also gave Houston her eighth No. 1 hit, tying with Madonna for the female artist with most No. 1s on the Billboard Hot 100 at the time.
The success with divas like Houston and Braxton allowed Babyface to explore his versatility as a hitmaker for superstars outside of the R&B realm. For the lush sounds heard on Madonna's sixth studio album, Bedtime Stories, the pop icon teamed up with Dallas Austin, Dave Hall, and of course Babyface, who co-wrote "Forbidden Love" and "Take a Bow." The latter song became her longest running No. 1 hit.
"The track was already laid down and when we brought in the live strings, which was Madonna's suggestion, it became a whole other thing. I think it was the combination of my background vocals behind Madonna's that just made for a very unique song in that sense for her," Babyface recalls. "She was nervous because she just wasn't used to singing that controlled and being that vulnerable. I remember how we sat there and wrote the song together [at the Hit Factory Studios in New York City], so that's a really cool memory."
As the 64-year-old musician enters the next stage of his four-decade career, he has plenty to look forward to: Touring with eight-time GRAMMY winner Anita Baker, a possible deluxe version of Girls' Night Out, and the upcoming 30th anniversary of his third studio album, For the Cool in You, which spawned the top 5 hit "When Can I See You." (The acoustic tune earned Babyface his first GRAMMY for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.)
For all his success, Babyface has remained humble and his greatest joy comes from being able to hear a talented vocalist bring a song he wrote to life. "The best part is when you get into the studio with this idea, this little demo and then, when someone like Whitney, Aretha, or Boyz II Men sings your song, it becomes a hit before your eyes," he says. "They take it to a place I never imagined it could go."
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].