Photo courtesy of D.J.C. Records
Michael Tenneson and Kevin Woodley
Play That Again: Colorado Inmates Pour Heart, Hope & Faith Into 'Territorial' LP
How a group of Colorado inmates at Territorial Correctional Facility came together to defy their own prejudices and limits and record an album for the ages
In 2014, Michael Tenneson, 60, confined to prison for multiple life sentences, played a blues progression on his Fender Stratocaster that wept through a low-wattage amplifier. The progression would eventually become the backbone to "Mama's Cryin," a track on the soon-to-be released LP Territorial, the first album to be solely written by incarcerated individuals, but at the time it was a riff that, like other pursuits in prison, was more likely to be forgotten than salvaged. As the tune faded into yet another improbable fit and start, Tenneson heard a voice call out to him: "Hey man, play that again."
The voice belonged to Kevin Woodley, an overweight Black man confined to a wheelchair and whom Tenneson had seen before but never talked to. When Tenneson played it again, Woodley wailed an improvisational vocal that turned heads inside the small room. Tenneson didn't need to hear any more to convince himself that Woodley was a supremely talented singer with the right amount of soul and world-weariness. "I made him promise me that if we ever got a chance to play music again, we'd do it together," Tenneson said.
That opportunity came in 2018, nearly four years to the day when Fury Young, 31, an ardent activist with an easygoing exterior, wrote a letter to Tenneson, who was laid up in the infirmary due to an illness. Young, the founder of Die Jim Crow and the label DJC Records, was at the time focusing on Die Jim Crow being a one-off concept album and had heard about Tenneson through a mutual friend, Claudia Whitman. Whitman, the founder and CEO of the National Capital Crime Assistance Network and an advocate for the abolishment of death penalties, had told Young about Tenneson's musical range and abilities. "The only problem," she told him, "is that he’s white."
Fury Young is white, too, and culturally identifies as Jewish. It was his 2013 reading of Michelle Alexander’s breakout book The New Jim Crow that inspired him to do more—to do something—about racial injustice and inequality. Coming to terms with his somewhat privileged life in New York City and the fact that, unlike some of his friends, he hadn’t been to prison, he decided to provide help—in the form of music—to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals.
That Tenneson is white wasn't a dead end for Young, but it did make him wonder whether his services could have been better utilized by minorities who had been unilaterally affected by a prison system mottled by systemic racism. But he also wondered if Tenneson, with his experience as a multi-instrumentalist, could provide a bridge to other musicians and walks of life.
Tenneson, reading Young’s letter in the infirmary and trying to parse out the scribbled sentences and messy handwriting, recalled that day with Kevin Woodley, that diffident-turned-soaring voice from five years ago, and decided that he needed to stoke up the band that never was.
Kevin Woodley (Left) and Michael Tennesen (Right)
Photo courtesy of DJC
As its name suggests, Territorial Correctional Facility was created when Colorado was not yet a state but a territory, a lawless outcropping of land in the West that saw violent eruptions between Native American tribes and white settlers who were seeking land expansion. The original Territorial prison opened in 1871, five years before Colorado officially became a state, and grew in tandem with its municipality, Cañon City; by 1899, the penitentiary that originally held 50 cells had added two more buildings and had grown to 400 inmates. Today, Cañon City, among its popular Riverwalk and numerous recreation areas, claims Territorial as one of its primary income generators. It is one of seven prisons located in or around the city.
The history of Territorial's racism, displacement of native peoples from their lands, and public lynching—capital punishment wasn't abolished in Colorado until 2020—is not lost on Michael Tenneson, who has spent the last 40 years within the United States prison system and has witnessed the fractioned relationship between inmates and justice-seekers. Having grown up in foster homes in rural Wisconsin where he was molested and abused, Tenneson matured into burglarizing homes and a life of heavy drinking and drug use. During one night of drinking, a break-in to a drug dealer's home turned into a triple homicide. Then, on the run for that, and partying in Colorado, he killed two other people after a poker game turned contentious. He described himself back then as having a twisted worldview, particularly when it came to other races. His upbringing had made him narrow-minded and prejudiced, and he was frequently explosive and at odds with others and imperious when it came to his own self-worth. In his early 20s, he was saved by a Black Marine after getting beat up outside of a bar near Camp Pendleton. His outlook began to take a turn then but, ironically, it was prison life that altered the paradigm, forcing him to confront his bigotries and bad choices in a space that provided no escape nor outlet for distraction.
By the time Fury Young was approved to record a full LP at Territorial in December 2017, Tenneson and Woodley's relationship had blossomed into a friendship, to the extent that Young now refers to Woodley as the John Lennon to Tenneson's Paul McCartney: where Tenneson is affable and often boastful, Woodley is pensive and shy. Woodley's body is wracked with cancer, diabetes and lupus, which have affected his mobility and respiratory health, but his hands remain calloused and strong, a reminder of the boxer that he once was. Like his hands, he uses his voice as a powerful tool, but as recording time approached, Woodley had second thoughts about the project. He doubted his voice's range, that his tone was not what it used to be. "You have a better voice than any of these guys will ever have," Tenneson told him. "You have a story to tell. That's a powerful thing." In the past, Tenneson might've bristled at Woodley, but now he had found a reason to defend his new friend from the same insecurity that had once consumed him.
Tenneson and Woodley's vision was to tell a narrative about the sometimes-mournful and sometimes-redemptive tale of self-discovery in prison. Indeed, Territorial, the album, just like Territorial the prison, features contributions from multiple prisoners of varying ages, races, religions and musicianship. As a hybrid of musical genre and perspective, it is the collective story of universal struggle and search for meaning amid the personal recollections of its contributors.
Photo courtesy of DJC
Over the four consecutive days that Fury Young had recorded the album inside the makeshift band room—where he brought in all of the recording equipment including light stands, PVC pipes and moving blankets to dull sounds—the coterie of newfound bandmates—led by Tenneson, Woodley and another singer Dane Newton—found themselves attempting to make the music feel organic while also being held to a tight deadline. The group had had only practiced once a week for a few weeks prior to Young's arrival and had to contend not just with the egos inside the band room (as they might have expected) but with those outside the door. Young recalled numerous times in which other prisoners would pop their head in to inspect what was occurring within the 17 x 15 room, some of them envious that this group had received such a creative opportunity. Young reported that even the guards, though initially straight-faced and "on duty," eventually got into the spirit. By the last day, Young recalled, one of the guards helped provide a supplemental sound effect for one of the tracks by controlling the gate that let prisoners in and out of one of the areas.
The first track recorded was "Mama's Cryin," the rueful blues song that Tenneson and Woodley had concocted five years earlier but that now had the backing of a full band. In the song, Woodley croons "Children dying / Mama's cryin' / cuz daddy's lying on the floor / bullets flying," over vibrato, reggae-tuned guitar tones. Tenneson, speaking to me from within a phone station in Arkansas Valley in Colorado (he has since been transferred), choked up when recalling the profundity of the message and its commentary on current events. As a white man who has killed a person of color, Tenneson harbors guilt about his past; when he hears about police brutality or white-on-black crime he feels "torn up inside." The only redemption he could find—he'd considered suicide—was in religion. Though he prefers the word spirituality to religion, he was baptized in prison several years back. "Religion and spirituality was at the core of our project," he said.
Photo courtesy of Fury Young
Before the recording sessions began, one of the project's contributors, Philip Archuleta, who goes by Archie, performed a traditional Native American ceremony with eagle feathers in which he "asked malicious spirits to leave." He and another Native American, "Lefty," brushed each performer with the feather and uttered a prayer. "I felt some energy there," Tenneson said of the experience.
Archuleta grew up in Colorado among Dakota and Shoshone tribes and has served 22 years of a 40-year sentence. "The problem is," he said, "I keep getting into trouble." Although the Territorial sessions were recorded before COVID-19 swept through the world and caused widespread panic within prison populations, Archuleta told me that the recent safety measures have affected his mental wellbeing. He and other Native Americans have not been able to go to the sweat lodge or allowed to partake in peace pipe-smoking ceremonies. The medical facility has become inaccessible save for the treatment of life-threatening injuries, he said. In the meantime, the lack of stress-relieving procedures that his spirituality granted him has contributed to confrontations with other prisoners. "But this has been a struggle all my life," Archuleta said of his heritage. "It's like we’re a novelty at first, we're told that we're interesting. Then we get treated worse." If the recording of Territorial gave him an opportunity, though a limited one, it was the chance to feel that Christianity versus spirituality versus agnosticism wasn’t as important as the fight between free and not free.
Before the band room was reopened at Territorial Correctional Facility, before even Tenneson had received the letter from Fury Young, concerts at Territorial were hosted in the gym once a month. Like a bare-bones "Battle of the Bands," in which the performers were barely distinguishable from their audience members, Tenneson had performed with different iterations of bands and musicians, the entire time realizing that neither the group nor the venue itself was permanent. In prison—especially in prison—places and their functions are often abandoned or swapped out for projects that will beget more money. In his time within the system, Tenneson has seen a hobby shop at Arkansas Valley (where he was before Territorial and would later return to) closed down when the budget could no longer be supported; he has seen art and beautification projects lose momentum and stall; and he witnessed the closing of the band room after a Labor Day escape in 2018 tightened security and precautions around the facility. But during those days in the gymnasium—where tunes were recalled and imparted, where lineups were tested, where grace was a guitar and microphone—possibilities felt endless.
During one of these sessions in 2018, Tenneson had put Jojo Martinez, 40, on the spot. Known as a rapper outside of prison and having rediscovered faith and rap inside of it, Martinez took the opportunity to rap to the expectant crowd. Tenneson was impressed, same as he had been when he heard Woodley first sing or Dane Newton play keyboards, even if he had come from the opposite pole of rap and hip-hop music ("I got corrupted," Tenneson said of his switch in interest from jazz, which he studied as a kid, to rock and blues when he first heard Jimi Hendrix, and traded his savings in for a Stratocaster). Martinez, who goes by "Bizz," was brought into the fold to contribute his verbal talents. "I put my whole heart into it," Bizz said, whose experience with the others inspired him to continue to chase his musical passion. Bizz is set to be released to a halfway house in October and has used his time quarantining at Sterling Correctional Facility (he has since left Territorial) to work on music that is both spiritual and politically charged. Territorial blurs the line between faith-based messages and political ones, offering a reading, and for Bizz, a sign, that the two can be twined.
The George Floyd protests and subsequent reactions that have confounded governments have further incentivized Fury Young's mission. In addition to raising funds through GoFundMe (Die Jim Crow is a nonprofit that is incumbent upon private and public donations), Young has achieved momentum via the protests that have occurred around the world. In June, Die Jim Crow released BL Shirelle's Assata Troi (Shirelle is also the Deputy Director of Die Jim Crow). Shirelle, 33, spent 10 years behind bars beginning at age 18. This year marks the first time since being a minor that she is free from prison and parole obligations. Assata Troi has received rave reviews and has affirmed Shirelle as a pseudo-elder statesman (she is still young, after all) for those who have seen both sides of the system. Today, she and Young keep up correspondence with incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people with whom they have several upcoming projects.
Bizz is conscious that a different world than the one he left awaits him when he gets out. He is also aware that his switch to faith-based rap has its challenges. Still, he is confident that his message will transcend this bifurcated moment, where FOX and CNN "are the biggest cons in the world." Though television is limited at Sterling, Bizz gets flashes of news media—both conservative and liberal channels—and uses these bits of charged impartiality for material for his lyrics. He also followed the coronavirus news with bated breath, especially once realizing Sterling hadn't reacted to the crisis in a way that was timely and responsible. He described an environment in which there were few masks and virtually no equipment to help aid recovery, where 100 or so guys were packed into a small day room at one time. "The largest outbreak was in this facility," he said. "They tested everyone and I tested negative, then, a couple days later I lost my sense of smell." Once diagnosed with COVID-19, Bizz was thrown into "the hole" rather than a recovery unit where he suffered for weeks. As of May 2018, 593 state inmates had tested positive for the virus and two Sterling inmates had died. There is currently a class action lawsuit pending, backed by the ACLU, claiming that Colorado's governor and his Department of Corrections aren't doing enough to prevent coronavirus outbreaks throughout the Colorado prison system (two of the plaintiffs are housed at Sterling).
Amid the urgent need for masks and other PPE at prisons, Die Jim Crow has organized a GoFundMe for incarcerated individuals (many prisons have denied donations or have not responded to Die Jim Crow's queries), and as of August has raised over $21,000. This has amounted to over 23,000 masks.
In preparing for an early 2021 release of Territorial, Fury Young will also be publishing into a different world than the one he became aware of in 2013. The frequent instances of fatalities and injuries at the hands of police have received more widespread and immediate attention since the likes of Trayvon Martin in 2014 and Freddie Gray in 2015, though the coronavirus has slowed attempts of reconciliation in the form of large-scale events, peace talks, and—in the case of the power and vitality of the arts—live music.
For the musicians who recorded Territorial, for whom playing the album to a live audience will forever be a pipe dream—memories of the session persist. Tenneson has since lost touch with Woodley, whose illnesses have caused numerous complications, and Dane Newton, whose vocals on the final track "America the Merciful" offer an apologetic love letter to the country that has given and taken so much. "America the merciful will forgive my sins again," he bellows, "I don’t want to die chasing the wind." Tenneson, in his own thematic companion piece, "Holy Rain," in which he implores to his savior in gravelly mysticism to "wash me clean lord / with your blessed holy rain" before his mournful humming is drowned out by careening saxophone, bass and electric guitar, is making an argument for the legacy of his bandmates, for their project: that whether or not their music is heard or whether it ever awards them acclaim or freedom, it will—finally, once and for all—wash them anew. "Music is one of the things I can give back," Tenneson said. "It's all I can give."
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.
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Listen: All Of The Latin Music 2023 GRAMMY Nominees In One Playlist
Ahead of Music's Biggest Night on Feb. 5, 2023, celebrate with this immersive playlist of every Latin Field nominee at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
The Latin GRAMMYs may have just honored the genre's trailblazers in Las Vegas on Nov. 17, but the celebration will continue at the upcoming 65th GRAMMY Awards ceremony in February. There are five categories in the Latin Field of the 2023 GRAMMY nominations — and you can hear all of the nominees in one playlist.
In the Best Latin Pop Album category, are Christina Aguilera's Latin GRAMMY-winning AGUILERA will compete with Rubén Blades & Boca Livre's Pasieros, Camilo's De Adendro Pa Afuera, Fonseca's VIAJANTE, and Sebastián Yatra's Dharma+. Channeling their lively Latin roots while traversing pop landscapes, these albums all magnetically merge tradition and modernity.
Reggaeton, dancehall, hip hop, and funk coalesce in the nominated works for Best Música Urbana Album: Rauw Alejandro's Trap Cake, Vol. 2, Bad Bunny's Un Verano Sin Ti, Daddy Yankee's LEGENDADDY, Farruko's La 167, and Maluma's The Love & Sex Tape.
The genre-blending jubilation continues with the Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album category. This year's nominees are Cimafunk's El Alimento, Jorge Drexler's Tinta y Tiempo, Mon Laferte's 1940 Carmen, Gaby Moreno's Alegoría, Fito Paez's Los Años Salvajes, and Rosalía's MOTOMAMI.
For Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano), 2021 winner Natalia Lafourcade's Un Canto por México - El Musical is up against Chiquis' Abeja Reina, Los Tigres Del Norte's La Reunión (Deluxe), Christian Nodal's EP #1 Forajido, and Marco Antonio Solís' Qué Ganas de Verte (Deluxe).
As for Best Tropical Latin Album, Marc Anthony — a two-time winner in the category — returns as a nominee with Pa'lla Voy, alongside pioneers Tito Nieves (nominated for Legendario), La Santa Cecilia (Quiero Verte Feliz), Víctor Manuelle (Lado A Lado B), Spanish Harlem Orchestra (Imágenes Latinas), and Carlos Vives (Cumbiana II).
Listen to all of the above albums in this comprehensive, 338-song playlist of the Latin music GRAMMY nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs.