Photo: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images
Take The Power Back: How Rage Against The Machine's Debut LP Created Rap-Rock With A Message
Released in 1992, 'Rage Against The Machine' pushed the boundaries of contemporary music into previously uncharted territory. GRAMMY.com looks back at Rage's debut record to examine how it created the blueprint for rap-rock that had something to say.
Music is an ever-evolving art form, but by the '90s, it seemed as if there wasn’t much more ground left to explore. Even in the underground, some young people felt limited by the virtually endless selection of R&B, rap, pop, rock, country, punk, and metal curated by the likes of MTV and BET. Yet it was only a matter of time before someone asked: What would happen if we combined some of those genres? One band that dared to answer was Rage Against the Machine.
Nov. 3 marked the 30th anniversary of the release of Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut — a muscular type of riff-heavy hybrid rock that pushed the boundaries of contemporary music into previously uncharted territory. Owing as much to hip-hop as it does to ‘70s metal and punk music from the mid- to late ‘80s, the Los Angeles four-piece blended rap-inspired vocals and driving guitar riffs with a unique approach to songwriting that took listeners by surprise.
Collaborations between well-known rap and rock groups — including Run DMC and Aerosmith, Public Enemy and Anthrax, and The 2 Live Crew and Mötley Crüe — had already explored the synergy that existed between the two genres, but those were all one-time efforts. Until Rage Against the Machine came along, few other bands had made fusing the two styles a bedrock of their musical ambition. The final product became so popular that it established a blueprint that other bands like Limp Bizkit would follow, leading to a glut of rap-rock bands in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. But what set Rage Against the Machine apart from the bands that followed is that it had something to say.
Before the first note of the record sounded, the album art for Rage Against The Machine set the tone for what was to come, telling listeners as much about the band’s outlook as the music would. The album cover features the jarring yet iconic image of the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức in the midst of self-immolation, his final act of protest against religious persecution. This photograph told listeners as much about the band’s outlook as the music would. The result was a one-two punch of politically-charged music that pleased critics and won over fans of both rap and rock music.
Rage Against the Machine’s politics have always been just as important as its music — perhaps even more so — and the album addresses systemic racism, police brutality, media manipulation, cultural exploitation, and subjugation. But what, exactly, was the machine that the band was intent on raging against? In a 1993 interview, guitarist Tom Morello described the proverbial machine as, "anything from the police on the streets of Los Angeles who can pull motorists from their cars and beat them to a pulp and get away with it to the overall international state capitalist machinery that tries to make you a mindless cog, and not think critically, and never confront the system."
What the band was singing about wasn’t necessarily new at the time, but who it was singing to certainly was. Instead of preaching to those who had already felt the sting of injustice, the band took its message straight to middle America. The music spoke directly to the nation’s mainstream youth and, ultimately, "elitist white America," showcasing Generation X’s distinct sense of cynicism tempered with hope.
Vocalist Zack de la Rocha embodied the disenfranchised, releasing a torrent of internalized frustration on each track. But rather than offering catharsis, his lyrics enjoined the listener to share in his rage, to take action against the systemic issues that plague society. Songs like "Township Rebellion" reminded them that it was well within the realm of possibility to change the power structure: "Why stand on a silent platform? Fight the war! F— the norm!" But Rage Against the Machine didn’t want a passive audience — it wanted its fans to get involved. To help make that aim a reality, the album’s liner notes provided information on progressive causes that fans could learn about on their own.
The album was released near the beginning of the Clinton presidency, which was widely regarded as a time of relative peace, prosperity, and growth in America; and, for some listeners, this made Rage Against the Machine’s message seem out of touch with the zeitgeist. Because the band was shining a light on topics that weren’t frequently covered in the news at the time, the music was sometimes written off as being little more than "complaint rock." It would take some time before the band’s message would come into sharper focus.
The entirety of the band’s studio output was released before the Bush presidency, 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Occupy Wall Street, the Obama presidency, the rise of the Tea Party and the Alt-Right, the Trump presidency, the unrest in Charlottesville, and the highly-publicized deaths of many Black Americans like George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement. Even after the passage of so many years — and so many world-altering events — the band’s message can be carried effortlessly to the present day. In light of the recently publicized (though long-known) findings that a racist element lurks in American law enforcement agencies, for example, the meaning behind the line in the song "Killing in the Name" becomes clear: "Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses."
In a 2020 online conversation, Morello expounded on that sentiment: "Race is a very, very difficult thing to discuss in America. Racism in this country is as American as apple pie and baseball. It is interwoven with the DNA of this country, and that’s why, when you criticize racism, people think you’re criticizing America — because you are!"
Ultimately, the band’s music is a continuing reminder that, for as much as society has changed, there are certain elements within it that have remained stubbornly fixed. As the highly-influential Texas State Board of Education considers redefining American slavery as "involuntary relocation," and as the debate over teaching critical race theory in schools continues, fans are reminded of songs like "Take the Power Back" that critique the American educational system’s cultural bearings: "The present curriculum, I put my fist in ‘em/Eurocentric, every last one of ‘em."
While it is still unclear whether Rage Against The Machine's leftist ideology ever created any political converts, it is clear that the band’s music won over more than a few right-wing fans. Even conservative stalwarts like former Speaker of the House and Republican vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, was noted as being a fan of the band’s music. While he didn’t agree with the band’s message — and the band didn’t agree with his fandom — the music’s impact is undeniable. Even now, many long-time conservative fans are just beginning to realize how misaligned the band is with their own worldview. This is largely due to the fact that some fans were willing to take the music at face value while abandoning the message entirely. For others, the "rage" part was always evident, but the parameters of "the machine" are still up for debate.
This dichotomy was no more apparent than in 2020, when Trump supporters draped in pro-police flags and MAGA paraphernalia took to the streets of Philadelphia to protest President Joe Biden’s victory while singing along to "Killing in the Name." Despite the song’s sharp critique of the police, the group of Trump followers chanted "F— you! I won’t do what you tell me!" along with the song’s crescendo.
Even though the song’s meaning had been repurposed, it remains a testament to the Rage’s longevity and to the emotion that its music can evoke. Instances like this also make it clear that, for some, the band’s music has come to symbolize a more universal sense of resistance or rebellion rather than an alignment with a particular set of political beliefs. This type of selective listening, where the music is isolated from the message, may have blunted the impact of the band’s activism to some degree, but it also allowed their message to spread far and wide.
Despite the band’s zeal, Rage couldn’t always shake the perceived hypocrisy of being revolutionary while also having access to all of the trappings of capitalism and rock stardom. This incongruity led some to ask if it was even possible to rage against the machine while simultaneously fueling it. Both de la Rocha and Morello have stated that they saw this approach as a means to inspire others to think critically about American society and global politics. The band has developed a reputation for putting its money where its mouth is, playing benefit shows and donating concert revenue to causes that are meaningful to its members. During its finally-realized 2022 reunion tour, Rage donated $1,000,000 of the proceeds from its residency at Madison Square Garden to select charities.
Since the album’s release, it has consistently appeared on many critics’ best-of lists; and the same songs that originally captivated Gen X are now garnering the attention of younger generations. In some ways, these new fans seem to relate to the band’s message in a more immediate way, relating to the music through the lens of the past decade's social change and political unrest. Contemporary artists like Denzel Curry, Brass Against and Machine Gun Kelly have also carried the message forward by covering Rage Against the Machine songs and introducing the band to new audiences.
Thirty years later, the machine still exists, but so does the band that is determined to undermine it. Rather than directly inciting a revolution, Rage has contributed to its soundtrack. While many other bands from that era are now considered to be a thing of the past, Rage Against the Machine has stuck by its principles and remained a vital part of the current music landscape.
Photos: Michael Hickey/Getty Images; Gus Stewart/Redferns; David Wolff-Patrick/Redferns; Gie Knaeps/Getty Images; Josh Brasted/FilmMagic
2022 In Review: 5 Trends That Defined Rock
Our concept of and interest in various forms of rock is expanding. Whatever rock is, it’s not dead, and GRAMMY.com has rounded up five trends that attest to the strong pulse of rock music in 2022.
Can rock 'n' roll be defined as the loud blues- and guitar-based stylings purveyed by everyone from the Rolling Stones to Greta Van Fleet? Perhaps it's the smart, Brit-punk energy of Idles, or the lush new wave-alt-rock stylings of Phoenix? Or maybe rock is really in the grooves of stoner/doom band Windhand, or classic thunder of NWOBHM icons Iron Maiden?
In a word, yes.
Established radio formats and charts have long organized and codified an ever-increasing amount of bands, artists and songs. But that organization is a trap, making it necessary to divide rock — sometimes randomly and incorrectly — into pigeon holes. Terrestrial and satellite radio and streaming service playlists remain divided, creating categories such as active rock, classic rock, or Adult Alternative. Yet these categories inevitably leave out key bands and songs, or include questionable entries.
In reality, listeners aren’t bound to genre as in the past. Today’s music world is proof positive that as lines blur, our concept of and interest in various forms of rock is expanding. An arena might see the fans at a Rage Against The Machine or Ghost show coming back on a different night to see Harry Styles or Rhianna.
The colloquial expression "I know it when I see it" (first used as a threshold test for obscenity in a 1964 Supreme Court case!) could also be applied to an attempt to define rock. Whatever rock is, it’s not dead, and these five trends that attest to the strong pulse of rock music in 2022.
Girl Power Makes A Comeback
Although powerful women like Lizzo and Lady Gaga top the pop charts — female representation is more scarce in the higher echelons of the rock world. While Lzzy Hale of Halestorm and Taylor Momsen of the Pretty Reckless play with the boys at the big venues, a new wave of rock bands featuring women and all-female bands are bubbling up, claiming their power.
From Los Angeles comes punk-glam-pop-rock powerhouse lineup Starcrawler, fronted by bold changeling Arrow De Wilde. On the darker City of Angels tip is the heavy charm of "satanic doo-wop" band Twin Temple, who made major inroads opening arena shows for Ghost. Also making noise from SoCal are garage-rock trio L.A. Witch, self-described "California doom boogie" band Death Valley Girls, disarming old-soul singer Lauren Ruth Ward, punk singer/guitarist Suzi Moon, and a host of other creatively bold women.
NYC is home to the firebrand vocalists of SuSu (Liza Colby, Kia Warren) and Woodstock, NY birthed fuzzy punk weirdos the Bobby Lees. Elsewhere, Australia's Amyl & The Sniffers bring propulsive, in-your-face songs like "Guided by Angels" and ‘Hertz." Other shining lights include former Melvins collaborator and bilingual powerhouse Teri Gender Bender, plus plenty of young women making noise, like Pinkshift. While punk schoolgirls the Linda Lindas owe more to X than the Runaways, their cohort gives hope that the kids are alright.
Classics Rock The Small Screen
Rock, mainstream and otherwise, helped make some of the coolest television shows even better in 2022. "Stranger Things" gave the 36-year-old Metallica song "Master of Puppets" new life among a younger crowd. (During their Lollapalooza set, Metallica paid tribute to the sci-fi show, and jammed with actor Joseph Quinn backstage.)
The Cramps’ goth-kitsch stylings made an appearance on TV sets via Tim Burton’s "Wednesday." The titular Wednesday Addams character danced her way into weird-girl hall of fame with the lo-fi legends’ 1981 version of "Goo Goo Muck." (And let’s not forget Ms. Addams' stellar cello version of the Stones’ "Paint It Black.")
The psycho-billy/horror-punk track was streamed on-demand over 2 million times in the U.S. — a more than 8,650 percent increase from the average 47 weeks before this year, Billboard reported. While it’s not quite Kate Bush-in-"Stranger Things"-numbers, it’s a nice bump that indicates a new generation of listeners for the wild and wooly lo-fi legends.
Other 2022 small-screen rock surprises include the sci-fi German epic period drama 1899, which uses a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s "White Rabbit" as its theme music. In an interesting anachronistic approach, the surreal period show uses songs that wouldn’t be created for more than six decades. The classic rock cuts include "Child in Time" by Deep Purple, Echo and the Bunnymen’s "The Killing Moon" and Black Sabbath’s "The Wizard." The sometimes-subtle song use certainly led to Shazams from kids and cheers from older folks.
Festivals Continue To Diversify
Once upon a time (not that long ago!) Ozzfest and Family Values were the "metal" festivals, Lollapalooza ruled the alternative nation, and rarely would the twain meet. (In a nod to the times, Ozzfest held a free, online-only virtual 2022 version that didn’t exactly draw raves from rock fans.) But 2022 saw the continuation of a sea change, with heaviness becoming the common denominator in a variety of festivals.
As demonstrated by Metallica at Lollapalooza 2022, and Nine Inch Nails and Slipknot billed alongside KISS and Red Hot Chili Peppers at the four-day Louder Than Life fest in Kentucky, sub-genres of industrial, metal, glam and alt-funk are meshing with ever-increasing ease. At Psycho Las Vegas, thrash band Suicidal Tendencies were billed alongside Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, while Wu-Tang Rapper GZA headlined a night that also featured black metal group Mayhem.
Vegas was also a destination in 2022 for the inaugural ‘90s and ‘early-2000s When We Were Young Festival, which served up nostalgia (and a few contemporary acts) from 64 of the biggest names in pop-punk, emo and hardcore. The sold-out event featured performances by My Chemical Romance, Avril Lavigne, AFI and Dashboard Confessional — acts which, back in the day, were often seen as reflecting separate subgenres.
Diverse rock festivals will continue in 2023 with the inaugural Sick New World festival. Set for May, the festival will feature bands once in the "nu metal"-plus genre — such as System Of A Down, Korn, Deftones and Incubus — alongside more diverse groups like Evanescence, GRAMMY-nominated hardcore hitmakers Turnstile, Chevelle, Mr. Bungle, Placebo, Spiritbox, and the Sisters of Mercy.
A Reignited Rage
Rage Against The Machine were one of the bigger bands that reunited for a tour in 2022 — joining the ranks of Pantera, the Mars Volta, Biohazard, Yellowcard, God Forbid, Roxy Music, the Gaslight Anthem, Taproot, and Sunny Day Real Estate.
But their tour was a long time coming. Rage first announced dates for a reunion tour in 2020 — their first full-length world jaunt in 20 years — but were sidelined by COVID. As the pandemic raged on, racial and political unrest gripped America and the world, making Rage’s political musical messages in songs like "Killing in the Name" as relevant as ever.
The bright side? Rage’s self-titled debut (which celebrated its 30th anniversary in November) jumped back on to the Billboard 200 charts. So when the quartet played their first concert in 11 years on July 9, 2022 in East Troy, Wisconsin, hopes were high — and fan expectations were more than met. Yet two days after the tour began, singer Zach De La Rocha injured his leg; one month later, they canceled the European leg of their tour on doctor’s orders, and the remaining shows on the 2023 North American leg of the tour were scuttled due to the severity of de la Rocha's injury.
Rage closed things out with an incendiary three-night stand at Madison Square Garden beginning Aug. 11. De La Rocha was carried onstage by crew members and sang seated on an amp — but he brought the noise.
Backing Tracks Get The Spotlight
As metal and rock stalwarts continue to perform into their 60s and 70s (Mick Jagger turns 80 in 2023), fans still demand that their heroes sound like they did in their heyday, so it’s likely they might need some assistance. While it’s been a not-so-hidden secret that Ozzy used singer Robert Mason, hidden offstage, to supplement his vocals, bands like Aerosmith make backing tracks less of a secret, using singing keyboard players.
In October, a Twitter war began after Falling in Reverse canceled an Illinois festival gig, citing lost laptops. Reverse's Ronnie Radke posted an explanatory video message on TikTok where he said the band had "no other option" to cancel, because "as a band in 2022, you need your laptops. It's like driving a car without an engine."
Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx jumped online to agree with the use of backing tracks, but Sirius XM DJ/author Eddie Trunk was astonished. "First I heard about this I thought it was a joke to wind me up. How much longer are fans, promoters , media, just going to accept the epidemic of live rock shows… not really being live?"
Former Skid Row singer Sebastian Bach, a veteran of Broadway, concurred with Trunk, while Radke tweeted at the metal DJ, writing: "you wanna talk hella s— about laptops but go watch kiss lip sync, Steven Tyler plays the piano then half way through the song he stands on top of piano while it sill [sic] plays yet here we are acting like they all don't use tracks you f—ing idiot."
Blackie Lawless, whose 40-year celebration tour with metal band W.A.S.P. earned rave reviews, admitted to using backing tracks. "If I'm a fan and I'm coming to a show, I want that thing to sound as good as it can," he said during a fan meet and greet that was posted on YouTube."When we go into a studio — and let me clarify that statement; that's me singing — we do choruses, we double, triple, quadruple the vocals," he said. "When I listened to live YouTube [recordings of our shows] and we weren't doing that, it sounded thin. When we started supplementing it, it sounded better.
"If I'm a fan and I'm coming to a show, I want that thing to sound as good as it can," he continued. "There are other bands — the QUEENs of the world — they cannot duplicate 24 vocals at one time. That's what they do on those records. If you want it to sound like those records, you've gotta have some help."
Even if Falling in Reverse got blowback from peers, their transparency is becoming the new norm. It brings the fans closer to their heroes, mere mortals who struggle with addiction, have personal lives, and occasionally use backing tracks.
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.