Remembering The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds': For The Record

Beach Boys

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


Remembering The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds': For The Record

Take a look back at the album that revolutionized the sound of the classic band

GRAMMYs/Jul 19, 2018 - 11:24 pm

Updated Saturday, March 18, 2023, to include information about the "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys" tribute special.

The Recording Academy and CBS are honoring the Beach Boys with "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys," a star-studded, two-hour tribute special featuring a lineup of heavy hitters, including John Legend, Brandi Carlile, Beck, Fall Out Boy, Mumford & Sons, LeAnn Rimes, St. Vincent, Weezer, and many more, who will perform all your favorite Beach Boys classics. Learn more about "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys" and watch the tribute special on Sunday, April 9, from 8 – 10 p.m. ET/PT on the CBS Television Network and live and on demand on Paramount+.

If there's one band that could encapsulate the sound of summer it would be the aptly named Beach Boys. Since their inception in 1961, the GRAMMY-winning California band has taken us straight to the source of sun, sand and surfing with a string of hit albums. But with their 11th studio album, 1966's masterpiece Pet Songs, masterminded largely by Brian Wilson, the band created a new, more complex soundscape that cemented their place in music history.

The story goes that Wilson had crafted much of what would become Pet Sounds by the time the rest of the band — comprising at the time vocalist Al Jardine, vocalist Bruce Johnston, vocalist/co-writer Mike Love, guitarist/vocalist Carl Wilson, and drummer/vocalist Dennis Wilson — returned from a tour of Japan and Hawaii.

The album's musical and lyrical direction marked a departure from the surf rock the Beach Boys had been known for, but Brian Wilson was adamant about the evolving direction of the band's sound, which included many orchestral instruments and unconventional sound effects using bicycle bells, Coca-Cola cans and barking dogs.

"The result was autobiographical, but it wasn't Wilson's autobiography," writes Liel Leibovitz about Wilson's masterpiece. "[It's] a collective autobiography of everything we all feel when we wake up in the morning and are moved by the mystery of how impossible it is, how inevitable, and how stupidly joyful just to try and reach out to another human being."

Commercially, however, the album initially didn't reach the same heights as previous efforts. It peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 while popular tracks "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "God Only Knows" and "Caroline, No" achieved chart success in the U.S. and abroad. But as the rest of the world caught up with the genius of the album, it's now earned triple platinum sales status with the RIAA and is hailed as one of the best pop albums of all time.

Accordingly, Pet Sounds was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 1998. In 2001 the Beach Boys were also honored with the Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award for the indelible mark they have made on the music industry.

How To Watch "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys," Featuring Performances From John Legend, Brandi Carlile, Beck, Fall Out Boy, Mumford & Sons, LeAnn Rimes, Weezer & More

The Beach Boys' 'Sail On Sailor' Reframes Two Obscure 1970s Albums. Why Were They Obscure In The First Place?
The Beach Boys performing live in 1972

Photo courtesy of the artist


The Beach Boys' 'Sail On Sailor' Reframes Two Obscure 1970s Albums. Why Were They Obscure In The First Place?

Popular wisdom dictates that the 1970s saw the Beach Boys' long, slow sunset. But 'Sail On Sailor,' which encompasses two hidden-gem LPs, shows them to be at the top of their game.

GRAMMYs/Dec 2, 2022 - 03:58 pm

Updated Saturday, March 18, 2023, to include information about the "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys" tribute special.

The Recording Academy and CBS are honoring the Beach Boys with "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys," a star-studded, two-hour tribute special featuring a lineup of heavy hitters, including John Legend, Brandi Carlile, Beck, Fall Out Boy, Mumford & Sons, LeAnn Rimes, St. Vincent, Weezer, and many more, who will perform all your favorite Beach Boys classics. Learn more about "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys" and watch the tribute special on Sunday, April 9, from 8 – 10 p.m. ET/PT on the CBS Television Network and live and on demand on Paramount+.

Hindsight might be 20/20, but still: the fact we ever let strangers from 50 years ago dictate our understanding of music history cost us dearly. Case in point: the Beach Boys.

Through the lens of the critical aggregate, the story of America's Band goes something like this: Their imperial phase crescendoed with 1966's Pet Sounds: that album earned five stars across the board, while satellite albums like 1965's Today! and 1967's Wild Honey hover around four. 

Which, fair. But here's where it gets strange.

If we're to take the critics at face value, 1971's Surf's Up is just about the final Beach Boys album worth hearing at all. (Their almost outsider-music-strange 1977 fluke The Beach Boys Love You and their polished 2012 reunion album That's Why God Made the Radio are the exceptions that prove the rule.)

A full 10 post-Pet Sounds albums generally earned lukewarm to flat-out scathing reviews. Some of them might be your bag; some might not be. But here's the implication: the Beach Boys' downfall began with 1972's Carl and the Passions — "So Tough" and 1973's Holland. (The Rolling Stone Album Guide gave both two stars, which tracks with the rest.)

Half a century on, it's difficult to listen to either in good faith and believe that to be true. Because whether or not you dig these tunes as much as their early hits and mid-'60s masterworks, the songwriting, performances and production are at a high caliber that's borderline inarguable. This isn't the Beach Boys at a low ebb. It's the Beach Boys at the top of their game.

A new boxed set out Dec. 2 provides just the portal to reexamine these albums — or hear them for the very first time. Containing both remastered albums and a litany of alternate takes and live tracks, Sail On Sailor - 1972 recontextualizes both Holland and Carl and the Passions not as creative drop-offs, but proof they maintained the flame longer than many thought.

The punchy, mid-fi Carl and the Passions — “So Tough” is a sampler platter of eight diverse personalities. (Bruce Johnston, who joined in 1965, had temporarily left the band at this point.) "He Come Down" is an inspired gospel pastiche; "Marcella" is one of their most radiant and infectious rockers; the mystical, intoxicating "All This is That" is like a realm unto itself.

At the top of 1973, they released the mellow, thoughtful Holland. Also featuring South African additions Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, the album may somewhat hinge on two uptempo R&B tracks, "Sail on Sailor" and "Funky Pretty." But it's a top-to-bottom marvel, from the elliptical "Steamboat" to the California Saga suite to Mount Vernon and Fairway (A Fairy Tale), its fantastical bonus EP composed by Brian Wilson.

"There are some great songs on that record," Brian Wilson wrote of Holland in his 2016 memoir. "'Steamboat' kicks ass. I really like 'Only With You' and 'Funky Pretty,' too. It's a damn good record no matter where or how we made it."

That same year, Mike Love dismissed Carl and the Passions in his own memoir, calling it "a disjointed rush job, hastily assembled between live gigs… More than anything, the album emphasized how confused we were about our brand."

But Elton John heard it differently.

"This is an album which I have loved for a long time," John gushed in the liner notes for the album's 2000 reissue. "This album is a step away from Pet Sounds, but still has moments of breathtaking genius and experimentation. When this record was released, I remember how different and fresh it sounded. It still does."

Together, the eclectic, driving Carl and the Passions and misty, faraway Holland act as two sides of the same coin. They are twin portals into the Beach Boys during the pivotal year of 1972, and can also  reset fans' understandings of their creative vitality throughout that entire decade.

"It's the culmination of the [album-oriented rock] Beach Boys," says Howie Edelson, the creative consultant to the Beach Boys' Brother Records who played a major role in assembling Sail On Sailor. "They needed a lot of help to be pushed up the hill to become AOR. Because, as you know, Sunflower is this aural delight. But it ain't FM!"

"I'll put Holland alongside any Crosby-Nash album, or any Neil Young, or any Stills, or any Jackson Browne album." Edelson continues to "They're all emanating from the same vibe and process."

But before we understand why the world didn't see it that way, it's worth examining the conditions that led to Carl and the Passions — "So Tough" and Holland.

Igniting A Flame

This era of the Beach Boys is partly defined by two ace South African musicians who had joined their ranks: guitarist Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar.

Carl Wilson had found the pair via their band the Flame; enthused, he asked them to join his band. With original member Dennis Wilson in front of the stage rather than behind the kit due to a serious hand injury, Chaplin and Fataar gave the once-innocent, striped-linen act propulsion and brawn.

"The members they brought on board are from South Africa during apartheid," Jerry Schilling, who managed the Beach Boys in the '70s and '80s and manages them again today, tells "I think that's beautiful. I think that's what music does."

This new formulation of the Beach Boys hit the road hard, in a staggering live run that would crescendo in 1974 — when their Endless Summer compilation rocketed them back into the zeitgeist. "They didn't spend that much time off the road," Edelson says; for a dynamic example of their live prowess during this time, check out their full Carnegie Hall performance from Thanksgiving 1972, featured on Sail On Sailor.

"We can play harder rock than we've ever been able to before with Blondie and Ricky," Mike Love reported at the time, according to the Sail On Sailor liner notes. "Brian is still writing for the group; this is being fused with the new element of creativity within the group from the other fellas. Dennis is into strings and orchestrations; he wants to do classical things."

This quote speaks to the teeming, multifarious nature of the Beach Boys at the time. "It's like three different bands," Edelson observes. "I always think of them as an organization or conglomerate rather than a group."

Blondie Chaplin Ricky Fataar

Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Although Brian Wilson was and is a once-in-a-generation phenom, this "organization" thrived even when he was in the backseat, as a non-proactive member.

"I would say that Brian Wilson — after six years of writing, arranging, performing, producing, playing and singing — downshifted," Edelson says. The music he made was more personal, with less of a frantic need to compete on the Billboard Hot 100.

"He might not have been competitive, but he was just holding his work to another standard," he continues. "There was no product or filler. Everything he created during this period was absolutely authentic. If he didn't end up finishing it, it stayed unfinished."

"We know that Brian Wilson is a genius, and it tells me that a genius like Brian was able to delegate," Schilling says. "He let the band show their talents as well, which is quite amazing."

The various chemical reactions within the expanded band made for startlingly variable music, from the oddly Band-sounding "Hold On Dear Brother" to the luxurious strings of "Cuddle Up" and beyond.

"The band was disjointed, recorded across random studios separate from each other," marvels Joshua Henry, who produces the rediscovered cult singer-songwriter Bill Fay. "Which makes the brilliant moments even more amazing."

This could have led to a behemoth triple album, like George Harrison's All Things Must Pass two years prior. "I thought that Carl and the Passions should have been three separate albums," Carl Wilson later reflected. "I wish that Brian had been strong enough to produce the record, because it could have been an ass-kicking, great record."

In the end, the band had to stuff all of their multitudes into 35 minutes — and instead of a feast, fans got an appetizer plate. "It's a pu pu platter. And a pu pu platter can be a meal, but it's a pretty weird f—ing meal," Edelson quips. "It's like, 'Did you eat?' 'Yeah, I ate, but I didn't really have a meal.'

"And that's the downfall of Carl and the Passions," he says. "It feels as though it's a taster for several large meals that don't come."

A No-Confidence Vote

What else contributed to Carl and the Passions being a flop in the marketplace? For one, the title was confusing to consumers — a tip of the hat to Carl Wilson's leadership, and a casually assembled pre-Beach Boys band. Whatever the motivation, it was released as something of a bonus disc to their masterpiece.

"It did not just come out as Carl and the Passions. You got Carl and the Passions — which didn't even say 'Beach Boys' on it — and Pet Sounds as a double LP," Beach Boys archivist Alan Boyd explains to

As Boyd explains, a settlement with Capitol Records meant the band temporarily retained the rights to their post-1965 albums, so Warner/Reprise released Carl and the Passions as a bundle with Pet Sounds.

"The bright idea was every time they put a new Beach Boys album out, they attached one of the old ones from the late '60s that people didn't get to buy because Capitol didn't promote it or whatever," Boyd says. Mark Linett, who co-produced Sail On Sailor, characterizes it as "the confusion of these two completely disparate records that have no connection."

Edelson posits that Carl and the Passions' release only six months after Surf's Up made it slip through the cracks, and that second disc of live tracks — a la The Byrds' sprawling 1970 album (Untitled) — "would've probably pushed the album into a more positive space."

"I think the artists may have been ahead of the record companies," Schilling admits.

Leaving This Town

For Carl and the Passions' follow-up, the Beach Boys and their pivotal new manager, Jack Reiley, decided to decamp to the Netherlands for a change of scenery. But it wasn't that simple: each member and his family, as well as their staff, had to relocate to a different continent. On top of that, they dismantled and shipped their entire studio.

"Oh, the cost was tremendous," Brian Wilson later recalled, as per the Sail On Sailor liner notes. "I mean, the equipment in the first place cost $190,000 to build. . . it's an elaborate system. But the shipping costs, too, were tremendous to bring back." (Getting the increasingly fragile Brian to commit to the move was a Sisyphean ordeal on its own.)

Given their new, bucolic climes, Carl Wilson predicted they'd make music that would "breathe the atmosphere of this country — peaceful and relaxed."

And it does, sort of. Due to any number of factors associated with being so far from home, Holland swirls with a darker energy — even when it peps up for highlights like the hard-rocking, Chaplin-sung title track, "The Trader" (sung and especially beloved by Carl Wilson) and "California Saga: California."

"It seems like we were writing and singing about a California we were remembering," Brian Wilson wrote in his memoir, "but the truth is we were writing about a California we were imagining."

In the second section of "California Saga," "The Beaks of Eagles," Love recites a moody, primeval poem written by Al Jardine and his first wife, Lynda, based on Robinson Jeffers' poem of the same name.

"Lenin has lived and Jehovah died/ While the mother-eagle hunts the same hills, crying the same beautiful and lonely cry," he intones. And "Only With You" is a stunning piano ballad sung by Carl Wilson, suffused with melancholy and longing.

The 10-minute, six-section bonus EP Mount Vernon and Fairway — named after the location of Mike Love's childhood home in Baldwin Hills — was a burst of invention increasingly uncommon for Wilson at the time. And it bears the influence of Randy Newman's Sail Away, which Wilson clung to like an emotional life raft at the time.

"He's so far away from home. He's in Holland. He's scared and slipping away. He turned 30, and he didn't wear 30 well," Edelson says. And while Sail Away is full of dry, mordant character studies, Edelson thinks Wilson connected more to the Stephen Foster- or George Gershwin-style orchestration, and its portrait of American life — however satirical.

"It was this little piece of this unsophisticated, plain America," he says. "He didn't see all the things that we also saw. He just heard home, and he was a guy who needed home badly on every level."

Wresting The Waters

Although it earned stronger critical marks than Carl and the Passions (Rolling Stone hailed its “occasionally unnerving simplicity of viewpoint as at its frequently ornate perfection), Holland didn’t exactly rocket them back to 1964 fame.

This was despite an ad campaign that quizzically trumpeted a return to fun in the sun: "Holland is the best Beach Boys album in years," it read. "No qualification to that statement — this is music which captures the first freshness of those summer-y surfing days."

One reason why the album didn't do well, Edelson opines, comes down to the visual aspect of both. "The Beach Boys never had great cover art, in an era where you needed to have great cover art," he says, adding drolly: "I mean, Holland is brown. And the other one is just red."

Despite landing a modest FM hit in "Sail On, Sailor" — Holland was basically subsumed in the marketplace the following year by Endless Summer.

"They were the biggest band of '74 without a new album out. It wasn't like they were touring Holland; they were just touring," Edelson says. He evokes the Fab Four's bestselling 1973 greatest-hits compilations: "They could have topped Holland. But it's like the Beatles had gotten back together in '76 and had to top the Red and Blue albums."

Following the Endless Summer surge in interest and popularity was the infamous "Brian's Back!" period. Despite the rapid evolution of the band even with Brian Wilson absent or half-engaged, they hung their destiny on their once-driven leader. Then came the jukebox-like covers album 15 Big Ones, and the strange and handmade Love You.

"They believed, perhaps incorrectly, that by 'going back,' they would be able to finally move forward — e.g. Brian as the taskmasker 'hit machine,' which simply didn't exist anymore. It didn't even exist in 1968 let alone 1976," Edelson says.

"Despite the fantastic publicity and sold-out arenas," he adds, "that creative misstep caused them to lose important FM traction."

The Beach Boys Main Embed Photo

The Beach Boys in 1972. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Beach Boys eventually split into competing and often warring touring factions, commanding what Linett calls "mutual, divergent and, at times, completely incompatible fanbases." The rest is history; today, Mike Love's Beach Boys and Brian Wilson's solo band soldier on in separate markets.

But to get a handle on this heretofore misunderstood chapter in the Book of Beach Boys, a line from Carl and the Passions' benediction "He Come Down" springs to mind.

"Hey-yon-du-coma-nauga-ton means 'Avoid the suffering before it comes,'" Love sings, evoking Sanskrit. "Krishna said a long time ago: 'To let the arrow fly, first pull back the bow.'"

"In other words, you can meditate and dissolve stress within, and have enough effect on the environment to change your trajectory just enough to where there's no terrible collision that's going to screw you up, or your family, or society," Love explained to Edelson during a recent GRAMMY Museum event.

The Beach Boys would go on to suffer much worse calamities than bad reviews — like the deaths of Carl and Dennis Wilson, and Brian's mental state entering freefall before his eventual salvation. 

But on Holland and Carl and the Passions, you hear a band riding high, feeling the turbulence, but battening down the hatches and holding on tight. Through restful waters and deep commotion. Feeling frightened, unenlightened. But sailing on.

Brian Wilson Is A Once-In-A-Lifetime Creative Genius. But The Beach Boys Are More Than Just Him.

A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
Franc Moody

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.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

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'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

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

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.

The Rise Of Underground House: How Artists Like Fisher & Acraze Have Taken Tech House, Other Electronic Genres From Indie To EDC

Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
Billy Idol

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."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, 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 Bamback 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].

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Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
2023 GRAMMYs

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.

GRAMMYs/Nov 23, 2022 - 03:01 pm

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.

2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List