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Revisiting Bob Dylan's "Time Out Of Mind" 20 Years Later
How the Album Of The Year GRAMMY winner came together (and almost didn't come out) and its path to modern classic status
How meaningful must an album be to resurrect and redefine a career as big as Bob Dylan's? How well-crafted must it be to best Paul McCartney, Babyface and Radiohead for the Album Of The Year GRAMMY, spawn hits for Garth Brooks and Adele in the decade to come, and set the sonic bar for modern classics? Time Out Of Mind accomplished all of this.
From early in his career, the mere concept of a new Dylan album had become akin to the old paradoxical riddle: Could God create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it?
Yet Dylan painted a masterpiece with Time Out Of Mind, an astonishing feat considering how much darkness found its way into this shining moment in his career, how much magic came out in moments of chaotic mishap and given the fact that the album almost didn't come out at all.
"The first time I heard Time Out Of Mind it annoyed me that somebody as exalted as Bob Dylan should parade his misery so blatantly," admits singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, a devout Dylan disciple "Was his life really that wretched, after all he'd achieved, and all the adulation that had come his way?"
By 1997, Dylan hadn't released an album of new original songs in seven years, an unprecedented span for such a prolific artist. His career had already weathered several commercial and critical lulls and resurgences, all the while the man himself continued his "Never Ending Tour," perpetually placing him in front of audiences that so revered him, yet became increasingly fickle as Dylan's perceived heyday distanced.
"Dylan has a way of making his misery connect with your misery, no matter how remote his life may be from most people's," says Hitchcock. "After hearing the record a couple of times, it began to manifest as his latest meditation on loss. To me, loss has always been Dylan's motor: from 'Girl From The North Country' to 'Visions Of Johanna' to 'You're A Big Girl Now' to 'Ring Them Bells' —the terrible acknowledgement that all we love must drain away from us like sand in an hour glass."
At that time, his last successful stint in the studio was for 1989's Oh Mercy, a comeback in its own right. Produced by Daniel Lanois (U2, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson) and engineered by Mark Howard (Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Neil Young), Oh Mercy had a "two guys on a back porch … kind of vibe," as Lanois described it in a 2011 interview.
That team had worked well together, and in August 1996 Dylan returned to Lanois and Howard to mix a live recording from the House of Blues in Atlanta. Dylan came by to oversee the final mixes at a studio installation they'd built in Oxnard, Calif., called Teatro. There Dylan began to share song ideas with Lanois and shape new sounds at the mixing board next to Howard.
The Album's Gritty Beginnings
As is the case many times in the studio, a small experiment led to the happy accident that provided one of the most important ingredients to the sonic stew of Time Out Of Mind: Dylan's gritty vocal tone.
"I finished this House of Blues recording and I was on the last mix of that when Bob said, 'I play harmonica on this next track. … Is there any way you can make it sound electric?'" recalls Howard. "I said, 'Yes.' So I pumped it through a little [Ibanez] Tube Screamer distortion pedal and then, bam, ran it through a little amp and when the harmonica came on it sounded amazing. Like this old, dirty, Little Walter kind of blues sound."
"Then right after the harmonica stuff," Howard says, "his voice came through the mic and then he heard his voice come through with this distortion all over it. He said, 'I love it.'"
That heavily distorted vocal tone became the signature sound of Time Out Of Mind, and it matched the material perfectly.
"So we were ready to start and then Bob said, 'You know, I can't work this close to home, with the family here. I get distracted,'" says Howard. "'Want to go somewhere else? Let's go to Miami.' Miami was the furthest point away."
Miami's legendary Criteria Studios was promptly booked, the site that housed such landmark recordings as Derek & The Dominos' "Layla," Bob Marley's "Could You Be Loved," the Eagles' "Hotel California," and even the Bee Gees, "Stayin' Alive."
The stage was set to cut a classic, but something was not right.
"I packed up a truck and I brought all the preamps and little neat side consoles and all the gear I was using," Howard says. "Unfortunately, Criteria, it didn't sound good in there, where at the Teatro I was getting this amazing sound. … So I got spooked at the time. I said, 'Bob, it just doesn't sound good here.'
"So I called the Bee Gees and see if they would let us use their studio and they came back with, 'No.'"
Criteria was ultimately bought two years after the making of Time Out Of Mind, revamped and reopened as the Hit Factory Criteria Miami. But Howard had to think and act quickly.
"I ended up building a studio like a little apartment in there, for Bob where … he could retreat to write lyrics and that was in the main room," Howard continued. "He refused to wear headphones, so he just heard his voice coming out of that little amp while recording … and then the band in the room. So that's how it was tracked."
"Every day, 4 o'clock. There was like 15 people pulling in the room all at once," says Howard. Many great players contributed, from drummers Jim Keltner and Brian Blade to multi-instrumentalists Augie Meyers and Jim Dickinson, plus the other road-tested musicians in Dylan's band.
But this many creative forces in one room can create challenges. The engineer's seat behind the console often provides a pragmatic vantage point to reign it all in, but that view can also accentuate the chaos, the way racecars blur by from a fixed front-row seat in the grandstand.
"It was kind of scary because Bob writes on typewriter," Howard recalls. "So on every take he would change the key. So for a musician to change the key, right into the next take, sometimes it's like relearning the whole song. People would be strumming and missing chords and it was quite messy."
According to Howard, some of the takes got pretty far out, but once the musicians gelled, it was up to him to work quickly to get a mix together.
"On a song like 'Love Sick' I put a little flange on Bob's voice with the delay and with the distortion amp so his voice came back and it sounded amazing in the control room, in the playback. So I would print my mix every time I would play it back, because I play it back for the band it's kind of a performance I'm doing for the band, and I'm making moves and doing all the solo rises and stuff like that. … And that song, 'Love Sick', that's the mix that's on the record from that playback. It was one or two of those tracks that I could never better. They just went on the record like that. They were mixed on the spot."
"Not Dark Yet"
"I don't even remember what I came here to get away from," Dylan sings in the album's dark, truthful centerpiece, "Not Dark Yet," a song that grieves, ponders and moans, transmitting its confessions across the most fundamental frequencies of the heart.
Hitchcock performed his own haunting version in 2005 at a Dylan-themed event with Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones Joining him on mandolin.
"'Not Dark Yet' was the song that drew me into the record as I sat in my hotel room in Seattle at dusk in August 1997 and watched 50 TV networks announce that Princess Diana had died," says Hitchcock. "It pinpoints on the map where you are between what you have already lost and what you still have to lose; set in an airless, transient desert town where you keep finding yourself but where nobody belongs."
Indeed, the painful gravity of "Not Dark Yet" is both some of Dylan's finest and bleakest work. Or as Hitchcock puts it, "From the man who wrote 'The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll' and 'Chimes Of Freedom,' the line 'My sense of humanity has gone down the drain' is a stark confession."
Back when Lanois and Howard were still working at Teatro, "Can't Wait" was one of the first songs Dylan brought in. "He plays it on piano in this gospel-type of arrangement, Howard says. "Tony Mangurian, who was there helping out, [with] kinda more drum loop type stuff, he played like a hip-hop beat against it. … It was this mixture of hip-hop and gospel and it was amazing. Made the hair on my arms go up."
But by the time they got to Criteria, that vibe was gone. The song became the album's greatest challenge, according to Howard. The onset of "demo-itis," mixed with a cast of musicians all trying their hand at capturing the right feel, made finishing "Can't Wait" an illusive task.
"We ended up cutting different versions of it," says Howard. "There was one called 'the Ragdoll version' and there was one called 'the Pink Floyd version' and then there was yet another version."
Then disaster struck.
"We were moving at a fast pace and we kept on going back and forth and … I was working on analog tape. I hit the locator on the tape machine and it located to where I thought was clean tape but it was actually the beginning of take two, so I punched record and just erased slightly over the intro. So they listen to it and say, 'No, that's not it.' And they went up to do more takes and they came back in and said, 'Let's hear that take two again.' And I'm like, 'Oh, s*.'"
Naturally, this did not go over well. Though Lanois was not happy, Howard quickly came up with a workable solution.
"I said, 'OK, everybody out of the control room.' And what I did is I took the top of 'the Pink Floyd version' and stuck it on the body of 'the Ragdoll version' and it ended up Bob loved that a lot better. … It was just one of those things where you think your career is over, then it's the best thing in the world."
The album's marathon finale, "Highlands," a 16-minute-plus reverie in which Dylan goes "drifting scene to scene," saw another brush with happenstance — a moment where the song, the album, the studio, the equipment, and the story all seemed to become one.
"It was 2-inch 24-track" Howard recalls. "Usually on a single a reel, you only can only get 12 or 14 minutes, but I had these big, 14-inch reels, so I could get 16 minutes."
This was crucial as "Highlands" turned out to be the longest song in Dylan's catalog at 16:31.
"The band's playing on top of the loop … right at the very end the tape ran out, right at the right second, so it was unbelievable. … [Dylan] was just always flying by the seat of his pants. I'm not sure if he was expecting the roll to run out or whatever. But he just kept going 'til it ended."
The poetic drone of "Highlands" serves as a fitting end to an album that holds the listener in a reflective trance just long enough to, as Dylan sings, "feel further away than ever before."
"There's actually two takes of 'Highlands,'" says Howard, who is plotting a book of his tales in the studio with the likes of Dylan, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Neil Young. "So this was the one that went on the record but there's also another one floating out there that I'm sure will be put out another time on a Bob bootleg record somewhere."
How The Album Might Have Never Come Out
Even with an album like Time Out Of Mind in the can, Dylan seemed unsatisfied, and the album's fate was uncertain.
"Once everybody left Miami, Bob took a cassette with him and Lanois didn't even want to hear it," Howard reveals. "I didn't think the record was gonna come out. And then months later, I get a phone call from Bob in the middle of the night, he goes, 'Hey Mark, what do you think? Do we got a record here?' [I said,] 'Yeah, let's finish it.' He goes, 'Ah, I don't know.'
"So I don't hear from him again for another month or so and then he calls me back up and he goes, 'Mark, you know, I was playing the record for my friend in his apartment building and the weirdest thing happened where the guy from downstairs, he came upstairs and he knocked on the door. And my friend answers the door and he goes, 'What are you guys listening to?' He goes, 'My friend's music, his work.' 'Can I buy it? I gotta have this, this is amazing.' "So essentially this guy's neighbor convinced him to go back there and finish the record. Otherwise, the record may have never came out."
Fortunately, Time Out Of Mind was released on Sept. 30, 1997. Although this was before the Recording Academy awarded a GRAMMY to the lead engineer in the Album Of The Year category, Dylan thanked Howard by name in his acceptance speech, saying, "We got a particular type of sound on this record, which you don't get every day."
"I think because it was mostly just me and Bob at the console," Howard says with the warm modesty of faithful teammate. "I put in a lot of elbow grease on it and saw it to the end."
Howard continues to get calls from artists such as Tom Waits and Marianne Faithful because of his work on Time Out Of Mind and his ability to adapt various spaces for recording. "I'm the great floating installation guy," he said,. "This AirBnb thing has become an amazing asset because I just rent big houses... I just finished a record with this guy from Israel, his name is Asaf Avidan and he's the Bob Dylan of Israel. He's an amazing writer."
Producer/engineer Mark Howard
Looking Back, 20 Years Later
That the world was ready enough for Time Out Of Mind in 1997 to shower it with critical praise and accolades is a testament to Dylan's dexterity for handling even the most cynical and broken of his emotions through song.
"Beneath his cruelty, his hilarity, his timing, and the words that spring to his mouth lie loss, and a sadness inconsolable," says Hitchcock. "Which keeps him true, whether your heart's broken or the end of the world is back on the cards again."
"It's kind of like a wine. It gets better with age," says Howard. "In the beginning I was very embarrassed by it. Before it even won any GRAMMYs or whatever, I felt technically that the record was not up to par … but now when I listen to it, it sounds like a masterpiece. Beautiful, the songs are incredible."
For all of Time Out Of Mind's rough edges and dark corners, Dylan lets in enough light to lift these timeless songs from the bottomless despair, or as he puts it best in lyric form: "Behind every beautiful thing, there's been some kind of pain."
And what about Dylan himself — the man who said at the end of 1965 when he'd released "Like A Rolling Stone" that it was "the best song I wrote" — how did he feel these songs stacked up?
"While we were working down there," says Howard, "and I was trying to get songs out of him, he goes, 'Well I've got the good songs at home, I'm not gonna give you those.'"
Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist
The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.
Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!
The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.
Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.
So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.
Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.
About GRAMMY U:
GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.
Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.
As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.
Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.
Photo: Steve Morley/Redferns
Why Did Bob Dylan Change His Name? 8 Questions About The Legendary Singer/Songwriter Answered
Bob Dylan is arguably the most venerated singer/songwriter in American history, but he tends to kick up far more questions than answers. Here are eight of them, addressed.
Pretty much everyone in the Western world knows Bob Dylan is eminently cagey and elusive. But to the point that a 4,000-word interview still leaves you scratching your head?
Said Q&A appears in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal. Questions abound: which TV shows would he designate as "dog a—"? Has he really "seen Metallica twice"? And regarding his new book, and why he thanked the crew from Dunkin' Donuts? We got a non-answer.
File them all away with questions about his Victoria's Secret commercial, as well as all his misdirections in the recent Rolling Thunder Revue doc: Bob's gonna Bob.
GRAMMY.com can't claim to have all the answers — who does? — but it can at least address some oft-posed questions about the 10-time GRAMMY winner. Read on for eight of them.
Why Did Dylan Change His Name?
Common wisdom dictates that Robert Zimmerman changed his name based on his love of the poet Dylan Thomas; all the way back in 1961, he swatted that down.
"Straighten out in your book that I did not take my name from Dylan Thomas," he told The New York Times. "Dylan Thomas' poetry is for people that aren't really satisfied in their bed — for people who dig masculine romance."
As to a single, concrete reason why? It remains to be seen.
What Inspired "Like a Rolling Stone"?
To answer this question, it's almost impossible to grab onto a single human subject. The most realistic scenario was outlined by Dylan himself: a generalized feeling of revenge.
What Inspired "Blowin' in the Wind"?
Hung on the melody to the pre-Civil War spiritual "No More Auction Block For Me," the elliptical "Blowin' in the Wind" became a cherished civil rights anthem, was covered by hundreds of artists, and recently fetched $1.8 million for a one-of-a-kind record.
As Dylan has explained, the song's list of deeply felt, rhetorical questions is its essence; it's not about any one world event, but the entire nature of peace, war and brotherhood.
"[The answers] ain't in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group," Dylan said at the time of its writing. "Man, it's in the wind — and it's blowing in the wind."
Why Did Dylan Paint His Face?
No, Dylan's face makeup on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour wasn't due to seeing KISS in Queens — thank you very much.
That was one of the many misdirections in Martin Scorcese's 2019 doc Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story. Rather, the lion's share of the evidence points to Dylan finding inspiration in the 1945 French film Children of Paradise.
What Religion Is Bob Dylan?
It's flickered back and forth over the years, most intensely during Dylan's born-again Christian period in the '80s. The following decade, Dylan seemed to set the record straight:
"This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else," he told Newsweek in 1997. Songs like 'Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain' or 'I Saw the Light' — that's my religion. I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs."
Then again, Dylan just said "I'm a religious person. I read the scriptures a lot, meditate and pray, light candles in church. I believe in damnation and salvation, as well as predestination."
Is that simply proof that a lot can change in 25 years? Or another winking bit of misdirection? The answer is… well, you know.
Why Did Dylan Not Accept His Nobel Prize?
He did. After months of uncertainty and speculation as to whether he would. Whatever the reason for the lag, Dylan accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature graciously, calling the honor "truly beyond words" and akin to "standing on the moon."
What Is Bob Dylan Up To In 2022?
Dylan stepped out with the rare Wall Street Journal interview because he's promoting The Philosophy of Modern Song, his predictably strange, illuminating and quixotic 2022 breakdown of canonical tunes that galvanize and inspire him.
Is Bob Dylan On Tour?
Amazingly, Dylan is still on his so-called Never Ending Tour, which has been rolling up, down, to and fro interstates since 1988.
And after a pandemic-related break from the road, he promises the current leg, which promotes his latest album Rough and Rowdy Ways, will continue until 2024.
And a lot can happen in those two years. Maybe even that Metallica collab, sponsored by Dunkin' Donuts? Bob knows.
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].