Photo: Terri Nelles
Every Moment Flame On: A Guide To The Expanded Universe Of Robert Pollard & Guided By Voices
To better understand the long-running, ultra-prolific and emotionally impactful rock band Guided by Voices, dig deeper and check out Robert Pollard's other projects
The punk singer and drummer Ian Shelton was early in his Guided by Voices fandom when an unfamiliar song hit him like a ton of bricks. "I was watching the HBO 'Reverb' set," the leader of Regional Justice Center and Militarie Gun recalls to GRAMMY.com. "I was like, 'What is this amazing song, "Alone, Stinking and Unafraid"? I'm going through all the records, like, 'Which record is this on?'"
It turned out to be by one of GBV leader Robert Pollard's side projects, Lexo and the Leapers, who made one EP in 1999. "So, wait: This guy, who has a successful band, also does other bands that are intentionally less successful and harder to find?" Shelton thought. "That was kind of a revolutionary moment — the idea that the way you release music is that different things have different intentions as far as your audience reach."
Read More: "A Joyful Burden": How Ian Shelton Of Militarie Gun & Regional Justice Center Makes Art Out Of Negativity
To Shelton and the rest of Pollard's disciples, his lifetime outpouring is like an entire record store. As the prolific, prodigious and overlooked songwriter once sang, "This place has everything." Want to hear '60s-style pop? Make a beeline for Cub Scout Bowling Pins. Stadium rock? Check out Ricked Wicky. Unclassifiable noise experiments? Go with Circus Devils. Country and western? Cash Rivers and the Sinners.
And if you just want to hear one of the most idiosyncratic, emotionally impactful bands of the past several decades, go with his main vehicle, Guided by Voices, who have been running on and off since 1983 with members in and out. (If you're unfamiliar, start with their three indisputable classics — 1994's Bee Thousand, 1995's Alien Lanes and 1996's Under the Bushes Under the Stars — and report back.)
However, even their 33 full-length albums and counting don't tell the entire story. At the peak of their popularity, when their record label asked Pollard to stop releasing so much music under the name Guided by Voices, such was the Big Bang of his expanded universe. And the latest stop on this runaway locomotive is Clang Clang Ho!, the first LP by his latest project, Cub Scout Bowling Pins, which was released July 2. (Surprise! It's GBV under a different name.)
While Pollard's canon is catnip for collectors and completists, it's the music's quality — not quantity — that makes it resonate. The melancholic sway of Ricked Wicky's "Jargon of Clones, Robert Pollard's and Doug Gillard's creative call-to-arms "Do Something Real" and Boston Spaceships' jaw-droppingly melodic "Come On Baby Grace" have nothing to do with poring over Discogs minutia. This is purely ascendant rock music.
"Each album could be its own universe, and each song its own planet to explore, but instead he's created multiple universes and alternate universes within universes," Andrew W.K. once opined. "You could definitely only listen to Robert Pollard music and be super well-stocked with tunes for a long time."
Why does Pollard engender this distinction? With the help of the official Guided by Voices database, let's dig deeper into his songbook.
If you wish the hallucinogenic ballad "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory" from Bee Thousand was an entire project, go with this pre-GBV project from the early 1980s.
In Matthew Cutter's 2018 biography Closer You Are, Pollard described it as "The most interesting, spontaneously creative, and psychotic, moronic thing we did... Acid Ranch was fearless and ridiculous, because we knew no one would ever hear any of it."
As Cutter explains in the book, the ensemble consisted of acoustic guitar, bass, squeeze toys and plastic buckets. It's a trying listen, to be sure, but if Daniel Johnston or Beat Happening is your thing, check out The Great Houdini Wasn't So Great.
Airport 5 was a project between Pollard and ex-GBV co-songwriter Tobin Sprout, who's arguably the second most important figure in the band's story. Sprout took music he had lying around and mailed it to Pollard, who added lyrics and melodies.
The results were 2001's Tower in the Fountain of Sparks and 2002's Life Starts Here. While maintaining a raw, homespun edge, both are far more pop-oriented and accessible than Acid Ranch.
"A lot of times, Bob would show up with just a cassette, throw it on my four-track and flesh it out," Sprout recalls to GRAMMY.com. "He would just have an acoustic or something, and a vocal, and they we just kind of put that together."
It must be said that some of GBV's most famous works, like "A Salty Salute" and "Motor Away," were recorded by only Pollard and Sprout — as well as later oddities like "Noble Insect" from 2013's English Little League.
Boston Spaceships. Photo courtesy of Guided by Voices.
A fruitful collaboration between Pollard, bassist Chris Slusarenko and the Decemberists' drummer, John Moen, Boston Spaceships were a satellite band to GBV and nothing less.
"Bob always firmly stated that [we were] a band and not a side project," Slusarenko tells GRAMMY.com. "There's no waste in those Boston Spaceships records. That was the goal. All top-shelf material and a run of classic records in our minds."
Boston Spaceships' entire discography, from 2008's Brown Submarine to 2011's Let it Beard, is worth seeking out for its high-velocity melodicism. Still, Slusarenko points to 2009's Zero to 99 as the crown jewel.
"I felt like it had the most mania to it that matched an early GBV record," he says. "Short songs and scrappy inspirations."
In what would become a ramp-up to Boston Spaceships, Pollard enlisted Slusarenko — who played in the final lineup of GBV before their first breakup in 2004 — for Carbon Whales.
"I have a soft spot for the Carbon Whales 7" [South]," Slusarenko says. "I think we totally captured the spirit of post-punk England '78 in a real way."
Cash Rivers and the Sinners
Back to the metaphor of Pollard as a human record store: Cash Rivers and the Sinners belongs in the novelty section. What began as jokey country songs on 2018's Blue Balls Lincoln eventually spun out into Do Not Adjust Your Set, I Am The Horizontal and Vertical, that year's 69-track smorgasbord of genre explorations and inebriated ramblings.
Circus Devils. Photo: Rich Turiel
When asked what satellite band a GBV listener should start with, Pollard responds confidently. "Circus Devils probably first," he tells GRAMMY.com. "That's a complete study unto itself. 14 albums."
Listen to the Circus Devils' discography from 2001's Ringworm Interiors to 2017's Laughs Last, and you'll hear a progression from avant-garde meanderings to more song-based material. "I felt I had the freedom to shape sounds in an adventurous way," their co-pilot, the producer and multi-instrumentalist Todd Tobias, tells GRAMMY.com.
Circus Devils are such a point of study, in fact, that Tobias once wrote a book about the darkly psychedelic band called See You Inside. (Tobias's brother Tim, who played bass in Guided by Voices in the early 2000s, rounded out the trio.)
"Part of the magic of a Circus Devils record is that it cannot be pinned down and dissected without falling back on your own set of subjective reactions," he wrote in the preface. "Doorways will appear, leading to small adventures, each belonging only to you."
This collaboration with the Moles' leader, Richard Davies, produced one album, 2009's Jar of Jam Ton of Bricks. Despite falling behind the stove somewhat in ensuing years, the strength of Pollard's vocal performances and Davies' touch as an instrumentalist makes Jar of Jam a hidden gem.
Cub Scout Bowling Pins
After putting Cash Rivers and the Sinners to bed, Pollard sought another lighthearted outlet for the current GBV lineup. "I wanted something to kind of creatively take its place," he says. "Something not 'joke country,' but still goofy with everyone equally involved." The canvas, Pollard decided, would be '60s pop, with the potential to spiderweb into different eras and styles.
Like a GBV song, a Cub Scout Bowling Pins tune begins life as a boombox demo — albeit a capella rather than with acoustic guitar. From there, "We only have Bob's voice to guide us and we have to come up with all the music under his melody," guitarist Bobby Bare, Jr. tells GRAMMY.com. "He is singing along to music in his head and we had to figure out what those chords were in his imagination."
Featuring tender sunshine-pop songs like " © 123" and outlandish detours like "Everybody Love a Baboon," Clang Clang Ho! sounds like GBV in a blender — in the best possible way. "We basically have fun being creative," guitarist Doug Gillard tells GRAMMY.com, "bringing some nice or heavy or crazy sounds and ideas to the project."
ESP Ohio. Photo: Derek Asher
ESP Ohio was bassist Mark Shue's first recording project with Pollard, a musician he'd revered for what seemed like forever. When Shue first heard the songs, he was in tears.
"I remember getting the raw boombox demos and just poring over them," Shue tells GRAMMY.com. "The creative journey going from Bob's original demos to the final album is a beautiful process to be a part of — one I'm grateful to still be experiencing years later."
Pollard is more matter-of-fact about ESP Ohio's genesis: "I just wanted to get Travis [Harrison] involved in a recording project that he wasn't just engineering or producing," he says. "I wanted him to be an actual functioning member — the drummer."
While mostly setting the stage for the current incarnation of GBV, ESP Ohio's lone album, Starting Point of the Royal Cyclopean, is a heady and satisfying slab of tunes.
From Stingy Queens to Magic Toe to Huge On Pluto, Pollard has dreamt up a thousand band names and applied them to songs. Freedom Cruise makes this list because it actually led to a few released tracks, including a 1994 split 7" with Nightwalker.
Go Back Snowball
A match made in power-pop heaven: Pollard meets Superchunk's Mac McCaughan. The results are as sumptuous as similar team-ups with Beatlesque contemporaries, from the Moles' Richard Davies to the extremely missed jangle-pop maestro Tommy Keene.
Pollard, Sprout, Mitchell and their friend Larry Keller recorded these soused-sounding tunes at an after-hours video store. Note the song titles plucked from cinema, like "A Farewell to Arms," "Clue" and "A Star is Born."
Howling Wolf Orchestra
This brief collaboration between Pollard, his brother Jim and then-GBV guitarist Nate Farley led to a single EP, Speedtraps for the Bee Kingdom. Quick yet surprisingly diverse, it's full of jangly, trippy gems, like "You Learn Something Old Every Day," "I'm Dirty" and "Where is Out There?"
To GBV and their associates, the Keene Brothers were lightning in a bottle. "Tommy's great power pop musicality and Bob's genius melodies and lyrical sense work so beautifully together," Shue says. To their manager, David Newgarden, their only studio album, Blues and Boogie Shoes, is a "gem."
While generally overlooked, the album's influence has spilled out beyond their circle. "How can you go wrong with two indie-rock legends going head-to-head?" Shelton asks GRAMMY.com. "It's the ultimate soft-rock record."
Kim Deal & Bob Pollard
The Pixies' and Breeders' Kim Deal looms large in the GBV story: In James Greer's 2005 book Guided by Voices: A Brief History, he calls her "one of the few Daytonians Bob regarded as an equal." Their only collaboration was a cover of the Everly Brothers' wounded ballad "Love Hurts."
"My wife hates that," Pollard told Magnet in 2014. "She thinks we were in love. We kind of were."
Another one-and-done between the Pollard brothers for an obscure compilation, Tractor Tunes, Vol. 2. On the flip was Mitchell's own band, the Terrifying Experience.
Lexo and the Leapers
The band that blew Shelton's mind with "Alone, Stinking and Unafraid" was a short-lived collaboration between Pollard and the Dayton band Tasties. Despite its obscurity, each of its six tunes are essentials.
"There are so many great side projects, but I really love Lexo and the Leapers," GBV's drummer, Kevin March, tells GRAMMY.com, "[Especially with] songs like 'Alone, Stinking and Unafraid,' 'Fair Touching' and one of my favorites, 'Circling Motorhead Mountain.'"
Whether heard in or out of GBV, Doug Gillard's aerodynamic guitar style has long proved the single most effective instrumental foil to Pollard. After first teaming up for 1999's Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department, they made two excellent albums under this moniker.
When asked what his favorite side project is, Bare replies without reservation. "LIFEGUARDS," he replies over email in all caps. "The more Gillard, the better!"
This team-up with Gary Waleik, the leader of the Boston experimental pop band Big Dipper, is brighter, shinier and more Cars-like than most of the other entries.
The Moping Swans
Pollard is a decades-long Wire afficianado, and the Moping Swans are one of his most inspired testaments to this obsession. File 2005's Lightninghead to Coffeepot in the post-punk section of his figurative record shop.
As the story goes, Pollard was a vocal fan of the obscure experimental rock band Phantom Tollbooth. Noticing this, the band erased the vocals from their 1988 Power Toy album and allowed Pollard to do his thing over the music. The result was Beard of Lightning, whose outlandish premise alone makes this entry stand out.
Psycho and the Birds
One thrilling, vaguely disturbing detail about Pollard: He has the ability to write entire albums in one sitting. He did so with his 2010 solo album Moses on a Snail and he did it for Psycho and the Birds, a project with Todd Tobias. Both their LPs are worth hearing, especially 2008's We've Moved.
In 2014, Pollard suddenly broke up Guided by Voices, ending the latest run of — his words — the "so-called classic lineup." Before they fired up again with (mostly) new members, he took Ricked Wicky — himself, March, Tobias, and guitarist Nick Mitchell — for a three-album ride.
Pollard found Mitchell performing at the Dayton sports bar Wings, and his contributions are of the beery, Rod Stewart variety. On their debut, 2015's I Sell the Circus, Mitchell made a case as a new sidekick, slugging out the witty rocker "Intellectual Types" alongside Pollard's originals.
The band got deeper and headier with that year's King Heavy Metal and Swimmer to a Liquid Armchair before GBV fired back up with Mitchell on guitar.
That configuration didn't go well, and Gillard flew in to replace Mitchell at a moment's notice. But even with the band back at full bore, Ricked Wicky's triage of LPs stands tall on its own.
All through Guided by Voices' development, Pollard has released solo albums that (usually) showcase his most sophisticated side.
"I do consider Guided by Voices to be sort of 'ageless' and feel free to include any type of song whether it's 'mature,' or not," he told Rolling Stone in 2013. "In other words, Guided by Voices has no age. We're not really in our 50s emotionally. But Robert Pollard is 56 years old and I attempt to write and record songs accordingly."
While this list can't contain the arc of Pollard's solo albums, it can offer advice: Start with 2006's scrappy masterpiece From a Compound Eye then skip forward to 2010's stormy Moses on a Snail, 2013's pastoral Honey Locust Honky Tonk and 2015's muscular Faulty Superheroes.
Then, after that, check out his output under his own name with the Soft Rock Renegades and Ascended Masters.
Robert Pollard With Doug Gillard
Recently shone up with a 2019 remaster, Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department is a GBV fan favorite with a handful of Pollard's most powerful songs on it.
"I think Do The Collapse had just come out, and we were starting to tour on it," Gillard recalls. "Bob gave me a cassette of demos for 9 songs he wrote with acoustic guitar and vocals, and said he'd like me to record the music, playing everything."
There's nary a bad song in the bunch, but two of them are transcendent: "Pop Zeus" climbs and climbs until its zigzag melody becomes hair-raising, and "Do Something Real" is a fist-pumping clarion call to cut the nonsense and live an authentic, creative life.
Call it the artist alone in his chambers: Teenage Guitar is an outlet for some of Pollard's most bizarre, amoebic completely-solo works, like 2014's More Lies from the Gooseberry Bush.
"A lot of it is spontaneous. Building on top of an idea," Pollard explains. "The first one was recorded in my house. The second one in a big studio. I called it Teenage Guitar because it sounds like it."
The Sunflower Logic
Or, Pollard making blown-out fuzz epics with some of the usual suspects: his brother Jim, GBV ex-bassist Greg Demos and his art director, Jim Patterson. They made one album, 2013's Clouds on the Polar Landscape.
Within the morass, at the top of "I Wanna Marry Your Sister," is an answering-machine message with a catsmeowing in the background: "Call me back, please. Here, like, like sittin' by myself. Nobody...like, like eleven o' clock, ten o' clock, whatever. Sad ass. Sittin' on my own ass. Sad ass."
"That was my music with Bob doing all the lyrics and vocals," Slusarenko says. Which sounds interchangeable with the Carbon Whales, right? Or secondary to Boston Spaceships?
It's not: Turn up 2007's fuzz-rocking Bad Football and think about how this could be a peak for a thousand other bands. It speaks to the reason why this extended songbook endures: It's fun to listen to.
Every Pollard release is a joy — or at least a curiosity — in its own way. It's universes within universes, as Andrew W.K. described. Or, as the wizard himself once decreed in song, imbuing minutia with magical significance: "Every moment, flame on."
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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.
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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].
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Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Listen: All Of The Latin Music 2023 GRAMMY Nominees In One Playlist
Ahead of Music's Biggest Night on Feb. 5, 2023, celebrate with this immersive playlist of every Latin Field nominee at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
The Latin GRAMMYs may have just honored the genre's trailblazers in Las Vegas on Nov. 17, but the celebration will continue at the upcoming 65th GRAMMY Awards ceremony in February. There are five categories in the Latin Field of the 2023 GRAMMY nominations — and you can hear all of the nominees in one playlist.
In the Best Latin Pop Album category, are Christina Aguilera's Latin GRAMMY-winning AGUILERA will compete with Rubén Blades & Boca Livre's Pasieros, Camilo's De Adendro Pa Afuera, Fonseca's VIAJANTE, and Sebastián Yatra's Dharma+. Channeling their lively Latin roots while traversing pop landscapes, these albums all magnetically merge tradition and modernity.
Reggaeton, dancehall, hip hop, and funk coalesce in the nominated works for Best Música Urbana Album: Rauw Alejandro's Trap Cake, Vol. 2, Bad Bunny's Un Verano Sin Ti, Daddy Yankee's LEGENDADDY, Farruko's La 167, and Maluma's The Love & Sex Tape.
The genre-blending jubilation continues with the Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album category. This year's nominees are Cimafunk's El Alimento, Jorge Drexler's Tinta y Tiempo, Mon Laferte's 1940 Carmen, Gaby Moreno's Alegoría, Fito Paez's Los Años Salvajes, and Rosalía's MOTOMAMI.
For Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano), 2021 winner Natalia Lafourcade's Un Canto por México - El Musical is up against Chiquis' Abeja Reina, Los Tigres Del Norte's La Reunión (Deluxe), Christian Nodal's EP #1 Forajido, and Marco Antonio Solís' Qué Ganas de Verte (Deluxe).
As for Best Tropical Latin Album, Marc Anthony — a two-time winner in the category — returns as a nominee with Pa'lla Voy, alongside pioneers Tito Nieves (nominated for Legendario), La Santa Cecilia (Quiero Verte Feliz), Víctor Manuelle (Lado A Lado B), Spanish Harlem Orchestra (Imágenes Latinas), and Carlos Vives (Cumbiana II).
Listen to all of the above albums in this comprehensive, 338-song playlist of the Latin music GRAMMY nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Check it out on Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music — and we'll see you at Music's Biggest Night on Sunday, Feb. 5!