Photos (L-R): Paul Natkin/WireImage, Gary Miller/Getty Images, Chris Walter/WireImage, Johnny Franklin/andmorebears/Getty Images
Songbook: A Guide To Willie Nelson's Voluminous Discography, From Outlaw Country To Jazzy Material & Beyond
Prodigious songwriter, interpreter and national treasure Willie Nelson has released dozens or hundreds of albums, depending on who you ask. Still, a few key entryways and rabbit holes can help you get a handle on this foundational country figure.
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Songbook is an editorial series and hub for music discovery that dives into a legendary artist's discography and art in whole — from songs to albums to music films and videos and beyond.
Cue up almost any Willie Nelson performance from the last 10 years, and you'll find something intriguing. Many other country greats are tight and precise onstage; Nelson is decidedly not.
While his Family band easily catches a groove on well-worn classics like "Family Bible," "Crazy" and "Funny How Time Slips Away," our permanently bandana-ed and pigtailed protagonist is attuned to deeper and stranger rhythmic dimensions. A Willie Nelson show is a particular kind of miasma — at times, it coheres; at times, it hovers almost beatlessly.
Sometimes, Nelson’s famously jazz-inflected syncopation threatens to swing him off the road — he'll strike his famously battered and weathered classical guitar, Trigger, at a moment that seems jarringly off the beat. His light and flinty voice has developed distinguished cracks and fissures with age. But if you're disappointed by his relative lack of polish, you're not just missing the point — you're missing the beauty.
First, nobody has ever picked up a guitar and sang a song like Nelson. The gods only made one of him, and the most fabulously expensive guitar on the market could never sound like Trigger. Second, the soul of country music is impactful storytelling and direct emotional transference, and nobody wields those twin abilities like Nelson, both as a songwriter and interpreter.
Indeed, without him as its cockeyed embodiment and one of its foundational figures, the world of country music would be unrecognizable — period.
Despite a few minor off-ramps during his almost seven-decade career, Nelson has built an astonishing body of work not via overhauling or reinvention, but becoming more himself every year. With every release, he digs deeper into his time-tested toolbox and aesthetic — often to heartening, comforting, and wizening results.
You don't approach the recently released A Beautiful Time, Nelson's fourth album in two years, for left turns; you do so because you want to know what the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends" and Leonard Cohen's "Tower of Song" mean to him — as well as the state of his songwriting.
While the resin-caked hayseed vibe Nelson has embraced since the '70s may be a far cry from his crop-topped beginnings, you can drop the needle on any decade and hear an essentially unchanged artist and person. Whether he's channeling George Gershwin and crooning Broadway tunes, or running from the IRS on record — or even making reggae-inspired music, as on 1995's Countryman — Willie is Willie is Willie.
That said, the 10-time GRAMMY winner and 53-time nominee has either dozens or hundreds of albums, depending on how you count them. Where does one possibly begin? Given that he doesn't really have specific, delineated eras, it's more helpful to cherry pick the most essential albums, decade by decade, while still noting relatively minor entries of interest.
Let's go places we've never been, and see things we may never see again — in this edition of Songbook.
Willie Nelson backstage at "Arizona Hayride" TV show in November, 1964, in Phoenix, Arizona | Photo: Johnny Franklin/andmorebears/Getty Images
While Nelson made his first recordings in the mid-1950s, his discography began in earnest in 1962, with his debut album …And Then I Wrote.
…And Then I Wrote is absolutely worth hearing for its decadent production, introduction of Nelson's Django Reinhardt-inspired nylon-string picking, and key early compositions like "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Crazy."
The baby-faced country crooner on the cover was in for the adventure of a lifetime. Listen to …And Then I Wrote, consider how Nelson's voice is pretty much the same 60 years on — albeit weathered by age and weed smoke — and you'll realize he essentially came out fully formed.
Do you dig the songs on …And Then I Wrote, but don’t like the semi-excessive reverb and instrumentation typical of Nashville back then? Head for 1965's Country Willie: His Own Songs for alternate versions of tracks like "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Mr. Record Man," and cuts from his second album, 1963's Here's Willie Nelson. But all in all, seek out 1973's The Best of Willie Nelson for a handy sampler platter from his first decade on record.
Willie Nelson performs at the Great Southeast Music Hall on October 27, 1975 in Atlanta, Georgia | Photo: Tom Hill/Getty Images
Forged and rebirthed by a ranch fire and divorce — not to mention professional bumps in the road — Nelson entered the 1970s with his first masterpiece: 1971's Yesterday's Wine, which contains classics like "Family Bible" and the title track.
Begin your trawling through Nelson's '70s with that record, then follow up with his 1973 breakthrough, Shotgun Willie, whose sound, attitude and songs helped forge the "outlaw country" subgenre. 1974's slightly less discussed Phases and Stages is a heady exploration of a marriage’s unraveling.
Then drop the needle on 1975's Red Headed Stranger, which further cemented Nelson's reputation as an outlaw-country mainstay and contained his immortal version of Fred Rose's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." (Talk about making a shopworn song your own!)
If you want a more raucous Nelson offering from this decade, seek out 1976's The Troublemaker, a rough-and-tumble collection of traditional songs.
1977's To Lefty From Willie, a tribute to country singer Lefty Frizzell, is Nelson's first album-length tip of the hat to another artist — he'd later do the same for Ray Price and George Gershwin. And 1978's Waylon and Willie is worth engaging with simply to hear two titans appear on the same record.
The other 1970s entry you must hear is Stardust, which veers away from Nelson's outlaw-country image in favor of jazzy renditions of traditional pop songs, like "Unchained Melody," "All of Me," "Moonlight in Vermont," and — most famously — "Georgia on My Mind."
Given there has never been a jazzier country artist than Nelson, Stardust is a pivot point in his discography by concept alone — one that shows the true depths of his artistry. Seek it out for that reason, and stay for the luminous music.
Willie Nelson performs in 1980 | Photo: Chris Walter/WireImage
Nelson kicked off the '80s with San Antonio Rose, a collaborative album with Ray Price that illustrated the profound bond between two foundational country figures. Also released in 1980, Family Bible was a duet album with Nelson's sister, pianist Bobbie, who passed away in 2022.
A successor of sorts to 1979's covers album Sings Kristofferson, Music From Songwriter was a duet between the pair. It also soundtracked the titular, well-recieved 1984 film, which starred both men.
The one drop-dead essential Nelson album of the decade, though, is 1983's Pancho & Lefty, his inspired team-up with fellow outlaw-countryman Merle Haggard.
The album featured unforgettable tunes like the Townes Van Zandt-penned title track — a narrative about a wanderer and Mexican "bandit boy" — as well as Haggard's "Reasons to Quit" and Jesse Ashlock's "Still Water Runs the Deepest." It also spawned multiple sequels, from 1987's Seashores of Old Mexico to 2015's Django & Jimmie.
Willie Nelson in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1994 | Photo: Paul Natkin/WireImage
Nelson had a beyond rocky start to the decade: in 1990, the Internal Revenue Service seized most of his assets, claiming he owed a whopping $16 million. Long story short, he recorded Who'll Buy My Memories: The IRS Tapes to pay off part of the debt.
Although the album was well-received, it's safe to say it exists more of a reminder of this bizarre yarn than a standalone album worth cherishing. (Thank goodness Trigger survived the property seizure — Nelson's daughter, Lana, shipped it to him in Hawaii.)
A far more essential '90s Nelson listen is the haunting, stripped-down, Spanish-influenced Spirit, a quintessential "real heads only" album.
Featuring fiddler Johnny Gimble of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Spirit consists solely of crepuscular, yearning originals, like "Your Memory Won't Die in My Grave," "Too Sick to Pray" and "I Guess I've Come to Live Here in Your Eyes."
Also of interest from this decade in Nelson's discography: Teatro, which Daniel Lanois recorded in an old movie theater in Oxnard, California and features vocal contributions from the estimable Emmylou Harris.
Willie Nelson performs at The Mizner Park Ampitheatre in Boca Raton, Florida, in 2006 | Photo: Larry Marano/Getty Images
In the young millennium, Nelson hit the road even harder than he did in the '90s, and collaborated with artists as divergent as Toby Keith ("Beer for My Horses"), Toots and the Maytals ("She is Still Moving to Me," "I'm a Worried Man") and Wynton Marsalis (2008's Two Men With the Blues).
The 2000s are also important in Nelson's development as they marked the start of his partnership with the two-time GRAMMY-winning producer Buddy Cannon. Their inaugural project was 2008's Moment of Forever, and Cannon produces or co-produces Nelson's yearly (or, in some cases, bi-yearly) albums to this day.
Other notable selections from this decade include 2006's Songbird, with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, and 2007's western-swing excursion Last of the Breed, featuring the triple threat of Nelson, Haggard and Price.
Willie Nelson performs on New Year's Eve at ACL Live in 2014 in Austin, Texas | Photo: Gary Miller/Getty Images
Nelson was consistent and prolific throughout the 2010s. If you're a fan or just curious, you can conceivably drop into almost any album — from 2012's Heroes to 2014's Band of Brothers to 2018's Last Man Standing — and walk away smiling.
That said, a few stand out from the pack. Django and Jimmie, which marks Nelson and Haggard's sixth and final collaborative album, is by turns touching ("Somewhere Between") and uproarious (the irresistible stoner boogie "It's All Going to Pot").
What's more, Django and Jimmie is a glorious penultimate dispatch from the very missed Haggard, who died in 2016. Nelson touchingly paid tribute to his fallen friend on "He Won't Ever Be Gone," from 2017's excellent God's Problem Child.
Finish off your exploration of 2010s Nelson with 2018's My Way, a tribute to Frank Sinatra, and 2020's spare-yet-satisfying Ride Me Back Home.
Willie Nelson performs at the Luck Reunion in 2022 in Luck, Texas | Photo: Jim Bennett/WireImage
By all available evidence, Nelson is firing on all cylinders in the 2020s. He entered the new decade with 2020's tender First Rose of Spring. Nelson followed that up almost immediately with 2021's That's Life, another excellent tribute to Sinatra.
That year's The Willie Nelson Family reflected his eternal bond with his biological and musical family — Nelsons Amy, Bobbie, Lukas, Micah and Paula. And on April 29, Nelson gave us A Beautiful Time, a gorgeous collection of originals and covers, with an especially touching title track written by Shawn Camp.
"If I ever get home/ I'll still love the road/ Still love the way that it winds," Nelson sings therein. "Now when the last song's been played/ I'll look back and say/ I sure had a beautiful time."
The song carries a tinge of finality, and on the cover, Nelson strolls into the sunset. Does it signal that Nelson is finally winding down? It'd be presumptuous to say so, even though he's numberless albums deep and will turn 90 in 2023.
Despite recent health issues, Nelson is magically, gratefully still on the road. He sings as well, or better, than ever. And his guitar playing alone remains an idiosyncratic force — to say nothing of his still-intact songwriting and interpreting talents.
For all his travails and triumphs, Nelson has remained creatively vital and deeply himself throughout his astonishing career and into his seventh active decade — partly because of his family’s support, partly for staying uncompromising, but also because he never let the old man in.
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: Beth Gwinn/Getty Images
Listen To GRAMMY.com's Outlaw Country Playlist: 32 Songs From Honky Tonk Heroes Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard & More
Ahead of the GRAMMY Museum's Dec. 5 event previewing the new documentary 'They Called Us Outlaws,' listen to a 32-song playlist of outlaw country greats.
Outlaw: a noun meaning someone unconventional, rebellious, or active outside the law.
In the mid-1970s, journalist Hazel Smith, country’s self-described "mother hen," coined the term "outlaw music" to describe artists like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings that did not fit the Music Row mold. These renegades rejected the norms — replacing saccharine sounds with storied songs.
Long before this country subgenre had a name, Hank Williams ("I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry"), Johnny Cash ("Folsom Prison Blues'') and Merle Haggard ("Mama Tried") were the original outlaws. In the early 1970s, Nelson's Shotgun Willie further forged the style of outlaw country.
Nashville initially ignored them. But, in 1976, after the compilation Wanted! The Outlaws became the first country album certified platinum, these outsiders earned industry respect. Today, the music endures. SiriusXM has a station devoted to these misfits. And a new six-part docuseries — They Called Us Outlaws: Cosmic Cowboys, Honky Tonk Heroes and the Rise of Renegade Troubadours (narrated by Jack Ingram) — will debut in 2023.
The GRAMMY Museum will hold an event on Dec. 5 to preview part of this new 12-hour documentary. Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett will lead a discussion with the filmmakers, and the evening will feature performances from Tyler Childers, John R. Miller and Abby Hamilton, Shooter Jennings and Jesse Daniel.
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].