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'Is This It' At 20: How The Strokes Redefined Rock

The Strokes in 2001

Source Photo: Anthony PIdgeon/Redferns

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'Is This It' At 20: How The Strokes Redefined Rock

For the 20th anniversary of the Strokes' groundbreaking, industry-shaking 2001 debut album 'Is This It,' GRAMMY.com pays tribute to the band and release with an industry round-table tribute featuring the artists and music biz professionals they influenced

GRAMMYs/Jul 30, 2021 - 12:28 am

The Strokes were impossible to ignore in the early aughts: they were synonymous with rock and roll. Formed in 1998, the band  —  comprised of Julian Casablancas, Nick Valensi, Albert Hammond Jr., Nikolai Fraiture, and Fabrizio Moretti — led the indie-rock revival, shaping a sound and ethos other artists would try to emulate. The group’s common thread happened to be Casablancas: He began performing with guitarist Valensi and drummer Moretti while teenagers attending school in Manhattan, later adding childhood friend and bassist Fraiture into the mix, as well as guitarist Hammond Jr. whom he knew from a stint at boarding school. Combining the grit of downtown New York with the glamour of rock and roll, The Strokes helped redefine alt-rock when there wasn’t necessarily a unified vision. And it all started with their 2001 debut album, Is This It

After their debut EP, The Modern Age, ignited a record label bidding war in early 2001, it would be Is This It that would put them on the map. Initially released in Australia on July 30, 2001 (and later in the U.S. on Oct. 9), the record quickly sparked a frenzy and eventually a garage rock resurgence. Influenced heavily by The Velvet Underground and '70s art-rock, Is This It had a no-frills approach to its Brit-pop-influenced sound. It made creating music with your friends "cool" again, and it wasn’t long until other bands followed suit.

The album, produced by Gordon Raphael, earned widespread critical acclaim and helped establish The Strokes — and vocalist Julian Casablancas — as power players in rock. The group’s second single "Last Nite" would become their first to enter the U.S. charts and peaked at No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot Alternative Songs. While the album wasn’t GRAMMY-nominated, arguably, Is This It provided the foundation of credibility that the band needed to eventually win awards. 

Years and albums later, the band finally took home a coveted GRAMMY Award: Their first record in seven years, their sixth studio LP The New Abnormal, earned them their first GRAMMY win for "Best Rock Album" at the 63rd GRAMMY Awards Show. 

For the 20th anniversary of the band’s debut album, GRAMMY.com pays tribute to The Strokes with an industry round table tribute featuring artists the group influenced and industry professionals who worked with them.

The Strokes Shaped New York’s Culture In The Early Aughts

Nick Marc (DJ/Promoter/Music Curator/Consultant at Tiswas NYC, Take Me Out and more): It was the beginning of a new millennium and people were ready for something new and The Strokes fit the bill. They were cool, from New York which is attractive, especially if you are stuck in suburbia, and they were different from everything else going on at the time. To top it off, they wrote great songs which, while buzzing with energy, were accessible. It was time for a reboot and The Strokes provided it and broke the door open for all the bands that followed.  

Jim Merlis (former publicist for The Strokes): The band had a huge impact on New York’s culture, and it wasn’t just their music. The band really gave back to the scene by taking New York bands/artists like The Moldy Peaches, Regina Spektor, Longwave, and The Realistics on the road with them. No two of these bands sound alike, yet they all made sense opening for The Strokes.

Robert Schwartzman (film director and bandleader of Rooney): When I moved to New York and went to college there, for that first semester, The Strokes were playing shows in New York, and they were the "it" band, I guess you could say. But it wasn't all over pop radio, they were the "cool" guys showing up at parties in New York, and I started to become close with those guys because my cousin Roman [Coppola] directed their music videos early on. By proximity to knowing people in their circle, I just got to hang out and spend time with them. They were almost like big brothers, where I really looked up to them musically, 

Gordon Raphael (producer of Is This It): As soon as the first songs from The Strokes were released there was a visceral and palpable change in youth culture and music culture, pretty much worldwide. An entire generation that grew up hating their older brothers’ rock and roll, suddenly went out to purchase their first leather jackets and guitars, then formed their own bands. 

Marc: There was already a burgeoning scene in NYC before The Strokes came along but with their emergence, they became the focal point of something that had been bubbling under the surface for a while. It’s not like there wasn’t already an alternative/garage rock scene before The Strokes came along but they were the ones who brought it to the masses. They brought a sense of excitement, energy and danger that was missing in music at the time. Most of the alternative music pushed by the labels at the time was fairly dreary to be honest, "dad rock" as it was called at the time, and The Strokes were definitely an antidote to that.

Ian Devaney (lead vocalist of Nation of Language and member of machinegum): My parents spent their young adult years going to see bands like Talking Heads, The Clash and Blondie. For my friends and me, [with The Strokes,] it felt like this was a chance to have our own version of that. There was a sense that, whatever magic those older bands had that could still capture young imaginations decades later, The Strokes were carrying a bit of that magic with them as well. Being a teenager in suburbia, pop-punk and emo really felt ascendant around that time, but none of that ever resonated with me. The Strokes allowed me to see something else happening in music that felt like it was worth aspiring to. 

Merlis: Not only was their music great, it sounded cosmopolitan and very New York City. There hadn’t been much of a music scene in New York over the twenty years prior to them with a handful of good bands here and there. The city was desperate for something cool, especially as [Mayor] Giuliani was turning the City into a safe, Disney-themed town. The band sounded cool and looked it. It also certainly helped that most of the national media is based here. 

Jake Faber (drummer for Sunflower Bean): The Strokes came into my life right as the band was starting. I was at a crazy point in my life where I was trying to do a semester of college at SUNY Purchase, while rehearsing almost every day of the week in Long Island with Sunflower Bean, on top of the beginning of new romance and friendship in my life in Brooklyn. As you can imagine there was a lot of driving around the New York metro area, [and] Is This It soundtracked almost every minute of it. [It] sonically brought it back home for me as it was kind of like The Velvet Underground, but rockier and so poppy. It totally filled the void that one can feel when driving around New York every day for months on end, tending to the most exciting things that have ever happened in my life (at that point) all while wondering "is this it?"

The Strokes Were Polarizing: You Either Loved Or Despised Them

Eric Ducker (writer and editor; wrote the band’s first-ever cover story in 2001): When it comes to the New York rock revival, The Strokes weren’t the best band (that would be TV on the Radio), or the best live band (that would be Yeah Yeah Yeahs), or even the first band (that would arguably be Jonathan Fire*Eater or The Mooney Suzuki), but at least initially they were the best at making it seem like being in a band with your friends was the most fun thing in the entire world. In the years that immediately preceded them, a ton of people in rock bands — from nu-metal mooks to post-Fugazi indie rockers and British gloomsters — seemed totally miserable.

Devaney: Their music just makes it so much easier to put up with everything about living in New York that is irritating and tedious. It's like a kind of urban mindfulness — reminding you that you chose to live here for a reason, and the filth and the difficulty are actually character-building and romantic. 

People still move to New York from very pleasant places that are very far away specifically to place themselves inside the world that exists in these songs. Play a song from Is This It in a crowded dive bar late at night and people lose their minds — it's the apex of their notion of what New York life would be.  

Ducker: Part of the reason The Strokes became a great New York band was because you either loved them or despised them. Or, you pretended to despise them but secretly loved them. For such an argumentative city where everyone thinks they know best and are always happy to tell you why you’re wrong, a band you can be super passionate about holds a lot of appeal.

The Strokes Created A Template For Bands In The Early Aughts

Schwartzman: They were a part of this new world of this cool, edgy slice of music that they had injected into the young music scene like on the alternative rock side of things that was a breath of fresh air, in a way, for that genre of music. At that time, alternative music didn't have a real identity. The whole world they built just had this great consistency: They knew what they were and they stuck with it, and people, I think, really appreciated that. 

[The Strokes] were this British sensation. It was amazing. They conquered the music scene overseas, so they brought with them this amazing kind of cred from having won over that side of music fans and magazines. All those bands out of England that followed, you could hear direct influences: the vocal style and the same kind of sound and sonic approach to how they produce those records. 

On the radio at that time, it was like P.O.D., Linkin Park, Puddle of Mudd—that stuff all over the radio—and then you had the strokes, paving this new road, amongst all these bands that were very, very different musically. I thought that was just so cool, to be young and aspiring in that whole alt-rock world, and see how they were kind of shaking up that whole scene. They really turned alt-radio on its head because they were this odd-band out. But they really brought in a whole new wave of influencing a lot of bands. I remember when we were out touring, you would hear all these bands, and you would be like, "This feels like a Strokes-clone band." There are indie bands that followed that were straight-up cut from the same, old cloth. They sang like Julian, all low and droney [with] those prickly guitar parts that were kind of bouncy. 

Marc: It would be safe to say The Strokes broke down the doors for not just fellow NYC artists such as the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, Interpol, The Rapture and the whole "garage" revival. That fact alone helps cement The Strokes’ legacy.  

Ducker: In the years after Is This It, some of the acts that would become the biggest rock bands in the world were able to replicate what The Strokes did, but with their own specific twist. To reduce it to the most basic level, Kings of Leon were the Southern Strokes, The Killers were the Las Vegas Strokes, Vampire Weekend were the "Ivy League Strokes," Phoenix became the "sophisticated French Strokes," and so on. The Strokes reformatted a template that other acts built off of, even as The Strokes themselves seemed to pretty quickly lose interest in it. 

Is This It Left Lasting Impressions On Artists And Music Industry Professionals

Ducker: When the promo for Is This It came in (original artwork, leather glove on naked butt), I think I had heard The Modern Age EP already, but I hadn’t gone to any of their Mercury Lounge residency shows. At that time there wasn’t social media or blogs to drive buzz for artists. For The Fader’s staff, much of that buzz came from what London-based culture publications like The Face were into, and they were already fully on-board for The Strokes. I was vaguely anticipating Is This It, but it wasn’t until I heard the advance that I quickly realized that this was a group and an album that I could, and would, love intensely. That CD didn’t get pulled from the office stereo for a long time.

Marc: I first bought Is This It when it came out in the UK, but after seeing them live on numerous occasions over the previous year or so as well as already owning their debut EP, I was already familiar with much of their material. What struck me first was how vital it sounded compared to the rather pedestrian nature of most indie artists at the time, and it signaled a welcome shift in the direction of indie-rock music. Its accessibility struck me too. I knew I had heard a game-changing record, and even back then, I believed Is This It would be regarded as a groundbreaking debut album that would stand the test of time. 

Merlis: A former intern of mine when I was at Geffen Records, Ryan Gentles, was their manager. He sent me their three-song Modern Age EP. Within the first note, I knew it was really special. I remember standing up and pacing with excitement. I called Ryan immediately and asked how I could be involved.

Devaney: "The Modern Age" is one song that has particularly stuck with me through the years. The title is bold — you automatically feel like you're listening to something generation-defining — and just by tuning in, you're included in the moment. It hasn't really changed either: The moment may be different, but putting on this song, or any song off of this album, makes you feel like the city is the place to be. 

Julia Cumming (lead vocalist and bass player of Sunflower Bean): When I was in high school I would watch the MTV $2 Bill performance [of “Is This It”] on YouTube often. I just accepted it as the pinnacle of a great rock performance. As a bass player, and as someone who always loved the bass the most in songs, "Is This It" really made me think about what rock bass lines could be and how I could always work harder to make them more creative and special. 

Marc: There remains a certain charisma concerning The Strokes, and they have joined that plethora of classic acts as icons of popular indie/rock/music all the while remaining relevant. I still DJ and it is safe to say that pretty much any track from Is This It still brings the bodies to the floor, but especially "Last Nite" and "Someday," which remain bona fide classics. Both those songs enjoy a crossover appeal that many "rock" songs don’t these days. 

Schwartzman: I went on the road with them. They brought Rooney on tour with this band called Sloan. It was a dream bill for us. Watching them play every night was so awesome. Hanging out with those guys on their tour bus [and] having that band camaraderie was amazing. We were young, like 20 years old, opening for The Strokes. I mean, it's crazy.

The Unity Of The Strokes And Their Vision Has Helped Them Remain An Integral Part Of The Rock Canon

Marc: I feel The Strokes were maligned for their privileged backgrounds which I always felt was unfair as they did work really hard. They were out every night in the early days handing out flyers, promoting their shows and building their following. They did not take anything for granted. They were obviously well-rehearsed as they were tight as hell!  

Cumming: The Strokes are a band, truly and simply. Most popular music today is made alone in bedrooms with laptops, or with teams of songwriters coming together to make the most addictive product possible. Bands like The Strokes show that there will always be something inexplicably important about musicians just playing together, writing songs and being united in a vision. That’s all a really great band can do. 

Ducker: Sometimes having cool jackets can take you pretty far, but if you write songs that people want to sing when they’re drunk-but-not-too-drunk, plus you have cool jackets, you can go a lot farther.

Merlis: One of the things that was rarely discussed about them was how hard they worked. They practiced constantly, played shows regularly, not only in New York but in Boston and Philadelphia. Toured nationally with the Doves and Guided By Voices, all before the album came out. They never waited for their big break; they created it.

Marc: I do not think The Strokes, or the NYC scene they emerged from, would or could happen now. I have always had a theory that The Strokes and the whole NYC scene that followed was the last truly organic scene before social media became prevalent. It was before the days when we lived life online. The Strokes and their contemporaries relied on traditional promo routes, such as flyers, posters, mailings and such, rather than the social media-based promotion of today. Any given night of the week in the early 2000s in the East Village there would be various band members making the scene at any of the numerous parties or bars pushing their next show and that gave rise to a certain comradeship. 

Ducker: A lot has been said about the death of the rock band in the 21st century and rock’s lack of cultural standing over the past decade. I don’t totally agree with that, but I think after The Strokes, people in successful bands realized again that it was a pretty awesome job to have — if you could get it.

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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

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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.

GRAMMYs/Jan 6, 2023 - 12:17 am

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.

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

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

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

James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.

Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.

Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.

In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.

Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.

There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out 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

Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.

Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.

Shiro Schwarz

Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.

Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.

L'Impératrice

L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.

During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.

Franc Moody

Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.

Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.

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

Photo: Steven Sebring

interview

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

"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, 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 Bamback in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?

I think it was his car.

Did he get over it later on?

He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.

Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?

In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.

We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.

The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.

There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.

It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.

It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.

Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?

Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.

The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.

The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?

Yeah.  Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].

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

Graphic: The Recording Academy

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

The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.

GRAMMYs/Nov 23, 2022 - 03:01 pm

Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.

Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.

Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."

Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business. 

As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.

Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"

In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.

Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt." 

There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.

Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"

Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.

After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon. 

"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"

Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.

In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."

Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall. 

Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"

When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.

Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production. 

Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.

Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"

Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."

Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar. 

Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.

2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List