Photo: Bill Marino/Sygma
Tina Turner To Queen: 2018 Recording Academy Special Merit Awards
Emmylou Harris, the Meters, Bill Graham, and John Williams are also among this year's crop of honorees who have made a lasting impression on the recording industry
It's time to celebrate another class of exceptional music creators with the Recording Academy's Special Merit Awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, Trustees Award and Technical GRAMMY Award.
This year's Lifetime Achievement Award honorees are Hal Blaine, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, Louis Jordan, the Meters, Queen, and Tina Turner. Bill Graham, Seymour Stein and John Williams will receive the Trustees Award. Tony Agnello and Richard Factor are the Technical GRAMMY Award recipients.
A special award presentation ceremony and concert celebrating the Special Merit Awards honorees will be held in summer 2018. Additional details regarding the ceremony will be announced.
In the meantime, why are these industry luminaries up for a Special Merit Award? Let's take a closer look.
Blaine is best known for his role as the lead drummer/founder of the Wrecking Crew studio band that backed iconic artists such as Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, and more. He worked on six consecutive Record Of The Year GRAMMY-winning tracks between 1965 and 1970, including Sinatra's "Strangers In The Night" and Simon And Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson."
Diamond's rich catalog has become a part of the fabric of America's songbook with hits such as "Sweet Caroline," "Solitary Man" and "You'll Be A Woman Soon." He earned a GRAMMY at the 16th GRAMMY Awards for Album Of Best Original Score Written For A Motion Picture Or A Television Special for Jonathan Livingston Seagull. He was honored as the MusiCares Person of the Year in 2009.
A 13-time GRAMMY winner, Harris' genre-spanning style has earned her a permanent place among the contemporary country elite. She earned her first GRAMMY at the 19th GRAMMY Awards for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female for Elite Hotel. She most recently won for Best Americana Album for Old Yellow Moon at the 56th GRAMMYs.
The late Jordan has been dubbed the Father of Rhythm & Blues and the Grandfather of Rock and Roll for his recordings from the late 1930s to early 1950s. He has four recordings in the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame with his band Tympany Five: "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens" (inducted 2013), "Caldonia Boogie" (1998), "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" (2008), and "Let The Good Times Roll" (2009).
The Meters — comprising drummer Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, frontman Art Neville, percussionist/vocalist Cyril Neville, guitarist Leo Nocentelli, and bassist George Porter Jr. — are considered to be among the founding fathers of funk with iconic tunes such as "Cissy Strut," "Good Old Funky Music" and "Chicken Strut." "Cissy Strut" was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 2011.
One of the most lauded rock bands of all time, Queen — bassist John Deacon, guitarist Brian May, frontman Freddie Mercury, and drummer Roger Taylor — have made an indelible impact on the music industry with blockbuster hits such as the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame-inducted recordings "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "We Will Rock You"/"We Are The Champions."
Heralded as the Queen of Rock and Roll, Turner remains a global recording star worldwide. She earned her first GRAMMY at the 14th GRAMMY Awards with Ike Turner for their rendition of "Proud Mary," which took home Best R&B Vocal Performance By A Group. She's since added an additional seven wins to her tally, most recently as a featured artist on Herbie Hancock's Album Of The Year-winning River: The Joni Letters at the 50th GRAMMY Awards.
The late manager/concert promoter Graham is credited with creating the modern rock concert thanks to his tour organization for legendary artists such as Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and George Harrison.
As a vice president of Warner Bros. Records and founder of Sire Records, Stein is responsible for ushering in the careers of some of our favorite artists, including the Ramones, the Pretenders, Talking Heads, k.d. lang, Barenaked Ladies, the Cure, Seal, Madonna, Depeche Mode, and Ice-T, among others.
Prolific composer Williams has made history for his unforgettable film scores, including Star Wars, Indiana Jones and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. He is one of the top GRAMMY winners of all time with 23 GRAMMYs to his name, most recently for Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media for Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the 59th GRAMMY Awards. Star Wars — Original Motion Picture Soundtrack was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 2007.
Technical GRAMMY Awards recipients Agnello and Factor have influenced the record-making process through their company Eventide, which produces a wide variety of original audio effects devices. The company's H910 Harmonizer effects processor, whose underlying technology forms the basis of all pitch-shifting and pitch-correction devices today, impacted the sound of classic LPs such as David Bowie's Low, Kraftwerk's Computer World and AC/DC's Back In Black, among others.
"This year's Special Merit Awards recipients are a prestigious group of diverse and influential creators who have crafted or contributed to some of the most distinctive recordings in music history," said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of the Recording Academy. "These exceptionally inspiring figures are being honored as legendary performers, creative architects and technical visionaries. Their outstanding accomplishments and passion for their craft have created a timeless legacy."
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.
Graphic: The Recording Academy
The Recording Academy Announces 2023 Special Merit Awards Honorees: Nirvana, Nile Rodgers, The Supremes, Ann Wilson And Nancy Wilson Of Heart, Slick Rick "The Ruler" & Many More
The 2023 Special Merit Awards honorees include Lifetime Achievement Award recipients Ma Rainey, Bobby McFerrin and many others. The Special Merit Awards Ceremony returns to Los Angeles as an in-person event in February during GRAMMY Week 2023.
Bobby McFerrin, Nirvana, Ma Rainey, Nile Rodgers, Slick Rick "The Ruler," The Supremes, and Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson of Heart are the 2023 Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award recipients; Henry Diltz, Ellis Marsalis and Jim Stewart are the Trustees Award recipients; and the Audio Engineering Society (AES) and Dr. Andy Hildebrand are the Technical GRAMMY Award honorees. The Best Song For Social Change honoree will be announced at a later date.
The Recording Academy's corresponding Special Merit Awards Ceremony celebrating the 2023 Special Merit Awards recipients will return as an in-person event for the first time since 2020 on Feb. 4, 2023, at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles during GRAMMY Week 2023.
"The Academy is proud to celebrate this diverse slate of influential music people spanning numerous genres and crafts as our 2023 Special Merit Awards honorees," Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. said. "Each creator on this list has made an impact on our industry — from technical to creative achievements — representing the breadth of music's diverse community. We're excited to celebrate this group of legends next month that continues to inspire and shape the music world."
Lifetime Achievement Award Honorees: This Special Merit Award is presented by vote of the Recording Academy's National Trustees to performers^ who, during their lifetimes, have made creative contributions of outstanding artistic significance to the field of recording; ^through 1972, recipients included non-performers.
Bobby McFerrin is a 10-time GRAMMY Award winner who has blurred the distinction between pop music and fine art. His exploration of uncharted vocal territory inspired a whole new generation of a cappella singers and the beatbox movement. From his trailblazing, solo a cappella performances to his inspired collaborations with Chick Corea and Yo-Yo Ma, his iconic global No. 1 hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy" and his work conducting top-tier orchestras, McFerrin's calling has always been to connect people through the unlimited possibilities of music. McFerrin redefined the role of the human voice with his experiments in multi-tracking, his collaborations, his improvising choir Voicestra, and his legendary solo performances.
Nirvana was formed in 1987 by Kurt Cobain^ and Krist Novoselic and emerged from the Pacific Northwest onto the world stage with the 1989 release of its debut album Bleach. Two years later Nirvana's sophomore album Nevermind would spark a seismic shift in global youth culture. Rising to No. 1 worldwide and featuring GRAMMY Hall of Fame® single "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nevermind‘s impact would transform Cobain, Novoselic and Dave Grohl into one of the most successful and influential musical entities of all time. Nirvana's third and ultimately final studio album, In Utero, was released in 1993, completing an indelible run that returned rock 'n' roll integrity and passion to the top of the charts. With a 2014 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and more than 75 million records sold, Nirvana continues to be a singular inspiration for generations of fans and musicians the world over.
Ma Rainey^ (Gertrude Pridgett Rainey), often called the "Mother of the Blues," was known for her deep voice and mesmerizing stage presence that drew packed audiences in the early twentieth century. A songwriter as well as a performer, her lyrics and melodies reflected her experiences as an independent, openly bisexual African-American woman. Rainey signed a recording contract with Paramount Records in 1923, making her one of the earliest recorded blues musicians. Between 1923 and 1928, she recorded almost 100 records, many of them national hits that are now part of the American musical canon. Her 1924 recording of "See See Rider Blues" (for which she was accompanied by a young Louis Armstrong) was added to the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry in 2004.
Nile Rodgers is a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee and a multiple GRAMMY Award-winning songwriter, composer, producer, arranger, and guitarist. As the co-founder of CHIC, Rodgers pioneered a musical language that generated chart-topping hits like "Le Freak," the biggest-selling single in the history of Atlantic Records, and sparked the advent of hip-hop with "Good Times." His work in the CHIC Organization including "We Are Family" with Sister Sledge and "I'm Coming Out" with Diana Ross and his productions for artists like David Bowie ("Let's Dance"), Madonna ("Like A Virgin") and Duran Duran ("The Reflex") have sold over 500 million albums and 100 million singles worldwide while his innovative, trendsetting collaborations with Daft Punk, Daddy Yankee and Beyoncé reflect the vanguard of contemporary hits.
Slick Rick "The Ruler,” renowned as "THE most sampled hip-hop artist in history" and "Hip-hop's greatest storyteller" has set the pace for rap's past, present, and future. The Ruler's catalog, which includes the anthems "La-Di-Da-Di" and "The Show," boasts over 850 samples, ranging from Snoop Dogg's "Lodi Dodi" through Beyoncé and J. Cole's "Party." Noted as "the third artist signed to Def Jam Recordings" and "the most successful British-American rapper," his multi-platinum discography encompasses The Great Adventures of Slick Rick , The Ruler's Back , Behind Bars , and The Art of Storytelling . VH1 Hip Hop Honors celebrated him in 2008, and The Source ranked him among the Top 3 of its "Top 50 Lyricists of All Time."
Two-time GRAMMY Award nominees The Supremes were the leading act of Motown Records during the 1960s. Founded by Diana Ross, Mary Wilson^ and Florence Ballard^, The Supremes were trailblazers in the history of music, transcending all genres as the first female group that defined a generation. They were leaders at a pivotal time during the American Civil Rights movement by bringing together audiences that had racial cultural differences through their style and music. Named the No. 1 female recording group of all time by Billboard in 2017, the group achieved an unprecedented 12 No. 1 hits and five consecutive No. 1s from 1964-1965 with "Where Did Our Love Go," "Baby Love," "Come See About Me," "Stop! In the Name of Love," and "Back in My Arms Again." The Supremes were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 with The Beatles, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994, and were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998.
Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson are being recognized as Lifetime Achievement Award honorees for their creative work with the rock band Heart. Heart was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, sold over 35 million records, garnered four GRAMMY Award nominations, landed 10 Top 10 albums, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, had several No. 1 hits, and achieved "the longest span of top 10 albums on the Billboard charts by a female-led band." Heart's influence can be palpably felt everywhere from rock and heavy metal to hip-hop and pop. As a result, their music resonates in nearly every corner of pop culture.
Trustees Award Honorees: This Special Merit Award is presented by vote of the Recording Academy's National Trustees to individuals who, during their careers in music, have made significant contributions, other than performance^, to the field of recording; ^through 1983, recipients included performers.
Henry Diltz photographed more than 250 album covers and thousands of publicity shots in the 1960s and 1970s as a music photographer, including the iconic Morrison Hotel cover for the Doors. Other artists, whose fly-on-the-wall style portraits he's known for, include musical legends such as the Eagles, Neil Young, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jackson Browne, America, Steppenwolf, James Taylor, Jimi Hendrix, The Monkees, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, and David Cassidy. He was the official photographer at the Woodstock festival in August 1969. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, LIFE, People, Rolling Stone, High Times, and Billboard.
Ellis Marsalis^ was a jazz pianist and music educator regarded by many as the premier modern jazz pianist in New Orleans. He began formal music studies at the Xavier University Junior School of Music at age 11 and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in music education from Dillard University in 1955. In 1986, Marsalis accepted the position of commonwealth professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., where he spent two of the three years as coordinator of jazz studies before returning to New Orleans to become the University of New Orleans' first occupant of the Coca-Cola-endowed chair of jazz studies. In 2008 he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, and in 2011, he was honored with the NEA Jazz Masters Award, along with his sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason, given to the Marsalis family.
Jim Stewart^ founded Stax Records and produced some of the greatest rhythm and blues (R&B) records of the 1960s. He was instrumental in launching the careers of Otis Redding, the Bar-Kays, Isaac Hayes, Eddie Floyd, Booker T. & the M.G.s, the Staple Singers, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and hundreds of others. With Stewart at the helm, Stax moved some 800 singles and 300 albums, placing more than 167 hit songs in the Top 100 on the pop charts, and a staggering 243 hits in the Top 100 R&B charts. Stewart was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 by Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the M.G.'s, and Sam Moore of Sam & Dave. In 2012, he was also among the first class of inductees to the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.
Technical GRAMMY Award Honorees: This Special Merit Award is presented by vote of the Producers & Engineers Wing® Advisory Council and Chapter Committees and ratification by the Recording Academy's National Trustees to individuals and/or companies/organizations/institutions who have made contributions of outstanding technical significance to the recording field.
The Audio Engineering Society (AES) is the only professional society devoted exclusively to advancing audio technology. Founded in 1948 with the key goals of collecting, collating and disseminating knowledge of audio science and its application, AES facilitates communication and collaboration that unites audio engineers, creative artists, scientists, and students, with hundreds of local sections worldwide. 75 years on, AES's members continue to set precedents and standards wherever sound and technology meet, from recording and entertainment to scientific research in emerging fields such as Spatial and Game Audio, Networking and Streaming, and Audio for Virtual and Augmented Reality.
Dr. Andy Hildebrand graduated with a Ph.D. EE from the University of Illinois in 1976, specializing in stochastic processes and estimation theory. After studying music composition at Rice's Shepard School of Music, Hildebrand developed an interest in audio data processing and founded Antares Audio Technology in 1990. At Antares, Hildebrand created the groundbreaking Auto-Tune software program, which was first released in 1997. In 2011, Hildebrand was inducted into the TEC Foundation's "Technology Hall of Fame" for the invention of Auto-Tune.
^Denotes posthumous honoree.
Read More: GRAMMY Technical Awards | The Complete List
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].