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Unearthing A Lost Ella Fitzgerald Recording, 60 Years Later
Recorded in 1962 at Sportpalast Arena in Berlin, the never-before-heard set features the First Lady of Song in her prime—and now, it will be available for all to hear on Oct. 2 via Verve Records
It was like a scene out of an Indiana Jones film: Ken Druker, the Vice President of Catalogue at Verve Records, and Gregg Field, the veteran drummer and producer, were about to play a dusty recording of the indelible First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, that hadn’t been heard, seen or even opened in almost 60 years. "The information written on it certainly wasn’t complete, so it was kind of a crapshoot of what was on it," says Druker of the tedious process. "But the tape was in very good shape and when we listened to it we recognized immediately it was an incredible performance. It was very exciting."
Exactly what Druker and Field stumbled upon was a complete live set of Fitzgerald in her prime performing in 1962 at Sportpalast Arena in Berlin, Germany with the same band as her GRAMMY-winning classic album Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife, which snagged the prize for Best Female Vocal Performance (Single) and the Best Vocal Performance, Female (Album) at the third-ever GRAMMY Awards in 1961. Explains Druker of the monumental find: "The mono recording sounded good, but when we came across the stereo version of the same show we knew for sure it was something that needed to be released."
The result, out Oct. 2 on Verve Records, is appropriately dubbed The Lost Berlin Tapes and is a rare, never-before-heard release courtesy one of America’s greatest voices traversing through bouncy renditions of both her hallmark tracks ("Mack the Knife" and "Check to Cheek") and otherwise rare covers (including a version of Ray Charles’ hit "Hallelujah I Love Her So," swapping "him" for "her").
"There are those nights when you can count on one hand that everything is working on such a high level and this was one of those nights," explains Field who played drums for Fitzgerald in the mid-'80s and serves as a co-producer of the Lost Berlin Tapes endeavour. "She was coming off this big success and you couldn't pick a better year in terms of her age and developed abilities. Here she is with maximum knowledge and ability to execute what she wanted to do. Not only that, but everyone is in a great mood too. All of those things contributed to a much more interesting, compelling performance than the 1960 record that she won the GRAMMY for, which is iconic in itself."
How exactly this particular concert never saw the light of day until the 21st century is a mystery lost to the ages, but Field has some ideas. Formerly in the collection of Ella’s famed manager Norman Granz who founded Verve with the specific mission to release Fitzgerald, the tapes entered a limbo state when Granz later founded Pablo Records in 1973 and sold Verve to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. "We're guessing that when Verve was sold, he took a lot of these tapes with him. Since Verve could have claimed ownership, it could have contributed to why they never came out."
The tapes then sat quietly in Granz's collection for decades, Fitzgerald died in 1996 and Granz passed in 2001, and they were essentially forgotten. That is until a nudge last year from Richard D. Rosman, a caretaker of the Fitzgerald estate, pointed Druker and Field in the direction of the treasure. "We’ll never know what we don’t find," says Druker of the tricky business of lost recordings, some which have the very real ability of disappearing forever. (See: The 2008 fire at Universal Studios during which countless master recordings went ablaze.) "There are some recordings that we know happened but we never found them, so we’re lucky when we do come across these things. When we dig them up, we’re very fortunate."
The quality of The Lost Berlin Tapes is also bolstered by a state-of-the-art technology created by the software company iZotope called RX 8 Music Rebalance. "This technology did not exist a year ago and they called me by chance (just as I was looking into the tapes)," says Field, who used the technology to separate the original stereo mix into a four-track drum, bass, piano and vocal recording. "On the original tape, Ella’s voice was a little thin in the mid-range and the piano and drums were panned hard left and hard right, which is very old school. I was able to bring her more forward and brought up the bottom so you can even hear fingers on the strings. The result is that Ella's much more in the room with you. When I sent it to Ken, he said, 'This is the best live recording of Ella I've ever heard.'"
For Field, who became so close to Ella that she even serenaded him with "Happy Birthday" when he turned 30, it’s both her talent and humanity that’s on full display on the unearthed recording. "Ella was two people. She was very humble, very shy and generous. But when she walked on stage she was hardcore and didn’t know how to sing unless it was coming from her heart," Field explains. "She had a great sense of her audience and made you feel like you were in on all the fun that we were having. She was able to get rid of the walls between her and the audience. That showed in her music, and this set."
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Photo: Meredith Truax
5 Artists Who Prove That The Great American Songbook Is Brilliantly Alive
For some, the Great American Songbook is irrelevant, consigned to a dusty corner of history. To others, including 2023 GRAMMY nominee Samara Joy, the Songbook's venerated tunes form a living document worthy of love and adaptation.
The Great American Songbook is an unquestionable bedrock of pop, rock and jazz. But these days, many seem ready to close it for good.
For the sake of argument, let's define it as a venerated patchwork of jazz standards, popular songs and showtunes from the former half of the 20th century; one prominent author supposes that it met its commercial Waterloo as the 1940s met the '50s.
After the rock 'n' roll revolution and the creative fireworks of the '60s, critics generally viewed Great American Songbook albums by pop and rock artists with a jaundiced eye. But jazz-influenced artists from Willie Nelson (1978's Stardust) to Dr. John (1989's In a Sentimental Mood) continued to embrace the form to transcendent effect.
The Songbook is one component of the jazz-standard repertoire; therein, showtunes mingle with instrumental classics by Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Clifford Brown, and other titans. In this sphere, which often prizes forging ahead over perceived inertia, the Songbook has haters.
A simple Google search for "reddit hate jazz standards" will reveal that peanut gallery — one ready to throw Songbook stalwarts such as "Come Rain or Come Shine" in the garbage. In 2021, jazz critic Phil Freeman set off a Jazz Twitter brushfire with this take: "F— standards. Ban them for 20 years, like a controlled burn in a forest, and see what sprouts in their place."
Freeman made that proclamation through the lens of predatory business practices — a very real problem throughout jazz history. But to any number of musicians themselves, the notion of getting rid of them altogether inspires horror.
"In order to say that, you have to be disconnected from Hollywood cinema, disconnected from the history of Broadway shows, disconnected from artists like Duke Ellington and Fats Waller," jazz vocalist Catherine Russell, who has been nominated for two GRAMMYs, tells GRAMMY.com. Her colleague Jo Lawry seconds this: "You're listening to the wrong people, or you're listening through the wrong ears."
In this regard, perhaps the ultimate “right” person to listen to is Samara Joy. Reared on Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, the young vocalist climbed the ranks partly via "The Today Show" appearances to become nominated for a golden gramophone for Best New Artist at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
"I think the only reason [the Songbook's connotation is] negative is because that's where a lot of people stop when it comes to jazz," Joy tells GRAMMY.com. "It's like this is the greatest it's ever going to get, and that's not true."
Granted, the lion's share of Joy's catalog is standards; as far as youngsters are concerned, she's perhaps the leading light of the Great American Songbook. But her attitude on the Songbook is innately progressive. For her, they comprise a launchpad to new expressions.
And despite what John Coltrane and Nina Simone's famous deconstructions of the Great American Songbook might tell you, making standards fresh, vital and exciting doesn't require reinventing the wheel.
When Joy sings a 1927 chestnut like "Stardust", it, by definition, has never been done before — because it's her doing it. This applies to a spate of recent jazz releases, both archival and new.
While it’s impossible to address every talented jazz artist who weaves magic from extremely well-trod material, here are five releases from the past year — one archival, three new — that reinvigorate the Great American Songbook.
And they do so not through radical reinvention, but through sheer emotion, personality and intelligence.
Ella Fitzgerald's Hollywood Blues
Just before the pandemic, the Ella Fitzgerald Foundation tipped off Verve Records to some intriguing entries in the Concord vaults — dozens of previously unreleased tapes from the First Lady of Song.
The first to be unarchived was 2020's dynamite Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes. In 2022, Verve followed it up with the lavish Ella at the Hollywood Bowl: The Irving Berlin Songbook.
"I never knew Ella had performed the arrangements from any Songbook album live," Ken Druker, the SVP of Jazz Development at Verve Records, tells GRAMMY.com. "And then I checked with all the extreme Ella nerds, and none of them had heard of it too."
Ella at the Hollywood Bowl documents the second half of a 1958 concert, while Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes tackles the Cole Porter songbook. Her vocal genius charges Berlin ballads like "You're Laughing at Me" and "How Deep is the Ocean" with emotional electricity.
When she kicks up the tempo, Fitzgerald is even more irresistible. You may have heard "Cheek to Cheek" and "Let's Face the Music and Dance" a trillion times, but when she belts it, any perceived corniness melts away. The heart jumps for joy.
Samara Joy. Photo: Courtesy of the artist
Samara Joy's Forward-Thinking Nostalgia
If you're wondering if the old standards still have any life in them, well, Recording Academy Membership thought so — more than 60 years since that Hollywood Bowl gig.
At the 2023 GRAMMYs, rising vocalist Samara Joy is nominated for a GRAMMY for Best New Artist alongside cutting-edge artists not only in jazz (the memeified DOMi & JD Beck), but in Brazilian pop (Anitta), genre-blending R&B (Omar Apollo) and hipster-adored indie (Wet Leg).
Her nomination arguably demonstrates that Joy is no relic of the days of yore.
Take some time with her 2022 album Linger Awhile, and you'll find she's more interested in the future than the past. Joy isn't afraid to go for well-worn material like "Someone to Watch Over Me," but she's also finding fresh corners of the Great American Songbook — like adding her own lyrics to Fats Navarro's trumpet solo on "Nostalgia," in a process called vocalese.
Ultimately, Joy maintains reverence for the Great American Songbook — it launched her career — but doesn't feel wholly beholden to it.
"OK, learn all of these standards. Is that the end of musical discovery?" she asks. "No, I have something to say too. I can use what I learned as far as harmony and form and interpretation from those standards to write my own songs."
Catherine Russell. Photo: Courtesy of the artist
Catherine Russell Makes It Last
Vocal master Catherine Russell exudes a powerful sense of ease and control with her instrument. It helps that she's part of a jazz lineage: the daughter of pianist, composer and arranger Luis Russell and bassist, guitarist and vocalist Carline Ray.
The music's clearly in Russell's DNA; it provides the glowing center of her 2022 album Send For Me. Regarding her version of "At the Swing Cats Ball," she said in a statement, "My mother had given me sheet music a long time ago, saying, 'your father co-wrote this tune, and Louis Jordan covered it.’"
On Send For Me, she returned to the well once more, immersing herself in material like "Did I Remember,’" "Blue and Sentimental" and "You Stepped Out of a Dream."
"They know how to say 'I love you' in a million different ways," Russell says of the core songwriting teams behind the Great American Songbook, like Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe.
"The songs are reliable. They can be done in a variety of different ways," she says, her own crystalline vocals a statement in flexibility. "You can do them with a big band, with an orchestra. You can do them with just a piano and a vocal."
Jo Lawry. Photo: Erika Kapin
Jo Lawry Makes Courageous Bounds
In jazz, the trio format is innately thrilling because of the architecture of the thing: one player can summon some derring-do, make a daring leap, and it's incumbent on the next to catch them.
Vocalist Jo Lawry titled her next album Acrobats because she had to summon that gumption.
"The trio is the format that melodic players explore when they want to push themselves," she explains. "I wonder if motherhood has had a part to play as well. It has made me a tiny bit braver, and a bit less inclined to try to fulfill anyone else's picture of what I should be as a jazz singer."
On Acrobats, Lawry tackles mostly standards ("Taking a Chance On Love," "Takes Two to Tango," "I've Never Been in Love") with the dynamic bassist Linda May Han Oh and heavily swinging drummer Allison Miller.
The enchanting result is like a jolt to the solar plexus. Lawry's glasslike voice perforates any baggage or stuffiness accrued by these tunes. This is partly because Lawry is able to map out the material on her own emotions.
"With 'I've Never Been In Love Before,' I wanted to just get completely swept away in the lack of safety of love, and what it feels like to not be in control of your emotions anymore, and somebody else has your whole destiny in their hands," she says.
And as for the ongoing vitality of the Great American Songbook as a whole?
"The melody and the harmony and the lyrics are this holy trinity of art that works so economically and perfectly together," Lawry states. "It's not dependent on anything other than those three raw materials."
Amos Lee. Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
Amos Lee Walks Into A Record, Lives In It
Interpreting the interpreter: it can be done, and done well. Bob Dylan did it with three Frank Sinatra-focused cover albums in a row — one of them a triple. And Amos Lee, who is also not a jazz singer, just did it with Chet Baker.
If you're unfamiliar with the Great American Songbook on a granular, lyric-by-lyric level, Baker's first vocal album, 1954's Chet Baker Sings, is a magnificent gateway.
Therein, a young Baker barely scats and uses very little vibrato. He delivers the lyrics to tunes like "That Old Feeling," "Like Someone in Love" and "My Ideal" plain as day, cracking open all the pain and euphoria and rumination and humor through zero ornamentation.
Chet Baker Sings came to singer/songwriter Amos Lee during the nadir of the pandemic. "I was drawn to the aching and the tenderness," he reflected in a statement. "To the way it expressed sadness with levity, to the way it explored sorrow without becoming beleaguered by the depths of it."
Lee's resulting 2022 album My Ideal: A Tribute To Chet Baker Sings works because Lee never puts on airs as his equal, or successor; he simply loves this probing, innovative jazz classic so much that he wants to see what it's like to be Chet for a moment.
That record date, all those decades ago, rings forth brilliantly into 2023. Why? To borrow a phrase: “It's all about the tunes, man.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Judy Whitmore
ReImagined: Judy Whitmore Dazzles With A Classic Interpretation Of Frank Sinatra And Count Basie's "The Best Is Yet To Come"
Judy Whitmore introduces fans to the music she grew up with in this jazzy full-orchestra performance of "The Best is Yet to Come" — a song that was made famous by Frank Sinatra and Count Basie, and won a GRAMMY thanks to Ella Fitzgerald.
An American standard originally composed in 1959, "The Best is Yet to Come" has been recorded by an array of vocal greats, including Tony Bennett, Michael Bublé, Bob Dylan, and Ella Fitzgerald — the latter of whom won a GRAMMY for her rendition in 1984. But it's most closely associated with Frank Sinatra, who recorded it with jazz pianist Count Basie for their 1964 album, It Might As Well Be Swing. In fact, the song was so important to Sinatra that its titular lyric is carved into his tombstone.
In this episode of ReImagined, vocalist and cabaret-style performer Judy Whitmore delivers a faithful, buoyant rendition of "The Best is Yet to Come." A full orchestra performs behind her, including horns, jazzy drums, a sweeping string section, and a grand piano — creating a swinging performance that does Sinatra proud.
Whitmore's cover choice is no coincidence, as the singer has been inspired by American classics literally since birth — her namesake is legendary actor and musical performer Judy Garland. Like Garland before her, Whitmore has taken on a diverse and multifaceted career. She's a bonafide Renaissance woman, whose resume includes accomplishments as a theater producer, best-selling author and pilot, who also happens to have a Master's degree in clinical psychology.
Singing has been a lifelong passion for Whitmore, and she has several albums to show for it, including 2020's Can't We Be Friends. That project, which includes her spin on standards like "'s Wonderful," "It Had to Be You" and "Love is Here to Stay," is Whitmore's "love letter to The Great American Songbook," her website explains.
"This is the music I grew up with, and I don't want people to forget it," she details. "I think it's one of the most extraordinary bodies of work ever created."
Press play on the video above to watch Whitmore bring her love of American classics to her version of "The Best is Yet to Come," and keep checking back to GRAMMY.com for more episodes of ReImagined.
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Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
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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].
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