Photo: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
1972 Was The Most Badass Year In Latin Music: 11 Essential Albums From Willie Colón, Celia Cruz, Juan Gabriel & Others
From salsa to psychedelia, Latin musicians around the world were experimenting in 1972. These 11 albums show the breadth of the year's musical creativity — and why, 50 years on, the sounds of '72 remain classic.
A pivotal year in Latin music, 1972 signified a coming-of-age. Latin music, at large, was expressing a desire to grow into something more meaningful and transcendent.
As always, Latin American countries fell under the spell of everything musical that was happening in England and the U.S. at the time: the eye-opening ambition of progressive rock, the healing fever of funk, the earnest instrumental virtuosity of jazz fusion. Perhaps reflecting a culture where individuality was so cherished, many Latin musicians absorbed the foreign sounds and ran with them into surprising, unexpected directions.
In New York and Puerto Rico, salsa became pluralistic and progressive. In Brazil, the military government’s invasive censorship only managed to sharpen artistic creativity instead of stifling it. From Argentina to Colombia and Mexico, rock delved into a singular strain of poetic symbolism, psychedelia and the adoption of a desired childlike innocence as a reaction to the stalemate of industrialized society.
Fifty years later, here are 11 essential Latin albums to treasure:
Milton Nascimento & Lô Borges - Clube da Esquina
A visionary singer/songwriter, Milton Nascimento emerged from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais armed with an instinctive understanding of Afro idioms and a wide-eyed reverence to the Beatles.
Clube da Esquina signaled a before-and-after for Brazilian culture. Conceptualized by an artistic collective that also included songwriter Lô Borges and a prodigious team of musicians and lyricists, the double-LP veers effortlessly from the sweet psychedelia of “Um Girassol Da Cor Do Seu Cabelo” to the country-pop nostalgia of “Paisagem da Janela” and the hymn-like fervor of “San Vicente.” The club reconvened for a second (and equally inspired) installment in 1978.
Tito Puente & Celia Cruz - Algo Especial Para Recordar
Until the end of her life, Cuban diva Celia Cruz never understood why the series of sessions she recorded with Nuyorican bandleader Tito Puente between the late ‘60s and early ‘70s received little to no promotion. The duo made an attempt to update its sound to compete for the attention of young, rock-obsessed listeners — to no avail.
Their last collaboration during that specific time, Algo Especial Para Recordar boasts a punchy, adrenaline-fueled sound, as Puente selects trusted nuggets from Celia’s catalog (“Tatalibabá,” “Cao Cao Maní Picao”) and demonstrates what a fantastic arranger he was. Even the bolero “Extraño Amor” is electrifying. Not surprisingly, this evergreen classic is still cherished by collectors.
Sui Generis - Vida
Ah, the innocence. South America fell head over heels in love with the Beatles and the Stones, folk-rock and the blues, and an entire generation of long-haired idealists decided to pick up guitars and record their own protest anthems — en español.
South American rock was stretching and expanding in 1972, and Sui Generis — led by Argentina’s resident genius Charly García — was one of its first supergroups (its career would end abruptly three years later with two massive shows at Buenos Aires’ Luna Park and a double live album.) This luminous debut is a historical artifact, and while the singalong naiveté of “Necesito” sounds a bit peculiar 50 years later, a track like opening gem “Canción para mi muerte” is melancholy and haunting.
Willie Colón & Héctor Lavoe - El Juicio
An intriguing paradox defines the salsa albums that Nuyorican trombonist, producer and songwriter Willie Colón recorded during the first half of the ‘70s with boricua singer Héctor Lavoe. On the one hand, tropical jams like “Piraña” and “Aguanile” brim with the kind of trombone-fueled intensity that makes them ideal for the dancefloor.
At the same time, these timeless classics are imbued in darkly-hued humor and a cosmovision that’s almost disturbing in its fatalism. The songs are fantastic and Lavoe’s dense, soulful, tragic vocalizing is unforgettable. Lavoe died in 1993, at 46.
Novos Baianos - Acabou Chorare
The soundscapes of bossa nova are gorgeous, but the movement’s obsession with its own sadness can get a bit tiring at times. With that in mind, the young group Novos Baianos used their second album (which translates to “Enough Crying) as an excuse to celebrate the more joyful aspects of Brazilian folk.
The result is an exhilarating collection that delves into samba-rock with panache and electric guitars, anchored on the gorgeous vocal interplay of Moraes Moreira, Paulinho Boca de Cantor and the lovely Baby Consuelo (whose post-Novos Baianos solo work is worth seeking out). Opening track “Brasil Pandeiro” sums up everything that is wondrous about Brazilian music — the effortless bonhomie, the percolating syncopation. No wonder it was named the country’s greatest album of all time in a 2007 poll conducted by the local edition of Rolling Stone magazine.
Fania All Stars: Live at the Cheetah, Vol. 1
No album has managed to capture the New York salsa explosion in all its glorious combustion — but this is as close as it gets.
Recorded live at the Cheetah Lounge in New York with a spectacular orchestra at the top of its game — every single artist, a star in their own right — Live at the Cheetah is the first installment of a two-volume epic. The album includes an explosive version of Cheo Feliciano’s “Anacaona” with Larry Harlow on piano and a simmering “Descarga Fania” with Ray Barretto vocalist Adalberto Santiago. Cheo and Adalberto are joined by Héctor Lavoe, Pete ‘El Conde’ Rodríguez, Ismael Miranda and veteran singer Santos Colón on the 16 minute-long “Quítate Tú,” trading vocal lines in mock competitive spirit.
Juan Gabriel - Juan Gabriel (aka El Alma Joven II)
The Mexican balada movement was on fire during the early ‘70s, as young stars like José José and Juan Gabriel turned three-minute love songs into mini-pop symphonies marked by sophisticated orchestrations. Juan Gabriel’s second album was an artistic and commercial winner from its inception: a batch of his buoyant pop hooks and lavish arrangements by Eduardo Magallanes and Chucho Ferrer. The opening brass line and supple drum beat of “No Puedo Olvidar” set up the stage for the sonic delights that follow.
Erasmo Carlos - Sonhos E Memórias – 1941/1972
Most people know Roberto Carlos as the Julio Iglesias of Brazil — the best-selling artist in Brazilian pop. Only studious fans are aware of the fact that Roberto wrote most of his hits in partnership with singer/songwriter Erasmo Carlos (the artists are not related).
Even better: while breaking records with Roberto, Erasmo also recorded a series of stunning solo LPs exploring art-rock and psychedelia, folk-pop and jazz-soul. This elusive, introspective autobiographical trip is Erasmo’s masterpiece — criminally underrated when released but reevaluated in subsequent decades. “Meu Mar” is probably the dreamiest Brazilian track you will ever encounter.
La Sonora Ponceña - Desde Puerto Rico a Nueva York
Inspired by Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson, Puerto Rican pianist Papo Lucca inherited his father’s orchestra in Ponce and brought his idols’ exquisite harmonies to a rugged salsa orchestra. The combination created an edgy balance, a pungent contrast, and La Ponceña would quickly become one of the most aristocratic outfits in tropical music.
This 1972 session finds the band in a particularly aggressive mood, anchored on a tight rhythm section and the imposing vocals of stars Tito Gómez and Luigi Texidor. Opening cut “Prende El Fogón” is worth the price of admission.
Malo - Malo
The hazy mystique of early ‘70s Chicano rock — the fusion of laid-back Afro-Cuban grooves with jazzy chords and velvety vocals — has resisted the passing of time particularly well, as the elegant debut by this 12-piece San Francisco combo can attest. A down-to-earth version of the more celestial Santana, Malo featured the guitar of Carlos’ brother, Jorge Santana, as well as the percussion chops of Coke Escovedo (Sheila E’s uncle) and the expressive singing of Arcelio García, Jr. Sweet and funky, “Suavecito” is a California classic.
Gato Barbieri - Last Tango in Paris (Original Soundtrack)
In 1972, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci pushed the envelope with his new film: a radical psycho-sexual narrative with Marlon Brando as a suicidal middle-aged man. Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri, already known for his ambitious Latin jazz epics, happened to be touring Italy.
He played a few original tunes for Bertolucci, and the director selected the now legendary theme on the spot. Recording the soundtrack involved getting a piano to a fifth floor apartment in Rome, but it was well worth it. Seeped in an almost delirious ocean of sadness, “Last Tango in Paris” is arguably Barbieri’s most gorgeous composition.
Photo: Mark peterson/Corbis via Getty Images
Celebrating Tito Puente's Centennial: 10 Essential Songs By The Mambo King
Born Ernest Anthony Puente Jr in 1923, Tito Puente has brought to the world some of the most exciting sounds of modern Latin Music — GRAMMY.com shines light on 10 must-hear songs by the King of Mambo.
Born and raised in Harlem, New York, Tito Puente follows a lineage of musicians who have pushed Latin American sounds to the future while holding onto traditional forms and century-old rhythms. There aren't many who could handle the burden of moving forward with an eye on the rearview mirror, but Puente, a son of immigrants, did it gracefully. Whether playing his famous, devilish timbales and his ever-precise vibraphones or arranging multiple orchestras sections, from brass to drums, Tito was a key-figure in shaping Latin American modern music in the U.S. and across the world.
Puente's life was intertwined with music from an early age. First a piano student (his mom enrolled him in a 25 cent class) and then a teenage dancer who loved drumming, he always showed a knack for going beyond reading music scores or reproducing the same old standards. In Tito Puente and the Making of Latin Music, ethnomusicologist Steven Loza, the six-time GRAMMY winner recalled mixing "jazz and Latin music all the time while I was a young kid, you know, studying."
A talented kid who was used to playing at every impromptu stage in Spanish Harlem and who got the chance to attend the Juilliard School of Music, Tito's credentials were solid by the early 1950s when he first started his professional career. From then on, the maestro enlisted in several projects, recordings, and collaborations. It didn't take long for him to become synonymous with the modern Latin Music that was beaming out of the Latino diaspora in the States. In the 1950s and '60s, Puente helped to shape a melting pot of identities that found common ground on the dance floor.
Tito was the go-to person for the likes of Celia Cruz or La Lupe and an inspirational figure for musicians such as Carlos Santana. Even during the '80s and '90s, he didn't quit touring and writing new music. Sones, montunos, boleros, merengues, salsas, cha cha chas, rumbas, and mambos: there's only so much Puente could carry in his bag, but he made a lot by reassembling all of these cards into more than a hundred albums, countless performances, and several all-time songs.
Tito Puente passed away in 2000, yet his legacy in Latin music continues unabated. In honor of his centennial birthday on April 20, GRAMMY.com revisits 10 essential songs in Tito Puente's canon.
"Oye Mi Guangancó" (1956)
Cuban Carnival is one of the first albums by Puente fully dedicated to celebrating Cuba's musical plethora — a diverse landscape of claves and patterns where he laid the foundations of his own work.
"Oye Mi Guagancó" revamps the traditional guagancó, a strain of the complex rumba family, demonstrating his innovative approach early on. Instead of reproducing the genre's essential form, Puente uses the different sections of the song as modules and blends percussion and brass with fine artistry: breakdowns free the way for his timba to shine while saxophones and trumpets wander through melodies and countermelodies that fit each other.
"Mambo Gozon" (1958)
Dance Mania was a club banger of its time. Released in 1958, the album unleashed a multicolored palette of Latin America-through-New York music with the sounds of Puente's youth wandering Spanish Harlem and sneaking into jazz clubs.
Tito Puente applied his theoretical learnings from Juilliard in clubs such as the Palladium Ballroom, where he quickly mastered the Afro-Cuban fast-paced, counter-metric heir of montunos that would make him a king: mambo. The genre represented a pivotal point, allowing Puente to arrange, conduct and perform creatively while making the crowd dance.
One of the highlights of this time, "Mambo Gozon" features flaring and poly melodic horns, rattling marimbas and scrapping guiras, chorus and ad-libs melded together into a single and ordered mess.
"Oye Como Va" (Live w/ El Canario) (1962)
Few songs have embraced so much of the Latin American spirit in popular music as "Oye Como Va." Released in the early '60s, this song was covered and revisited by a number of artists all across the world, from Santana's dreamy guitars to SoundCloud club-made remixes.
Showcasing his resourceful and inventive arranging skills, Puente imagined an ostinato piano (the guajeo pattern) that creates a cyclical build-up alongside horns and vocals filling up voids with an irresistible sing-along type of melody. The outcome is a genre-bending and yet straightforward take on cha cha cha — another of the several Cuban music genres that fueled Tito's orchestrations, which are reminiscent of Arcaño y sus Maravillas' "Chanchullo" to and the Champs' "Tequila."
In this live performance with Dominican singer Jose Alberto 'El Canario', whose flute-like whistle is nothing but amazing, Puente plays at ease — he knows this song is the strongest card in his pocket.
"El Mambo Diablo" (1963)
Historically, especially in Eurocentric cultures, percussion has played a supporting role in music — from their position behind the band to the fact that bandleaders are usually guitarists, pianists, singers. Tito Puente is amongst the most important artists in the world to have given percussion the weight it deserves, doing so with the help of timbales and also vibraphones, his second home.
In this live recording of "El Mambo Diablo," a young Tito showcases his skills as both instrumentalist and bandleader, moving swiftly from the main theme to a powerful crescendo and yelling to signal changes to his musicians. For Puente, percussion takes center stage.
"La Guarachera" with Celia Cruz (1966)
Celia Cruz, alongside La Lupe, stands out as one of the most remarkable female vocalists to have shared the frontstage with Puente. By the late '60s, Tito had already established himself as an eminent figure in the making of traditional Cuban music. This was when he first collaborated with Cruz, and their partnership continued for over a decade.
In "La Guarachera," Puente masterfully blends a frenzied mambo section into the typical guaracha form and engages in a thrilling call-and-response game with Cruz. As they challenge each other, Puente's timbas sound like vocals. This recording is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and iconic crossovers between Puerto Rican and Cuban music.
Fania All Stars - "Sabor Sabor" (1968)
If Tito Puente has formalized the wide, diverse Latin music idiom in the U.S., Fania Records did the same for salsa. The New York-based label transformed that club music that soundtracked frenzy nights for Latin, brown and Black youth dance into world-famous records — and have never left the dancefloor.
Fania All Stars, a dynamic big band featuring the label's top talent, including Salsoul's founder Joe Bataan, percussionist extraordinaire Ray Barreto, and Puente himself, is a testament to the label's incredible influence. Puente plays a supporting role on "Sabor Sabor," expertly setting the rhythmic pace that drives pianist Eddie Palmieri's feverish and incisive keystrokes.
"Que Falta Tu Me Haces" (1977)
Just like many of his peers, an early career Puente had to master a large repertoire of ballroom classics — from old-time sons, to newly arrived bossa nova tunes and boleros. All the drama and melancholy surrounding this genre seem odd to Tito's oeuvre.
But even in such an immense collection of upbeat and festive tracks, there's room for some sadness. In the 1977 album The Legend, the composer and arranger goes back to his origins with the wholehearted and bittersweet "Que Falta Tu Me Haces." Alongside Santos Cólon, another of his long-time collaborators, Puente delivers enticing vibraphone lines, an unusual element to bolero's deepness that fits in smoothly.
"Take Five" (1985)
Every jazz musician knows that standards not only provide a common ground for mingling and getting into the mood, but also offer an opportunity to show off and shine amongst peers. Tito Puente's rendition of Paul Desmond's timeless classic is a prime example of this.
Instead of the original song's odd 5/4 stride, Puente opts for a seemingly easier 4/4 pattern. However, it's precisely this welcoming arrangement that allows the maestro to showcase his creativity and take center stage. In his tasteful, upbeat take on "Take Five," Puente leaves ample room for his Latin Ensemble's individual talents to shine. And as the song draws to a close, Puente unleashes a multi-layered, fast-paced timba solo. It's like a minimal, swingy Art Blakey proving that, sometimes, less is more.
"Guajira Soul" (1988)
The relevance of Puente's work cannot be measured solely within the Latin American region and its diaspora. His work has had an impact across different genres, from rock to jazz, by forging sonic connections from the Caribbean to the rest of the world.
On 1988's Salsa meets Jazz, Tito collaborated with jazz saxophonist Phil Woods and revisited the works of legends like Dizzy Gillespie in "Con Alma."
Rather than replicating these masters or imitating the jazz idiom, Puente incorporated the trends and sounds of the '70s and '80s, from fusion to electric organs, demonstrating that there is more Latin music in jazz than one might imagine. His "Guajira Soul" is an excellent example of his skillful vibraphone playing in conversation with Mario Rivera's lively flute melodies.
"Mambo Kings Solo (Timbalero)" with Cesar Castillo (1992)
Tito Puente's influence on popular culture extends far beyond the realm of music. By the late 1980s, the legendary musician had already toured the world, earned GRAMMYAwards, and achieved recognition as the godfather of Latin modern music from North to South America.
A film appearance was just the icing on the cake. His character in the movie Mambo Kings is more than a cameo. Puente portrays himself as a talented musician who lends a helping hand to the Castillo brothers, who have left their hometown of Havana in search of opportunities in New York City. Multi-awarded actor Armand Assante is Carlos, who joins Tito into an impromptu timba jam (or descarga, in Cuban Spanish) in "Timbalero." The frantic and yet short-lived session reaches out to a deadly climax that couldn't be opposite to the joy of the song while embodying all of its energy.
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].
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.