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'Woodstock 50th Anniversary' Author Mike Greenblatt Talks New Book & How Woodstock Was A "Cosmic Accident"

Woodstock 50th Anniversary: Back to Yasgur's Farm

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'Woodstock 50th Anniversary' Author Mike Greenblatt Talks New Book & How Woodstock Was A "Cosmic Accident"

"500,000 people pressed together, wet and cold, hungry and thirsty…There was no security and there was not one reported instance of violence...It's almost impossible to contemplate," Greenblatt tells the Recording Academy about the historic fest

GRAMMYs/Aug 21, 2019 - 11:31 pm

On Aug. 14, 1969, hundreds of thousands of people took over the small town of Bethel, N.Y. to hear the sounds and inspirational words from their favorite artists, including Jimi HendrixSly and the Family Stone, Creedence Clearwater RevivalJanis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. Longtime music journalist, then an 18-year-old music fan, Mike Greenblatt was there. 

In his brand-new book, Woodstock 50th Anniversary: Back to Yasgur's Farm, out in honor of the fest's 50th anniversary, Greenblatt features his own firsthand account, as well as a collection of submitted stories from both artists and attendees to recreate the experience that transpired a half-century ago—one that original promoter Michael Lang hasn't been able to truly replicate since.

We caught up with Greenblatt over the phone to learn more about what it was really like to be at Woodstock, how we can apply the fest's activist mindset today, which acts blew him away and more.

Photo: Warner Bros/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

How was it for you to revisit Woodstock 50 years later? 

I got a lump in my throat a little bit after I revisited that time of me being 18 and being at that particular festival, especially when I started talking to the artists. I did 32 interviews and I read nine books, because a lot of the artists are dead but they have books. And some of the artists would not talk to me. For instance, the guys in Credence Clearwater Revival didn't have very nice things to say about John Fogerty, who refused the band's participation in the movie and the soundtrack. And when I went to go call John Fogerty's people, they said, "He's not talking about that anymore, read his book." So I did.

But it was really a trip back to a much more innocent time and a time that I cherish.

I mean, it was a turning point in your life as a young man, but then also for this country and for so many of the artists that performed. So it's a lot of things coming together.

No doubt about it. It was a turning point for me because it was where I first embarked on the concept of music as salvation. In other words, as long as the music was playing, I was okay. No matter what was going on around me. And we were pretty damn uncomfortable on Sunday. If Thursday, Friday and Saturday were idyllic, Sunday was a disaster. A monsoon whipped through us and all my stuff was back at the car. Tents, clothing, food, pot and water, and we didn't even know where the car was. There was no getting back to the car and we were in T-shirts and shorts and were drenched.

After the rain, it got really cold, even though it was August. Plus, the LSD that I took on Sunday started coming on right when my friend Neil said, "I'm gonna go find a phone booth and call our moms to tell them we're right." Woodstock would have been a lot easier with cell phones and bottled water, let me tell you. He had left and I was alone now and the music stopped. They said, "We're gonna stop the music. There's a storm coming through. Hold on to each other, we'll be right back." So I'm alone, there's no music and it wasn't fun anymore. I started panicking and getting paranoid. And then they made an announcement from the stage, which is in the [1970 Woodstock] movie. They said, "Don't take the brown acid." And I said, "Oh no. I just took it."

"But [Woodstock] was like a cosmic accident." 

I would love to hear, in a nutshell, what was it really like to be an attendee, to be part of Woodstock?

I loved Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Saturday night was folk night and there was a light drizzle. People were very friendly and shared their food, water, wine and pot. It was really nice and there was a sense of "we're all in it together," that the long-hair sitting next to you on the grass on the ground was your brother. You knew he was against the war in Vietnam. And you knew he was for civil rights and women's liberation.

And, when Arlo Guthrie held up the newspaper on stage and says that famous line, "The New York State freeway is closed, man," we knew that the whole world was watching. There was a palpable sense of we better not screw it up because we were the peace and love generation. So we couldn't have any problems at this big festival or else it would all go up in flames. And we didn't, that's the whole point about Woodstock. 500,000 people pressed together, wet and cold, hungry and thirsty with not enough food, water and bathrooms and no police. There was no security and there was not one reported instance of violence. How could that be? It's almost impossible to contemplate.

How did the conversations go with the surviving artists whom you interviewed for the book? Does that collective cultural moment still feel like a connective point for you and others who were there?

There is a generational situation going on between the Baby Boomers that we were special, that we were the generation, the dividing point. The artists' backstage revelations were fascinating, and the hard times that they had getting in and out of the festival and the equipment problems that they had. But I think that the interviews that I did with the people that actually ran the show were profoundly revelatory. I did not know, for instance, that governor Rockefeller wanted to send in the National Guard to disperse everybody at the butt of a gun, like Nixon tried to do at Kent State just months later.

Could you imagine? At Woodstock? I mean, the possibility of a disaster was always right there on the surface. But we did it. John Morris is a hero in my eyes. He ran the Fillmore for Bill Graham. Graham lent out his entire staff to Michael Lang for the Woodstock festival because no one had ever heard of Lang and the artists didn't want to commit. Graham vouched for him and the artists rolling in one after another.

But it was like a cosmic accident. Because there wasn't enough facilities. No one, in a million years, expected the people to keep pouring in from all sides and never stop coming. That 500,000 figure is the estimate, of course; there are those who think it was more like 800,000. And professor Chris Langhart from NYU, who is, again, one of the heroes of this festival, says that there's police aerial photos of the area that would almost prove that it was more like 800,000. He said to me, "You going to do a book about Woodstock? You want to get it newsworthy? Call the state police, get them to unleash those records." Well, I tried and it's impossible.

Photo: John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Image

The police didn't go into the festival at all, right? It's surprising they decided to stand back.

They let the kids do their thing. The police kept saying how unbelievably well-behaved we were. Max Yasgur, the farmer who let us groove on his property, had to go to bat for us with the townspeople. He's another hero out of this thing. Because we were kicked out of Wallkill and the people that put this thing together, maybe a crew of about 125 people who built the stage and the water system and everything else, they had only 18 days to do the whole thing. And it rained like 15 of those days. It's still the record in Sullivan County, N.Y. for the most amount of rain in a three-week period.

Do you think a Woodstock festival, a.k.a. "three days of peace and music," could authentically be recreated in this day and age?

No. They tried in '94 and '99 and there were arsons, rapes, burglaries and violence. It can't be replicated. It was a one-of-a-kind event, it had never happened before where so many people got together with no violence. It certainly hasn't happened since and I don't think it could ever happen [again] because of human nature. I mean, it was the second-biggest city in New York for those four days. People were born, people died, one guy got run over by a tractor while sleeping in his sleeping bag, one guy had a burst appendix and someone else O.D.ed. That's it, three deaths and a couple of babies were born.

"They tried in '94 and '99 and there were arsons, rapes, burglaries and violence. It can't be replicated. It was a one of a kind event, it had never happened before where so many people got together with no violence."

It's crazy, like you said, to wrap your head around.

Well, we knew it at the time and we were in it. It was like everything that we had read about, heard about on the radio, watched on TV and the bands that we tried to see at [Madison Square] Garden and at clubs in New York. We would get so excited to see one band we loved. This was all our bands at the same place, at the same time. And watching this taboo of humanity, especially after the rains came on Sunday, where people that I would be scared to meet on a dark corner in Newark, N.J., where I was raised, were making fires and feeding people and handing out blankets, and the townspeople showed up in flatbed trucks handing out bread. To be in it and look at it and be heavily tripping at the time just made it phantasmagoric, surrealistic.

I knew it was so special, but I could only just stand there and look at it. I wasn't one of the people that would take charge in helping other people, I admit. I stood there and I looked all around me, fascinated.

How did being an attendee at Woodstock affect your path in life? I know you ended up going into music writing. How do you see that now, looking back?

My mother cried and cried when I came home, she had seen the news. I end the book with her tears as a metaphor for the older generation trying to understand us. But I think that was the moment I realized that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to listen to more music and tell people about it. The fastest way to do that was to go to shows and write about it, and that's all I've ever done, listen to music and tell people about it, be it as a journalist, an editor or a publicist. Ever since Woodstock, that was my mission in life. And it persists to this day.

Woodstock feels like a great early example of how gathering a large group people around music can really make waves in society. What are your beliefs or your thoughts on the power of music to create change?

Music is spiritual. People to listen to music and get from it what they will, but it's all about that connection between the human and the sounds. And there's something about lyrics and chords, melodies and harmonies and instrumentation, that when put together in the proper way, have a profoundly—it's religious to me. I consider myself agnostic, but music is my religion and my church. When I go to a show and the show is absolutely perfect, I'm in church, man.

I can relate to that. And for religious ceremonies, music is the part that moves people.

At the very beginning of time, all music was religious music.

What do you think performing Woodstock meant to each of these artists?

There's 32 different answers to that question, 32 different artists. Quill, for instance, was supposed to be the band that broke big after Woodstock. To me, they sounded like a bunch of guys banging on pots. Santana that became superstars after. The Santana album wasn't even out yet, nobody knew who they were.

Santana came out, people were enjoying themselves on a sunny day at the time, and their performance was so incendiary and so righteous, fusing unbelievably great hard rock with salsa music, no one had ever heard anything like that. They practically invented world beat music right on that very stage. And Michael Shreve's drum solo during "Soul Sacrifice" that day [pauses]—he was barely 20. It galvanized the entire Woodstock nation and they became superstars.

Now, that's just 1 of 32. And for my favorite, there's a few. There were bands that carried me away; The Band, for instance. Back then, we thought a band was great by how close to the record they sounded. The Band sounded exactly like their records, the vocals, the harmonies. And they kept switching instruments. They all played every instrument, Switching after every song, I have never seen that. So they stand out.

Sly and the Family Stone also stand out. Because it was so late, I was falling asleep and their set was so rabble-rousing. We were up on our feet and chanting, "Higher, higher!" during the song "I Want To Take You Higher." Sly Stone was at the top of his game and the band was unbelievable. And Mountain—Leslie West's lead guitar—was the loudest band I ever heard in my life. They practically invented heavy metal at Woodstock. There's so many others I can think of.

I think that's part of what's interesting with "hard questions" like this, of how we summarize these major things. And to see, 50 years later, what still stands in the front of your mind.

One thing that stands in front of my mind was Friday night, the very last performer was Joan Baez. She was very pregnant, and she came out and had a political agenda. Politics was a subtext of Woodstock, with Vietnam and Nixon. She sang "Joe Hill," the story of this union martyr who said, when they executed him for a murder he didn't commit, "Don't mourn, organize." That still sends chills through my rather leftwing, liberal body. Joan Baez was so affecting to us, when she sang "We Will Overcome." It wasn't corny back then, it was real. And she sang [the Byrds'] "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man" with a friend that she brought out, and they referenced Ronald Reagan, who everybody already hated as the governor of California.

"Get behind the people that you like politically and go out and volunteer. Do something. Work with the homeless, work with the disenfranchised. And don't just complain about things, get involved. You can change the world."

Santana said in a recent interview about Woodstock, "The people wanted the same things we want today." That really stuck with me because it's true; women and people of color are still not treated equally and we're still fighting wars abroad. So, what message do you have for young people today who are unhappy with the current state of affairs? What are your takeaways from the Summer of '69 and how do you think they apply today?

Well, just like Joe Hill said, "Don't mourn, organize." All politics is local, it all starts on a local level. If you're outraged at what's going on today, get involved, go door to door, take names. It's what I did this past year, in 2018, for a local woman who had never run for anything. I mean, she lost, but she made a point. Get behind the people that you like politically and go out and volunteer. Do something. Work with the homeless, work with the disenfranchised. And don't just complain about things, get involved. You can change the world.

That was the whole thing about the '60s. We really thought we were going to change the world. Well, guess what? We didn't, but that feeling, it's a feeling of camaraderie with your fellow hippie back at the time. Find like-minded people and get together and organize and fight to change what's going on today. It's almost worse now than it was in '69. I hate to say that.

I think, like you said, everyone at Woodstock knew the world was looking and that it was important to show what peace and love really meant.

Exactly. We proved it at Woodstock.

It speaks to the power of people speaking up and using the platforms of music, of festivals, of peaceful organized groups to show that love is indeed stronger.

Well, I thought when I was 16, when The Beatles sang "All You Need Is Love," I actually believed that. Of course it was naïve, you need a hell of a lot more than love. But it's a good starting point.

What do you believe, in the couple of months and years following Woodstock, were the biggest after-effects? What happened when you all came home?

The iconic nature of the festival really didn't manifest itself until much later. The movie came out in 1970, which was a year later, and all of the sudden people started getting interested in Woodstock again. It was a wonderful movie, it revolutionized cinema with the split screen effects and so forth. It hadn't been done at that time. After the movie came out, there was a rush of Woodstock appreciation. But then, in the mid- to late-'70s, when punk rock took hold and rock stars became passé, Woodstock became almost trivialized. It almost wasn't appreciated for what it was. I don't know when the tide turned again, but now it is really looked upon as something special. There's the great Woodstock museum up at Bethel Woods, which is on the site of the actual festival, where I'll be for three days, starting August 15.

This is the last gasp of Woodstock, man. It's not going to have this much attention for the 51st, the 52nd; the 50th, this is it. This is our Woodstock swan song. But people should remember that for four days, the peace and love generation proved its point with no police and a half a million people in horrible conditions. No violence, that's the important thing.

I didn't know that before I read your book. I feel like it's not something that always gets highlighted about the event.

Well, there was a lot of things in the book that people are telling me that they read for the first time. I was edited a little bit, I was censored a little bit, probably rightfully so. That said, this is not a book for the whole family. The drugs were prevalent, sure, but my editor took out so many references and I said, "Why are you taking out drugs? This is sex, drugs and rock and roll." He goes, "Yeah, but on every page?" It was just a different time, be it sex, be it drugs.

There's a lot of written material about Woodstock out there. Why should people read your book?

Because I was there. I don't know how many books are coming out about Woodstock this summer, there's going to be a ton of them. But how many authors did the brown acid and can give you a firsthand [account]? I did, as I say, 32 interviews, read nine books, plus my own experiences. It's a tapestry, it's a mosaic of all those different perspectives. 

Why Can't Anyone Get Woodstock Right? 15 Of The Original Fest's Performers Weigh In

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

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

The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.

GRAMMYs/Jan 6, 2023 - 12:17 am

Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!

The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.

Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.

So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.

Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.

About GRAMMY U:

GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.     

Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.

As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.

Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.

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

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

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

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

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say She She

Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.

While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."

Moniquea

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

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

Shiro Schwarz

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

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

L'Impératrice

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

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

Franc Moody

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

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

The Rise Of Underground House: How Artists Like Fisher & Acraze Have Taken Tech House, Other Electronic Genres From Indie To EDC

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

Photo: Steven Sebring

interview

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

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

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP,  Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.

Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.  

Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face." 

But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life. 

His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves. 

Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)

Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") —  their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.

While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens. 

Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.

Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up. 

Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically. 

"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?

We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds. 

We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick. 

I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?

Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol. 

You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way. 

Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about  freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?

I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier. 

I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff. 

So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.

[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.

I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.

Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?

I did, yes.

You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?

I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.

It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.

But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is]  informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.

Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.

We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.

It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].

We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.

You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.

It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.

When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.

You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?

Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."

We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.

You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.

With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.

Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.

You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?

I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.

But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.

I remember when you went on "Viva La Bamback in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?

I think it was his car.

Did he get over it later on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graphic: The Recording Academy

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

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

GRAMMYs/Nov 23, 2022 - 03:01 pm

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

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

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

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

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

Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"

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

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

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

Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"

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

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

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

Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"

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

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

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

Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"

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

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

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

Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"

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

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

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

2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List