In an interview with The Big Issue, Billy Idol, punk rock’s biggest mainstream apostate, gave some blunt answers to questions about punk’s early days and its impact.
Was punk really the revolution it is supposed to have been or was it a natural evolution of what was going on at the time?
It did come in the form of a revolution but at the same time it was rock ‘n’ roll music forwarding itself into the new age. There was a lot of prog rock in the ’70s, which was cool and everything, but there became a glut and it was very difficult for anything else to break through. There were great guitar pieces but a dearth of songs.
Punk was not just about music though, was it also redefining politics and protest?
Punk rock opened the door to people like me – the marginalised. We got a chance to do something artistic with our lives. Everybody was exploring the artistic side partly because the Pistols said there is no future, there’s no future for you. That was a rallying call. That was the revolution.
The Pistols sang about there being no future, were they proved right?
I think they were to be honest. There was so much unrest. We believed in mixed communities and race mixing, not a country just for the white English. You got your head kicked in for it but that’s England sometimes! In some ways what’s going on now is reminiscent of those times.
So when you became famous and commercially successful, did you feel you had betrayed where you had come from?
Punk had done what it set out to do to a certain extent and it didn’t make a dent in the political system. Margaret Thatcher got in! That was scary. You went, “Fuck all that shouting, nothing happened!” It was demoralising. I didn’t see it as betraying anything at all. I saw it as moving on as an artist. I don’t think I did anything except follow my heart and that’s what punk was all about.
In his dismissal of punk’s political impact and his handwaving of sellout accusations, you kind of have to allow that the man has a point. Never mind what you think of his music, Thatcher DID get in. Thousands of “I Hate Reagan” bands made not even a tiny dent in Reagan’s horrifying 1984 landslide victory. And Fugazi, at last count, stopped ZERO wars, though Ian MacKaye’s brave anti t-shirt stance remains proudly unblemished. (No, it doesn’t.) It’s painful to allow this, but as populist music movements go, punk may think it has a lock on righteousness, but hippie was infinitely more effective in the realm of politics. Still, fuck hippies, though, don’t get me wrong…
There’s more to the interview. Not to spoil, but it turns out that “Dancing with Myself” actually was just about dancing. Far less surprisingly, Idol’s recently published memoir shares its title with that song.
Here’s a look at Idol when he sorta mattered some, as singer for Generation X. Marvel at the video editor’s complete disregard for synchronization!