Help at Hand
Just so that you know, the works of Billy Idol retain a personal significance through and through, up and down: from being some of the earliest memories of 1980s rock music to making one hell of an album in Rebel Yell; from having one of the most menacing grins in the business to being born on the very same day of the year as yours truly. There is a lot to choose from.
As far as I know, I’m the only one to sincerely appreciate Devil’s Playground. The contrast between the totally laid-back musical texture and old-fashioned petty rebellion of the folk cover “Plastic Jesus” is plain marvellous. “The man who invented plastic saved my soul”, and so forth. Tumbleweed-tasting and one for the ride, should you have one.
Some time ago I got the chance to talk to Steve Stevens, the guitarist who went and penned through the 80s with Billy. Seriously, this issue of Qvadrivivm could hardly do without the air of variety offered by some of Steve’s remarks. A change of lenses, everybody.
One of those noteworthy features that make all the difference to underground metal is that Steve speaks effortlessly about the industry and its people, at the same time loathing the way corporal music works these days. It’s not the eighties any more. You can’t just fuck everybody up with a hoax-punk approach and a couple of videos on MTV.
“The most blaring difference [between then and now] is that musicians and bands aren’t given an opportunity to develop,” says Steve. “You’re either successful at it at the gate or you’re fucked. There’s no such things as artistic development and herd of craft anymore. It’s scary when certain unnamed producers that I know worked with a band and their debut record sold 500,000 copies in the US and went gold. Now their labels are looking for a new producer for their next record because they’re disappointed at the sales.”
When Steve left Billy after 1986’s Whiplash Smile, it made the singer’s ship struggle. It took four years until Charmed Life was released. Fast-forward another three to Cyberpunk, and Idol’s career was evaporating. The 1990s treated neither Idol, who nearly died of GHB overdose in 1994, nor Stevens, whose Atomic Playboys band did not make it, very well.
“He and I stayed together even though we weren’t working together. After I had done the Vince Neil project Billy came to the album launch for that. We talked about doing something then, about possibly doing some writing or something. Then I moved out to Los Angeles ten years ago and little by little we started to write. Fortunately through mishaps with record labels and Chrysalis folding, Capitol Records giving Billy boot, here we are 10 years later.
“The biggest obstacle was that when Chrysalis folded Billy was brought over to Capitol and was signed to the Glen Ballard imprint (Java Records) there. Glen had just come off the success of the Alanis Morissette record. Glen’s vision for Billy was this almost Chris Isaak kind of thing. You can imagine how uninterested I was at that point! Fortunately the stuff that we recorded for that was put on the shelf and will remain on the shelf.
“We’d started touring and we’ve toured with this band since the release of the Greatest Hits record. A friend of mine, actually a dancer I know in Philadelphia, had mentioned that she knew John Glaudner and John had been asking her what was it like to sing Billy Idol. She had come to see us every time we came around so she put a phone call to John. I called John and told him, ‘Okay, anytime you want to come see us, you should’. He informed us that he was leaving Sony to go to Sanctuary and would we be interested in having him over to see a record. I felt that John had worked with so many singer-guitar player combos… It’s a relationship that sometimes has to be massaged and handled carefully. John was absolutely the perfect guy to do that.”
Devil’s Playground shuns zealous use of synths. It’s an album whose rawness might be of the pop-punk variety, but at least we hear Steve all over the works. There is a forthright energy in the simple chord progressions, and the vocal melodies are fresh. Definitely an album that should not be the last in the lineage.
“Guitar fans dig it!” laughs Steve. “The guitars are finally outright. It’s funny that I used to always complain before that my guitars weren’t loud enough to Keith Forsey, our producer, especially when we did Rebel Yell, pleading with him. Now when we listen to a couple of things from Rebel Yell and compare them to this, yeah, I’m implicated, saying that the guitars weren’t loud enough, heh. It’s a different time.”
“There are so many bands currently that are popular that have taken so much not only of Billy Idol but Generation X. In this record we return to that kind of stripped down guitar based formula. So it’s kind of strangely familiar to (the audience), only not from the originators.
“I know for Billy and myself that when all sampling, computers and home recording Pro Tools stuff was new it was exciting, but now every record you hear is pitch corrected, tight-compressed and corrected. We purposely didn’t wanna use that stuff. That’s kind of boring for us now. We were attempting to do that stuff 15 years ago. Whenever an issue like that came up with this record, we just opted not to go down that road to correct things. We just felt, ‘leave the blemishes and all’.”
Sigur Rós is not the first band that comes to mind when thinking of Steve Stevens’ oeuvre. However, it was seeing the Icelandic monumentalists live that made the stunned guitarist think it was the first new approach to guitar playing he’d seen in quite a while. For an artist toiling with a flamenco guitar record, Icelandic post-rock was the injection of confidence needed to finish an album that does not have any English speaking vocals on it. Music is a common language that can move emotionally without words that are understandable. For a player who’s done work for artists as varied as Pink, Vince Neil, Scooter, Michael Jackson, Robert Palmer, Joni Mitchell and Steve Lukather, not to mention the Bozio Levin Stevens records and a slab of solo albums, Steve Stevens’s name is rarely mentioned in print.
“I just do what I do, really. As I said, there are so many bands that try to play straight-ahead punk rock music now that we were doing in 1981. I have to continue to grow and develop as a musician on my own terms and if that fits in with what people are digging, great. I do get this sense that there is a generation of kids who are finding it quite cool to listen to guitar solos again. Here, watching VH1 and seeing the new Billy Idol video followed by Velvet Revolver, I have to laugh because it’s the only time you see two guitar solos on TV from contemporary music. And I kind of dig being part of that.
“The one solo record that I’m most proud of is a flamenco guitar record. Going into that fully knowing that that’s a pretty limited audience, it was a record that was really important for me to make. I had at that point just got burnt out of electric guitars and had seen Poca de Lucia play and felt that it was really important to go back to a style that I started with when I was a kid. Regain my enthusiasm for the instrument.”