With his spiky blonde hair and trademark sneer, Billy Idol is one of the most recognizable pop stars of the 1980’s. But was his punk rock style authentic, or artful deception?
With a rebel yell, Billy Idol wanted more, more, more. And he got it – becoming a bona-fide pop rock superstar in the 1980’s. Idol was nominated for multiple Grammys and MTV Video Music Awards during his 80’s heyday, and his 1983 album Rebel Yell peaked at #6 in the U.S. Billboard charts, eventually reaching 2x Platinum status.
Aside from his successful solo career, Idol is also known for fronting the London punk band, Generation X, from 1977 to 1980. Generation X were a fairly controversial group in the London punk scene, due in part to being highly fashionable and much more good-looking than just about anyone else. London punks were also probably suspicious of Generation X after they were the first punk band to appear on Top of the Pops in September 1977, performing their pop-punk hit “Your Generation”, which would surprisingly reach #36 on the U.K. charts.
Punks have long been suspicious of magazine cover looks and mainstream success – but does possessing these attributes automatically disqualify an artist from being a true, authentic punk? The questions begs an answer: was Billy Idol ever truly a punk, or was he just another fashionable opportunist trying to ride the punk rock bandwagon to stardom?
Reasons to think that Billy Idol was a real punk:
- Billy Idol was a member of the Bromley Contingent, a clique of like-minded youth centered around the Sex Pistols who would form the nucleus of the London punk scene in 1976 by popularizing punk fashion and music
- Billy Idol originally played guitar in the punk group Chelsea, leaving the group to form Generation X with Tony James, who had also been a member of Chelsea, as well as London SS, which featured a pre-Clash Mick Jones
- Toward the end of their career, Generation X appeared in the punk rock film, D.O.A., alongside early punk bands like The Dead Boys, The Clash, Sham 69, and X-Ray Spex
Reasons to think that Billy Idol wasn’t a real punk:
- Billy Idol and Generation X were considered to be poseurs by a lot of other punks at the time. Even the UK-based pop magazine Smash Hits called them “just a buncha pretty posers?”
- A common criticism of Generation X’s is their song were too polished and their albums sounded too “produced” compared to some of the other punk bands of the time. This is partly due to their work with legendary producer Phil Wainman, who famously told Billy Idol that “… you’re absolutely bloody talentless, but you look great” when Idol asked him if the band were going to “make it”
- Their rebellious stance seemed a little too practiced – “Your Generation” is a little cheesy and heavy-handed in its critique of older generations, almost like a parody of snotty youth telling “the olds” that they may as well roll over, die already, and get out of the way – another contributing factor to critics asserting that the band were just striking a pose to get attention
- The classist critique: Billy Idol and the other members of Generation X were all middle class, for the most part coming from relatively stable, normal upbringings
The evidence against Billy Idol being a real punk, at least in his early days, is weak and subjective. Despite some obvious musical differences with other punks, such as owning up to loving and being influenced by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley, and despite a decided “pop” feel to their music, Generation X were clearly a legitimate punk rock band with close ties to some of the most notable punk rock icons in the early U.K. punk rock scene. By extension, that means that Billy Idol was definitely a punk too, though his having played guitar in Chelsea and having been part of the Bromley Contingent are more than sufficient credentials in our eyes to establish that fact.