Billy Idol is a true British music icon. As Generation X’s cyber punk, the onetime face of the Bromley Contingent left behind the UK for the warmer musical climes of California in the early 1980’s. Hooking up with a unique talent in guitarist Steve Stevens, the former William Broad went on to become a worldwide superstar, releasing a string of hit singles and albums showcased by his instantly recognisable aesthetic of spiky bleach-blonde hair, defiant fist in the air, and trademark snarl.
Billy Idol has seen and done it all, as his recently released autobiography ‘Dancing With Myself’ attests. Taking time to reflect over a career that has seen dizzying highs as well as devastating lows, the writing of the book also inspired his latest album ‘Kings And Queens Of The Underground’. Hailed by many as a return to form, his first album proper in ten years sees Idol reunited once again with Stevens, co-writer of many of his biggest hits. Tonight, with band in tow, the pair were in Birmingham as part of a short British tour to promote the album.
With a tense dystopian Terminator-style keyboard build up, Idol and band made their measured scene-setting entrance, and kicked off with ‘Postcards From The Past’, the first of a healthy representation of tracks from his new album. It was quickly followed by another newie in the rousing latest single ‘Can’t Bring Me Down’. Oozing street cred, and backed by a band of heavy hitters, Idol looked fantastic, and worked the stage like only a superstar of his longevity and experience can. With every commanding gesture, he was a man completely in charge of every nuance of his performance. “It’s great to be back in the UK, FINALLY” he said, acknowledging his four year absence from these shores, receiving and received an ecstatic response from the Birmingham audience.
Although the new tracks were greeted enthusiastically, with a large proportion of the crowd singing along and obviously familiar with the material, it was the classics that they were really here to see. And it wasn’t long before they were rewarded, as Idol dug deep into his catalogue with performance of the ever-popular ‘Dancing With Myself’. Idol is clearly the main attraction, however his charismatic band include the equally watchable Billy Morrison on rhythm guitar, and of course the flamboyant Stevens, who played the solo to the Generation X song with guitar behind his head. Following it up with the widescreen ‘Flesh For Fantasy’, Idol appeared bare chested for the first time. With the sickeningly well-toned physique of a man half his age, the move received just as rapturous a response as the song itself.
The pace of the show could not be faulted, as new song ‘Save Me Now’, which saw Idol don an acoustic guitar, continued at a similar pace. It was a brilliant but subtle segue into a more relaxed semi-acoustic section of the show, that included the impressive title track from ‘Kings And Queens Of The Underground’. The nostalgia-themed look back lyrically references many of Idol’s hits, and it set the crowd up perfectly for what was to come. It wasn’t long before one of those references was realised, as the sweet as the candy house that it alludes to ‘Sweet Sixteen’ received an airing, followed by another in the beautifully tender ‘Eyes Without A Face’. A song of two halves, the electric guitars came back in full force, when Stevens and Morrison downed their acoustics for the gritty power-chord call and response of the song’s finale. With the pace suitably picked up again, the first half ended with a cover of The Doors’ ‘L.A. Woman’, which was rechristened ‘Birmingham Woman’ for the night.
Giving Billy and the band a chance for a breather, Steve Stevens treated the crowd to a solo spot, unusually on an acoustic Spanish guitar. For some, this type of interlude would usually signal time to go to the bar, however Steven’s solo offered a welcome change from the usual guitar heroics. He even offered a nod to local Black Country legends Led Zeppelin with a snippet from ‘Over The Hills And Far Away’, which amazingly seemed lost on most of the crowd. Only the briefest of notes to ‘Stairway To Heaven’ seemed to alert them to the fact that their local heroes were being paid homage.
From here on in, it was full on party mode, as newer tracks like ‘Whiskey And Pills’ upped the ante and gave the Academy a shot of adrenalin. The place suitably erupted as the picked guitar intro to ‘Rebel Yell’ rang out. Initially obscenely brilliant, it was here that the show disappointingly began to falter. At the song’s half way point, visibly suffering from in-ear monitor problems, it was clear that Idol couldn’t hear himself. As the track’s final chorus of yells turned to polite and confused whimpers, the quintessential Billy Idol song lost power just where it would usually climax, and ended with an unusually off-key vocal from the punk legend. He didn’t let it upset him though, and asking Stevens to ‘show them what a hit song sounds like’ the pair launched into ‘White Wedding’. Though impressive, the acoustic two man intro to the song did seem like a wasted opportunity, as it wasn’t until the full band joined in during the half-way point that it really came to life. It was hard not to think that a full length electric version would have done the classic more justice.
The evening ended with a celebratory ‘Mony Mony’ as Idol donned a guitar emblazoned with a ‘BFI’ logo, – Billy ‘friendly’ Idol? – before delighting the front rows by handing out drum sticks, autographs and fist-bumps. Perhaps it was first night gremlins, but although tonight’s bonfire night show was far from a damp squib, it did perhaps lack the sparkle and bombastic explosiveness that Idol is capable of. Regardless, even on an off night, with whiplash smile Idol is still king of the underground.
First published on gigsandfestivals.co.uk, 6 November 2014.