A week or so ago, my husband and I were talking about misheard lyrics, which made me think of the Billy Idol song ‘Eyes Without a Face’. There’s a bit during the chorus where, until quite recently, I thought the female backup singers were saying, ‘precious [something] eyes’, but is in fact ‘les yeux sans visage’, or ‘eyes without a face’ in French. Fucking duh. My husband hadn’t heard of the song, so my lame anecdote didn’t really resonate, but it did give me an excuse to queue up the video for him on YouTube, enticing him with promises of sexy ladies smacking their fishnet stocking’ed asses in time with the drum beats. Which did not disappoint. And which brings me to today, having spent the last several days falling down YouTube rabbit holes and reacquainting myself with the Idol oeuvre, my latent crush re-ignited.
I’ve written that David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King was ‘my first celebrity crush’, but that isn’t entirely accurate. Bowie/Jareth was the first time that I looked at someone and felt something akin to sexual desire, though at 7 years old I didn’t have the language to describe it or even really understand what ‘sexual desire’ was. But a year or two before that profound revelation, there was Billy Idol. I was 5 or 6 years old, MTV was still pretty new, and his videos for ‘Dancing With Myself’ and ‘White Wedding’ were on all the time. I thought his songs were awesome, I liked the way he went ‘YOW!’ and he was really, really cute.
I still quite clearly remember coming home from kindergarten one day and my mom – knowing how excited I would be – saying to me, ‘Guess what your dad bought? A Billy Idol album!’ It was Rebel Yell, and I played the fuck out of that record. I danced around our living room (alone, obvs) pretending I was in music videos with him. I imagined he was my boyfriend and he’d written all the songs for me. When he sang, ‘Yes, I almost died on the Blue Highway,’ I thought of how horrible that would be and how sad it would make me, and I imagined myself leaning over him amid the wreckage and stroking his spiky blond hair. Poor me. Poor almost-dead Billy. It was all pretty innocent, which is sort of ironic considering Billy Idol was basically all about sex. (One can debate whether or not a 6-year-old girl should’ve even been listening to an album containing lyrics like ‘You see and feel my sex attack’, on a song called ‘Flesh For Fantasy’ no less, but it was the 80s and parenting was a lot more laissez-faire back then. And in any case, most of the sex stuff went over my head anyway.)
I eventually grew out of my hardcore Billy Idol phase – mostly by virtue of simply becoming aware of other musicians – but, as is often the case with one’s first love, I’ve always had a soft spot for him, and will crank that shit up anytime he comes on the radio or the TV.
The day after I introduced my husband to the radical 80s awesomeness that is the ‘Eyes Without a Face’ video, I decided to listen to Rebel Yell again. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d actually properly listened to it, but it had to have been at least 25 years or more. I found the album in its entirety on YouTube, and just looking at that iconic red-tinted cover brought back a wave of memories and vivid imagery. My dad’s boxy, silver stereo system. The gentle clicking sound the turntable’s PLAY button made when you pressed down on it. The pea soup green carpet in our basement, where I’d spent so many hours as a child listening to my dad’s records. The names of the more obscure tracks were still familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite remember what they sounded like (though as soon as I heard the first few bars, they all came flooding back to me). I expected the next 38 minutes to be a nice, nostalgic hunk of cheese. And it was. Rebel Yell is very much of its time; no one is going to mistake it for something that came out last year. But it was also more than that. Because Rebel Yell is a really good album. And not in an ironic, so-bad-it’s-good kind of way, but an honest-to-god good album. Some tracks are obviously better than others (I’ve never liked ‘Crank Call’ all that much), but none of them are actually bad. The track order works. There’s no filler. Each song is kinda stylistically different, but the album doesn’t feel incohesive. I know you’re laughing at me. But seriously, listen to it:
Everyone knows that the title track is awesome, and the perfect way to start the album, but the slinky bass line of ‘Daytime Drama’ is groovy as hell. ‘Eyes Without a Face’ is a nice ballad and all, but that bit in the middle where it rocks out (and features the ass-smacking fishnet ladies in the video) just makes it 100% better. I’ve always loved the anthemic ‘Blue Highway’, and ‘(Do Not) Stand in the Shadows’ could almost be mistaken for a Joy Division song. ‘Catch My Fall’ has fucking saxophone in it and still manages to sound cool. But it also has a nonsensical music video – which I never saw as a child – featuring Billy as post-apocalyptic Darth Maul *and* a shower scene.
Just skip to 2:45 and thank me later.
And I haven’t even mentioned Steve Stevens yet. That dude is a goddamn windmilling meedly-meedly guitar hero. Go listen to his solo in ‘Rebel Yell’ again (and that awesome laser gun sound he makes) if you don’t believe me.
It’s not every day that I go back and revisit something that I loved as a child and thought was good, and realise that it actually is really good. Six-year-old me was often lonely, and felt awkward, and lived inside her own head, and was certainly never cool, but with Billy Idol she was on to something. My younger self liked some embarrassing shit – C&C Music Factory, The Simpsons Sing The Blues and fucking Nelson to name but a few – but none of that matters, because Billy Idol is cool, and in 1984 I knew it. And Rebel Yell – my first real favorite album, a piece of art that was so dear to me so long ago – is a worthy relic of that time.
I didn’t walk down the aisle to ‘White Wedding’ when I got married like I’d always said I would do. I don’t think we even played it at the reception. But a few years before, at my sister’s bachelorette party, I and the other bridesmaids sang it to her at karaoke. I curled up my lip and pumped my fist and ‘YEOW!’ed with all the heart and swagger I could muster. It was my little gift to her; Billy Idol had always been my thing, my imaginary 80s boyfriend, but it was her night, and her wedding, and I wanted her to have him.