Released today in 1984: Eyes Without A face

Chrysalis IDOL3

Chrysalis IDOL3

When asked in the mid-80s which male singer she thought she could record a song with, Madonna suggested “Billy Idol… because we’re both white and plastic and blond.” It’s difficult to imagine what that duet might have sounded like, but not so hard to imagine what it would look like. Both of them popular on MTV and making creative and effective use of that medium, they had, in addition to Madonna’s accurate description, penchants for chains and beads and black clothing; they were brash and confident and easily marketable; and in the US at least they both started enjoying huge commercial success seemingly overnight. Of the two, the least likely to break that market was Idol: a punk rocker – and an English punk rocker at that – who had hired a stalwart of the (at that time) disowned disco era to produce his records. But then there was that trademark sneer, and his star was quickly in the ascendant.

Eyes Without A Face remains the best example of ‘80s Billy Idol. Immaculately produced and introduced with a rush of sweeping synth chords, it begins and ends as a melodic power ballad (including a haunting female voice in the background singing the song title in French) with Idol’ s own controlled, sensitive vocal becoming suddenly urgent and acerbic in a rockier break half-way through which features squealing guitars and other hallmarks of the American hard rock genre. He co-wrote the song with his guitarist Steve Stevens together with the bulk of the tracks for a pair of radio-friendly original LPs (Billy Idol, 1982, and Rebel Yell, 1983) from which a number of singles would be pulled. It was in 1985, when mixes of some of the most popular of these were collected on the compilation album Vital Idol, that Idol’s popularity peaked. By that point, his image had finally settled into a look fitting for his chosen stage name.

When his career began in the UK, he was part of the group Generation X. The moniker ‘Idol’ was not looked on favourably by British fans of DIY rock in the late 70s as it didn’t suggest the contempt for society that one such as Johnny Rotten might. (Originally, he had considered calling himself Billy Idle, a punkier-sounding name, but he feared the spelling might associate him with comedian Eric Idle.) No matter: Generation X were somewhat different from other bands associated with the punk scene anyway, having more of an appreciation for 60s pop and song composition that their contemporaries did. Perhaps Idol was slightly ahead of his time: few of the bands from the punk days survived into the video era but by biding his time, Idol did indeed became an idol when MTV arrived. This wasn’t to say that all the elements of his image were in place when he debuted as a solo artist in 1981. On the original cover of the Billy Idol album he wore a shirt featuring a Japanese print: not a garment he was ever seen wearing on MTV. On subsequent pressings of the album he was pictured wearing a black leather vest revealing both a prominent tattoo on his arm and more than one chain around his neck. The spiky, almost white-blond hair though – already in place from his Generation X days – was common to both images.

The final Generation X (by then, Gen X) album Kiss Me Deadly was produced by Keith Forsey who Idol retained for his solo career. On paper, Forsey was an unlikely candidate for this role. In the 1960s he had been the drummer in manufactured pop band The Spectrum, and had gone on to play percussion as a session musician for a number of acts in the early 1970s. But it was later in that decade through his involvement in disco music that he would become particularly productive as a writer and performer. With producer Pete Bellotte he formed a duo called Trax; they recorded two disco-influenced albums together. Both became associated with producer Giorgio Moroder and were present at a number of his most famous recordings, including several sessions with Donna Summer. Her cancelled I’m A Rainbow album in 1981 marked the end of Bellotte, Moroder and Forsey working together regularly; Forsey began to concentrate more on New Wave projects, including his own solo album Dynamite and the previously-mentioned final Gen X album.

He was the right choice for Billy Idol’s solo albums. His commercially-aware production style brought out the best in the already-strong Idol/Stevens songs, although it would take more than one release in some cases for the songs to become hits – White Wedding, Rebel Yell and Hot In The City were all issued twice each as singles in the UK. Forsey and Idol worked together for the rest of the 1980s, but the latter missed an opportunity for what might have been his biggest hit. Forsey had notable success during the decade with film soundtracks, co-writing (with Moroder) the title theme to the movie ‘Flashdance’ and producing the soundtrack album to the Rat-Pack film ‘The Breakfast Club’. One of the songs he wrote for that, Don’t You (Forget About Me), eventually a US #1 for Jim Kerr’s Simple Minds, was originally offered to Idol who turned it down.

NEW SINGLES on sale from Jun. 1
1984
HAIRCUT ONE HUNDRED Too Up Two Down (Polydor HC3)
Billy IDOL Eyes Without A Face (Chrysalis IDOL3)
1987
ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN (Ian McCulloch) The Game (WEA YZ134)
Billy IDOL Sweet Sixteen (Chrysalis IDOL10)
George MICHAEL I Want Your Sex (Rhythm 1 Lust) (Epic LUST1)

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