November , 1984
By Lesa Carol
Steve StevensTalks... Billy Idol punks out of Generation X
Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Burt Bachrach and Hal David. Bernie Taupin and Elton John. What's significant about these three sets of names?
Well, aside of the countless millions of albums sold, Grammy nominations received and won, and an Academy Award for best soundtrack Song of the Year, these men were the dominant songwriting teams of the 1960's and 70's. Their music not only reflected the generations that grew up with them, but they also reflected the era these songwriting teams represented. With the onset of the '80's, another generation of music is upon us. And the forerunners of that sound? Try the team of Billy Idol and Steve Stevens.
In the past two years, the Brit Idol and the Yank Stevens have helped forge and carve a rawer, tougher side to music that is indicative of the industry mood today. Idol's platinum selling album, Rebel Yell, is a quintessential reflection of its time that has seen the rise of such bands like Def Leppard, Judas Priest, The Scorpions and more recently Motley Crue, Twisted Sister and Raft.
"I don't think that there is a formula for music, though there are songwriters who follow the same pattern, or formula if you will, of chords, bridge, hooks, chords, bridge, hooks," remarked Stevens as he sat back in a chair thoughtfully.
"When Billy and I write music, unlike other bands, we come up with ideas, lyrics and then set the music to that rather that write the music first and fit in lyrics. Usually we'll come up with a theme to a song and if we both like it and get off to the idea, then we set about making it work."
Stevens and Idol met three years ago through the efforts of Bill Aucoin, who was Idol's manager. Stevens was under contract to Aucoin's management firm as a songwriter and had expressed an interest in meeting Idol, who had just come to New York City from London after breaking up with the group Generation X.
"I had been freelancing songs around the New York area," recalled Stevens, "and heard that Billy was coming over to the States. I was real interested in meeting him and knew of his work with Generation X. Since New York is sort of small community of musicians and there are a lot of clubs, if you know that somebody is hanging around, it is pretty easy to meet them."
From that meeting, Idol and Stevens discovered they both shared a lot of the same viewpoints about music and the same influences like The Doors and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
"When Billy first got here,” continued Stevens, “he really didn't have a name, but I thought he was real fascinating. He looked the same way that as he does today, and in a way, that is what drew me to him.
"When we first met, there were some things that he wanted to do and that I wanted to do. I told him that I wasn't particularly interested in a lot of money and he wasn't either. I basically told him that I wanted to be the next great American guitar player and it would be interesting to have a band to do it with."
Idol had come to New York as the punk movement in England was fading fast. Romantic new wave bands like Duran Duran, the Human League and Spandau Ballet were beginning to show up on the London scene, so Idol, whose band was one of the forerunners of the punk movement, opted for a transatlantic journey in hopes of finding musicians more in tune with his style of music.
Stevens and Idol didn't really start gelling as a songwriting team until the recording sessions began for Idol’s self-titled debut album that contained the hit, “White Wedding.” Although Stevens only co-wrote two of the songs, the feeling out period between the two writers ended there.
"I did have to get to know Billy as a person before we could work together," says Stevens. "Even though his influences were very much the same as mine, I had to get to know his temperament in order to strike up a working relationship. After the first record, I wrote all but one of the songs on the follow-up, Rebel Yell.
"You asked me if I felt responsible for the success of the Rebel Yell album, and yes I do. One thing you need to remember is this. I am not dictating Billy's career. What we have is a partnership. I just write the music, not the lyrics, and the success I feel responsible for is that of our friendship growing into something that I value very much."
Stevens says that the diverse background he and Idol come from augments the magic and spark their musical partnership has produced. "I don't think our music would be interesting if it wasn't," Stevens says, and he gives Rebel Yell as a prime example.
"One of the reasons that the album took so long to record,: he said, “was we sat down and discussed the direction we wanted this album to head in. One of the first things we did decide was to get a completely different band than the one that had just toured with us.
"We wanted to do more dance music and put more feeling into this album that was a major step to take without a band. We knew we had to do a great record and it was dangerous going about it the way we did. However, we were willing to take that risk for the sake of experimenting and branching out. The people we were working with at the time couldn't express the ideas we wanted."
Needless to say, Stevens and Idol's gamble paid off. Rebel Yell produced three smash hit singles and solidified Idol's position as one of the top musical forces spearheading the '80's.
"Even I am surprised somewhat,” mused Stevens, “at the way our music has grabbed onto people. These elements of Billy's persona have always been there, only now, people are becoming aware of them.
"On ‘Eyes Without a Face,’ we didn't write it with the intention of it being considered a hit single. On the album, it is eight minutes long. When we realized that the record company was going to use it as the second single, we had to edit the song down to less than five minutes in order to get Top 40 airplay."
As for the next album, Stevens says the band they have now is set and the extreme measures they took on Rebel Yell will not have to be duplicated in order to get a great album.
"We are not going to go off the deep end or sacrifice any type of creativity," reassured Stevens. "I think the next album will be a little bit more head down and not as elaborately arranged as Rebel Yell. We experimented and took a lot of risk on that album, but we are not going to be like The Police who transform themselves musically from album to album.
"We like to keep our changes within the album, from song to song, because that keeps people guessing all of the time and that's good. If you write the way people want you to hear, you might as well forget it. You have to make them want to hear what you are doing, and we will."