Billy Idol, Rebel Yell 1983, Chrysalis
Eyes Without a Face
Flesh For Fantasy
Catch My Fall
(Do Not) Stand in the Shadows
The Dead Next Door
Billy Idol (whose real name is William Broad) started out with punk bands Chelsea and Generation X in the late 1970s before going solo in 1982. He was an integral part of the “Second British Invasion” of the US in the 1980s, a group of artists who made use of the images they could create for themselves from their music videos to increase their appeal to American audiences. He got his stage name from being described as idle or lazy by a teacher when he was at school.
After two successful singles from his first solo album, he was already a well established star in the US thanks to MTV by the time he released this, his second album, which served to cement his status. Rebel Yell, along with its singles was considerably more successful in the US than the UK.
Those familiar twangy guitars that sound like a guitar and a keyboard mashed together start the title track which apparently Idol decided to write after seeing three quarters of the Rolling Stones drinking “Rebel Yell” whisky at an event. However he came up with it, it’s a great rock song with brilliant guitars (and drums) all the way through and it’s a strong start to the album. The Bowie influence is strong on Daytime Drama which starts slowly but improves as it goes along. I’m ashamed to say I never realised synthy classic Eyes Without a Face was a Billy Idol song. It was a successful single and remains popular, but for me it’s the low point of the album, it feels like a dirge that doesn’t really go anywhere with a bridge that feels tacked on to remind you your supposed to be listening to a rock album. Blue Highway gets us back to business with a great, exhilarating scream, it’s a well made, new wave rocker. Flesh for Fantasy is just a “Look at me, I’m a sex symbol” kind of song, the lyric “You see and feel my sex attack” has aged pretty badly too. I’m definitely getting the sense that some of these songs are really soundtracks for the music video image rather than tracks that are meant to stand alone on their own merit. Catch My Fall has a much richer sound thanks to the use of the saxophone, it’s a definite improvement. Although the vocal on Crank Call seems slurred, it’s an enjoyable song with a good beat and nice guitars. It’s probably the hardest rock track. The fast paced (Do Not) Stand in the Shadows starts with some great drums. It’s the closest he gets to his punk roots on this album and it’s a highlight. The album ends with a whimper rather than a bang on The Dead Next Door which is a bit slow and eerie for my taste.
Overall it’s a patchy album, there are a few great tracks, but too many of them appear to be designed as a backdrop to videos that will appeal to teenage girls watching MTV. It’s a shame, because the good stuff is really good but it just feels a bit like style over substance in a lot of places.
While Billy Idol was far too commercially minded to be considered a true punk, he did influence later artists like No Doubt, Smashmouth and Andrew W.K. He’s also a great example of how the emergence of MTV as a major force in music meant that artists who had the right image could now go a long way even if the quality of their music didn’t quite live up to the image they had created.