Not Fade Away: Billy Idol’s ‘Rebel Yell,’ 30 Years After MTV Brought It to the Masses
In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on Billy Idol’s breakthrough album Rebel Yell which turned 30 yesterday (November 10).
By Robert Ham
If you were one of the fortunate households to have MTV in late 1983 through 1984, you knew every inch of Billy Idol — his glowering eyes resting under a shock of blond spiky hair and above his smooth hairless chest, the slight Elvis-like sneer that his upper lip would take when singing, his penchant for leather clothes.
You knew all this because for a full year, Idol was omnipresent on the still-young television network. The heavy rotation of his videos helped fuel the success of Rebel Yell, his 1983 album that spent 70 weeks on the Billboard chart, peaking at No. 6 and selling more than two million copies in the U.S. alone.
“You can’t underestimate the value of premiering a video on MTV,” remembers Steve Stevens, Idol’s longtime guitarist, and the co-writer for all but one song on Rebel Yell. “I mean, at the time, I didn’t know what MTV was. Someone showed it to me, and I was like, ‘What the f*** is this? Bad public access or something?'”
Looking back 30 years, as MTV went from a nascent network to a household name, so did Idol. His band went from touring the U.S. in a 12-passenger van to a huge bus in a matter of months.
“Little by little the venues were getting bigger and bigger,” says Stevens. “Being on the road all the time, you get kind of oblivious to that. But by the time we got to L.A. and were playing the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, we were, like, ‘What’s happening?’ We became an arena band on that tour.”
Before they reached that point, Idol and his band—which included Stevens, drummer Gregg Gerson, keyboardist Judi Dozier, and bassist Phil Felt—decamped to Electric Lady Studios in New York, spending eight months knocking together the eight songs that bridged Idol’s punk/new wave past with his more hard rock intentions.
Of course, as with most major label efforts of the time, the band and producer Keith Forsey weren’t taking any chances on it being a flop. So, throughout those 24 weeks of recording, there was a bit of band turnover (Felt left the group early on in the sessions, as did Gerson who admitted himself to a clinic to deal with his drug and alcohol dependency) and an open-door policy that brought in players that best served the material.
“We weren’t going to settle for, ‘Okay, that’s good enough,'” says Stevens. “We really felt that we had to honor the songs.”
That feeling included a willingness to completely revamp a song at the drop of a hat. One of the best-known examples of this was the title track, which Forsey insisted on recutting. As the producer told Mix Magazine in 2006, the intent of the originally recorded version was “fantastic, but it just made me feel uncomfortable. The tempo was just too on top, so we went back and re-cut the whole thing.”
The decision also led to some additional head-butting between Idol and his label at the time Chrysalis. To prove a point to them, Idol stole the master tapes of the album from the studio. But, according to Forsey, he grabbed the wrong reels. “I let him think he had [them]. Everything was squared away, and then he came back and I said, ‘By the way, Bill, I’ve got the real masters.’ He’s like ‘Ohhhhh, great!’”
Forsey obviously had the right idea in mind, as “Rebel Yell” remains one of the most indelible rock anthems of the ’80s. But for as well-remembered as it is, that wasn’t the song that pushed the album over the top. That accolade belongs to Idol’s first Top 10 single “Eyes Without A Face.”
“That one was a little scary for Billy,” says Stevens of its creation. “He wasn’t known for ballads. He was a punk rock guy. But we played it for Keith and we all thought there was really something about this.”
“Eyes” is a good representation of the surprising diversity on Rebel Yell. For as much as it is remembered for rockers like the title track and “Blue Highway,” the LP makes room for mournful down-tempo tracks like “Flesh For Fantasy” and the dream-like album closer “The Dead Next Door.”
“We were all students of the Beatles and the Stones,” says Stevens of the album’s varied moods. “They made albums that took you on a musical journey. We didn’t want to follow some formula, and we didn’t want some album full of ‘White Wedding’s.”
Even some three decades later, Stevens’ feelings about the record remain unchanged: He still considers it one of the most creatively satisfying of his long career.
“It’s no big mystery when you know you’ve got something good happening and all the pieces really fall into place,” the now 54-year-old guitarist says. “Whenever we got something good, we would say that ‘Jah came down’. Jah came down a lot with that record.”