It’s been said you can always expect the unexpected when it comes to seeing rocker Billy Idol in concert, what with his famous snarl and raspy growl as he famously prances around the stage while doing his part to keep ‘80s punk-pop alive.
Yet no one could have expected what turned out to be a most poignant experience involving the rocker’s recent Chicagoland stop: hearing the ‘80s legend chatting it up onstage while giving keenly insightful historical anecdotes about post-WWII Britain, thoughtful family remembrances of growing up with a church-going father who never accepted Idol’s chosen profession, and tales of his later emergence from the British punk rock scene that would define the rest of his life.
Oh, and he sang, too…all while being accompanied – mostly acoustically – by his nearly equally legendary guitarist Steve Stevens, the big-haired wunderkind whose lightning-fast guitar licks are as impressive now as they were thirty-some odd years ago.
Folks, meet Billy Idol: ‘80s “acoustic” new wave rocker, world historian and introspective family man.
Idol was all those things and more when he came to Chicagoland and performed a sold-out show at the Rialto Theatre in Joliet, IL on March 21…and let’s just say it was far from normal.
Don’t get me wrong, the set list was definitely his – with songs we all knew and loved from his ‘80s heyday (no, unfortunately his biggest post-‘80s entry “Cradle of Love” was not among them, nor was his lone No. 1 pop hit, the remake of Tommy James’ “Mony, Mony”).
But classics like “Dancing With Myself,” “Eyes Without A Face” and “White Wedding” were. They were part of a 14-song, 90-minute set that featured Idol backed by a one-piece band: Stevens on guitar…
…and a drum machine to occasionally keep time.
That was it.
There were no other band members, no fancy lights or graphics, no large video screens, no small ones either. No frills. There may not even have been any sound engineers in the room – at least none were visible.
The whole production was a lesson in economics, as the overhead costs for such an event had to be very low, and Idol’s and Stevens’ net returns pretty high. One could almost imagine the two of them touring around the country in a Toyota Prius (it would have to be a souped-up one though…their tough rocker images have to remain somewhat intact!).
Clad in all-black with tight pants and donning a variety of different jackets, the 62-year-old Idol still owns the body of a much younger rocker, with a slightly bleached blonde hairstyle to complete the throwback image (and the 59-year-old Stevens’ huge mane is as ‘80’s-black as it ever was).
But Idol’s wisdom and maturity – as displayed in his storytelling (more than a few F-bombs aside) – along with the sparseness of the whole affair, are what really stole the show.
As Idol went through each song, he embellished them with stories of how they came to be, or, more importantly, how he came up in London and the early punk rock scene.
For the opener, “Dancing With Myself,” performed with just Stevens’ guitar backing him, Idol spoke of his early experience in the U.S. at a New York punk club called “Hoorahs.” He recalled how no one was dancing the entire night, until the deejay played this one song that prompted everyone (but him) to hit the dance floor. As he sat alone at the bar wondering what was this song that finally got everyone dancing, he finally recognized it was his older song “Dancing With Myself,” recorded a couple years earlier with his band Generation X (and later re-released as by Gen X).
Idol told of how, after witnessing the club’s response, he re-recorded the song (a third time) for his solo debut EP in 1981; the tune did well on the dance/disco chart but failed to make the Hot 100.
For the song “Twenty Flight Rock,” he spoke of writer Eddie Cochran’s influences on him, and as the lead-in to “Kiss Me Deadly” (not the Lita Ford song), he walked us through his early punk rock days in London where he and his band mates were derided by white supremacists for their race-mixing in a punk scene that didn’t always embrace such things.
There were multiple reflections on how Britain fought in and later emerged from the Second World War, with its economic and social impact still being felt in the latter half of the 20th-century (Idol attributed the social aspect to why he believed the punk scene evolved in the first place).
Nothing, however, was more surprising – or poignant – than the ten-minute, tear-jerking story of Billy’s last moment with his now-deceased father – a father who had never approved of his son’s chosen profession. As the elder Mr. Broad lay in hospice on his deathbed, he asked Billy whether he resented his dad for never understanding his involvement with Rock and Roll. Billy told the audience that – despite the hurt he’d felt for years for his father’s lack of acceptance and the strong urge to lay into him – he “became an adult” that day, telling his father it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered other than the moment the two of them were sharing right then.
His father died shortly afterwards. He passed away while listening to the next song Billy played for the captivated crowd, “Ghost In My Guitar.”
Who knew there was such a deep, sensitive side to Billy Idol?
He then propped up the mood a bit – but not much – with the next song, itself a melancholy tune and a fan favorite, 1984’s “Eyes Without A Face.” While introducing it, Idol recalled how elated he had been as the song climbed to No. 6 and the Rebel Yell album it came from reached No. 4 (actually, he had the two chart peaks reversed, but no one could fault him, for he had gotten so much else right on this night).
After “Face” came Steve Stevens’ moment to shine with a stellar guitar solo, which, if nothing else, proved that Idol’s musical partner of more than 30 years hadn’t lost a step.
Billy then rejoined his buddy onstage during a homestretch that included “Don’t Need A Gun,” “To Be A Lover” (which, he introduced as being a bit of “Rockabilly Billy”), and the two crowd-pleasing biggies: “Rebel Yell” and “White Wedding.”
For the former, Idol recalled how the tune came to be after partying it up with the Rolling Stones and watching them drink Rebel Yell whiskey. He noted that he’d first asked the group’s members whether they had any intention of ever using the drink’s title in a song, and when they replied in the negative, he was off and running with his tale of the primal scream that comes with the orgasmic climax of love-making.
By the time it was over – the concert, that is – we had been thoroughly entertained. Idol and Stevens may have left a few big hits on the table (“Flesh For Fantasy,” “Hot In The City,” and the aforementioned “Mony, Mony” and “Cradle of Love” among them), and the Big ‘80s vibe may have been missed as Idol and Stevens opted for this more sparsely produced semi-acoustic affair.
But the twosome showed they still have it…nearly 40 years after we first danced with ourselves to Billy’s brand of new wave punk. And that’s more than anyone would expect from 60-year-old rockers these days.
If you haven’t seen them yet, I recommend you check Billy and Steve out in a city near you.
Billy Idol’s Set List for the Rialto Theatre on March 21, 2019:
- Dancing With Myself
- Catch My Fall
- Twenty Flight Rock (Eddie Cochran cover; a cappella)
- Kiss Me Deadly
- I’m Not Like Everybody Else (Kinks cover)
- Sweet Sixteen
- Ghost In My Guitar
- Eyes Without A Face (acoustic until bridge)
- Steve Stevens guitar solo
- Don’t Need A Gun
- To Be A Lover
- Rebel Yell
- White Wedding
- Shakin’ All Over
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.