Career Killers: “Cyberpunk” by Billy Idol

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

As we’ve seen, bad concept albums can kill careers and destroy their creators in the time it takes to throw a CD into the garbage, send it to China to be used for road paving or sell it to a used record store for half-pennies on the dollar.

In Billy Idol’s case, it did that and then some. But it also set the stage for an interesting critical re-evaluation. Was 1993’s Cyberpunk, a bloated concept album about machines, technology and consumerism that also happened to be one of the first major studio releases recorded mostly on the computer, packaged with a floppy disk containing bonus content and marketed via the internet actually ahead of its time?

Yes, it was. Without question.

Content wise, Idol’s musings about technology proved to be prescient, while his recording and marketing methods established a blueprint that almost every artist of the mid-to-late 90s and early 00s would copy and emulate, right down to the bonus floppy (although CD and DVD-ROMs predictably replaced the floppy as the technology became more ubiquitous and affordable).

But that doesn’t mean the album is good or deserved to be successful. And it’s certainly no surprise that it ruined Billy Idol’s career.

From a musical perspective, Billy Idol has always been hard to classify. He got his start as the frontman for Generation X, a punk/new wave band that rose to prominence during the burgeoning English punk rock scene of the mid-to-late 1970s. However the band was less politically conscious and more pop-rock oriented than groups like the Clash or the Sex Pistols (ex-Pistols frontman John Lydon a/k/a Johnny Rotten referred to Idol as the “Perry Como of punk”). For instance, Generation X unabashedly liked and was inspired by mainstream acts like The Beatles, the Rollings Stones and the Who, and was one of the first punk bands to appear on the BBC’s Top of the Pops (sort of like the British version of American Bandstand). And when Idol went solo in 1981, he realized he already had the perfect song to jump-start his career as a pop star: Generation X’s 1980 single “Dancing With Myself,” which was remixed with very few changes and released as Idol’s debut single.

As his star rose throughout the 1980s, Idol became even harder to classify. He had long left the punk world behind and the scene was pretty much passé by then, but he still looked the part, making him a bad fit for glam or hair metal. And he was too pop for rock and vice versa. So when MTV came along and sent his career into the stratosphere, it was fair to ask whether his success was due more to his image (and his memorable videos) than his music. As Todd in the Shadows put it, Billy Idol was really just his own thing- an undeniable star that probably could have only become one in the 80s.

Yet, as the 90s began, Idol seemed poised to disprove that. After splitting with longtime guitarist and songwriting partner Steve Stevens, Idol released his fourth studio album, Charmed Life, in 1990. The record went platinum off the strength of hit single “Cradle of Love,” which peaked at #2 on the Billboard chart and was backed with an eye-catching music video. He also looked set to become a movie star, landing an important supporting role in Oliver Stone’s Jim Morrison biopic, The Doors, and being the favorite for an even bigger part: the unstoppable T-1000 in Terminator 2 opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger. But then he got into a serious motorcycle crash and shattered his leg, causing Stone to scale back his Doors role and James Cameron to cast Robert Patrick as the villain in T2 instead.

The accident turned out to be a catalyst for Idol’s career reinvention. During an interview, a journalist noticed an electronic muscle simulator on Idol’s bad leg and made an offhand comment about how he looked like a “cyberpunk.” Idol was intrigued and began learning more about the cyberpunk ethos by reading William Gibson’s books, particularly the landmark 1984 novel Neuromancer, a book about a computer hacker that launched the entire cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction while influencing countless games, comics and movies, such as The Matrix.

In the meantime, the music scene was changing considerably, as grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam had made hedonistic party boys like him obsolete. “I found that I often couldn’t think clearly regarding musical decisions, where before, my instincts had rarely failed me,” Idol said in his 2014 autobiography, Dancing With Myself. “I was listening to a lot of dance music from England, stuff like early Prodigy and Future Sounds of London. The rave scene was in full swing, almost making rock ’n roll seem quaint and old-fashioned.”

Idol was also intrigued by the advent of personal computers and their growing role in the recording process. The idea that he could record an album using Pro Tools and a home PC instead of renting out a recording studio and working on the label’s time and dime appealed to his DIY ethos. Throw in the growing power of the internet, and Idol saw an opportunity to cut out the middle man completely and communicate with, and market his music directly to, his fans. In his autobiography, he claimed he was the first artist to put his email address on the album jacket and that he was one of the first to use nascent online communities like The WELL and Usenet to talk with and solicit ideas from his fans. He also saw an opportunity to get back to his roots, drawing parallels between the emerging cyberspace scene and his old punk days. “I’m so fucking into the internet!” he exclaimed. “The internet is punk rock!”

So as he prepared to record his follow up to Charmed Life, Idol decided to go all in and make an electronic-influenced concept album about technology, augmented reality and cyberspace set against the backdrop of a dystopian future where corporations control everything and the hacker-dominated underground functions as the resistance. According to Idol, the album started out as a possible soundtrack to a proposed sequel to the 1992 film The Lawnmower Man. In fact, that film’s director, Brett Leonard, would direct two of the videos from this album, lead single “Heroin” and second single “Shock to the System.” When that proposed movie fell through, Idol found a different storyline to bind the album together:

The future has imploded into the present
With no nuclear war, the new battlefields are people’s minds and souls
Mega-corporations are the new governments
Computer generated info domains are the new frontiers
Though, there is better living between science and chemistry
We are all becoming slavebots

The computer is the new cool tool
Though we say, “All information shall be free,” it is not
Information is power and currency of the virtual world we inhabit
So we mustn’t trust authority

Cyberpunks are the true rebels
Cyber-culture is coming in under the radar
An unordinary society, an unholy alliance with the tech world, and a world of organized dissent

Welcome to the Cyber Corporation, Cyberpunks

Billy Idol, “Intro” — text based on “Is there a Cyberpunk Movement?” by Gareth Branwyn.

Plenty of artists have updated their sound by recording a dance-influenced album to the point that it’s become a cliché (Brian Eno probably has a wait list longer than the one for Packers’ season tickets). And for Idol, the fact that he wasn’t particularly identified with one specific genre of music should have allowed him to pivot to a different style without any problems. Besides, making a dance album wasn’t the biggest stretch for him, since many of his pop-rock songs were ones you could dance to (with or without yourself). Indeed, the electronic beats and instrumentation on Cyberpunk sound pretty good and, mostly, hold up. That’s very impressive considering Pro Tools wasn’t widely in use at that point. It certainly sounds light years better than the Beach Boys’ Summer in Paradise, which was one of the first albums recorded on the software.

However, while Billy Idol may have defied musical classification, he definitely had a brand. He was the cool, sneering, handsome bad boy who got more ass than a toilet seat and had more chemicals in him than a DuPont lab. Most of all, he had always been about fun, and this album is the exact opposite of that. The concept really drags the album down, making it an interminable bore, while there are distinct lack of memorable hooks and riffs. In a review for Rolling Stone, Mark Coleman hit the nail on the head: “The guy’s saving grace has always been an over-the-top cartoon looniness, coupled with at least one sure-shot single per album. Sadly, outing No. 6 comes up short — on both sly winks and Top 40-bound hooks.”

While there are some good songs on here, they don’t hold a candle to his earlier output. “Shock to the System” is probably the best song on the album and has long been a guilty pleasure of mine. Fourth single, “Wasteland,” is a surprisingly good song with a catchy, albeit gloomy hook. I also liked “Then the Night Comes,” particularly the Steve Stevens-esque guitar riff and the pulsating, hypnotic bass line. The song also contains one of the better hooks on the album and sounds most like something he would have done earlier in his career.

It’s a much better dance song than the lead single: Idol’s electronic cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” While he’s always been good at covers, his euphoric, club-influenced version of Lou Reed’s frenzied, tortured classic really misses the mark (plenty of critics stated that it sounded more like being on ecstasy and not heroin). Idol actually adds a line from Patty Smith’s cover of “Gloria” while omitting some of Reed’s lyrics (including the line that goes “heroin will be the death of me”). He does keep some of Reed’s other negative lyrics about the drug to keep this from being a purely positive song about a dangerous drug (unlike, say, “White Light/White Heat”), but the tone of the song is very much celebratory and joyous. While drugs have always been an integral part of the cyberpunk culture, the subject matter was still very much taboo in the early-to-mid 90s, meaning that this song was never going to get a lot of airplay on MTV or the radio. In fact, I didn’t even know that this was the actual lead single of Cyberpunk — I always assumed it was “Shock to the System.”

Upping the pretentiousness factor are the numerous spoken word interludes scattered throughout the album. One such interlude features infamous psychologist and psychedelic drug proponent Dr. Timothy Leary, who had become friends with Idol. Another, the lead-in to “Shock to the System,” plays actual police radio footage from the 1992 L.A. Riots.

And, of course, there are lyrics. For instance, third single “Adam in Chains” starts off with a voiceover of someone performing hypnosis on a subject before going into a state of augmented reality (“Just let yourself sink into the groove/ And move/ Fix your eyes on a spot/ It doesn’t matter where/ Just fix your eyes on one spot/ And begin to relax…”). I understand why he put it on here, but it goes on for much too long, droning on for over two-and-a-half minutes before the Idol starts to sing. I couldn’t help but think of the scene in Zoolander where Derek gets hypnotized by Mugatu. Hopefully, Billy Idol didn’t just brainwash me into trying to kill a foreign dignitary.

Most of the time, it’s hard to take what he’s saying seriously. For instance, on “Neuromancer,” a song title inspired by the Gibson novel, Idol delivers these lines: “It’s the age of destruction/ In a world of corruption/ It’s the age of destruction/ And they hand us oblivion” before transitioning into the song’s weak hook: “The neuromancer and I’m trancing/ I’m the neuromancer and I’m trancing/ I’m the neuromancer and I’m trancing/ Trancing/ Trancing/ And I’m trancing.” Did he mention he was the neuromancer? And that he’s trancing? Prior to this album, I would have expected him to use “neuromancer” as a pun for “new romancer” in a song about stealing your girlfriend or picking up a girl at a bar.

Or “Tomorrow People,” where Idol intones: “I like to fight, I kill global oppression/ If I quit, no hope of redemption” before ending with “I’m here to tell you, to tell you/ That I won’t repent/ World War III/ Death pain/ It’s fate lets do it again.” I’m not sure what that World War III part means, but it certainly seems serious.

Let’s be honest, Billy Idol is probably the last guy that should be raging against the machine — especially since it was the music industry machine that made him into a star in the first place. It was especially jarring to see someone perhaps best known for lines like “Face to face/ And back to back/ You see and feel/ My sex attack” suddenly singing about serious stuff like technology. And speaking of jarring to see, Idol changed his look, giving himself the worst set of dreadlocks this side of Vanilla Ice or Chris Kirkpatrick.

Perhaps that’s why the album failed. While Branwyn has defended Idol, saying the latter seemed entirely sincere and was genuinely fascinated by the cyberpunk subculture, and others noted that Idol’s level of expertise was irrelevant and that it was more important that he had even taken an interest in the first place, those views were in the distinct minority. To most critics, music fans and cyberpunk aficionados, his reinvention came across as phony and artificial — like he was just trying to ride the latest fad. Gibson even called him out, saying: “I’ve heard the album…and I just don’t get what he’s on about. I don’t see the connection.” Others were more harsh. In his 1996 book, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, Mark Dery called Idol “a onetime punk rocker whose market-savvy makeovers have helped him outlast the class of ’77” and Cyberpunk “a bald-faced appropriation of every cyberpunk cliche that wasn’t nailed down.”

Then again, it’s possible that he was always going to be seen as an interloper and was never going to be accepted by the cyberpunk community, no matter how good his intentions might have been. In that sense, Idol’s experience served as a clear premonition of how internet culture would develop. Nowadays, if anyone tries to do something new or change the way they do things, the trolls come out in full force and nitpick, criticize or be reflexively contrarian. Just at look what happens whenever Taylor Swift releases an album.

Either way, what’s clear is that Cyberpunk was an unmitigated disaster that left Billy Idol’s career deader than the Commodore 64. Cyberpunk was the first of Idol’s albums not go either gold or platinum, and it peaked at #48 on the Billboard 200, the worst showing for any of his non-compilation studio albums. As for the album’s singles, “Heroin” and “Adam in Chains” didn’t chart at all, while “Shock to System” missed out on the Top 20, stalling at #25. Predictably, he hasn’t performed any of the songs off this record, other than “Shock to the System,” since the Cyberpunk-supporting “No Religion” Tour ended.

In fact, once this era passed, Idol, more or less, decided to go back to more comfortable surroundings. He reunited with Stevens and seemingly embraced his status as an 80s icon. He wouldn’t release another studio album until 2005, and he’s spent more time touring on the nostalgia circuit than making new music (although I really like “Save Me Now,” the second single off his 2014 album, “Kings & Queens of the Underground“).

Nevertheless, Idol claims he is proud of this album while acknowledging its shortcomings.

Musically, the album was ambitious in style, but the direction was scattered. My creative instincts and possibly even my taste seemed to abandon me this time around. Even so, I am still proud of the album. The ideas and themes I was exploring and the methods I instead on using to record, promote, and share the album with my fans have proven to be far ahead of their time, as they would come to dominate the record industry in years ahead.

Billy Idol, Dancing With Myself.

And let’s face it, he was absolutely right about where music was going. While record executives were stubbornly clinging to the business model that had made them wealthy, Idol presciently saw the potential of the internet as a disruptive force. Maybe he didn’t see iTunes or MP3s coming, but the idea that artists could make their own music from the comfort of their own homes and then market them directly to the public? That was unthinkable then, and today’s SoundCloud and TikTok generation definitely owe Idol a debt of gratitude for showing them it could be done. And let’s face it, he (and Branwyn) were right about information being power and the currency of the future. Look no further than Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Twitter for evidence of that.

So, it Billy Idol decides to do a follow up concept album where he talks about how music is being to delivered to people via an electronic microchip implanted in their heads, then I guess we’ll know what’s coming.