We’re obsessed with the 1980s. The decade’s enduring cultural appeal is so salient that I’m starting to wonder if Simple Minds’ ‘Don’t you (Forget About Me)’ was a command rather than a declaration of adolescent love. In our mind’s eye, it was the decade of Duran Duran, John Hughes films, and TV exercise routines. But, as any psychologist will tell you, memory is a fickle friend and innately untrustworthy.
When the majority of us hark back to the 1980s, we’re not really recalling the way it felt to be alive in that decade – rather, we’re imagining a version of reality that has been filtered through the consumer culture and popular aesthetics that defined it. This is partly why music offers us such a clear window through which to look into the past.
From the reverb-laden snare slaps of Talk Talk to the funky bassline of ‘Under Pressure’ by Queen, the music of the ’80s is undeniably evocative – conjuring up images of tanned, moustachioed men and glamourous models flaunting asymmetrical perms. But here, Billy Idol chooses a selection of tracks that offer up an alternative vision of the 1980s; an era where music, fashion and art all moved in perfect harmony.
The ’80s saw a real blurring of gender boundaries. It was a period in which the firm division between male and female fashions became increasingly permeable, with musicians and artists using their clothes as a way to explore their sexuality and make a statement. Few were more successful in this regard than Prince. Of his track ‘Dirty Mind’, Idol said: “When I first moved to America in 1981 to kind of sort reignite my career or start as a solo artist, one of the people I was most interested in seeing was Prince, and actually one of the first people I did see was Prince. It was this gig on the 11th avenue in New York.” Idol went on to recall how the outfit Prince was wearing that night was at once outrageous, erotic, and liberating: “But that’s what was fantastic, seeing somebody else who is kind of outrageous and I guess I was looking for other people that were doing things, going against the grain”.
Another flamboyant star who caught Idol’s attention was Freddie Mercury of Queen and their track ‘Under Pressure’ with David Bowie. “This was fantastic when it came out,” Idol began. “I mean, just the sentiment: ‘the terror of knowing what this world is all about, watching some good friends saying, ‘Let me out…’, you know. That’s what we were going through. AIDS were starting to affect everybody; there was no cure, people really understanding what it is all about. So always felt we were very much under a number of pressures across the world, really.”
The polyrhythmic euphoria of ‘Under Pressure’ made it a huge hit on release in 1981. It managed to capture the sweaty hedonism of disco and proto-house tracks while keeping one foot firmly in the world of pop and new wave. Talking Heads chased this same groove-laden songcraft in their fifth studio album Burning Down The House. “It’s really interesting the move that The Talking Heads made,” Idol began, describing the album’s title track. “Because initially I first heard about them adventuring punk, you know. Things like ‘Psycho Killer’, which had some kind of funky thing but nothing like what they got into the Remain In Light album and then later on things like Burning Down the House.”
All of these formative tracks made a lasting impact on Billy Idol, who took a moment to celebrate his own work during an interview on the BBCs Sounds of the 80s, naming his 1983 hit ‘Rebel Yell’ as his “ultimate ’80s anthem.” Explaining the song’s origins, Idol said: “I went to this party in 1983, I think it was one of The Rolling Stones‘ birthday, at one point there were standing in front of me – Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Mick Jagger, and they were all drinking this bottle of brown stuff, great big bottle. I kinda followed the bottle up to their lips and was just wondering, ‘What is this stuff they are drinking from this big bottle?’ And I could see a label, there was this cavalier officer riding away with a floom in his hat, a simple war cavalier… I could see the title ‘Rebel Yell.’”
Billy Idol’s favourite songs of the 1980s:
- ‘Dirty Mind’ – Prince (1980)
- ‘Under Pressure’ – Queen & David Bowie (1981)
- ‘Burning Down The House’ – Talking Heads (1983)
- ‘Rebel Yell’ – Billy Idol (1983)