Billy Idol – Internet Icon
Billy Idol embraced the Internet long before most other musicians did, but he was ridiculed for his efforts. Way back in 1993, when a cadre of tech-savvy folks grandly referred to the largely theoretical mass connection of computers as “the information superhighway,” Idol released a concept album called Cyberpunk.
The title was a nod to the science-fiction genre popularized by the likes of William Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace,” as well as Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling. Idol, evidently nerdier than his trademark spiky hair, lascivious sneer, and death-defying substance abuse indicated, said he started reading their books in the early ’80s. He devoured scientific journals and concluded that fiction was fast becoming fact.
According to the quaint wording of the album’s press kit, “Cyberpunks refuse to buy into the one-to-many form of communication. For $500, you can buy a computer and a modem and participate in many-to-many computer network communication, where there are no ‘reporters’ or ‘readers,’ only individuals sharing information instantaneously . . . Jack-in to the continuous global conversation in Cyberspace!”
Oblivious to all that mumbo-jumbo, I interviewed Idol — at the time sporting dreadlocks — in a North Hollywood rehearsal studio where he and his band were gearing up for a European tour supporting, ahem, Bon Jovi. (“It’s the only tour that’s selling in Europe apart from U2, so I think we lucked onto the right thing,” he said.) The word “Internet” was not used during our hourlong chat. In my ignorance, I was more concerned that his new esoteric bent might mean fewer strippers in his music videos.
Although Idol recorded Cyberpunk on an Apple Macintosh in his Hollywood Hills home, he admitted that enthusiasm for computers outweighed his prowess. But he knew more than I did, and patiently explained how to use the Mac-compatible floppy disk that accompanied the CD. “Click, click, you’re in! Instant jack-off time,” he said, referring to the “nude fucking chicks” that would appear on the screensaver. (If a butterfly in a distant land had flapped its wings at a different angle, Billy might have made billions through Internet porn.)
Artists like Todd Rundgren and The Orb were also embracing interactive technology, but Idol complained that their visions were too complicated. “Our idea of doing it was to draw people into it rather like myself who aren’t computer-friendly really, whose idea of computers is kinda backward, who think that they’re kinda dangerous,” said Idol, who generously included his (since-disabled) email address in the CD booklet, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cyberpunk, whose first single was a cover version of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” had just debuted at a lowly No. 48 on the Billboard 200. It fell off the chart in seven weeks. Reflecting the critical consensus, Q magazine described it as “the comedy album of the year.”
Idol was less concerned about the poor reception, and more excited about sharing his enthusiasm for “virtual reality” and conspiracy theories. He pointed to a television in the corner and said, “that box is no longer gonna just be sitting there as something you just watch. You’re gonna start interacting with it, and that’s gonna happen before the end of this decade. So I think we’re very much in the beginning of a cyberpunk time. And I think, Yes! Fuck! It’s nice to be the herald.”
(Bollocks! But there’s more. Fork out $6.66 for Strange Days here to see what Billy Idol said next.)
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