40 Years Ago: Billy Idol Leaves Generation X For Solo Stardom
Generation X had basically invented Billy Idol's solo career before he left in February 1981. He even swiped their last single, scoring an early dance hit with his own remix.
The London-based group's sudden end could be blamed on the buying public's growing indifference, a shifting late-period lineup that led to a brief shortening of their band name to Gen X, a protacted managerial dispute, Idol's own dreams of separate glory or the dangerous influence of drugs. Actually, all of that was true, to one degree or another.
Generation X started as punks, but in a more fashion-forward way, suggesting that the band had higher aspirations from the first. Their musical evolution reflected that too.
They ditched original producer Martin Rushent after 1978's Generation X cracked the U.K. Top 30, bringing in Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople fame for 1979's glam-influenced Valley of the Dolls. Co-founding bassist Tony James credited the abrupt shift in part to the Clash's Mick Jones.
"We were sharing a flat in Notting Hill Gate, and he started playing Bruce Springsteen continually," James told Record Collector in 2019. "We had both used up all our [Rolling] Stones and Kinks influences and were desperate for fresh inspiration. Suddenly, we discovered a whole new landscape with songs based in a colorful, late-night American setting. We were opening ourselves up to different kinds of music."
When this sophomore project stalled at No. 51, Generation X went one step further — retooling their lineup and sound again for 1981's more New Wave-leaning Kiss Me Deadly. Producer Keith Forsey was a surprising choice recommended by their new manager, considering that this protege of disco maven Giorgio Moroder was then most famous for co-writing and playing drums on the Donna Summer hit "Hot Stuff."
Idol had become interested in a dance music, however, so he was open to Bill Aucoin's suggestion. Ultimately, none of it helped the group — now using a rotating cast of guest guitarists, while simply calling themselves "Gen X" — get any further up the charts. At the same time, Aucoin was apparently encouraging the increasingly restless Idol to strike out on his own.
Listen to Generation X's Version of 'Dancing With Myself'
"The last nail in the coffin for Tony and me was the relative lack of success of our final album together, Kiss Me Deadly," Idol wrote in his 2014 memoir, Dancing With Myself. "I suppose our new direction was mystifying to a lot of people, as the album was of quite a different nature than Valley of the Dolls."
By then, guitarist Bob "Derwood" Andrews and drummer Mark Laff were gone. Billy Idol wasn't far behind.
As news of their split filtered out, NME rather delicately mentioned a "chemical imbalance." Idol was actually deep into a heroin addiction, and James said it drove a wedge between them.
"Sadly, Billy and I could not agree on the merits of dangerous drugs as a passport to credibility. I have seen too many times that heroin destroys everything that gets in its path, from work to friendships to lives," James later wrote in The Sputnik Story. "And then, almost from one day to the next, it was all over. Billy left the band to write his solo album in New York with the manager who I had brought in during the final year of Gen X to 'save' the band."
In truth, Generation X had been falling apart for some time. Derwood first quit in the summer of 1979, before returning to finish a series of dates in Japan. He even participated in sessions for a third Generation X LP before announcing in December that he was quitting again — this time for good. The heavy-handed Laff was asked to leave in January 1980.
"The trouble with Mark is that he wanted to be Keith Moon, when we always wanted a Charlie Watts drumming for us," James told NME in 1980. "The first time we went into the studio [to record their 1977 debut single "Your Generation"], our producer Phil Wainman — who plays drums himself — said, 'You'll get rid of that drummer one day.' When Mark got together with Derwood, they had this terrible tendency to sound like a heavy-metal group. By the time we did that Japanese tour ... we were sounding like Deep Purple."
They tried one more low-key tour in November 1980, with ex-Clash drummer Terry Chimes and future Gene Loves Jezebel member James Stevenson subbing on guitar. But "Dancing With Myself," the lead single from Kiss Me Deadly, couldn't get past No. 62 in the U.K., and the group seemed basically finished.
Listen to Billy Idol's Version of 'Dancing With Myself'
Their last public performances were a pair of BBC-related shows in January 1981. The original lineup has since regathered just once, as Idol, James, Laff and Derwood played a one-off show in 1993 at London's Astoria Theatre.
Taking Aucoin, Forsey and "Dancing With Myself," Idol struck out for America. He still believed in the single, even as Generation X fell apart around him.
"If you listen to 'Dancing With Myself,' it's played at the same pace as 'Blitzkrieg Bop' by the Ramones," Idol told Record Collector in 2019. "I liked the fact that we'd gone back to the energy of punk."
James went on to form the oddball rockabilly/cyberpunk band Sigue Sigue Sputnik, which the bassist later described as a "neon space gang from another planet." Idol had a simpler dream: pop stardom.
"I had worked with Tony for five years, and had learned a lot from our collaboration, but maybe I had to gamble on myself once again," Idol said in Dancing With Myself. "I had always dreamt about being in a group, but I now saw how fragile group harmony can be. If Tony and I were each in a different headspace, and Gen X was fizzling, the only thing to do was forge ahead and go solo."
James said Idol left without even saying goodbye. "I was faced with an emptiness, an awful feeling of loss that I had never known before in my life — like losing a first love and your family all at the same time," the bassist said in The Sputnik Story. "The group had been my everything for almost six years, now — just like that — it was over and I was completely alone: no manager, no record company and worst of all, no band."
Months passed. Idol busied himself with a remix of "Dancing With Myself," pushing his vocal and the drum beat higher up, while turning down the guitars. He finally had his long-hoped-for hit, as the song soared to No. 27 on the Billboard Hot Dance Play Chart. The update was credited to "Billy Idol featuring Generation X."
Idol was on his way. But first, he wanted to finally reconnect with James.
"Completely out of the blue, he rang me saying he was back in London and could he come round," James wrote in The Sputnik Story. "He brought with him a white label 12' of a new track he'd just finished for his first album. The track was called 'White Wedding.'"