Billy Idol at The Apollo
“Billy Idol is dead!” It was the very early hours of a day back in August 1994 and that is exactly what come out of the car radio as I was driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. I was just trying to pick up random radio stations in my hire car to break the monotony of the journey when this announcement was made as ‘breaking news’. “Billy Idol has been rushed to hospital with a suspected drugs overdose and there are multiple unconfirmed reports he has died.”
The following day there was nothing to be heard or read about the incident. It did turn out to be a minor drugs overdose with Idol suffering convulsions at the time. He was subsequently packed off to rehab for a nice cup of tea and a biscuit!
Back track to ‘76-‘79 and the punk movement. Billy Idol was THE poster boy with his cheeky good looks and his sneer, which helped to propel him and his band, Generation X onto the radio and Top Of The Pops. At the time their songs were accused of being a pop crossover and not true to the punk ideals. Listening back to their songs now it is clearer to see how the band developed and the direction Idol was heading in.
Fast forward to November 2014 and Idol, now 58 and with his addictions under control, is touring in support of his new album Kings And Queens Of The Underground. In fact this is his second visit to Manchester in the past month. Previously here to promote his memoir Dancing With Myself, the man clearly cannot keep away!
Before Idol hits the stage we are treated to New York City based hard blues band The Dough Rollers. They have had quite a lot of exposure at home over the past year through appearances on David Letterman’s show and the like, but they are relatively new to the UK with their first album being released the day of the gig.
The Dough Rollers have a great groove with a hard edge along with good songs. The singer Jack Byrne sounding like a cross between Bono and Billy Idol along some great guitar playing from Malcolm Ford, who is the son of Hans Solo, I mean Harrison Ford. However, the force was not with them as the audience reaction is polite but non-commital. The anticipation of seeing “the sneer” being too great amongst an audience of which about 50% were middle aged women. This meant the ‘Rollers were never going to win out.
Interestingly, The Dough Rollers haven’t always played this sort of music. Back in 2011 they started out as a country folk blues band with Byrne/Ford playing a variety of instruments from mandolin to washboard; they also had a fiddle player. How they have changed!
With the stage reset Billy Idol bounded to the front to the opening notes of Postcards From The Past, a brave choice but the audience didn’t care. It did seem a little flatter than the studio version and the sound didn’t help. The bass and especially the drums were so high in the mix they drowned out the rhythm guitarist and keyboardist completely. Lead guitarist Steve Stevens sound was struggling to break though the mix at times. I hoped this was only going to be a problem at the start but it seemed to persist all the way though the show.
Cradle Of Love followed and with Can’t Break Me Down Idol screwed up the beginning making the band restart the song, but to be fair he did openly criticise himself for getting the lyrics wrong. The first big song was a blast from his Gen X days, Dancing With Myself and really got the crowd going, many of whom were only familiar with his radio friendly hits.
Flesh For Fantasy saw Idol start to strip, much to the delight of the female members of the audience or so it seemed from where I was standing. I have to admit he does look damn good for his age complete with the swagger, the sneer and the hair, all of which he is famous for. Back to the set and the drums returned with a vengeance for Save Me Now and the uptempo Whisky And Pills.
Mr Idol may well have been listening to David Bowie when he wrote Kings And Queens Of The Undergroundwith multiple references to his past songs and a chorus that includes the words “golden years”. It is a great piece of music let down by cheesy lyrics. He was back on safer ground with Eyes Without A Face, although the acoustic guitars at the start betrayed his punk sensibilities, the song soon transcending into the majestic power ballad we all know.
Then things started to go wrong. Why oh why did he feel the need to play The Doors LA Woman? It was lacklustre and with its “Manchester Woman” chorus it failed to ignite the crowd. Time for Steve Stevens solo showcase, a man who is hugely underrated as a guitar player, and all we got was lot of well played acoustic ramblings including the start of Stairway To Heaven which Stevens knew was a bad idea and quickly ended.
A complete change of mood and it was time for punk with some Generation X. King Rocker lacked the intensity required but Ready Steady Go hit the spot. Then it was back to his solo material. Blue Highway was fine and set closer Rebel Yell perfect!
The encore started with Stevens back on his acoustic guitar, accompanying Idol to the first part of White Wedding with the rest of the band coming back in for the second part of the song. Again, what was he thinking? He had the audience with last four songs of the main set and this should really have continued with a full band performance. Idol should have flattened them, which he did with the very last song Mony, Mony.
Overall it was a mixed gig. I had been so looking forward to it as it had the potential to have been awesome. There were some great highs but the band need to fire the guy on the mixing desk and ditch the acoustic guitars!
Words: Anthony Firmin Photos: Phil Goddard