Monday, September 21, 2009

'80s Monday: Billy Idol

I was never a punk, not even a wannabe punk (with the very large exception of my church, I've never been much of a joiner or follower), but I loved the music and I was interested in the surrounding culture. One idea that always fascinated me was the concept of the "poseur" or "poser" in punk rock and how it illustrated two conflicting values in the punk movement.

One value was acceptance and belonging, as perhaps best exemplified in the lyrics of the Ramones song "Pinhead": "Gabba-gabba, we accept you, we accept you, one of us." Being an outsider -- one of the "uncool" kids -- and immersing yourself the music was enough to make you a punk.

But another part of the punk ethos was authenticity. Loving the music wasn't enough. One had to take the movement's values to heart. One had to live as a punk and think as a punk, or be labeled a "poser."

Maybe this was especially strong in in Southern California. At least that's what a punker friend of mine who moved to San Diego from Arizona told me. He -- and he was about as authentic a punk as I've ever met; there was nothing posed about him -- he said he couldn't believe "all this poser bullshit," as he called it, in California.

In Arizona, he said, they accepted everyone. That's what punk was about there: accepting people who weren't accepted in the mainstream of society. In California, he said, it was exactly the opposite. People acted as if the whole point was to exclude people who weren't cool enough. He hated that.

Not long after that conversation, I read an article in the local newspaper about punks at one of the high schools in town, which included a few paragraphs about how they completely ostracized one poor girl for being a poser (God knows why) even as the rest of the school ostracized her for being a punk. Maybe I've never really fit in anywhere, but I've never been actively ostracized either. I couldn't imagine how much that must have hurt.

So I saw my 'Zoner punk friend's point, of course. But I also thought there was something to the "authenticity" side of the question too, at least when it came to the music. There were a lot of bands trying to look punk and sound a little bit punk, but they were just in it for the money/fame/drugs/whatever. I despised bands like that.

All of which made Billy Idol kind of a guilty pleasure for me during the '80s, because he had a reputation as a poseur. He started out as a guitarist with the band that became Siouxsie and the Banshees, then co-founded the band that became Generation X as its lead singer.

Gen X was an early English punk band, but even they had a bit of a poseur reputation. They were just a little too pretty and a little too interested in being rock stars to be accepted by some people as "true" punks. And Idol left them to go solo in America, where his good looks helped him become star on MTV.

Idol kept the punk look -- lots of leather and short, spiked hair -- but neither his music (more "power pop" than punk) nor his attitude had much at all to do with punk anymore, which made him a giant poseur in a lot of people's books. But I really liked some of his music (still do), even though I was a little embarrassed to admit it back in the day. Which I suppose made me kind of a poseur too.

So here's one from Generation X and three from Billy Idol.

Generation X, "Ready Steady Go" (c. 1978)

"White Wedding" (1982), of course

Not his most popular, but I like the sentiment: "If I should stumble, catch my fall." We all need someone to catch our falls now and then. "Catch My Fall" (1985)

My favorite Idol song: "Rebel Yell" (1984)

(Sorry for not embedding, but it's disabled on YouTube, and I can't get Dailymotion vids to play all the way through for some reason.)

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