How Billy Idol Reimagined Himself on ‘Charmed Life’
Billy Idol ended the '80s on a hot streak that included three consecutive gold and platinum albums and a Top 10 collection of remixes — but he still felt like he had something to prove.
For starters, like many young artists, Idol was eager to showcase sides of his personality he hadn't yet found room for on an album. Dissatisfied with the way his most recent effort, 1986's Whiplash Smile, found him drifting toward a more produced, technology-dependent sound, he started work on the follow-up determined to put together an album that would take him back to his rougher roots.
"The whole idea of the album was to get more of an emotional side of me, not just the frustrated or angry side, but it was hard to do because of all the technology," Idol told the Los Angeles Times. "Instead of it being the freewheeling music of 'Rebel Yell,' it was turning into something very stagnant or standard. So, I wanted to get back on this album and tour to more of a real feel – real musicians playing the songs."
Idol wasn't about to completely overhaul the sound that had brought him multi-platinum success, however. He entered the studio to record what would become his fourth album, titled Charmed Life, alongside longtime producer Keith Forsey. He'd helmed each of Idol's previous three albums, something that lent crucial stability during a period that saw the departure of guitarist Steve Stevens, a creative foil during Idol's rise to fame.
Behind his trademark sneer, Idol struggled with a crippling insecurity was only compounded in Stevens' absence. "The stress and pressure built up because I cared. I cared about the music," he explained in his memoir, Dancing with Myself. "First and foremost, I wanted to satisfy my own creative drive, but I also cared whether the critics and the fans would like the album. I did not feel that I had given my best on Whiplash Smile, and I knew that I had to step up my game. But I didn’t have my trusted partner Steve Stevens to lean on, and I battled fears of mediocrity and failure."
Partly as a means of coping with those fears, Idol spent the next two years in a haze of what he later described "never-ending booze, broads and bikes, plus a steady diet of pot, cocaine, ecstasy, smack, opium, Quaaludes and reds."
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Proving that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, Idol later insisted that the Charmed Life sessions didn't start out that way. "When we began recording in 1988, we promised each other we’d be cool and focused, and not wholly indulge in drugs and debauchery. But as weeks stretched into months, Fridays often finished early with 'drop-time'— the moment we all took ecstasy," Idol wrote in Dancing with Myself. "And then Friday soon became Thursday and so on, until all rules were taboo. We somehow managed to make music through the constant haze. It seemed like every few days I was recovering from yet another wild binge, and it took three days to feel 'normal' again."
It also didn't help that Idol's focus had started to wander beyond rock 'n' roll. The same charismatic personality and comfort in front of the cameras that had helped make him a reliable fixture on MTV also caught the eye of casting directors, and by the late '80s, an acting career had started to beckon. Director Oliver Stone cast Idol in The Doors, and he was also approached for a role in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. While neither production took time away from Charmed Life, Idol's brush with Hollywood is indicative of the growing number of non-musical demands on his attention.
All of which is not to say that Idol lacked material for Charmed Life. Of the album's 11 cuts, he either wrote or co-wrote all but two — and one of those outside numbers was a cover of the Doors' "L.A. Woman," a longtime personal favorite of Idol's that was more of an homage than an attempt to ride another writer's coattails.
In fact, at the time, Idol told himself that the debauchery surrounding the Charmed Life sessions — which he later claimed devolved into a drug-fueled parade of groupies — was actually "all in the name of song-searching: The sex and drugs amped up the music, the songs arriving in the midst of chaos, cigarettes stubbed out into plates of food, the bathroom floor covered with vomit, sweaty sex going on all over the studio as we tried out our guitar riffs and mixes." None of it, however, kept him from feeling "exhausted and shattered" once the sessions wrapped.
Given how close to the edge Idol had been living, it's perhaps fitting that the day after he finished working on Charmed Life, he received a horrific wakeup call that, while it came perilously close to leaving him permanently disfigured or worse, ended up being something of a blessing in disguise. Early on the morning of Feb. 6, 1990, Idol went out for a motorcycle ride, ran a stop sign, and collided with a car, ending up in the hospital for an extended stay that included seven hours of surgery.
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"The accident was really just bad luck, though I suppose that anybody who rides a motorcycle all day long for three years is looking for trouble," Idol told the Los Angeles Times. "At least that's what most people think. They see a motorcycle as something wild and crazy – that you've got to be out of your mind to ride one. I'm sure that's what my dad thinks."
Idol's injuries prevented him from taking the Terminator 2 role and made the Charmed Life tour a more complicated proposition, but in the end, he was able to recover from the crash. Later, during an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, Idol insisted that he'd emerged with a new outlook.
"Obviously, I’ve messed up in my life,” he admitted. “I think you have to look at what you do and love it — be excited about it, propelled by it, enjoy it and want to get out there and show people that yes, I believe. I’m lucky. I get to play music all day long, and a lot of other people come along and shout and wave their fists and go crazy, and burn off all their anxieties and all their anguish and God knows what else. I like that, it’s great fun. It was great fun to wake up in the hospital bed after the accident, and realize that if I did get better, it was worth it."
Charmed Life, released in May of 1990, continued Idol's platinum streak, peaking at No. 11 on the Billboard chart and spinning off the No. 2 hit "Cradle of Love." It would ultimately go down as Idol's last major hit — we all know what happened when he returned in 1993 with the ill-fated Cyberpunk project — but he emerged from this period with a reinvigorated respect for the gifts that had gotten him this far.
"I didn’t let my injury get me too down. I just went hell-for-leather to get better to be able to perform the album that I had completed prior to the crash. Maybe that was what spurred my recovery; I had something to get better for," Idol wrote in Dancing with Myself. "The thing I loved."
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