When Billy Idol Updated His Sound on ‘Whiplash Smile’
As Billy Idol released his third album on Oct. 15, 1986, he ranked among the world's most successful and recognizable rock stars. His previous LP, Rebel Yell, had pretty much taken punk rock to the mainstream, and Idol had made the most of the MTV era's cult of personality with his peroxide good looks and bad-boy-next-door persona.
But what Idol had probably shown the greatest talent for over his many-year climb to stardom was a willingness (and no small ability) to adapt with changing musical times. So just as his music had evolved from punk rock (with his band Generation X) to hard rock (on Rebel Yell, via a self-titled debut), it would now fearlessly embrace '80s technology on Whiplash Smile.
This futuristic tone was set right away by "World's Forgotten Boy," where Steve Stevens' guitar sounds like a laser blaster right out of Star Trek, and the album's first single, "To Be a Lover" (based on the William Bell-sung 1968 soul hit "I Forgot to Be Your Lover"), with its pumping synthetic foundation, Idol's sensual crooning, analog piano stabs and backing girl singers – which came complete with an outrageous video representative of the era.
The album's second single, "Don't Need a Gun," received a similar, big-budget clip, showing Idol and Stevens holding court all over the Sunset Strip. That stood to reason, since so many album cuts ("Soul Standing By," "Man for All Seasons," "Fatal Charm") were in essence hair-metal confections dressed up with dance music embellishments, courtesy of producer Keith Forsey.
Like most other top producers of the era, Forsey never met an expensive studio effect he didn't like (see additional electro-pop experiments like "Beyond Belief" and "All Summer Single"), yet the album's third single, "Sweet Sixteen," was the exception to that rule, being a relatively stripped-back acoustic love song that gave Idol another hit.
Still, critics were typically torn over Idol's and the album's merits, even as fans seemed only too happy to embrace it. Whiplash Smile went on to match Rebel Yell' U.S. chart peak of No. 6, and even bettered it in several countries, including Idol's native U.K., but its final sales tally of one million copies sold in the U.S. was half of Yell's.
Idol's third album was another success, followed by extensive touring and blanket press coverage that would maintain his star power cruising all the way to decade's end, when his momentum finally took a few hits on personal and artistic levels. As a result, Whiplash Smile represents the peak of Idol's mainstream popularity and one of his finest records, all these decades later.