Friday, March 31, 2023

Look Back (1983): "Rebel Yell" by Billy Idol

1983 was an incredible year for music (and we'll look back at some more of these soon)....the year that saw chart topping songs like "Billie Jean" and "1999", "Karma Chameleon" and "Let's Dance", "Flashdance...What a Feeling" and "Every Breath You Take"....the year we lost legends like Karen Carpenter & Muddy Waters, and future legends were born like T-Pain & Amy Winehouse....the birth of band Bon Jovi & The Cult, and the death of bands Humble Pie & Roxie Music...the year of "Synchronicity" by the Police and "Let's Dance" by David Bowie and "Thriller" dominated the charts....the year debut albums from Madonna, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Branford Marallis, Rock Goddess, Whodini, Tears for Fears, Weird Al Yankovich, Ministry, Afrika Bambaataa, Pantera, Suicidal Tendencies, Wham!, Metallica, The Waterboys, Queensryche, Cyndi Lauper, and others.....and so much more!

Today, however, we'll look back at the masterpiece from Billy Idol, the album "Rebel Yell".

Idol had already released the EP "Don't Stop" (1981) and debut album "Billy Idol" (1982), and had worked with producer Keith Forsey on both. Billy and guitarist Steve Stevens had come together during the recording of Billy's debut album (and played in Idol's band on the tour), so when it came time to record "Rebel Yell", the super-team of Idol-Stevens-Forsey was re-united,

All the songs on the album were written by Idol & Stevens (except "Catch My Fall" by Idol). The three demo-ed the songs using drum machines, then brought in Thommy Price (drums), Judy Dozier (keyboards), and Steve Webster (bass) to record the real thing.

Released in November of '83, the album was a hit with critics and media, ultimately saw 4 top singles (with massive airplay on MTV and radio stations worldwide), certified 2 million units sold, charted in the Top 40 in nine countries, and turned a seeming momentary rock star (Idol was already known for "Dancing with Myself" and "White Wedding") into a certified rock legend almost overnight, and transformed Stevens into one of the most sought after guitarists on the scene (adding his guitar flair to "Dirty Diana" by Michael Jackson to performing at Live Aid with Thompson Twins).

Let's look back at each song!

side one:

1) "Rebel Yell" 
This song is a blistering rock song that features several key items: a synth-sounding guitar intro, a secondary intro that also serves as the bridge, an explosive guitar solo that features Steve's "ray gun" effect, a secondary post-solo bridge, and a return to the intro as outro.

The song is almost a textbook example of weaving self-referential themes throughout the music composition,and features Idol's vocals at their dynamic best, ranging from baritone crooning to rock-n-roll howls. Electric in every sense of the word!

This song was also the first single & video from the album, charting in 5 countries and being the vehicle which launched the Idol-Stevens tag-team in sound and fashion.

2) "Daytime Drama" 
Funky guitar intro with lots of bass movement, the song slides into the verse with a wash of synth and the guitars building, combining 80s synth-pop chords with full-fledged rock-n-roll distorted riffing. Side note: Check out the alliterative title - a theme Idol returns to throughout the album ("Flesh for Fantasy", "Crank Call", "Dead Next Door").

3) "Eyes Without a Face" 
Mistakenly referred to by many as a power ballad, this song has an almost jazz-pop progression, haunting backing vocals (sung in French: Les yeux sans visage), multi-layered sonic depth, a mix of vocal swagger and old-school style, a parallel key bridge featuring a largely improvised quasi-rap, and screaming dive-bomb laced guitar solo.

The second single from the album, the lyrics were inspired by the French movie of the same name. "Eyes..." charted in 13 countries and the video was nominated for 2 MTV Music Awards.

4) "Blue Highway" 
This song is a straight-up rocker with "motor revving" guitar intro (repeated for the bridge) and classic Idol scream! But as soon as the verse enters, it has an unusual tension - care of chord progression and sonic textures - that resolves as the band drives headlong into the chorus. The song then vamps out with popping bass guitar and a blues-licked infused guitar solo.

True classic!

side two:

5) "Flesh for Fantasy" 
The album version opens with funky bass line and a wash of clean electric guitar chords, with the keys slowly building, and a very subdued vocal approach. The entire song and vocal style build in the pre-chorus, and then explode into the chorus.

The mid-section features the famous 2-chord vamp and funky bass that then slam right back into the chorus.

"Flesh..." was the third single from the album, charted in 8 countries, and the video found heavy rotation on MTV.

6) "Catch My Fall" 
The only song written solely by Idol on the album, it would be a more straight ahead pop-rock track were in not for the Bigsby-laden clean guitar chords, atmospheric keyboards, and saxophone (care of jazz & rock sax player Mars Williams, known for his work with jazz ensembles as well as Psychedelic Furs, Power Station, Billy Squier, & others).

Like the other singles, the video for this song landed immediately in heavy rotation on MTV, and was the 4th and final single/video from the album, charting in 5 countries.

7) "Crank Call"  
Heavily guitar-driven (with clean and dirty textures throughout), the song is classic Idol with driving beat, a mix of laid back and pounding vocals, throwback guitar licks mixed with sci-fi dive-bombs and futuristic effects, and a final chorus series that continues to build to the end. Of particular note is the guitar takeoff at the end, fusing classic licks with hard dissonance and feedback landing.

8) "(Do Not) Stand in the Shadows" 
Fading in as an almost new-wave guitar riff, the song suddenly crashes in with feedback and big guitars that then give way to a "Dancing With Myself" exuberance and 80s dance-floor chic. The Buddy Holly-esque "oh-oh" vocals are emphasized by the 1950's style guitar solo (that keenly mixes Eddie Cochran & Chuck Berry licks with cyber-edged wizardry), and the ending salutes Billy's punk rock past in fine style!

9) "The Dead Next Door" 
The final track on the album is a haunting cinematic soundscape with beautiful guitars and cryptic lyrics sung with more than a hint of remorse, like Billy has lived every single line. 

"...In animal land / And dark is in command / One thing you should know..." and "....Suffering away / For the dead next door / One error, silent terror / And we're the dead next door..."

Amazing album and definitely on my list of "100 albums to hear before you die"!

Note: The version of this on my Patreon Page will also feature my acoustic covers (with song charts) of 2 songs plus a video tutorial on the guitars of "Rebel Yell".

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