Billy Idol’s longtime guitarist Steve Stevens talks about the 80s punk scene in NYC, his experiences working with a diverse cast of musicians including Michael Jackson, Matt Sorum and Billy Gibbons, and his 35-year career with Billy Idol
Best known as Billy Idol’s long-time guitarist, Steve Stevens played a key role in the development of the singer’s post-Generation X solo career. Introduced through shared management when Idol re-located from England to New York City in 1981, the two hit it off musically and embarked on what would be a fruitful collaboration. Stevens’s strong musicianship and hard rock style worked well with Idol’s punk sensibilities, taking the music to a new level. In addition to being lead guitarist, Stevens often served as co-writer, particularly on the Rebel Yell album. Though absent from Idol’s early 90’s recordings, Stevens continues to record and perform with him.
Beyond his partnership with Idol, Stevens has showcased his musical range with a variety of projects and collaborations. His high profile work includes playing guitar on Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” and a Grammy Award-winning performance on the “Top Gun Anthem.” Among other things, he’s put out a flamenco-influenced solo album, been part of the prog rock-influenced Bozzio Levin Stevens (with Terry Bozzio and Tony Levin) and played Spanish guitar with electronic outfit Juno Reactor.
PKM: In his Dancing With Myself memoir, Billy Idol describes his experience coming out of a British punk band and re-locating to New York to launch a solo career. What was your background and experience like working with him?
Steve Stevens: Previous to working with Billy, I was in a band with a bunch of guys from Clarksville, Tennessee. We were living in Manhattan, and the band was called the Fine Maribus. We lived on 251 West 30th St., which at the time was The Music Building. We had the Dead Boys rehearsing below; it was just an incredible environment. We got signed to Island Records, and we went off to record at Compass Point Studios down in the Bahamas. The album was eventually shelved, but we picked up management from Bill Aucoin, who was managing Kiss. The record really wasn’t worthy of being released, and I said to Bill that I needed to move on and find new musicians. We placed an ad in the Village Voice, and about two weeks later, Bill called me and said, ‘Have you ever heard of Billy Idol?’ I knew ‘Ready, Steady, Go’ and by then ‘Dancing with Myself’ had been re-released as a Billy Idol solo track although it was Generation X. So, I said, ‘Yeah, I know who Billy is.” Bill said, ‘He just moved to New York and we’re managing him. You two guys should meet up.’ Which we did.
The whole punk thing in England was a lot more political than it was in New York. Living in New York, you could like Led Zeppelin and also like the Ramones. I went to High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan and after school, I’d stay in the city and go to Mercer Arts Center. I’d see groups like the Heartbreakers, Johnny Thunder’s band after The Dolls. It was such a great scene happening in the city at that time. Max’s Kansas City, CBGB’s, The Mudd Club, and all that stuff.
I kind of knew every musician from being in Manhattan, so I said to Billy, ‘Even if you don’t consider me for the guitar position in your band, I’ll help you put together all the other musicians.’ Which I did, and then when it came time to audition guitar players, I think he might have looked at a couple of people and then his producer Keith Forsey came in. We all met and although I was raised on early English rock guitar players, the one thing he said to Billy was, ‘You know, if you just wanted a punk rock guitar player, why the fuck did you move all the way across the ocean? It’s better to have someone who maybe has more capability and you have to hold back than having to push somebody.’ When Billy and I really started to talk, he said, ‘Do you know any Lou Reed?’ and I knew all of Coney Island Baby. He said, ‘Right, you know that stuff?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m just a guitar player, I’m not a politician. In New York it’s a little bit different.’ So, we found common ground within that first month of starting to work together, and I realized, ‘Oh, OK, great, I see where he wants to go.’ He wanted to combine elements of dance music, which Keith Fosse came from when he was working with Giorgio Moroder, bit of guitar hero stuff in there, with the energy and attitude of punk rock. That essentially was our blueprint.
PKM: At what point did you realize that your collaboration with Billy Idol would be long-term?
Steve Stevens: I think it was just the fact that we worked well together. You never plan. It’s been going on 35 years working together. It wasn’t like we met and said, ‘Right, we’re going to work together for 35 years!’ First and foremost, you have to be a fan of the people you work with. And the fact was that no matter what I came up with, even if it was a germ of an idea, once I heard him sing on it, it kind of raised the hair on my arms. I went, ‘Wow, I really love the sound of his voice.’ Working with him, I found that it was exactly what I was looking for.
It was what I didn’t have in my previous band: a direction and someone you could bounce ideas off of. Also, someone who would challenge you. If it was a guitar solo, he would tell me to say the most with the least amount of notes. That was probably some of the best advice I ever got from someone. To play things that are memorable and have attitude. I’d go in and record something, and Billy would inevitably always pick my first pass when I was just excited and my instincts were running. He was always right. I tended to labor over it in thought, and missed the mark, and it was really great to have someone I respected; I didn’t take it personally if he criticized something, because it was for the benefit of the song. I think he also realized that was my aim as a guitar player as well. I wasn’t looking to be all flash. Technically, I could play a lot of things, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to make great music, hopefully.
PKM: When you first started out, did you have a sense as to whether you wanted to be a solo artist, or in a band, or generally where you wanted to go musically?
Steve Stevens: I started so young. My dad brought home a guitar when I was 7 ½, and I didn’t get an electric guitar until I was 13. That whole time was spent playing folk and blues. That was the era of singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. Acoustic guitar musicians at that time were really a happening thing. When I got an electric guitar, it opened up playing rudimentarily things like ‘Satisfaction’ by the Stones or a couple of Beatles things. Once I got more proficient, obviously, I played Jimi Hendrix. I always liked guys who could write great tunes, which was the thing for me. I was never really into the guitar just for the sake of playing guitar. If I did that, and I played for my friends, I could see they quickly got bored. As opposed to playing ‘Whole Lotta Love’ or something and they’d go, ‘Yeah, that’s cool!’ So, it was instilled in me to play great tunes on the guitar.
PKM: You have a pretty diverse resume, including work with Michael Jackson. What was that like?
Steve Stevens: Pretty amazing. I had been signed to Warner Bros as a solo artist. My A&R guy was Ted Templeman, who is primarily known for Van Halen. But Ted and Quincy Jones were friends, and I know Quincy called Ted to arrange the ‘Beat It’ session with Eddie Van Halen. So, when it came time for [Michael Jackson’s] next record, which was Bad, the story I got from Ted was that Quincy called him and said, ‘OK, who is another great guitar player? We need a new guy,’ and Ted threw my name in there. Quincy called. I was living in New York still, so I flew out to do the session. I anticipated this huge entourage in the studio, but it wasn’t that at all. It was Quincy, Michael and the engineer. They were the only three guys in the studio. I was immediately comfortable, because that’s kind of the way I work with Billy. Michael asked me to play a kind of melody. He would stop it and say, ‘OK, this is what I’m hearing,’ and once we covered all those things, they said, ‘Now do what you hear’ and that ended up being the solo on there. It was an absolutely great experience.
PKM: What do you look for when deciding to take on other projects?
Steve Stevens: Something outside of what I usually do, because if someone contacts me and says, ‘We’ve got a song that’s kind of like ‘Rebel Yell’, I’m out of there. That’s what I do with Billy Idol, and I keep that to Billy Idol music. So, when I get a call to do Joni Mitchell or this electronic band I work with called Juno Reactor, those are the things that really get me going. A) I’m going to learn something and I’m going to bring that knowledge back to what I do. And B) I love any project that takes my guitar playing out of context, into some other realm. I’ve got a 35-year career now, so it’s great to expand upon what I do and open my eyes to other things.
PKM: Are you actively touring with Billy Idol?
Steve Stevens: We have some US dates at the end of April, and we go Europe and then I believe we come back to the States and do more shows. Primarily because we did a residency last year in Las Vegas, so we didn’t really play outside there. People had to fly to see us. And I love traveling. My wife travels with me, so it’s nice for us.
PKM: Do you find yourselves re-interpreting the older material to keep it interesting to play?
Steve Stevens: When we were in Vegas doing the residency, we really delved into the catalog and played a lot of the deeper cuts. Because we hadn’t played those in so many years, I think the way we approached them was a bit more contemporary. I heard things that maybe I wouldn’t have ordinarily. It’s great. Fortunately for me, I don’t tire of playing the classic tunes; I’m not burned out on them, because in our band, we tend to improvise. Every night, the performance is a little bit different. I think that comes from how the songs we recorded; certainly, on ‘Rebel Yell’ and ‘White Wedding,’ we always recorded extended versions because Billy and Keith knew they wanted to do dance remixes. So, the middle sections would always have 32 extra bars that were edited out on the album version but were needed for the dance remix. In ‘Eyes Without a Face’ when the electric guitar comes in, we never planned it that way. We just planned to have some other character come in. I was left in the studio and I thought, ‘Well, what if a heavy guitar came in there?’ So, we approach our live show the same way. We have extended bits, and if one of our bandmates comes up with an idea, we’ll try it out. It keeps it fresh for us.
PKM: Has it been challenging balancing your work with Billy Idol with other projects?
Steve Stevens: I’ve not found it that way. Somehow, I find time to do them. Obviously, Billy Idol is a priority, recording and touring. But I always find a way to do something else. I’ve done a flamenco-based record, for example. I think it’s good. A lot of the musicians I’ve met outside of Billy Idol, I’ll bring them into the Billy Idol thing. We now have Billy Morrison, who grew up in Bromley and used to go see Generation X as a kid. He was a friend of mine I worked with in an all-star band. We started talking, and I said, ‘You know, I’ve thought about having a rhythm guitar player to free me up to play some of the overdubs and things.’ I brought that idea to Billy Idol and said, ‘We should just try it, just book a room and see what it sounds like.’ And that’s worked out really well for us. So, you never know what outside things end up benefiting Billy Idol as well.
PKM: Do you have any other current projects you’d like to mention?
Steve Stevens: Well, I work with an all-star band called Kings of Chaos, which is Matt Sorum and the DeLeo brothers from Stone Temple Pilots. They are incredible people and songwriters. Billy Gibbons guests. It’s a cast of characters. And then I’ve been talking with some other musicians about doing another side project, but that probably won’t happen until much later this year. We plan on touring pretty extensively with Billy Idol.