October 31, 2018
Clip of early '80s MTV featuring...
Billy Idol: Hi, I'm Billy Idol, and this is my rockumentary.
Video for Billy Idol - "Rebel Yell"
Todd: [British accent] Rock and roll!
Billy: In the midnight hour she cried, more, more, more
Todd bends over his stool to put on a spiky blonde wig
Todd: [singing along] More, more, more! WHOA! Guess whose Halloween costume is tax deductible this year?
Clip of "White Wedding"
Billy: Hey little sister, what have you done?
Todd (VO): Billy Idol was an icon for the '80s if there ever was one. He just had the look; the spiky blonde hair, the leather outfits, [zoomed-in clip of...] the lip.
Clip of "Flesh For Fantasy"
The man was made for the video era. And in fact, he was one of MTV's first homegrown superstars; one who wouldn't exist without music videos. But he also put together a musical style of his own. A mix of punk, glam metal, and new wave that added up to a steady supply of smash hits through the '80s. Just as his stage name predicted, he made himself a rock idol.
Todd: Then, we came to the '90s.
Todd (VO): Actually, Billy had a really huge hit in 1990, "Cradle of Love." But, 1990 isn't really the '90s.
Todd: The '90s wouldn't start until September of '91 when, uhh...
Clip of Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
Kurt Cobain: With the lights out, it's less dangerous
Todd (VO): Yes, it's time for yet another edition of [text appears] "Nirvana Killed My Career." [clip of Billy Idol - "L.A. Woman"] Billy Idol's not the first guy you'd think of when you talk about victims of grunge, but he was definitely one of them. Despite his punk rock look, Billy Idol's vibe was of sex and drugs and good times, stuff that seemed tired and done by that point.
Todd: So, after the alternative revolution took hold, Billy had two options.
Brief clips of "Cradle of Love" and live performance of Pearl Jam - "Jeremy"
Todd (VO): He could...keep doing what he was doing, or he could adapt himself to the new ethos of rock music.
Todd: [pause] He did neither.
Video for Billy Idol - "Shock To The System" starts
Male announcer: Welcome to the interzone
Todd (VO): Uhh...nice spikes, Billy. Why does he look like Gary Busey wearing a Bart Simpson wig all of a sudden?
Billy: Good, well alright
Like a shock to...
Todd: What the fuck is that?
Billy: Shock to the system
Todd (VO): Uh, I did not realize I was gonna need to buy a [image of...] Borg outfit to complete this Halloween costume.
Todd: Eh, whatever. I'm leaving it on anyway.
(NOTE: Todd does in fact leave the wig on for the rest of the review)
Todd (VO): So yeah, in 1993, Billy Idol released a baffling and bizarre concept album. An epic sci-fi tribute to new computer technology and virtual realities, but combined with the classic rebellion of rock 'n' roll.
Clip of MTV interview with Billy Idol
Billy: We made it through, joining together with computers. Man...man and machine.
Todd: It was called [clip of "Shock To The System" with caption at the bottom for...] Cyberpunk. And it booooooombed.
Clip of ad for Cyberpunk website
Todd (VO): Entertainment Weekly called it "Cybergunk." Rolling Stone said it turned Billy Idol into self-parody. Billy could've filled that CD with [sound clip of...] dial-up noises played for the same length of time, and it would've sold more records than this.
Video for "Shock To The System"
His career had a total system failure, and he would forever be deleted from the world of popular music.
Todd: [beat] What on Earth was this? Well, it wasn't successful whatever it was. So, let's check out the album that put the "flop" in floppy disc. This is Trainwreckords.
Trainwreckords intro, followed by album cover for Cyberpunk
Todd: God, that's an ugly-ass album cover. [shot of Cyberpunk cover] That alone is a bad omen. Well, anyway, what is [image of text...] cyberpunk? Well, the short answer...
Stills from Transmetroplitan comic
Todd (VO): It was a genre of science fiction started in the early-'80s, and prominent through the '80s and '90s. The major themes are virtual realities, [clips from The Matrix...] cyborg body modifications, and [... and Blade Runner] underground urban subcultures that exist in conflict with a ruling class that mostly consists of superpowerful corporations. The movie, Blade Runner, was the progenitor of that movement, [clip of interview with...wait for it] but it came to prominence mostly through literature. The novels of [book cover for Neuromancer by...] William Gibson especially. From there, it quickly moved on...
Todd: ...to other art forms like...
Todd (VO): ...[shots of cyberpunk themed...] comics, video games–role-playing games pretty prominently...[clip of Akira] anime, which was starting to reach the west, and multiple Keanu Reeves movies.
Clip from The Matrix
Neo (Keanu Reeves): Whoa.
Todd: But punk, as an art form...
Video for Sex Pistols - "Anarchy in the U.K."
Todd (VO): ...is first and foremost a genre of music. So, musically, what is cyberpunk?
Todd: How does cyberpunk relate to punk rock? Well...[pause] it doesn't. There is no cyberpunk rock. That's not a thing.
Clip of another MTV clip with Billy Idol
Todd (VO): So really, what Billy Idol was trying to do here was incredibly ambitious. He was basically trying to start his own genre.
Todd: But, then again, Billy Idol was always kinda alone in his own genre, even in the '80s.
Video for Billy Idol - "Eyes Without A Face"
Todd (VO): And he had some similarity with other hard rock acts, but...not really. There were no Billy Idol ripoffs or wannabes; it was always just him. So...
Todd: ...maybe he could pull this off [shrugs].
Todd (VO): And for what it's worth, he seems really sincere about this project. It's a way to bring him back to his punk roots after years as a superstar. [clip of breaking news broadcast of...] See, he'd been in a horrible motorcycle accident, and he had to have all sorts of mechanical shit implanted into his leg. And he realized, "Man, I'm basically a cyborg now!
Todd: "I'm a cyberpunk!"
Todd (VO): That may be why he looks like [clip of...] Max Headroom all of a sudden. Maybe it was intentional. And he loved the idea of bringing computers into his music, he could...do everything he wanted from home. [imitating Billy] Quite exciting, this computer magic. [normal] I mean, that's pretty punk, right? Punk is kids [image of garage band] banging in their garage...
Todd: ...DIY, and all that.
Todd (VO): Well, now he could do the same. He didn't have to have some engineer fiddle with billions of knobs, he could do it all on his own through the magic of [image of old computer screen with...] Pro Tools 2.0.
Todd: See, that's totally punk! He doesn't have to conform to your rules. He's bringing down the system!
Clip of "Shock To The System"
Billy: Like a shock to the system
Todd (VO): The big single, "Shock To The System", is the most Billy Idol-ish song on the album. If you're a fan of Billy Idol's big hits, then this is the song for you. It's also the only song from this album on his VEVO page, and on his greatest hits albums; I think it's the one thing from this era he's still most proud of.
Billy: Rock this land baby
Honestly, I think it's pretty decent. Maybe it's, uh, a little too close to being "Rebel Yell 2.0", but it's definitely the most pop-ready single on the album. It's certainly strong enough to have been a big hit, so why wasn't it?
Todd: Umm...well, I have a theory.
Billy: Ah riot, rape, race and revolution
Todd (VO): See, it's about...rioting.
Billy: L.A., burning bright
Rioting on the streets of Los Angeles. [pause] In case you don't know, this was inspired...
Todd: ...by some real-life events.
Clip of BBC News broadcast of L.A. riots
Male reporter: We are getting word this evening of some rock-throwing by youths in South-Central Los Angeles; perhaps in great reaction to today's verdicts to the Rodney King beating.
Todd (VO): Yeah, Billy Idol was living in L.A. during this. He watched it happen.
Clip of MTV interview
Billy: I actually had a whole different set of lyrics...that had nothing to do with riots or anything like that. And just seeing what was happening in front of my eyes...I just rewrote the lyrics immediately.
Todd: In fact, on the album right before this song, there's a little interlude of what I think is actual news clips about the actual riots.
Audio snippet of "Interlude 1" plays over album cover for Cyberpunk
Todd: Okay, I wanna-I wanna preface this first. I'm not saying that sci-fi or fantasy should never dive into real-life issues, 'cause every now and then, you see think pieces like...
Todd (VO): ...should...I don't know, Westworld, be taking on slavery in a sci-fi setting divorced from race or history. And I say...
Todd: ...yes, obviously it should because, otherwise, that's a show about nothing and it would be very boring.
Todd (VO): We should be able to dramatize real-world topics without having to be excruciatingly literal.
Todd: But, I get where those think pieces come from because sometimes those allegories get a little...[still shot from Bright] on the nose. And it hits a weird...ugly note.
Video for "Shock To The System"
Todd (VO): And in this case, uh yeah, maybe Billy Idol's dancing with himself a little too close to reality. Like, the L.A. riots were only a year old. It was still a really raw wound.
Todd: A lot of people didn't want to hear it. And even if they did...
Todd (VO): ...I'm not sure this song really does the actual event justice. [another clip of...] The L.A. riots, were about a very specific thing.
Todd: And that thing wasn't robots or techno-corporations.
Todd (VO): And Billy Idol wasn't the ringleader of the riots, or involved in them, or even [image of L.A. riot protester next to a raging inferno] known to the participants.
Todd: The rioters weren't blasting Billy Idol.
Billy: I feel good, well alright
Todd (VO): And most importantly...there's just no anger to it.
Todd: "Shock To The System" makes the L.A. riots sound fun.
Billy: It was a night
Oh, what a night, L.A.
Todd: [singing] Oh, what a night.
Todd (VO): That's the first big problem with the album. Sci-fi robs Billy Idol of his intensity because Billy Idol was already always a cartoon punk. But at least he used to be a cartoon in the real world; now he's a cartoon in the cartoon world. And maybe he thought tying himself to the very real L.A. riots would give him some grounding, but it just exposes how toothless he is.
Todd: You know, he's a [sounding tough] rebel, with his rebel yell. Fighting the system! Which in this...
Todd (VO): ...case is a machine, both literally and metaphorically. And Billy Idol as the protagonist is violently rebelling against it. You can say...
Todd: ...he's trying to...rage against this machine. [song suddenly stops playing in the background] Except by this point, we already had a band for that.
Clip of Rage Against The Machine - "Bombtrack"
Zack de la Rocha: It goes a-1, 2, 3
Yeah, and it's just another bombtrack
Todd (VO): They were called, Rage Against The Machine. You might have heard of them. And despite the lurid sci-fi imagery of the name, they were intensely serious about very real issues. If they wrote a song about the L.A. riots, it wouldn't be about [clip of "Shock To The System"] big, bad Billy Idol-borg fighting cyber cops!
Todd: We'll get back to the punk part of this album, but let's zoom out and look at the cyber.
Another clip of Billy Idol's MTV interview
Todd (VO): "Shock To The System" is the closest to Billy's classic sound. But, the rest of it is actually much different, with a heavy emphasis on technology. [feigning excitement] It even came with a bunch of bonus features on floppy discs! [clips of interactive Cyberpunk website] Aww man, check out those Sega Genesis graphics. I wanna play, like, NBA Jam or Mortal Kombat now.
Dan Forden: Toasty!
We got lyrics, liner notes. I mean, you could probably have just gotten most of this in the CD booklet.
Todd: But these are on a computer!
Todd (VO): So, they're...much harder to navigate and read.
Todd: I feel I should mention at this point that "cyberpunk" is not just science fiction. There were actual cyberpunks.
Todd (VO): I'm not clear what they were exactly. I think it's just another name for the hackers and hacktivists of that era, but they were a real subculture.
Todd: Even the album intro was adapted from a popular cyberpunk manifesto.
Another clip of the website featuring audio of "Untitled (Opening Manifesto)"
Billy: The future has imploded into the present. Mega corporations are the new government. Cyberpunks are the true rebels...cyber culture is coming in under the radar. Welcome to the Cyber Corporation. Cyberpunks.
Todd: If you can hear that and not see [clip of Johnny Mnemonic starring...] Keanu Reeves talking to cybernetic dolphins in your head, you're a better man than I.
Live performance of "Wasteland"
Robotic voice: Out into the wasteland
Todd (VO): And that pretty much tells you all there is to know. I can't quite tell you the plot of the album. I don't think it has one; it's...just a mix of vague, cyberpunkian themes.
Todd: Like this. This is the opening track, "Wasteland."
Billy: I'm outta the wasteland
I'm into this head man
Todd (VO): "Wasteland" is pretty much the template for the entire album. The sound of '80s rock mixed with '90s dance and techno. Unfortunately, at some point, Billy Idol traded his spikes for some really grody dreads...pretty similar to what [mid-'90s photo of...] Vanilla Ice was wearing around the same time.
Todd: I did not get a wig for that. Like, not even on Halloween. No.
Billy: No religion, no religion at all
Todd (VO): But the techno stuff; sonically, that's the big new element to Billy Idol's new image. A lot of dance beats, a lot of samples.
Todd: Is it wrong to say that I'm enjoying this a lot?
Live performance of "Shock To The System"
Todd (VO): "Shock To The System" comes right after it, and...just based on these first two songs, I'd rate this album fairly positively. But listeners and critics at the time did not agree. Why?
Todd: [beat] Well...
Todd (VO): I mean...look at it. [clip of another live performance of "Shock To The System" with Billy...] He's wearing a goddamn codpiece! This isn't just dated to our modern eyes, it was dated at the time. Was anyone at the time doing big, flashy rock 'n' roll like this?
Todd: [pause; lowers his head] OK, yeah, actually there was.
Video for U2 - "Mysterious Ways"
Bono: It's alright, it's alright
Todd (VO): Yeah, U2 of all goddamn bands. They changed their entire image even more radically than Billy did with their 1991 album, Achtung Baby. And that album had a mix of rock and dance that was pretty similar to what Billy was doing. But it was a huge success...and I think that's because of some major differences. First off...
Todd: ...that album's really good. Secondly...
Video for U2 - "The Fly"
Todd (VO): ...they released it more or less concurrently with Nevermind, so they got in before the rock scene really started to change. Thirdly...
Todd: ...and this is important...
Video for "Even Better Than The Real Thing"
Todd (VO): ...U2 got in early on the defining hallmark of the '90s.
Todd: Postmodern irony.
Todd (VO): Everyone understood that Bono was doing an over-the-top, self-conscious parody of rockstardom. [another clip of "Wasteland"] But Billy...means this entirely sincerely. This shit is very cool to him.
Todd: And in the age of irony, it's almost laughably pretentious.
Clip of Billy Idol interview with...
Todd (VO): Like he was hanging out with Timothy Leary, the-the LSD guy from the '60s. And at the time, Leary was talking about expanding your mind, not with drugs, but with virtual reality. That's what the single, "Adam in Chains" is about.
Video for Billy Idol - "Adam in Chains"
Hypnotist: Do you want to be hypnotized?
Fix your eyes on a spot
It doesn't matter where
Just fix your eyes on one spot
And begin to relax
Todd (VO): Uh, yeah. This, uhh...this goes on for quite a bit. I mean, I mean it's relaxing at least. [clips of video on YouTube with title: "ASMR Billy Idol Guaranteed Tingles 50+ Hours"] Is this an ASMR video?
Hypnotist: Wind down...and relax
Billy: You've stolen my heart
Again, I really like all of Billy Idol's '80s hits. And I'm in a conundrum because I don't think this is really all that bad as music. I kinda like it.
Billy: Why make up a lie
But at the same time, I cannot pretend that this is not...
Todd: ...impossibly lame.
Todd (VO): Billy Idol and his dreads, swimming with virtual mermaids, or...just the way-up-its-ass title.
Billy: Like Adam in chains
I want revenge
"Like Adam in chains, he wants revenge?" On...
Todd: ...God, I guess? 'Cause virtual reality has unchained him from God's demands and...
Todd (VO): ...given him the fruit of knowledge. Or I don't fuckin' know! [clip of Billy Idol - "Dancing with Myself"] Billy Idol came to music videos when people were experimenting with whatever weird shit you could put on TV, but that was then. [clip of "Adam In Chains"] And now, it was a time for people to stop being goofy...
Clip of opening for The Real World
Eric Nies: ...and start getting real. Real world.
Todd: The '90s!
Todd (VO): OK, I'm not saying there was no room for, you know the theatrical, otherworldly aesthetics in early '90s rock. Because...
Todd: ...there was, kind of.
Video for White Zombie - "Thunder Kiss '65"
Todd (VO): I mean, you had White Zombie's hotrod comic book thing. [clip of "Closer" by...] And also Nine Inch Nails with their Gothic industrial look. In fact, if there was an actual cyberpunk music, it was probably heavy industrial rock. But industrial, and Nine Inch Nails, and [another clip of "Thunder Kiss '65"] Rob Zombie...even at their biggest, they were metal famous, not pop famous.
Clip of "Closer"
Trent Reznor: I want to fuck you like an animal
They were too off-putting and harsh and underground. [clip of Billy Idol - "Mony Mony"] Billy Idol didn't want to be underground, he wanted to be a superstar. He wanted to be a rock god, like Elvis or Mick Jagger, walking around onstage in his leather pants. I mean, it's right there in his name; he wanted to be an idol. All of his success, was built around his image of coolness.
Todd: Billy Idol, without his cool, is nothing. And this shit is just not cool.
Audio for "Power Junkie" plays over live performance
Billy: I'm a mad man
I shook up the world
Todd (VO): By '93, cyberpunk wasn't Blade Runner anymore; it was [montage clips of...] Lawnmower Man. Look, if you've ever sat through Johnny Mnemonic or Virtuosity, or the Stallone version of Judge Dredd, the cyberpunk aesthetic will never be cool to you again. But, long before those movies, there was already a big backlash against cyberpunk everything. It was almost done by '93.
Todd: [audio for "Neuromancer" plays in the background] And even if cyberpunk hadn't been played out by that point...[pause] he's writing sci-fi anthems about books! [book cover of William Gibson's...] Like, he wrote a song called, "Neuromancer"...about the book.
Clip of "Neuromancer"
Billy: I'm the neuromancer and I'm trancing
Todd (VO): [speaking in a lisp] I'm the neuromancer, and I'm trancing.
Todd: Oh, jeez, it's so cool! It's just like in Neuromancer when [still shots of Neuromancer comic] Case gets his cybernetic implants that'll dissolve, unless he helps the A.I. escape the cyber corporations. [normal] Like, imagine if instead Billy had written an album called [artistic image of...] Steampunk. And he walked around in [image of guy cosplaying in...] goggles and Victorian trousers. It would've had exactly the same effect.
Todd (VO): Even the actual cyberpunks didn't like him. Everyone could tell what Billy was trying to do by hooking himself to the hot new subculture. He looked like a poser. Because he was.
Todd: He hadn't even read Neuromancer! The actual writer called him out on it!
Video for Billy Idol - "Hot In The City"
Todd (VO): He just wasn't ever a real punk, cyber or otherwise. Johnny Rotten called him the [stamped over album cover and audio for Home for the Holidays by...] Perry Como of punk.
Todd: Like, his stuff flew in the glam era...
Clip of live performance of Nirvana - "Rape Me"
Todd (VO): ...but he looked like a phony compared to grunge, which was full of punk attitude. Especially Kurt Cobain, an unhappy drug addict with really snobby taste in music.
Todd: But the album has one major thing in common with Kurt Cobain. For both of them, it all went wrong...with heroin.
Video for Billy Idol - "Heroin"
Billy: Well I wish, I was born
A thousand years ago
Todd (VO): This is Billy Idol's song, "Heroin." It is the centerpiece of the album. It all builds...to this.
Todd: And if you don't recognize, this is actually a cover.
Clip of The Velvet Underground - "Heroin"
Lou Reed: Heroin
Todd (VO): The original is by The Velvet Underground, whose songs about life in the gutter were a major inspiration for punk rock, this song especially.
Lou: When I put a spike into my vein
It's really gritty subject matter for a time when all the major bands were writing about...peace and love. And its sound is just very raw and very uncompromising.
Todd: And Billy Idol did this to it.
Clip of Billy Idol - "Heroin"
Billy: And I guess that I just don't know
Todd claps along to the beat
And I guess that I just don't know
Todd claps again
'Cause it makes me feel like I'm a man
When I put a spike into my vein
Todd (VO): Now...I've never used heroin. I don't do drugs. And that's not me advocating for a drug-free life, I'm a miserable asshole and maybe I should.
Todd: But I at least have an impression of what using heroin is like from people who have used it, and, uh...it's not this.
Todd (VO): You sure you didn't mean to title this, "Ecstasy", or...
Todd: ..."Special K?"
Billy: Jesus died for somebody's sins
But not mine (heroin)
Todd: Oh, that line is, uh...
Clip of live performance of...
Todd (VO): That-that's from, uh, "Gloria" by Patti Smith.
Todd: So, this is also a mashup!
Billy: Jesus died for somebody's sins
But not mine (heroin)
Todd (VO): And we're at a rave!
Todd: [throws hands up] A heroin rave!
Billy: Somebody's sins
But not mine (heroin)
Brief clip of C+C Music Factory - "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now") plays over "Heroin video
Martha Wash: Everybody dance now!
Todd (VO): Turning a Velvet Underground song into this [another clip of...] is, like, taking Blade Runner and letting Michael Bay remake it. But Billy loved it; the entire album revolves around this song.
Todd: And it goes on for seven minutes.
Todd (VO): You know how Billy turned into [clip from "Shock To The System"] a robotic monstrosity because of some virus that kept adding more and more extraneous random mechanical shit onto him? That's a metaphor for this song. It came with, like, six or seven remixes!
Todd: That's at the halfway point, and, uh...
Todd (VO): ...you can just ignore the rest of the album. It's...it's really boring from there. That was a big problem in the early '90s; all the albums were too long.
Todd: I told my little brother to check this album out for fun, and he shot me back one short question: [said question appears on screen] "Who is this for??" And I don't have an answer for that.
Early '90s concert footage of Billy Idol
Todd (VO): Like, I could've seen something like this being big in the '80s, or...even just five years later in the late '90s. 'Cause... [clips of "Firestarter" by...] The Prodigy were bringing punk energy to techno. [...and "The Dope Show" by...] Marilyn Manson was being all theatrical.
Todd: But again, that's edgier than Billy Idol was willing to go.
Todd (VO): He wasn't gonna wear any fake boobs, or put any piercings in his pretty face. If U2 could go electronica in the '90s and Billy Idol could not...I think it speaks to a different depth of feeling in their fanbase. [clips of "Applause" by...] Like, if Lady Gaga has an album that doesn't have a bunch of hits on it, then it's underrated, or a fan favorite, or at worst a minor entry in her catalog. Because her fans are that devoted. [...and "Hey Hey Hey" by...] But if Katy Perry's album doesn't have a bunch of hits, it's a giant failure and her career might be over.
Todd: That's where Billy Idol was.
Video for "Shock To The System"
Todd (VO): In the end, Billy Idol really was caught in a dystopian future. A dystopian future called, the '90s, that didn't have use for relics like him.
Todd: But I can't help but have affection for this album all the same.
Todd (VO): It's a cheesy, gaudy, insta-dated disaster...but it just speaks to the dork in me. There's just absolutely nothing like it.
Todd: And it was ahead of its time.
Video for Lil Pump - "Esskeetit"
Todd (VO): Like, what is SoundCloud rap but a bunch of kids with computers, making their own version of punk rock without the help of major labels? [brief clip of Facebook ad] And don't techno-corporations, in fact, control everything now? ["Shock To The System"] Like, maybe Billy Idol wasn't the best person to bring it to people's stereos, but Cyberpunk is absolutely the music we need in 2018.
Todd: [imitating Billy Idol] Welcome to the Cyber Corporation. [throws devil horns] Cyberpunks!
Billy: Say it louder
The world still burns
Ending music: Todd plays "Shock To The System" on piano
"Cyberpunk" is owned by Chrysalis Records
This video is owned by me
THANK YOU TO THE LOYAL PATRONS!