Billy Idol has long evaded straightforward musical classification, being a full-on star but one fully belonging to neither rock nor pop. He may have come up in the 1970s as the frontman of Generation X, the first punk band to play Top of the Pops, but the hits he went on to make as an MTV-optimized solo artist in the 80s and 90s — “Eyes Without a Face,” “Cradle of Love” — sit less than easily with those origins. But as the end of the millennium approached and the zeitgeist grew increasingly high-technological, it seems to have occurred to the former William Michael Albert Broad that, if he couldn’t be a punk, he could perhaps be a cyber-punk instead.
As bad luck would have it, the biomechanical had already intruded onto Idol’s life in the form of a steel rod implanted in his leg after a motorcycle accident. This lost him the role of T-1000, the killer cyborg in Terminator 2, but it inspired him in part to record the ambitious concept album Cyberpunk in 1993. Like Pete Townshend’s Psychoderelict or Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad from that same year (or David Bowie’s Outside from 1995), Cyberpunk is built on a dystopian narrative in which “the future has imploded into the present” and “mega-corporations are the new governments. Computer-generated info-domains are the new frontiers.” Thus speaks Idol in the album’s opening manifesto.
“Though there is better living through science and chemistry, we’re all becoming cyborgs. The computer is the new cool tool. Though we say all information should be free, it is not. Information is power and currency of the virtual world we inhabit.” Here, “cyberpunks are the true rebels.” This would have sounded familiar to readers of William Gibson, whose Neuromancer popularized the aesthetic and ethos of “high tech meets low life” — and shares a title with one of Cyberpunk‘s songs. In fact, as Gibson later recalled, Idol “made it a condition of getting an interview with him, that every journalist had to have read Neuromancer.” They did, “but when they met with Billy, the first thing that became really apparent was that Billy hadn’t read it.”
Whatever his intellectual investment in cyberpunk, Idol threw himself into what he saw as the culture surrounding it. This effort involved frequenting Usenet’s alt.cyberpunk newsgroup; reading Mondo 2000; and connecting with figures like Gareth Branwyn, author of cyberpunk manifestos, and Mark Frauenfelder, co-founder of Boing Boing. “We are merging with machines to become smarter, faster, and more powerful,” writes Frauenfelder in an essay included among the “multimedia” contents of the 3.5″ floppy disk originally bundled with Cyberpunk. “Are you going to ignore technology, turn your back on it, and let authority enslave you with it, or are you going to learn everything you can about surviving in the digital age?”
Cyberpunk constitutes Idol’s affirmative answer to that question. Much of his excitement about personal technology surely owes to the liberating possibilities of the professional-grade home recording studio. “I’d always really sort of worked through a team of a producer and an engineer,” he said in one interview, “and in the end I think really you felt like you weren’t getting as close to your ideas as you could be.” From his own home studio he witnessed the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which prompted him then and there to rewrite the song “Shock to the System” to reflect the turmoil roiling outside his door. (Filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow would explore at greater length that explosion of urban discontent’s intersection with cyberpunk culture in 1995’s Strange Days.)
Seeing cyberpunk as the latest manifestation of a broader counterculture, Idol cast a wide net for collaborators and inspirations. He invited Timothy Leary, the “cyberdelic” cultural icon who dreamed of making a Neuromancer computer game, not just to interview him about the project but participate in its recording. The album’s centerpiece is a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” and a dance cover at that. Though remembered as neither an artistic nor a commercial success (the reasons for which Youtube music critic Todd in the Shadows examines in the video at the top of the post), Cyberpunk set something of a precedent for mainstream musicians keen to use cutting-edge recording and production technology to go fully D.I.Y. — to go, as it were, cyber-punk.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.