When Billy Idol Went Cyberpunk: See His Tribute to Neuromancer, His Recording Session with Timothy Leary, and His Limited-Edition Floppy Disk (1993)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Cyber­punk: 1990 Doc­u­men­tary Fea­tur­ing William Gib­son & Tim­o­thy Leary Intro­duces the Cyber­punk Cul­ture

Tim­o­thy Leary Plans a Neu­ro­mancer Video Game, with Art by Kei­th Har­ing, Music by Devo & Cameos by David Byrne

William Gibson’s Sem­i­nal Cyber­punk Nov­el, Neu­ro­mancer, Dra­ma­tized for Radio (2002)

Dis­cov­er Rare 1980s CDs by Lou Reed, Devo & Talk­ing Heads That Com­bined Music with Com­put­er Graph­ics

When David Bowie Launched His Own Inter­net Ser­vice Provider: The Rise and Fall of BowieNet (1998)

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.

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