When Billy Idol’s Generation X Released Their Debut Album
The backlash began before Generation X had even put out their first album. Although the London group played fast and loud, they also had a knack for melody, and some of punk’s bands and fans weren’t certain that Generation X were the real thing. In the British music press, accusations flew that the quartet were “using” the nascent punk genre to become pop stars.
Yet, the band had punk credentials – singer Billy Idol had been part of the Sex Pistols-backing "Bromley Contingent" and bassist Tony James had played with the Clash’s Mick Jones in the London S.S. Was it possible to simultaneously love punk rock and the Beatles and the Stones? Apparently such nuance was ill-advised in 1977-78.
Before, and during, the backlash, Generation X had steadily grown a healthy fan base in London, playing gigs opening up for the headline punk bands (including the Ramones) and joining bills with the next wave (such as the Jam and the Police). They signed a deal with Chrysalis Records, put out their debut single in the fall of 1977 and became the first of the punk groups to play the mainstream music TV program Top of the Pops – which both aided Generation X’s popularity and fueled the sell-out notions of the band’s detractors.
But it was clear that the band was made for TV, particularly singer Idol with his high cheekbones, shock of bleach-blond hair and Elvis-like sneer. On Top of the Pops, Idol bounced his way through “Your Generation,” a song that carried the influence of the Who in more than its title. Songwriters Idol and James were unabashed Who fans, as was Generation X’s newly recruited drummer Mark Laff, whose idol was Keith Moon.
“Tony and I increasingly looked to the Who as a guide when attempting to suss out our development,” Idol recalled in his autobiography, Dancing With Myself. “I discovered a Pete Townshend Eel Pie songbook with notations for some incredible chords and progressions. I used this book as a guide, taking off from Townshend’s ideas with some of my own, making it up as I went along. I wanted our songs to ring out as if they were a call to arms.”
In a departure from the typical division of labor, singer Idol wrote the bulk of the music for Generation X songs, while James penned the majority of the lyrics. Drummer Laff and guitarist Bob “Derwood” Andrews brought their spin to the tunes when performing or recording.
After the release of a couple singles, the foursome went into T.W. Studios to spend two weeks making their debut LP with producer Martin Rushent, who had just helmed releases by the Stranglers and the Buzzcocks. T.W. was a small studio, in Fulham in West London, that had been converted from a garage into a recording space. Looking back, Idol thought that was appropriate.
“The first Generation X album was essentially our stage show with a few overdubs,” Idol wrote. “Recording it in a converted garage made it garage-rock, which was perfect for punk and our musical sensibilities at the time.”
Tracks recorded for the album included the melodic charge of “Ready Steady Go” (the LP’s lead single and a reference to a '60s music show), “One Hundred Punks” (a song about loyal punk fans) and “From the Heart” (which Idol saw as a “punk love song”). “Promises, Promises” had its roots in early ’70s glam rock.
“It was inspired by Mott [the Hoople] and it’s a very Mott-type lyric,” James told Mudkiss in 2010. “Billy wrote a great tune for it. It was very heartfelt, but still played on that generational thing. Listening to it now ... well it sounds too fast! But then everything was. It’s a nice tale of the moment.”
A punk band taking lessons from glam acts such as Mott, T. Rex or David Bowie wasn’t particularly unique (these were also references for the Pistols and the Clash, after all). But there probably weren’t too many of Generation X’s contemporaries being inspired by Born to Run.
“Tony played me Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Jungleland,’ which rocked but also had a gripping storyline and several moving parts that led to a crescendo,” Idol recalled. “I dug the idea of a narrative culled from his personal history; it inspired me to dig deep and come up with my own equivalent from the raw materials of my life.”
The result was “Kiss Me Deadly,” perhaps the lead “punk”-sounding song on the album, with its slow build, talk-sung beginning and four-and-a-half-minute length. Idol wrote the music to James’s words, drawing on Springsteen’s widescreen songwriting, as well as the Who’s multi-part story songs.
When Generation X’s self-titled debut arrived on March 17, 1978, it didn’t convince the naysayers, but it did prove successful – going to No. 29 on the U.K. chart with “Ready Steady Go” topping out at No. 47 on the singles spread. In the U.S., Generation X was issued with a different track listing, substituting some singles and B-sides for album tracks and slapping on the band’s ska-addled cover of John Lennon’s ”Gimme Some Truth” as an opener (which likely didn’t help the band’s punk persona, even if Idol saw the former Beatle as a punk-adjacent figure).
To promote the LP overseas, Chrysalis refused to send the entire band, so only Idol made the trip to New York and California, hanging out with American punk heroes such as Patti Smith and Darby Crash. Although Generation X would stay together for a few more years (and for two more LPs), Idol has claimed that the promotional trek marked the beginning of his notions of being a solo star.