Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk

Back in the 1990s, I did a fanzine that was about as successful as I could hope for given my lack of financial resources. With nowhere to print it but an all-night copy shop manned by a guy named Fred the Bastard (who would let you make thousands of copies for the price of ten), I couldn’t really achieve any impressive sort of circulation. A couple hundred though. Not bad at the time, at least by my standards. It was a pretty standard type of zine for the time. Interviews with whatever punk rock bands had come through Gainesville int he past few months, record reviews, a bunch of random ranting, and of course assorted bits of collage art. Not having a layout program at the time, the whole thing was printed out in bits and pieces using a combination of my old Atari dot matrix printer and a newer HP DeskJet 500, and then I’d paste and tape it all together by hand. Part of the reason I have no photos from 1988-1994 despite having taken thousands is because I cut up almost all of them and pasted them into the zine layout. Double prints? Keeping track of my negatives? Who ever heard of such nonsense?

Back then, as with Teleport City today, I didn’t get much free stuff to review. Occasionally, something would trickle in, but for the most part, the zine got decent reviews in Factsheet Five and MRR, but that never really translated into a record company thinking we were worth sending a few records to. It’s a form of self-promotion the skill for which eludes me to this day. But we weren’t completely in the wilderness and every now and then my PO Box would surprise me with something besides another packet of unreadably awful Paul Weinman poetry “for my consideration.” Once it was an envelope full of someone’s hair — which was still more welcome than more Paul Weinman poetry. And once, it was a promotional kit for the latest Billy Idol album: a bizarre experiment called Cyberpunk.

I’m not going to get into the history of cyberpunk as a literary or social movement. You can read my review of Neuromancer if you want and get a taste (yes, yes, the review of Count Zero is coming soon). My relationship with the concept of cyberpunk was touchy. On the one hand, there was a lot about it that appealed to me. On the other hand, most of the people who considered themselves part of it (as people, not as writers) were way more cyber than they were punk, and ultimately, cyberpunk ended up being little more than a bunch of computer nerds being dicks to one another in IRC chat rooms and usenet groups. Which I guess is a problem one faces when identifying with a pseudo-subculture where many of the basic tenets of it do not exist. Using tin to read alt.cyberpunk or downloading issues of Phrack over a 1200 baud modem wasn’t quite as thrilling as “jacking in,” and wearing a black overcoat and mirrorshades ended up not looking as cool as the people wearing it thought. And as for the much coveted body modifications and cybernetics, well, unless you lost a hand in a car accident and got it replaced with a hook, about the most functional techno-enhancement for the human body was to get veneers put on your teeth.


But still, there was something that always kept me attracted to the whole ridiculous idea, even if I only hovered on the periphery, as I always have with, say, the industrial music scene. I read and made fun of Mondo 2000, as one was supposed to do. I “researched” smart drugs and all the other stuff that was going to catapult us into the future. I wrote articles in the zine about virtual reality and morality, about black-clad federal agents armed with automatic weapons storming the bedrooms of fifteen-ear-old hackers, about FidoNet and how this whole internet thing was going to change us all. Most of it was a load of nonsense, of course, though the internet did pan out, so at least we have that going for our futurist predictions.

Fascinated as I was with such claptrap, I kind of understood where Billy Idol was coming from when he made Cyberpunk. Pretty much everyone dismissed the album. Idol fans didn’t want to hear a bunch of computerized crap. Electronica and industrial fans thought Idol was jumping on a bandwagon, latching on to a word and a vague concept that had recently been discovered by the media. I was firmly with the latter, rolling my eyes and thinking to myself, “Oh brother.” It was quite a shock when the damn thing showed up in my mail one day. And it was a generous package, too: the CD, the album on vinyl, a remix album also on vinyl, and a 3.5″ floppy disk full of Macromedia Director nonsense that was doing its best to look all Blade Runnery or whatever. I wasn’t that big a fan of Billy Idol anyway, so an album that was Billy Idol sitting at his Mac, doing his best to imitate Front Line Assembly or whatever, and writing really cheezy lyrics about the future, instantly got the record thrown in my “fuck this” pile. I listened to the vinyl once to confirm that I hated it (I didn’t have a CD player at the time), then sold everything back to a record store. A few months later, I saw the CD I’d sold to them now sitting in the dollar bin, so I bought it again, then took it across the parking lot to a different record store and sold it a second time. On the merit of that alone, I was mildly positive about the CD.

Looking back, though, I can see how wrong I was about a lot of things. Billy Idol wasn’t just jumping the bandwagon. I think he was genuinely sincere. I don’t know if he stumbled across an issue of Mondo 2000 or just got drunk while he was watching a late-night interview with that absurd looking Jaran Lanier who would never shut up about how awesome VR was going to be, especially once we all had those full body tactile suits that would stimulate our various senses to create a total immersive environment from which we would never emerge. I reckon if they’d foretold that we’d be just as happy with a crappy streaming Flash video of Ava Devine’s grotesquely gigantic bouncing knockers, we could have saved a lot of R&D money that was sunk into virtual reality machines and the movie Lawnmower Man. Well, whatever set him off, I don’t doubt that Billy Idol really started to believe in all this crap, same as a lot of us did. Of course, for him, it all boiled down to lots of interviews about VR sex (most likely with the jailbait chick from the “Rock the Cradle of Love” video).


And if nothing else, Cyberpunk really was a record made by a man taking a huge gamble. He could have crapped out another Billy Idol record of melodic rock and done OK for himself, but instead he decided to go crazy and record an album full of electronic music. And he decided to learn how to do it all (or at least a lot of it) himself, using his own computer and whatever skills he picked up along the way. Sure he probably had some help, but whatever. We’re talking 1993. Most people hadn’t even heard of email, or the internet, and the World Wide Web was only just being launched. And there was Billy Idol, perhaps not doing the best job of being one of the earliest big name artists to turn to the cyber medium to promote himself, but giving it a go never the less. Bully for him! All in all, reflecting on Cyberpunk made me think that perhaps I’d been too rash and prejudiced against it back in 1993. Maybe it was time to give it another listen and see if time and evolving taste hadn’t altered my opinion of it.

Well, what do you know? I love Cyberpunk. Yes, it’s cheesy, ridiculous, goofy, whatever. You know from Billy’s opening narration to the first track, “Wasteland,” that you’re going to get something on the level of alt.cyberpunk fanfic more than the musical equivalent of William Gibson or Bruce Sterling. At the same time:

The future has imploded into the present. With no nuclear war, the new battlefields are people’s minds and souls. Megacorporations are the new government. The computer generated info-domains are the new frontiers. Though there is better living through science and chemistry, we are all becoming cyborgs.

The computer is the new cool tool, and though we say “all information should be free,” it is not. Information is power and currency in the virtual world we inhabit, so mistrust authority.

Cyberpunks are the true rebels. Cyberculture is coming in under the radar of ordinary society. An unholy alliance of the tech world, and the world of organized dissent.

Welcome to the cybercorporation.


Now that sounds exactly like the sort of absurd crap I would have been writing at the time, and if you ever go back and poke through old cyberpunk fanfic, most of the people were flaming Idol for writing such drivel while, at the same time, writing their own drivel that was just as bad or worse. And anyway, what follows the narration is a weirdly catchy blend of electronica and the catchy Billy Idol brand that had us all dancing with ourselves through the eighties. It lacks the aggressiveness of more “authentic” industrial and electronic outfits like Front 242, Front Line Assembly, Aphex Twin, and so on, but it’s still every bit as listenable as it is silly.

The rest of the album continues to be a sometimes awkward but generally enjoyable mish-mash of Idol’s trademark style layered with synthesized computer music, dance beats, and occasionally more aggressive industrial splashes. Plus lots of samples, naturally. Of course, he ruffled cyberpunk feathers not just by calling the album Cyberpunk, but also by naming one of the songs “Neuromancer.” And then he pissed off regular old alternative rock fans by doing a freaky electronic cover of Lou Reed’s “Heroin.” I have some Velvet Underground songs I like, but I’ve never been religious about Lou Reed, so I don’t mind. The second song, “Shock to the System” is purer Billy Idol, still working in some loops and sound effects but mostly being one of those middle-of-the-road punk-pop songs on which Idol build his solo career. “Tomorrow People” sees the bleach blond rocker back into the territory charted by “Wasteland.” He stays there for most of the rest of the album. “Adam in Chains” is almost ambient electronica, and the last song on the album, “Mother Dawn” could pass for someone’s catchy dance tune. Sure, it’s not really on the level of some of the better industrial bands of the time, but if nothing else, it is to electronic music what Billy Idol’s regular music was to punk.

Billy Idol, I stand before you a humbled man. Like the rest of the world in 1993, I scoffed and wrote nasty things about Cyberpunk. I was wrong. I guess it won’t exactly soothe Idol’s soul if I tell him this is actually now the only Billy Idol album I own, but hey. My life can’t revolve around making Billy Idol feel good. That’s what dancing with oneself is for. Most of the cyberpunk subculture didn’t work out, and these days it’s almost totally forgotten even by the VH1 shows where people who weren’t born yet sit around and reminisce about the 70s, 80s, and 90s. VR turned out to be a colossal wash-out. No one wanted to put on a helmet and log into a virtual office to look for a file when they could just point with a mouse and open the file. Smart drugs ended up being a load of dingo bollocks, too, and “better living through chemistry” just ended up being “I’m putting my kid on Ritalin.” I guess we got the Internet, and although you can’t cruise down to the body part shop and get a camera implanted in your eyeball or replace your hand with a metal hand where the fingers open up to reveal five tiny hands holding Derringers, but we are making some incredible breakthroughs in the field of prosthetic limbs.

But Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk? You know what? That one aged all right.

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