He Went Three Years Between Albums, but Billy Idol's Idyll Was Neither Idle nor Ideal

updated 01/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Billy Idol says he wasn't that upset when he first learned of his death. After all, the news had come to him by way of the morning papers, so he figured the funeral notices were a bit premature. Those rumors about his heroin habit, or that he was suffering from AIDS, were another matter, however, and enough to ruin a bloke's image—even an image like Billy's, which leans pretty heavily on bondage gear, macho sneering and misogynism. Billy thinks all these nasty stories started simply because he hadn't put out a record in a while. "I suppose people just thought, 'Why would anyone disappear? Why doesn't he want to keep up his star profile?' " he says. "Well, that's not important to me. It's more important to make a good record and actually sort of be alive and stuff."

And so he is, not only in the flesh but on the Billboard charts, where his new Whiplash Smile LP broke into the Top 10 just a month after its release. It is his first album since Rebel Yell three years ago, and it offers a few new wrinkles for Billy's old Idolators. For starters, half the songs are written by Billy himself, now 31. At least half can also be considered love songs, a genre of music almost totally foreign to Idol vinyl until now. Keep in mind that Billy's past hits included lyrics like "Face to face and back to back/ You see and feel my sex attack," and that he once featured a woman chained to a wall as the centerpiece of his MTV video. "I think love's exciting and happy," says the new Billy, "as well as being able to make you sad."

Sad is just what he became, says Billy, after the breakup of his six-year romance with singer-dancer Perri Lister, 27. What with his work on Rebel Yell, the nine-month tour that followed, and then a six-month stint in California, "I hadn't had any kind of home life for a long time, and it really estranged us."

Idol had gone to California to try and get a movie made of King Death, the Nik Cohn book he describes as "an allegorical story about Elvis Presley, a weird, spy-murder sci-fi thing about a guy who does assassinations on TV." It was too weird even for Hollywood, apparently, since "we never really got much further than trying to get a script written." Stymied in the film world, split from his manager and convinced, finally, that his relationship with Perri was "irreconcilable" (though they have since begun seeing each other again), "I had to decide to get on with doing a record or I was going to go mad." The domestic and professional "chaos" taught him a lot, adds Billy, "and the great thing was, I was able to put it into the music."

Billy and his longtime collaborator, guitarist Steve Stevens, spent 18 months off and on making the new album. The old Rebel Yell band gave way to Idol, Stevens and studio musicians, and much of the raw punk anger of earlier LPs has disappeared. To promote the album—and to squelch those rumors of drugs, death and AIDS—Idol is planning a six-month tour, including the U.S. and Great Britain, beginning in March.

The latter will be a homecoming for the Sussex-reared rocker who, as William Broad, first split for London when he was 16 and then for the U.S. nine years later. Because of his move to America, English rock fans have tended to "see me as a bit of a betrayal," concedes Billy, for years a full-time Manhattanite. A few concerts, he hopes, just might set everything straight. After all, love songs or not, "I haven't significantly changed my outlook," he insists with a hint of the old sneer. "I've kept a lot of my own values. I'm not talking with an American accent. I haven't gone off and become Sammy Hagar."

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