Billy Idol: ‘I stole the master tapes for Rebel Yell – and gave them to my heroin dealer’

<span>Billy Idol … ‘People really did get beaten up’</span><span>Photograph: Steven Sebring</span>
Billy Idol … ‘People really did get beaten up’Photograph: Steven Sebring

Is it true that you stole the master tapes to the Rebel Yell album during a spat with the record label? VerulamiumParkRanger
It was because of the cover. I was saying: “There’s a flaw in this picture, and if we blow this up it will get worse.” The record company started to say: “We’re leaving it. It’s not that bad.” I just thought: “I’m just not going to let this happen. It’s so silly. They just need to reprint the picture. I’m not listening to what the record company guys say. In fact, I’m gonna blackmail them.” So I went down to Electric Lady in the middle of the night and got to where I knew the tape boxes were. I took them and left the studio and gave them to my heroin dealer. And then I phoned the record company and said: “This guy I’ve given them to, he’ll have them out on the street bootlegged in a couple of days if you don’t change this picture.” And they relented. Don’t let them walk all over you.

Your 1990 motorbike smash prevented you from starring as the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (although somewhat ironically your post-accident surgery saw you fitted with your own steel framework). Do you still suffer regular aches and pains as a result of the LA crash? McScootikins
Not too bad. There’s something going on with my right foot. It’s not the same as my left foot. So there are ramifications from it, but you can fix them by wearing certain insoles in your shoes and things like that. The injury was in the middle of the lower part of my right leg, so it was something they could fix. I loved [director] Jim Cameron. I just know he would have got the performance out of me. I would have done whatever he said. It might have opened a lot more doors and it’s such a shame. But sometimes drug addiction messes things up. That’s what led to the motorcycle accident, really.

I first saw Generation X on Marc Bolan’s TV show. What is your memory of that day? lotusblue
We’d got up to Manchester, but our gear was stuck halfway down the motorway. We were standing there talking to Marc, when Muriel Young, the producer, came over and went: “These young men don’t have their equipment. They can’t be on the show.” Marc said: “Well, if they’re not on it, I’m not doing it.” She freaked out, but Marc really, really showed me where his heart lay. And then, two weeks later, before it aired, he died. So 15 million people watched it, and everybody saw us, which was pretty incredible.

Are you amazed at the careers of [Sex Pistols fan group] the Bromley Contingent, you and Siouxsie Sioux in particular? When did you know it was getting big? Matt48
When I first met Siouxsie, I just felt she was a bit of a star. She had such a strong personality. I didn’t quite know how they were going to do it, her and [Siouxsie and the Banshees co-founder] Steve Severin – Steve Bailey as he was then – but I knew they were just as into punk as me, if not more. There was initially only a few hundred people in the country into it. I had a few run-ins and I was really lucky. One day I came across Hammersmith Bridge and walked right into 15 teds. At first they were going: “Oh, what do we have here? A little punk rocker?” I was obviously shitting myself, thinking I’d had it and then they all burst out laughing and went: “Oh, it’s all right mate.” But people really did get beaten up.

What do you think of your 1993 Cyberpunk album now? It got a lot of stick at the time, but I really enjoyed it. Flashbleu
I was listening to all the music coming out of England – Future Sound of London, the Orb, the first Prodigy record – and enjoying that. It was at the start of me thinking about giving up heavy drugs. I was just smoking pot and we made the album at my house; I enjoyed making it but it didn’t have a hit single on it. I learned a lot from it about modern recording, which we’ve gone on using through to the present day. So it was a little bit ahead of its time; I think I was the first artist to have his internet address on the album cover.

Sweet Sixteen and Eyes Without a Face are musically distinctive and hauntingly beautiful. They seem atypical of your style. What’s the background to the writing of them? eamonmcc
With Eyes Without a Face, I was just trying to not write an obvious love song. And with Sweet Sixteen, a couple of years later, I’d broken up with Perri Lister [a singer and dancer with Hot Gossip], with whom I was very much in love. So I was really singing a song about her. And I used the story of this chap from Latvia called Edward Leedskalnin who’d been jilted by his sweetheart at the altar. He came to America, built a homestead and then started to build this big place called the Coral Castle made of huge slabs of granite. And when he took people around it, they’d say: “Why did you build this place?” And he’d say: “It’s for my sweet sixteen.”

The Sex Pistols and that small scene opened up this door and we could all walk through

Can I ask about your long standing creative relationship with Steve Stevens? Is he your Keef? Consumer
I think he is in lots of ways. When I met Steve, I could see he was really accomplished even then. Whatever I wanted to do, he could make it stick. And that’s gone on happening. He grew up with a lot of prog rock and stuff like that, but putting what I was into in terms of punk rock together with what Steve was doing meant we could do anything.

You dropped out of Sussex University after a year. What led you to do that, and what memories do you have of the place? viennesewaltzer
Yeah, I was in a little group down there. I couldn’t get them to do punk rock music, but I really wanted to be in a punk rock group. And then I got a card from Steve Severin saying: “Hey, we’ve seen the band we’ve been waiting for. Get back up here to London.” So I started to come up on the train to London to watch the Sex Pistols. The Pistols and that small scene opened up this door and we could all walk through.

The blond, punky English vampire Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer seemed entirely based on you. Did you ever see the show and were you flattered? staypositive
They wanted me to play Spike, to be quite honest. I wanted to do it because I believed I could learn to act by doing it. But my manager didn’t want me to do television. So I didn’t. But that’s exactly what they were doing: they were basing it on me.

What did you think about your former Generation X bandmate Tony James forming Sigue Sigue Sputnik and then later joining Sisters of Mercy? deelman
I thought it was fantastic. I really enjoyed what Tony was doing with the sort of transgender roadies he had in Sigue Sigue Sputnik, which was very futuristic – and I love that Sisters of Mercy album, Vision Thing. I’d gone to America and I was doing quite well so it was great to see Tony was doing really great in England. We play Vision Thing before every Billy Idol show.

How did your collaborations with Miley Cyrus come about? It seemed like you were having a lot of fun on stage. VerulamiumParkRanger
Well, I’ve known [her producer] Andrew Watt for a long time. Miley said to him: “I’d love to do a Billy Idol track.” He’s like: “I know Billy. Why don’t we do it with him?” So, we got together and we came up with Night Crawling, and it was just a lot of fun. Miley’s such a character. We’d also sung Rebel Yell together in 2016 – Miley wanted to do that.

Are you happier now or when you were starting out? davidabsalom
I was happy then because I was doing what I had dreamed of as a child; I fell in love with the Beatles when I was six years old. But I am super knocked out that we’ve managed to keep going and possibly I’m in a new phase of my career right now. It’s never been completely easy. It’s always something you have to struggle with a little bit. But that’s part of it.

• The deluxe expanded 40th anniversary edition of Rebel Yell is out now on UMe. Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell tour of Canada begins 30 July at Rogers Arena, Vancouver