30 Years Ago: Remixes Prove ‘Vital’ for Billy Idol
In terms of importance to an artist's catalog, a remix album traditionally falls somewhere between a Christmas LP and a live album. But Billy Idol was so popular in 1987 that an album full of the singer’s remixes, called Vital Idol, hit the Top 10 on the Billboard chart. Even Madonna couldn’t get up there with her remix album, We Can Dance, which came out that same year.
Although Idol played up his punky image for MTV, he moved in time with the dance clubs, where DJs embraced many of his singles for their beat-forward nature. His solo career even launched with a remix. Idol’s debut single, “Dancing With Myself,” had been a more rock-oriented track when he sang it with former band Generation X. When it was determined to be his first solo release in 1981, the track was remixed to place more emphasis on the beat, bass and vocals.
Ever since, Idol (along with guitarist/frequent co-writer Steve Stevens) had enjoyed tinkering with remixes of his songs that would be released for the clubs as 12” singles. These were often longer than the standard-issue singles, with extended instrumental intros, mid-track breakdowns and a greater emphasis on the beat or synthesizers. For the singer, the practice dated back to his Generation X days, when he helped create dub reggae remixes of the bands songs (just like the Clash did). As Idol’s career progressed, he and Stevens would begin thinking about remixes as soon as they were recording the album version of a song.
“What we would always do is we knew we had certain songs where we wanted to have some space to do remixes,” Stevens recalled in 2014. “So we’d leave 16 bars or 32 bars in the middle of the song no matter what the song was and then do an edit on it later and that left us room to experiment for a dance remix.”
Idol also allowed an outsider remix one of his tracks: “Flesh for Fantasy” from the Rebel Yell album. Gary Langan – an engineer on Queen and Yes LPs, producer of ABC and founder of Art of Noise – had impressed Idol, who gave the technician a shot at remixing the single, but with a little trepidation on the singer’s part.
“I was concerned because it would be the first remix done without me being present,” Idol wrote in his 2014 memoir, Dancing With Myself. “I needn’t have worried, as it came out great, featuring Steve’s explosive guitar riff as a repeated flag entrance with a measured gap between each power chord.”
Indeed, the remix was drastically different, certainly in comparison to some of the more gently altered remixes that Idol had overseen. Not only did the singer allow Langan to create an 8-minute remix of his precious “White Wedding” (with hyperactive dance beats and snippets of Billy shouting “Rock!” and “Dy-no-mite!”), Idol also brought him on board to mix his next album, 1986’s Whiplash Smile.
But while Idol and friends were working on that LP, Chrysalis Records decided to collect a bunch of these remixes and put them out as an EP in Europe. In 1985, Vital Idol became a sizable hit in Germany, Finland and especially Idol’s home country of the U.K. where it went platinum and outperformed his previous studio LPs. Such success was likely the result of an appetite for a Billy Idol singles collection, and this was the closest thing to that, even if it had altered versions of the hits.
Regardless of the reason, Chrysalis followed suit in the U.S., but waited until after Whiplash Smile to put out a slightly different version of Vital Idol for the U.S. market. The new edition, with a bonus in the form of the “Mother of Mercy Mix” of “To Be a Lover,” hit stores in September 1987. That was just before Idol’s label also put out a live take of “Mony Mony” as a single, which would become the singer’s only No. 1 hit.
Although the live recording was nowhere to be found on Vital Idol (even though a picture from the “Mony Mony” video shoot graced the album cover), fans could hear a remix of Idol’s earlier studio version, along with remixes of “Hot in the City,” “Catch My Fall” and “Love Calling” (the only non-single). Yet it was the collection’s newest entry, Langan’s remix of “To Be a Lover,” that appeared to thrill Idol.
“The track was exciting, upbeat, and serious to dance to,” Idol wrote in his autobiography. “Steve Stevens played great on this track and really delivered on the remix, putting a killer flag riff at the beginning that wasn't on the single. He toughened up the remix, adding that extra ingredient that is a staple of Idol recordings.”
Vital Idol proved to be just as vital to North American fans (going platinum in the U.S. and quadruple platinum in Canada) as it had to those in Britain. And for the listeners that thought they were buying a greatest hits collection, Chrysalis would be happy to have them plunk down more money for that record in 1988.
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