Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Billy Idol - Rebel Yell

When I was in high school I was convinced that Billy Idol was most likely the coolest person alive at some point in time in the 1980s. He must have been right? Billy Idol is a really good dude. He is a solid singer and song writer, he was part of the popularization of punk music, and that hair, not a lot of people can pull that off.

I listened to Billy Idol’s greatest hits approximately a few hundred times when I was in high school. As impressive as that may be, I will forever be a poser fan, since that is the only album of his I have ever owned; and as we all know best of albums are for posers. The point is I used to listen to Billy Idol a lot.

Based on numerous past reviews and comments made by me it should be pretty clear that I consume a lot of youtube, and I often allow myself to drift down rabbit holes and just see what comes up. I was listening to a random mix based on various songs I had recently listened, virtually every song was a video I had listened to multiple times recently, but there was a handful of videos by the same artists I was listening to. Then, somewhat randomly, the next song up was Billy Idol “Rebel Yell.” That was the next recommendation by youtube, and it was certainly a good one, for I really did want to listen to that song next, even though I would not have picked it out by myself uninitiated. I do not think I had heard “Rebel Yell” for eight years or so at that point. How did that happen? I guess I moved on? Only I didn’t because I was so happy to hear Billy Idol again.

Then it started happening, the radio station I wake up started playing Billy Idol as my morning alarm. The usual four songs played, “Dancing with Myself,” “Mony Mony,” “White Wedding” and my favorite “Rebel Yell.” Systematically I heard all four of these songs over the course of about a week while rising from my slumber. As you see Idol is one of those many musicians who’s musical arsenal is largely ignored, which is a huge injustice, he has some really good songs beyond those four, and to be fair, I used to watch the music video for “Eyes Without a Face” all the time on MTV back when MTV actually played music; also I believe I have heard “Catch my Fall” on the radio once before. “Catch my Fall” is a wonderful balled from the otherwise punk rocker, and if I was a smarter man I should probably be reviewing that underappreciated song but not today, my love of “Rebel Yell” supersedes other motivations at this time.

Roberta Wesley's "Rebel Yell."
The year was 1982 or possibly 1983, I am not entirely sure, Billy Idol’s first album had come out and was a big hit. Idol was attending a party in the southern states, I am not entirely sure which one, when he gazed upon the Roberta Wesley painting “Rebel Yell,” at least I think that was the painting he saw. In case you could not guess it has been a long time since I last heard this story.

The “Rebel Yell” is a very common phrase used by the confederate soldiers to describe their battle cry, so it is entirely possible that this story I heard once many years ago may have involved a different painting titled “Rebel Yell” but Wesley’s appears to be the most famous painting titled that, so I am going to guess that was the one Idol saw. Regardless Idol was very taken with that simple phrase “Rebel Yell,” he thought it was fucking brilliant, and his next song, and in fact album, would be titled just that.

Despite the southern confederate fountain head of inspiration, Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell,” the song, has nothing to do the civil war or the confederate army. Idol just really like the expression “Rebel Yell” and who can blame him? It is a fantastic pair of words to exclaim the passion of rebellion, something the southern forces and a punk rocker would connect with.

Idol’s “Rebel Yell” is about sex, well mostly, about sex. This is hardly surprising, most of Idol’s songs had very sexual themes and his videos presently had very strong sexual imagery in them. Recall that “Dancing with Myself” seemingly a rather innocent song at first glance is actually about masturbation; so, when the chorus of “Rebel Yell” comes at us with:

“In the midnight hour, she cried more, more, more,
With a rebel yell she cried more, more, more.”

Why a rebel yell? You might ask. Well I suppose there are countless ways to approach this, but the broadest angle from which to attack would be that we live in a world of sexual shaming. The act of sexual expression in most cultures is one of shame, so Billy Idol writing songs about sex is a sort of rebellion in it’s own right. The little dancer who came to his door, as described in the song, is breaking our archaic norms of intimacy and coupling, and this is perhaps best captured in the line “she don’t like slavery, she won’t sit and beg,” and by invoking the metaphor of slavery Idol has firmly entrenched this song into a rebel’s cause.

The rest of the song dwells in Idol’s obsession to please his little love angel. I am particularly found of the bridge before the final chorus, where things slow, and Idol lists all the things he would do for this woman:

“I walked the ward with you, babe,
A thousand miles with you,
I dried your tears of pain, babe,
A million times for you,

I'd sell my soul for you babe,
For money to burn with you,
I'd give you all, and have none, babe,
Just, just, justa, justa to have you here by me.”

This leaves me pondering, at least a little, if “Rebel Yell” is actually something of a love song? Self sacrifice, is often the behaviour of a man in love, although this is the sort of actions taken by a man enthralled in lust; so really it could go either way. In rock and roll there are a great many unconventional love songs, and drowning love in lust should not necessarily diminish it’s quality. Perhaps we only think so because of the afford mentioned culture of sexual shame we all live in. Perhaps also this blatant flaunting of raw human sexuality is even more of a corner stone of punk rock. At last we must also ponder the possibility that “Rebel Yell” is little more than the mad ravings of a prisoner of lust, and hey, that is still fantastic. Perhaps I only peer into “Rebel Yell” for something deeper because of songs like “Catch my Fall” which are surprising sweet from the otherwise cock out cock rocker.

I enjoyed my reconnection with Idol. Though I was too young to properly appreciate the man’s work when he was fresh on the music scene Idol served a similar role in my youth to those a decade older than me experienced. Billy Idol is a really cool dude rocking out to all the things young people enjoy, notably sex and rebellion.

- King of Braves

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