The rebel yells: Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens talks Memory Crash

By  Jeb Wright

While Steve Stevens is best known as the spike-haired guitarist for Billy Idol, pigeonholing him as a one-dimensional guitar player is simply unfair.

In addition to providing the power and punch to classic Billy Idol tracks “White Wedding,” “Rebel Yell” and “Flesh For Fantasy,” Stevens, in 2008, has released his first solo electric guitar instrumental album titled Memory Crash on Magna Carta records.

“I wanted to do something that people would like whether they are interested in guitar music or not,” says Stevens. “I set out to capture the spirit of the records that I loved listening to when I was 13 or 14 years old. “

The music of Stevens’ youth inspired him to take a path that led him to the New York High School of Performing Arts, the school portrayed in the movie Fame.  

“That was high school for me,” Stevens relates. “I didn’t go there my senior year, but I can tell you there was no dancing on the lunch tables. It was great for me, because I didn’t fit into the public schools. I was the outcast, weird rocker kid. When I got into that school, I could really identify with the other kids. It was great to meet other misfits, really. I got admitted into the school playing guitar, but since guitar is not a symphonic instrument, they asked me to learn to play viola. I really sucked, and I lost interest.”

While he may have lost interest in the viola, Stevens thrived on the electric six-string.
“One of my classmates took me to the Mercer Art Center where the Talking Heads, Television and the New York Dolls played,” says Stevens. “After going to the Art Center, I sat over breakfast with my mom, and I said, ‘I’m dropping out of school.’ I had joined a band in the Bronx and tried to make it work going to school, but it was a two-hour train ride. I wouldn’t get home from rehearsal until three in the morning, and then I had to get up at six. I was dead sitting in science class. She agreed that I could drop out as long as I got my GED, which I did. I joined a cover band as soon as I could. I was 17 and playing four nights a week. Instead of doing normal covers, we would play a 45-minute set of all Zeppelin or all Yes. I got my chops together, and I learned how to play in front of an audience really quickly.”

Stevens’ early love of progressive/hard rock, and the artistic freedom the genre provided, are evident on Memory Crash. 

“Early ’70s rock bands were encouraged to be adventurous,” he says. “If that meant a song was 10 minutes long or took up an entire side of an LP, then so be it. One band that really struck me was Pink Floyd. As a kid I owned Dark Side of the Moon like everybody else, but I watched the “Live in Pompeii” DVD and was blown away. You get those little clips of the band in the studio in-between songs recording Dark Side. You get to see what really inspired them and allowed them to create the environment to make such a great album.” 

Stevens was up to the challenge of tipping the hat to his idols while still retaining his signature sound. The song “Cherry Vanilla” has an obvious Hendrix influence but still sounds like Stevens.

“My style is a combination of my technique and my life experiences,” he says. “I think the Hendrix stuff that I was thinking of was the later-era stuff like ‘Message of Love.’ It was certainly not the ‘Foxey Lady’ Hendrix. It is the trippy stuff. I don’t hear a lot of people capturing that vibe.”

The guitarist was so eager to create music that reflected both his creative vision and his respect for those who came before him that he found himself shopping online for vintage instruments. 

“Before I even recorded note one I amassed the 15 guitars that I used on the record,” says Stevens. “Sometimes that meant going on eBay and finding a ’53 pedal steel guitar like Dave Gilmour played. I actually bought a two-necked Gibson Console guitar — it has two 10-string necks on it. A lot of the stuff wasn’t even that expensive. I don’t think I paid more than $400 to $500 for a piece of gear. I looked for gear that would have been used then. I didn’t want to write a cartoon example of a Genesis song; I just wanted to get the spirit of Genesis.”

While touted as an instrumental guitar record it should be noted that two songs on Memory Crash contain lyrics. One of them, a remake of Robin Trower’s “Day of the Eagle,” features Doug Pinnick from the band King’s X.

“I loved Bridge of Sighs when I was a kid, so I brought in Doug Pinnick on vocals and bass,” says Stevens. “We cut that song live in the studio. There is one eight-bar guitar solo that was overdubbed, but the rest was live.”

While Stevens shows plenty of guitar dexterity on Memory Crash, he bristles when compared to guitar heroes Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. 

“The way I go about constructing my music… and I am not criticizing those guys or their records in any way shape or form,” explains Stevens. “I admire them, and I really admire how Steve Vai has created his own world where his music lives. For me, the last thing that went on each song was the solo guitar. I can’t approach my writing any different than how I approach writing for Billy Idol; it has to have a drum and bass groove to begin with. The brick and mortar have to be there for me to play over. I approached my lead guitar much the same way a singer would approach it. Steve Vai and Joe Satriani are incredibly gifted, and they have technique beyond technique. If anything, I find myself slowing down as I get older, trying to say the most with the least amount of notes.”

Stevens explains how he can mix unadulterated hard rock with three-chord power punk on Memory Crash.

“I didn’t draw a line like they did in England where punk was there to knock down all these dinosaur bands,” says Stevens. “I look at Memory Crash as progressive punk. It still has the energy of punk rock, but it is also progressive in nature. I know Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols, and it is only recently that he has been able to come out and say that he loves Journey and Queen. I read recently that [Sex Pistols singer] Johnny Lydon and Keith Emerson [keyboardist for Emerson, Lake & Palmer] got together and made amends. I think that is proof that punk and prog can coexist.”
Coexisting is something that the guitarist has learned to do as he balances a solo career with that of being a member of Billy Idol’s band. His “day job” can be constricting when trying to find outlets to play songs from Memory Crash.

“We are going to go out and do a Billy Idol tour, and I am hoping there might be something we can do on off days where we can go out and play,” says Stevens. “It might not be in a club; it might be in a music store. I am doing some guitar clinics, and I can play some of it there. I don’t care where I play it as long as I am able to play it somewhere.” 

Despite releasing a mainly instrumental album in an era when record companies are struggling with funds for promotion, Stevens remains positive.

“I look at it as an opportunity,” he says. “This is really the first album that I have put out in the age of the Internet. You can put your music out there and really be in control of it and not rely on the big record label. We had a small budget, and I mostly recorded it at home. I don’t have a huge overhead to keep the machine grinding. I talk to a lot of other musicians who have had large budget records on huge labels, and they are tired of that. They are getting their music out in ways that were not available before. Memory Crash can have a life beyond the CD as it can be licensed for films or other things.”

Today, Stevens is happy to be making music and sharing his gifts with the world.  It makes no difference to him whether he is playing songs from Memory Crash or the classic hits on his upcoming tour with Billy Idol. It is obvious that music is what matters most to the flamboyant rocker.

“This record came out during the 40th anniversary of me playing this thing. I still get as excited about playing guitar as I did when I was 8 years old.” 

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2 thoughts on “The rebel yells: Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens talks Memory Crash

  1. Dev acted as the lead singer on Far East Movement’s Like a G6 and she now actually makes her own album. Her debut single from her debut album (that doesn’t have a name yet) is also featuring producers The Cataracs, who also were on Like a G6. This single, titled Bass Down Low, is similar to her other releases, such as Booty Bounce and Fireball. I wish Dev the best of luck and success in her singing career.

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