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Classic Tracks: Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell”

Inside the recording of Billy Idol’s classic early ’80s song, “Rebel Yell”

The title track to Billy Idol’s second album, Rebel Yell, is one of the 1980s’ most durable rock anthems, a fist-pumping ode to doing the nasty that transformed the former Generation X singer (born William Broad in Middlesex, England) into a bona fide star. Fueled by throbbing drums, and with guitars and keyboards alternately dominating the mix, the song spotlighted Idol’s powerful vocals and was a breakthrough fusion of punk, metal and dance, synthesized through a meeting of the minds — Idol, guitarist Steve Stevens and producer Keith Forsey — at the legendary Electric Lady Studios on Eighth Street in Manhattan. The title might as well have also referred to the recording sessions, which were ripe with drama, including an album whose drummer was snatched from another album project, a title track that needed re-recording, and a battle between the artist and his record label.

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“That record was amazing,” gushes Stevens. “It put him on the map as an arena-rock artist, and it also cemented our working relationship that is still intact today. There’s no denying that there was definitely a sound that was created with his voice and my guitar that hadn’t existed before.” The guitarist notes that while numerous hard rock bands had high-pitched shriekers at that time, Idol’s crooning style gave their partnership a special edge. “It enabled me to play in a lower, more rhythmic way that I don’t think other guitar players were doing.”

Flashback to 1983: Idol’s eponymous debut scored a major hit with “White Wedding,” and the charismatic punk with the signature snarl was preparing for his important sophomore album. Working with Forsey, Stevens and future Alannah Myles bassist Steve Webster, along with keyboardists Judi Dozier and Jack Waldman, Idol was recording without a drummer, utilizing an electronic Linn drum. Former Giorgio Moroder protégé Forsey had no problems with it, but obviously the group needed a live skin beater. They had recorded some tunes, including the future Top 10 ballad “Eyes Without a Face,” in Studio A downstairs before migrating to the smaller, more intimate Studio B two stories up.

While working in Studio B, Stevens and Forsey heard drummer Thommy Price thumping away with Scandal, who had taken over downstairs. The duo told Idol they should bring him in, so he did. “He was fantastic,” declares Stevens. “He was so perfect. I think the first thing he played on was ‘Blue Highway,’ and I was like, ‘Thank God we found a guy who can do this!’”

With Price behind the kit, Idol and his team recorded “Rebel Yell,” but the low-key break in the song was left open because nothing had been written for it yet. “This was in the early days of combining dance elements with rock ‘n’ roll, so we always built in 32 bars, not knowing exactly what we’d do in the middle of the song,” explains Stevens. “We did that with ‘White Wedding,’ ‘Eyes Without a Face’ and ‘Rebel Yell.’ We gave Billy a cassette, and he’d go home and come back with something, then we’d just make it somehow work.”

“I waited for Billy to come up with a genius line,” adds Forsey. “He came in and tried singing on that part several times, and nothing happened. Then we moved to another studio downtown, and I gave him a [Shure] 57, no mic stand, and he just wandered around the studio and sang. All of a sudden, ‘I walk the ward for you, babe’ just dropped out right there, and it was fantastic. It was really one of those moments in the studio where you get the chills and the hair stands up on your arms, and you know you’ve got something really good. Of course, the guitar line at the top of that song from Steve Stevens is fantastic. That whole concept was fantastic.”

Actually, a previous version of “Rebel Yell,” a song that developed in rehearsals, was completely recorded but scrapped at Forsey’s behest. He did not like the tempo. “I had already done overdubs, and I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding,’” recalls Stevens. “He was right, though; he was absolutely right. I believe the first version was a little bit slower, so we re-cut it.”

A man who came from the school of “pocket and groove” rather than frantic punk, Forsey believes that the song was too fast. (Listening to the demo on the expanded Rebel Yell, it’s hard to tell.) Forsey recalls, “We couldn’t time-stretch it in those days, and I kept replaying it. The intent was fantastic, but it just made me feel uncomfortable. The tempo was just too on top, so we went back and re-cut the whole thing again. The record company loved the song and thought we were crazy. Whether it needed to be slower or not, I don’t know, but at the time it meant so much to me that it had to be slower!”

It seems that Forsey was right to be obstinate. The recut song became a radio and MTV hit that broke Idol through to the big time. Strangely enough, though, a key ingredient — Stevens’ hell-raising solo — was nearly trashed. “I think when most of the solos on the record were done, Billy wasn’t actually there,” the guitarist reveals. “I remember with ‘Rebel Yell’ he didn’t like the solo, and me and Keith were jumping up and down. ‘Are you kidding? You’ve got to keep it!’”

The guitarist says that the “ray gun effect” on the climax to that solo was achieved by using a Lexicon PCM 41. “There’s a setting on it that you can get this super-modulation, fluttering thing,” Stevens says. “The inspiration for that was on Billy Cobham’s Spectrum record. Tommy Bolin played a solo song called ‘Quadrant 4.’ He does this weird kind of Echoplex thing in the middle that overtakes [everything]. I just loved the idea that it’s a guitar solo, but at the same time there’s some kind of sonic blast that’s way beyond just being a guitar.”

The “Rebel Yell,” mix, courtesy of engineer Dave Wittman, achieved a strong balance of the booming drum sounds of the ’80s, popular synth sounds of the time and Stevens’ snarling guitar. “After Dave came in, my guitar sound immediately improved a gazillion percent, and that dictated being able to have heavier drums,” notes Stevens. “But obviously I was always pushing for more guitars in the mix. We reached a happy balance featuring some keyboard elements. And Keith Forsey, being a drummer himself, always wanted the drums at the forefront.”

Stevens recollects that he played a Kramer guitar, possibly a Pacer model, with a Floyd Rose tremolo on it. Miked with a combination of a Shure 57 and a Neumann 87, he played through “an [unmodified] Marshall, late ’60s plexi, non-master volume — just turn the thing up as loud as you can — and a vintage Marshall cabinet with 25-watt Celestions in it.” He adds that Wittman turned him onto a unit by Publison that acted as a Harmonizer but with more subtlety. “I remember when we used it on guitars, it thickened it up without sounding fake or overly processed. I was really adamant that we use the reverb tank that was at Electric Lady, and not use any digital reverb on my guitars.” All rhythm guitars were doubled left and right.

Studio B had a new Neve console and an analog Studer 24-track 2-inch tape machine. Michael Frondelli recorded the album, while Wittman mixed it. “We had things multed,” Forsey says of the Studer. “We had tambourines on the holes, and on other tracks we had things split up and multed. It was all split up and hand-mixed. There was no automation. We did all the panning by hand. We had three or four people hands-on. It was fun.

“You know what I found about those days?” Forsey continues. “It really got you in touch with songs because you were actually touching the faders. You went over and over and rehearsed it and got it good. You really got in touch with the song, whereas now everything is automated, and there’s a distance between you and the track.”

While the original version of “Rebel Yell” was cut to a Linn drum, the re-cut version built up from a live base of rhythm guitar, bass and drums. “I loved that room upstairs [with] the near-field monitoring,” exclaims Forsey. “The room wasn’t so big that the drums were flying everywhere. You could control it pretty well, and we stayed there.”

The intro to “Rebel Yell” is a fast guitar motif from Stevens that sounds like a manic keyboard riff. The six-stringer, tired of hearing so many Roland Junos on rock and pop albums, wanted to emulate some keyboard parts on guitar. With the right riff, and a little gated reverb, he succeeded. “It’s a fingerpick thing, and that came, believe or not, from listening to things like Leo Kottke,” says Stevens.

All in all, Forsey reckons that “Rebel Yell” took two to three days to record — not bad for an instant classic. But then, plenty of time was spent engaged in other drama during the making of the album. At one point, Idol, who was known for battling with executives over the creative direction of his work, was feuding with his label, Chrysalis Records, and stole the master tapes for the Rebel Yell album. When Forsey learned of the heist, he had his second engineer check the tape library, and he discovered that the singer snatched the wrong tapes. But he remained silent about the slip-up.

“He was trying to make a statement to the record company,” explains Forsey. “I’ve always been band-oriented. It’s me and the band against the record company. That was always my position. I would do what I thought the record company needed but within the realms of whatever the band wanted. I tried to move the band to where I thought it should be, but if they didn’t want to go there, they had total override.”

Still, it was funny when Idol returned to the studio victorious. “I let him think he had the masters,” chuckles Forsey. “He did whatever he had to do with the label. Everything was squared away, and then he came back and I said, ‘By the way, Bill, I’ve got the real masters.’ He’s like ‘Ohhhhh, great!’”

In the end, the song and album (which made it all the way to Number 6 on the Billboard charts) made a strong statement that has endured through the years. And Idol is still rockin’ today at 50, having released the superlative comeback album, Devil’s Playground, last year, and a whole new generation is hearing that “Rebel Yell” again.