"I made it about the sexual cry of love." How The Rolling Stones and a dancer from Hot Gossip inspired one of Billy Idol's greatest hits

Billy Idol
Billy Idol, Perri Lister, Ronnie Wood, Jo Wood at a party in New York (Image credit: Patrick McMullan/Getty Images)

In 1981, Billy Idol moved to New York to pursue a solo career, post-Generation X. His debut solo album, 1982's Billy Idol, boasted radio/MTV hits in White Wedding and the singer's remake of Dancing With Myself, first released by Generation X in 1980, but, by his own admission, Idol was still seeking a signature anthem of his own. That would come in the form of Rebel Yell, the title track of his second solo album, and a song inspired by The Rolling Stones, an American bourbon, and one of the dancers from Hot Gossip, an English dance troupe fondly remembered by British men of a certain age. 

In a new interview with Vulture, Idol recalls that the origins of the song lay in a NYC birthday party for one of the Stones, where he spotted Ronnie Wood, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards “all drinking this great big bowl of a brown dark bottle.”

“It had a cavalry officer on it in a Confederate outfit and the text said, ‘How is it called Rebel Yell?’” Idol recalls. “I was trying to write songs for myself, so I said to them, Did you guys have this made for the party?’They responded, ‘No, no. It’s a real Southern-style Tennessee bourbon.’ I went, Would you be thinking of using it as a title? I mean, Street Fighting Man, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and Rebel Yell all have a similar feel to them. They looked at each other and went, ‘I don’t think we would’.”

“As soon as I got home,” Idol remembers, “I started writing the song.”

At the time, Idol was in a relationship with English dancer Perri Lister, a member of Hot Gossip, best known for their regular appearances on The Kenny Everett Video Show and the lyrics of Rebel Yell, he says, were intended to “lionize” the relationship.

“I knew about the American Civil War, but I wasn’t going to make it anything to do with the American Civil War,” he remembers. “I was thinking about my girlfriend. She was a dancer, so I made it about the sexual cry of love; this orgasmic cry of love and how great women were. That’s what I was singing about because I was so in love with her.”

Though the single originally stalled at number 62 on the UK singles chart upon release, it would become a Top 10 hit for Idol when re-released in 1985. In the US, it peaked at number 46, but set up the album, which reached number 6 in the US, selling north of two million copies.

Ultimately, Idol remembers the single, which now has now been streamed over 400 million times on Spotify and played 150 million times on YouTube, proving that he “had the goods”.

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.