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School: Billy Idol

What’s your earliest memory of school?

My parents moved from England to New York when I was two. We came back to Dorking in Surrey when I was six. So I had a crew cut and an American accent and I didn’t know how to play soccer – as I called it. So at my first school everyone called me ‘the American kid’. I’d get invited to play football just so they could hack me down. After that we moved to Worthing and I went to the local Church Of England school.

What were you like at school?

These days they’d say I had ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]. If I liked a subject, like history, I found it easy and did incredibly well at it. Anything else, though, like mathematics, physics or chemistry, I was hopeless at.

How interested were you in music at school?

Very. I discovered The Beatles when I was six, and learned to play the drums when I was seven. But then I noticed Ringo was always at the back and didn’t write any of the songs. So by the time I was ten I was playing the guitar. Then it was The Beatles, the Stones, The Kinks…

Did music help you become more English?

Yes. On American TV the English were always portrayed as being clumsy and hopeless, so it was great to see The Beatles and think: “Great, there’s this cool English thing happening.”

What was your next school like?

Ravensbourne School For Boys was a grammar school but it was being turned into a comprehensive. So everything was changing, and some of the masters hated it. I think the pupils suffered because of that.

Did you do better at Ravensbourne?

No, because they put me in all the wrong classes. They put me in the top stream for maths, chemistry and physics, which I was terrible at, and the bottom stream for history.

Did you complain?

Yeah. I complained to my teacher. And he said: “We don’t care.” That was the attitude. So I gave up on them as well. I was already pissed off at the world and had long hair by then.

Did you feel like an outsider?

I did, because Ravensbourne was full of suedeheads. There were only three kids at school like me with long hair.

What were you listening to?

By 1970 we were all listening to Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple’s In Rock. Some friends started taking me to concerts when I was ridiculously young, like about twelve. I saw everyone. I remember going to see Black Sabbath at Worthing Town Hall just after their first album came out. It was insane.

Did you get any qualifications?

I got a couple of O-Levels. One was in Religious Instruction [laughs]. But I went on to a college of further education, just so I didn’t have to get a job and I could carry on doing music.

What’s your overriding memory of school now?

The general malaise. By the time I went to college it was the mid-seventies. There were strikes and power cuts and no jobs. It felt like the whole country was in depression. But the music scene gave us all something to believe in. School ended up being a great training ground for punk rock.

Mark Beaumont is a music journalist with almost three decades' experience writing for publications including Classic Rock, NME, The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Times, Uncut and Melody Maker. He has written major biographies on Muse, Jay-Z, The Killers, Kanye West and Bon Iver and his debut novel [6666666666] is available on Kindle (opens in new tab).