“I took the tapes, left the studio and gave them to my heroin dealer.” Why Billy Idol blackmailed his own record company ahead of the release of Rebel Yell

Billy Idol, and Rebel Yell
(Image credit: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)

Billy Idol once threatened to bootleg copies of his own album to sell cheaply on the streets during a stand-off with his record label. Idol's 1983 album Rebel Yell sold two million copies in the US alone, but before it established Generation X's former frontman as a star in his own right, the album was the subject of a dispute between the Middlesex-born singer and his record label, Chrysalis.

The argument between the artist and his paymasters arose, says Idol, in a new interview with The Guardian, because of the album cover.

“I was saying, There’s a flaw in this picture, and if we blow this up it will get worse,” Idol reveals. “The record company started to say, 'We’re leaving it. It’s not that bad.' I just thought, I’m just not going to let this happen. It’s so silly. They just need to reprint the picture. I’m not listening to what the record company guys say. In fact, I’m gonna blackmail them.” 

Idol had recorded the album at Electric Lady studios in New York with producer Keith Forsey, and his cunning plan involved returning to the facility in the dead of the night, 'liberating' the master tapes, and then issuing an ultimatum to the label.

“I took [the tapes] and left the studio and gave them to my heroin dealer," he recalls. “And then I phoned the record company and said, This guy I’ve given them to, he’ll have them out on the street bootlegged in a couple of days if you don’t change this picture. And they relented.”

The moral of the story? “Don’t let them walk all over you.”

In an interview last month with Vulture, Idol recalled that the origins of the album's title track - and subsequent hit single - 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, the singer 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.”

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.