Billy Idol’s Ballad With a Dark Inspiration

Billy Idol was already a punk star and a rock star by the early 1980s. “Eyes Without a Face” made him a pop star. But behind the 1984 hit ballad’s romantic pulse, satiny sheen, and creamy melody lies a backstory involving freaky horror movies, sexual transgressions, Idol held at gunpoint, and a mad dash to the hospital.

Back in the early 1980’s, the former Generation X frontman spent a couple of years putting plenty of daylight between himself and his British punk past, including relocating to the States and betting big on solo stardom. His first solo efforts yielded explosive hits like “Mony Mony” and “White Wedding,” but the 1983 album Rebel Yell shot him into a whole new stratosphere.

Order the expanded version of Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell now.

While the album is stacked with hits, what makes “Eyes Without a Face” standout is the ex-punk’s peroxide Sinatra croon is backed by warmly whooshing synths, a heartbeat bass line, and a pace that often led radio DJs to segue it into The Cars’ contemporaneous smash “Drive”–another post-New Wave mix of melancholy and seduction. “Eyes Without A Face” found its way to No. 4, and the hit helped propel him to an arena-level act.

The music and lyrics

The song’s title resonated with vintage film buffs as Idol’s entree into the Top 10 carried a bit of familiarity with the 1960 French horror movie of the same name. The film centers around a frightfully unhinged surgeon struggling to restore his disfigured daughter’s face with features from his murder victims. For a horror film, it caused quite a stir in its day, but Idol dreamed up a melody to go along with its title.

It turned out Idol’s right-hand man, co-writer, and guitarist Steve Stevens had the perfect music to match it. In a 2001 VH1 Storytellers performance, Stevens described listening to ‘50s pop chord progressions and deciding to “Idol-ize those chords, slow ‘em down, make ‘em sexy.”

But when you zero in on the verse lyrics, there isn’t much about stitching sections of various people together. It’s about dislocation of the more emotional kind. In his 2014 autobiography, Dancing with Myself, Idol suggests that the song’s real subject was his romance with Perri Lister, who sings the title in French (“Les Jeux Sans Visage”) on the chorus. He muses, “I used to tell people ‘Eyes Without a Face’ was a murder song. I wonder if I was aware that it was my hijinks and gradual infidelity that were killing Perri’s and my love story… It’s possible I was predicting our eventual dissolution.”

The video

The dark irony behind the song even extends to the shoot for the gloriously creepy video that helped bring Idol into America’s living room (It was No. 1 on MTV for six weeks). Once again, his love of cult horror films came into play as Idol brainstormed a setting for the clip. “I recalled my affinity for the German Expressionist silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” he wrote, “and the strange, twisted nightmare sets suggested the psychotic world of the somnambulist killer.”

Even those unacquainted with 1920s German cinema were sufficiently transfixed by Idol’s disembodied head floating around, and the imposing presence of a phalanx of hooded, monastic-looking types. But for Idol, the real horror began the day after the video shoot, as a direct result of its demands.

A visit to the hospital

The singer and his entourage were in Tucson for a concert. He’d had a pair of hard contacts in his eyes for a day and a half due to the marathon video production, and fell asleep on the ground outside the venue, with the lenses still in. His impromptu nap was alarmingly interrupted by Tucson law enforcement pointing a gun at him and aggressively informing him that the grass wasn’t a bed for “bums.”

It took the eventual intercession of Idol’s entire touring company to set the officer—obviously not an MTV devotee—straight. By this time, the contacts were giving Idol much more to worry about. “The pain was intense and my eyes were gushing,” he wrote. Idol was hurried to a hospital as fast as wheels would bring him. The situation was so severe he had to cancel the concert and ended up with bandages over his eyes for the next two days, looking like he was ready for a remake of Les Yeux Sans Visage.

Though Idol’s self-described “twisted ballad” would have a seismic effect on his career, the song continues to find new life amongst younger generations. From social trends and memes to documented blissful moments or grueling heartaches, they find themselves musing along with the timeless tune’s canon of slow-burning, late-night love laments.

Order the expanded version of Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell now.

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