Easily one of the flashiest guitarists—both visually and instrumentally—to emerge from the '80s rock scene, Steve Stevens is the total package when it comes to being a Guitar Idol. Best known for his 30-plus-year partnership with Billy Idol, his work on Michael Jackson's classic "Dirty Diana", his Grammy Award-winning performance on the iconic "Top Gun Anthem" and his work with Vince Neil on "Exposed." Guitar Interactive Magazine editor Jonathan Graham sits down with Steve to talk about his incredible career, future music releases, signature gear and so much more in this exclusive interview.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 5, 1959, Stevens first picked up the guitar when he was only seven years old, and relatively quickly became an avid prog rock fan—especially the likes of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes. His early career saw him honing his craft while playing in Manhattan, where he recorded an unreleased album with his band, Fine Maribus, and also played as a session guitarist on Peter Criss' somewhat-forgotten second post-Kiss solo outing, 1982's Let Me Rock You (although Stevens did earn his first songwriting credit for the track "First Day in the Rain").
It was also during the early '80s that Stevens hooked up with ex-Generation X singer Billy Idol, who had relocated to New York in hopes of launching a solo career. Idol found the perfect foil in Stevens, and with ex-Kiss manager Bill Aucoin backing them, Idol's career skyrocketed. Combining Idol's punk and Stevens' hard rock backgrounds with dance music, Idol became one of MTV's early video stars, as such albums as 1982's Billy Idol and 1983's Rebel Yell became blockbuster hits -- spurred on by Stevens' shredding guitar licks (and outrageous glam rock looks). It took an extended period for Idol and Stevens to offer a third album, 1986's Whiplash Smile, and although it was another big hit, Stevens longed to launch his own solo career and exited Idol's band by the end of the decade.
Stevens also remained an in-demand hired gun, as he guested on recordings by Michael Jackson (Bad), Ric Ocasek (This Side of Paradise), Thompson Twins (Here's to Future Days), and Robert Palmer (Don't Explain), among others. Additionally, Stevens appeared on the mega-selling 1986 soundtrack to the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun, for which he collaborated with keyboardist Harold Faltermeyer on "Top Gun Anthem" (which earned Stevens a Grammy Award for Pop Instrumental Performance that year). In 1989 Stevens formed his own group, Steve Stevens' Atomic Playboys, but despite all the hype, the band only lasted for a single release, Atomic Playboys.
The early '90s saw Stevens keep up his busy schedule, as he attempted to form a new group with ex-Hanoi Rocks singer Michael Monroe, named Jerusalem Slim, which to the dismay of fans never got much further than the planning stages. In a strange twist of fate, Stevens then signed on to back ex-Mötley Crüe singer Vince Neil, the same man responsible for the dissolution of Monroe's previous band, Hanoi Rocks. Stevens hung in for an album, 1993's Exposed, and its supporting tour, before departing for greener pastures.
Stevens finally got his chance to show off his lifelong appreciation of prog rock when he united with bassist Tony Levin and drummer Terry Bozzio in the bombastic outfit Bozzio Levin Stevens, issuing a pair of releases thus far -- 1997's Black Light Syndrome and 2000's Situation Dangerous. Around the same time, Stevens reunited with Idol, appearing alongside the singer on 2002's VH1 Storytellers, and also found time to issue another solo release, Flamenco A Go-Go.
In 2010 Stevens welcomed reality TV cameras into his home and appeared alongside his wife, Josie, on the international hit E! channel show, "Married to Rock", which allowed viewers a look behind the curtains into his life, both on and off the road. 2013 saw Stevens writing and recording with Sebastian Bach, touring internationally with Billy Idol and Kings of Chaos, and releasing a signature amplifier with Tone Merchants and a signature guitar with Knaggs Guitars.
In 2014, Stevens released new music with Billy Idol for the first time in almost a decade, with extensive international touring which will follow in to 2015 and 2016. Knaggs Guitars also released the second Steve Stevens signature model guitar (SSII) in January 2015.
For the follow-up to their 2021 EP The Roadside, Idol and Stevens reunited with songwriters Tommy English and Joe Janiak to create four songs centred around the pandemic.
The pair had reportedly really enjoyed working with Joe and Tommy on the song 'Bitter Taste' from The Roadside EP, so started writing with them. We realized they could produce as well, so we started recording the music as we went.
Below, Idol discusses each track. "Cage" "Because we've been living with the coronavirus so long, we'd all gone through a couple of years of not really knowing what was gonna happen to us or what the long-term effects of the virus really were. So it was easy to come up with the idea that we all felt caged in. We all felt like we'd been living in Night of the Living Dead, where the zombies at the window have got in and we've had to make friends with them. The lyrics practically wrote themselves because we were so in touch with what we'd been going through. Even though it was written during the pandemic, it could really apply to any time in your life when you feel society or everything around you is constraining you."
"Running From the Ghost"—"For us, the ghost we've been running from for years is the drug addiction we got involved with in the late '70s and '80s. We've been running away from these desires that we've built up in ourselves. Of course, drug addiction feels like you're going nowhere. You're in a dark void of your own making, really. Somehow, you've got to get yourself out.
Like "Cage," it's another thing that holds you back and you've got to break free. Steve Stevens told us about how he'll wake up from a nightmare and still thinks he's high for about 15 minutes. He wakes up fighting the ghost in his sleep. For me, it's a Jekyll and Hyde thing-I change personalities.
So we just put all these things that happened to us into the song. It came out like a sort of miniature epic."
"Rebel Like You"—"My little granddaughter, Poppy Rebel, she's a year and a half, and she'd just come to see one of my shows in Vegas. She'd never seen what granddad does for a living. They dressed her up like me in the 'Dancing With Myself' video from back in the '80s, with the skeletal top and pleather pants. We'd been working on a song that had a line 'I never thought I'd meet another friend like you; but then Joe suggested changing it to 'I never thought I'd meet another rebel like you! It seems like I could be singing about anybody in the audience, but it just so happens I'm singing about my little granddaughter, who'd been dressed up like me."
"Miss Nobody"—"We were in downtown LA recently, and there were so many homeless on the streets. It was a massive problem-still is-but a lot of people just couldn't help it. It's just what's happened to them during the pandemic or over the years. Life has dealt them these cards, and it's not really their fault. There was one lady in particular that we talked to, and she was kind of owning her situation, even though it wasn't her fault and there was nothing she could do about it. I never really thought of a song from a lady's perspective-or from the perspective of someone living on the street-so that's what we did. It's about somebody coming to grips with their circumstances but deciding that they're still going to be themselves."
Billy Idol and longtime collaborator, co-writer and guitarist Steve Stevens are back with The Cage EP, which is available now via Dark Horse Records.
Billy Idol – THE CAGE – EP
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