Last week, I learn how to play “Rebel Yell.” I expected a couple of quick fun minutes bashing around power chords and learning a simple guitar hook.
Nope! I couldn’t play the first five seconds. The song opens with a complicated fingerpicking figure before moving into a fussily precise intro section. Then it finally bangs into three quick power chords before moving into the verse section where, instead of power-chording in tandem with the bass, the guitar plays a precious little upper string countermelody. The chorus doesn’t even let loose with big easy power chords. You still have to move up and down the neck with stopwatch precision.
I watched a video of Stevens playing the song by himself. While I was instantly irritated by his harsh Brooklyn accent and decision to decorate his home studio with a mannequin wearing trashy ’80s lingerie, I still didn’t know how to play the song.
Casual listeners would probably never suspect any of this. The song feels like a three chord howler, like Danzig’s “Mother,” only faster. It succeeds despite the over-thought guitar part, as the guitar is mixed way below the vocals and the keyboards.
I was fresh off effortlessly intuiting the hook and chords of “Dancing With Myself,” a song that originated with Idol’s punk band, Generation X. Learning Rebel Yell, a song from three years deep into Idol’s solo career, I realized the corrosive effect of Idol’s guitar player Steve Stevens.
The ’80s were a shit time for guitar players in many respects and Steve Stevens encapsulates almost all of the bad of ’80s guitar. His guitar is so compressed it sounds like he’s playing through a plastic amp. All of the liberating roughness of ’70s punk and blues-style metal guitar was polished away, leaving only the speed and pomp.
His playing is the peak of Guitar Center salesman style. Guitar solos are showcases for technique-driven tricks instead of melodies. Every third note is a harmonic and the wammy bar never gets a rest.
In comparison, the guitar player for Generation X is sort of a savant genius. The glorious two string opening guitar hook of “Dancing With Myself” undoubtedly did not arise from hours of practice. The chorus is pure Johnny Ramone power chords and comes on like a rush and a release. When Idol remade the song as a solo artist, Steve Stevens played the chords almost timidly, with delicate timing. The guitar sound is an echoey ghost of its punk origin. It strips it of everything that was originally remarkable.
Stevens has stuck with Idol since the early ’80s, occasionally straying for solo records or to take on high-profile chances to ruin songs by people like Michael Jackson.
I just found out this week that he appeared (or maybe even starred) on some dumb reality show about how he’s a vile Los Angeles rock cliche married to a plastic surgery nightmare lady.
I still think that Billy Idol seems like a chill guy but his 30 year association with Stevens makes me question his choices. Maybe Idol’s so laid back he doesn’t want to cut loose an old friend?