Billy Idol wasn’t born to be a star, but it is easy to see how he became one. Growing up in a working-class family in London, William Broad’s heroes were Lou Reed, David Bowie, Roxy Music and artists whose style, music and stardom were inseparable.
The “anyone can do it” ethos of punk rock offered entry into rock ’n’ roll, and his spiky blonde hair, Elvis sneer, and arena-friendly sound on “White Wedding,” “Rebel Yell,” and other hits from the ’80s gave teenage rebellion a commercial look.
An uncharacteristically reflective Idol will play the House of Blues Wednesday night. Late last year he published his autobiography, “Dancing with Myself,” and released a new album, “Kings & Queens of the Underground,” with a title track that looks back romantically on his career as a punk rocker with Generation X and an MTV-era icon as a solo act.
Over folksy acoustic guitars and strings, he weaves his song titles into the lyrics to tell his story.
“1984 and ‘Rebel Yell’ had the floor,” he sang. “All we said was ‘More, more, more’ / Well I touched you with my ‘Eyes Without a Face’ / It was ‘Hot in the City’ / Yes I thought I was ace.”
It’s not the sound you’d expect from someone who was part of “the Bromley Contingent,” a group of teenagers from southeast London who were prominent, regular attendees at shows by punk band The Sex Pistols from the start.
In “Dancing with Myself,” he remembers the mundane rock ’n’ roll adventures as well as riskier moments, including driving his dad’s plumbing van to Paris to see the Pistols during punk’s confrontational heyday.
But while much British punk rock took a blowtorch to the music that preceded it, Idol’s band, Generation X, sang the nostalgic “Ready Steady Go” about the British mid-’60s equivalent to “American Bandstand.” Rather than flailing music’s sacred cows, Generation X covered John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth.”
When Generation X fell apart due to the usual internal woes and legal problems with management, Idol went to New York and met manager Bill Aucoin, best known for his work with KISS.
Aucoin encouraged him to be wild and crazy — a caricature much like KISS, though that’s not how Idol describes it.
For him, that meant committing to punk.
“Punk was my roots, and I would celebrate those roots for the rest of my so-called career,” Idol wrote.
At the time, he filtered that punk sensibility through the electronic dance music of German band Kraftwerk and Donna Summer’s producer Giorgio Moroder, then seasoned it with the squealing, screeching, heavy metal guitar of Steve Stevens — Idol’s rooster-haired partner in videos.
Idol was tailor-made for MTV, which launched in 1981 while he was at work on his self-titled debut album with the hits “White Wedding” and “Hot in the City.”
Idol was one of the upstart network’s early icons, someone with a cutting edge image and broadly accessible music. The combination made him a beneficiary of the fledgling video channel’s reach.
“Kings & Queens of the Underground” musically hearkens back to that time. The songs don’t sound like he’s going home, but producer Trevor Horn recorded Frankie Goes to Hollywood and countless bands that dressed up songs with chilly synthesizers, and he brings his love of cinematic, artificial textures to the album.
Lyrically, Idol is older and a little wiser.
“Ghosts in My Guitar” is a ballad that mourns deaths that came from hard living — something he did his share of, as Idol enjoyed his stardom in all the cliché ways. He rolled in sex and drugs until he was alone and an addict.
“Dancing with Myself” doesn’t sugarcoat any of that, including a story that involved being put on a plane home by the Thai military after a vacation went badly off the rails. Reading between the lines though, Idol seems like someone who was ill-equipped for stardom beyond a teenage desire for it. In that way, he was like many celebrities, which is why his story follows many of the usual contours.
“Kings & Queens of the Underground” has its rousing moments like “Can’t Break Me Down,” but it and the autobiography share the awareness of time and consequences that comes with the onset of middle age.
Both the book and album wobble in spots, but both feel like they clearly come from him, and they represent a man trying to get a handle on the consequences of his stardom.