Billy By Numbers – or – How the Future Fascist State Will Control Us With Free Concert Tickets

Photo credit: John Kenney / Montreal Gazette

1 sweaty t-shirt thrown to a fan in the front row
3 songs from the new album
2 Generation X tracks (one obscure) for the old punks in the house
4 costume changes
1 in-joke (in this case about Gordon Lightfoot and Massey Hall)
12 frisbees tossed into the crowd
2 of the biggest hits saved for the encore
1 rocker chick sitting backstage who looked like she had been time-warped from LA’s Sunset Strip circa 1987
20+ the number of times the name of the city of the current concert was said to the crowd

First off, don’t get me wrong, I dig Billy Idol. Idol was the first concert I ever attended, in 1984, and the imagery in his “White Wedding” video, full of Bat Cavers in black vinyl and religious iconography, was the impetus for me to become part of the punk/goth scene and thus, the person I am today.

But let’s not for a minute forget that Idol is a “rock star”. That concert I went to in the 80s – filled a 10,000 seat arena. More than he mastered singing and playing music, he mastered his persona. He is a celebrity. And undoubtedly revels in the power that comes with that.

I had seen Idol one other time, in the late 90s, and it was a fun show, so I was excited to be seeing him again, this time at Massey Hall in Toronto. At this show though, it all seemed so incredibly formulaic. The set list was exactly the same for every city on the tour. No deviations, no sneaking in an old favourite or changing up the Generation X track for fun.

The rest of the show, well, as indicated above, it was by the numbers. A formula designed, no doubt by some marketing team, to please the crowd as much as possible. That’s not to say Idol didn’t do a good job – his voice was in fine form until a later costume change when he started to have trouble with his earpiece and he suddenly sounded muddy. Guitarist Steve Stevens was also impressive, as always, although his solo near the end of the set went on a bit too long – the only time the audience seemed to lose the energy.

For most of the show, however, the crowd was eating out of Idol’s hand. They fist pumped and yelled “More, more more!” during Rebel Yell, and every time Idol mentioned Toronto, they went crazy. So he kept doing it – 20 or so times, by my count, even changing the lyrics to his cover of The Doors’ LA Woman to “Toronto woman”. Except that you just know he sang that song “Montreal woman” the night before. And “DC woman” at the show in Washington. But the crowd fucking LOVED it.

(An unrelated aside – why do bands do “LA Woman” live so much? It’s really not a very good song, and in a toss-up between that and another of Idol’s own songs like Hot In the City, it’s not even a contest.)

Obviously, a good entertainer can engage their audience. We’ve all been to shows where it seemed as if the band hated being there and that’s always a drag (I’m looking at you, Suede!). But there are some shows where the “group think”- what a more positive person would call “energy” – begins to feel really creepy. Where it feels as if that person on the stage is not just in control of their performance, but of the whole crowd and everything they do.

At concerts, that starts with a false sense of camaraderie. Billy Idol loves you, he is in your town, and he is so happy to be here. Then, an effort to make the audience feel special, usually by calling out the city’s name. People love that shit. (Why? Why do people love that shit? Because a rock star acknowledged that your town exists? I don’t get it.) They love it a lot, so do it as much as possible. Next, make them feel as if they’re right on stage with you by holding out the microphone at them. Sing a song they know the words to and can sing along with, especially something like Mony Mony where they can feel like they’re being naughty by singing the frat boy dude bro “get laid, get fucked” bit.

Wait, there’s some cranky punk dissenters at the back who are not buying into the group think of the rest of the crowd. Play an old obscure song for them so they don’t feel left out. Seriously, there were all of about 10 people who recognized the Generation X song “King Rocker”. The rest of the crowd stood by, confused and slightly perturbed as the minority few rocked out. If we truly lived in a fascist regime, the powers that be would use this as an opportunity to single us out as troublemakers and “disappear” us as we exited the venue at the end of the night.

Finally, give them a physical thing to remember you by – shirts covered in your sweat, frisbees, etc. Now, they’ll do just about anything for you. They’re your rock and roll army. The crowd is filled with the euphoric energy of a shared experience, the awe of a great performance. At this point, if Billy Idol told the crowd to trash the hall, or take to the streets and attack someone or a specific group of people, I have no doubt they would.

It all starts to feel a little like Zepplin field, with the Wagner blasting away as the men in long black leather coats and visor caps with skulls on the front of them (Costuming coincidence? Probably, but maybe not. Rock and roll, especially Goth and metal, takes a whole lot of imagery from the Nazis.) appear to uproarious cheers.

Let’s be clear – I’m not calling Billy Idol a Nazi – I witnessed the exact same crowd response once at a Prince concert (it creeped me out so much I had a panic attack and had to leave). What I am saying is that it would be so easy for fascist governments to passively control the people, with little fear or paranoia, if they ever thought to enlist rock stars. Or if rock stars ever harboured dreams of governmental power. The majority of people would be happy and complacent and willing to serve their overlords in whatever ways necessary, in exchange for free concert tickets and a regular hit of that group euphoria.

And that’s a pretty terrifying thought.