The clenched fist. The snarl. The blond hair stood on end with toothpaste. The tattered clothes of the Reagan era's promised apocalypse. Singer Billy Idol may be better remembered for these things than for the records he's made, and it's too bad. Idol's work, particularly on mid-'80s album tracks such as "All Summer Single" and "The Dead Next Door," is innovative and sonically adventurous -- a bridge between Gary Numan's Tubeway Army and Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails. Thanks to Idol's collaborator, Steve Stevens, it's also a peculiar electronic synthesis of punk, doo-wop, and jazz. But few give Idol credit, choosing instead to remember him as one of the first superstars manufactured by MTV. Blame it on Idol's former mega-popularity and on the '80s, a decade notorious for valuing image above all else and giving us the political sound bite, the Izod shirt, and the very brand of Beverly Hills 90210
-inspired wealth worship that's a national pastime. This is why a Behind the Music
-style story like Idol's is so compelling and why his current greatest hits tour is just what our culture needs. It's a Horatio Alger tale for the digital age; one that tells of a young scamp whose hard work and hedonism led to success and, well, motorcycle accidents, weight problems, flop albums about the Internet, and appearances in ridiculous Broadway versions of Tommy
. Unfortunately, somewhere in all this sensationalism and misdirected '80s nostalgia, the sensational part of Idol's career gets lost. Remember, on "Sweet Sixteen," he was the punk who wanted to croon to the Lolita about whom Sting could only whine, and on "Flesh for Fantasy," he paired contemporary R&B with punk stylings. By comparison, the bulk of other bands out on this summer's reunion circuit can only claim Rubik's Cube-like novelty.