Steve Stevens and Billy Morrison
Billy Idol’s Twin-Guitar Attack
By Paul Hanson
Guitar legend Steve Stevens holds a huge résumé of achievements as both a solo artist and sideman, working with a diverse range of artists that include Joni Mitchell, Michael Jackson, Vince Neil, and many more. He’s also a GRAMMY® winner, earning honors in 1986 for his contributions to the Top Gun film soundtrack. Even with this impressive list, he’s most known for his nearly 30-year association with ’80s icon Billy Idol and his pyrotechnic playing on Idol tracks such as “Rebel Yell” and “Eyes Without a Face.”
For Idol’s 2010 tour, guitarist Billy Morrison has been added to the fold. Morrison has previously toured with The Cult, and fronts his own band Circus Diablo. He’s also a founding member of the celebrity cover band Camp Freddy, an act that features guest appearances by an evolving circle of famous musicians (including Steve Stevens).
I recently interviewed Steve and Billy between tour dates for a BOSS Tone Radio podcast. To listen to the complete discussion and clips of their music, visit www.BossUS.com/Podcasts.
The following is an excerpt from our talk.
How’s the new Billy Idol band going with the twin-guitar attack?
Billy: I’m the new guy, so I guess I’ve got to tell you it’s an honor to play these songs. I’ve been a Billy Idol fan for a long time, so I’ve seen him play with just Steve, and I’m astounded at how great it all sounds with the two guitars, the twin thing going on. It’s great.
I love the cool western guitar part on “White Wedding.” Steve, did you come up with that?
Steve: Actually, I didn’t. When we did the first Billy Idol record, we’d recorded about eight songs. We needed one more, so our producer, Keith Forsey, had Billy stay in the studio all night. We were staying at the Sunset Marquis, and about 11:00 the next morning, I got a knock on my door from a very inebriated Billy Idol. He walked in with a cassette and played me [a demo of] “White Wedding,” [and] that sort of Ennio Morricone guitar thing was on there. I’ve gotta say, the song was spectacular even in its demo stage.
It’s a great song. During rehearsals, is Billy Morrison doing things on guitar that you don’t expect?
Steve: Yeah, most of the time. [Laughs.] This couldn’t have happened with any other guitar player, I’ve got to say that. Billy and I have developed a working relationship; when I guest with Camp Freddy and with some other things that we’ve done over the course of the last year, we’ve become this really incredible two-guitar team, because we know each other’s strengths and limitations. We fill the gaps in-between us, and stylistically I felt so comfortable and wanted to continue that. When the call came to do another Billy Idol tour, I asked Billy [Morrison] if he’d be up for it, and it’s worked out incredibly well.
Billy: We don’t have to sit and discuss parts too much; there’s an unspoken vibe. We fit naturally. I love calling myself a rhythm guitar player, and I understand the job of a rhythm guitar player is to provide a bedrock for the lead guitar player. I think that’s what makes me suited to this kind of gig—and this gig in particular—because Steve is such a phenomenal lead guitar player. That’s what my job is, and I love that job.
Steve, you grew up in New York and started playing guitar at a really young age. I read you attended the LaGuardia High School for Performing Arts. Is that the school in the movie Fame?
Steve: Well, yeah, that’s the school that it was based on. But I can tell you that there was nobody dancing on the lunch tables. [Everyone laughs.] Me and the kids that I became friends with were all from the suburbs, and then, boom, you’re in Manhattan everyday. I’d get off the train, and the school is on 46th Street and the music stores are on 48th. They’d have you do your music classes in the morning, then lunch break, and then academics in the afternoon. The majority of us never went back after lunch! [Laughs.] I became friends with all of the guys in the music shops, and that was my education.
Billy, I want to ask you about the band Camp Freddy. You created this celebrity supergroup with drummer Matt Sorum (Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver) and guitarist Dave Navarro (Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers). How the heck did this thing happen?
Billy: Well, pretty much by accident. Like all great things, there wasn’t much thought behind it. When you don’t over-think something, it usually becomes real and organic. We had an invite to go down and open a hotel in Los Angeles, [to] play a bunch of covers and have a good time. We did that and we had so much fun, [and] coming up eight years later, we’re still doing it. It turned into something we never expected.
I think it still carries on so successfully because it really is fun. It also spawns a lot of great relationships, not the least the Billy Morrison/Steve Stevens relationship. Steve’s been playing with Camp Freddy on and off for years. Had it not been for Camp Freddy, we might not have developed what we’ve developed.
I’m looking at a list of guest performers with the band. You have the most diverse group of people: Moby, Ronnie Wood, Billy Joe Armstrong, Perry Farrell, Lou Reed, Nuno Bettencourt, Sebastian Bach, Kid Rock, Melissa Etheridge, Dee Snyder, Steven Tyler...
Billy: Let me stop you there. [Laughter.] The list is actually over 300 guests, so we would be here awhile. Yeah, it’s a pretty comprehensive and impressive list, and the reason is, we make sure it’s fun. The whole point of Camp Freddy is that it’s the antithesis of the “how many units are we shipping” type of mentality. We aren’t shipping any units. We haven’t got any units.
Steve, I’ve got to tell you, I’m a huge fan of your playing in the Top Gun movie soundtrack. I just love that movie, and your guitar playing on the “Top Gun Anthem” is a huge part of that. How did you get that gig?
Steve: The composer of the score was Harold Faltermeyer, and Harold was Keith Forsey’s partner in the whole Donna Summer thing with Giorgio Moroder. We were working on [the Billy Idol album] Whiplash Smile, and when it came time for keyboards, Harold came in [to play]. He mentioned, “Hey, I have this film that I’m working on. Would you be willing to take a look at it?” He showed me some of the footage, the aerial footage and stuff, and I knew who Tom Cruise was, etc.
Basically, all my involvement was done after the Billy Idol session at the end of the day, and I probably did all of the work in about three hours. And, lo and behold, we won a GRAMMY for it. It just goes to show that you can’t predict things like that.
Do you recall what gear you used during that session?
Steve: Yeah, it was all the same stuff I was using for the Billy Idol record, which was an early ’70s 100-watt Marshall, with one Marshall cabinet. I think at that point I was using a Charvel guitar, actually with a BOSS Compressor. Harold had a kind of guide guitar part, and it was really easy.
Billy, you played bass with The Cult, and you’re the lead singer/frontman with your band Circus Diablo. Now you’re playing guitar. You’re kind of a multi-instrumentalist.
Billy: You know what, I’m actually not. I was making it up as I went along when I was in The Cult. That’s not my primary instrument, but I’ve been friends with Billy Duffy for years, and when you get asked if you want to play bass in The Cult, you say, ”Yes.” The Cult is Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy, that’s it, and I’m just one of a long line of people who’ve been in the band. It was a great period, but I’m a guitarist by trade. I mean, I have a Gibson signature model coming out this year. I’m not a bass guitar player. That was the one and only time that I will ever play bass.
I watched a few Circus Diablo videos on YouTube. As a frontman, you’re kind of like a cross between Mick Jagger and Johnny Rotten. And I hope you take that as a compliment.
Billy: I’ll take both of those, and thank you very much.
Let’s talk about gear. Are you both Les Paul guys now?
Steve: Yeah. I played all those silly, ridiculous guitars in the ’80s that we all did, as long as they were pink and had a Floyd Rose. [Laughs.] But, truth be told, I didn’t own a decent guitar when I met Billy Idol. He got [the record label] Chrysalis to pay for a ’53 Les Paul. We didn’t pay that much for it, because someone had stupidly pulled the bridge off of it and put a Bigsby on it or something. Nobody wanted this thing, and it was in pretty bad shape. So, we fixed it up, and I did the entire first record on just that guitar, and a lot of Rebel Yell on that guitar, about half the album. And then I was kind of swayed away when everybody was doing the tapping stuff during the ’80s…
…and whammy stuff?
Steve: Yeah, right. And I kind of aligned myself with Hamer Guitars and all that, but I’ve gravitated back to playing Les Pauls, at least for the last 12 years. Obviously, if I play “Rebel Yell,” I use a guitar with a wang bar on it, but other than that it’s all Les Pauls.
I heard both you guys have BOSS DD-20 Giga Delays.
You can save four different delay presets on the DD-20. Do you do that?
Steve: Yeah. I think I’ve only saved two, though. One is like an eighth-note delay, and during the latter part of the solo on “Eyes Without a Face,” we had reversed the guitar, so that [pedal’s reverse function] comes in really handy with that. It sounds great.
Billy: I actually use two of these pedals, and I use all eight presets. I’ve been getting into figuring out what a triplet would be at a certain tempo and storing it, I love the pedal. I’ve got one for the acoustic chain and one for the electric chain, and all four presets on each pedal are saved, and tempos are worked out. I actually like the tape delay; [the sound] degenerates as the delay progresses.
Steve, are you still using Marshall amps?
Steve: Basically, the guy who puts my gear together is Dave Freidman. He has a company called Rack Systems, and the amp that I use is built by him. It’s called a Marsha—he couldn’t afford the “Ls.” [Laughs.] It’s Dave’s take on an early Marshall. I have four old plexis, but they’re just not roadworthy; they’ve really become scarce and valuable, so I’d rather not bring those pieces out on the road with me. This amp is basically like an old plexi with a good master volume.
Steve, I’ve seen videos of your live flamenco guitar show, and you’ve got a synthesizer accompaniment. Do you use a guitar synthesizer for that?
Steve: I think it’s a GR-33, not the latest version, but the one right before the latest one. And I have an endorsement with Godin Guitars.
The Godin has the 13-pin synth output built in.
Steve: Exactly, right. I was very skeptical about tracking on a nylon-string guitar, but it actually works better because [there are] not as many overtones with a nylon string. So, the tracking is spot on, and I’ve developed a little solo piece. After I’d toured with Vince Neil, I kind of got burned out on playing electric guitar. I’d gone to see Paco de Lucia play, and just got this bug to do a flamenco record. I’m not a traditional flamenco guitarist by any means.
Steve, I read that you use a BOSS FV-500 volume pedal. BOSS makes two models: the high-impedance FV-500H and the low-impedance FC-500L. Which do you use?
Steve: [The FC-500L], because the switcher I use has buffers in it. The cable is probably 30 feet long, so I run at low impedance.
Billy, I heard you use several other BOSS pedals, including a CH-1 Super Chorus, an SD-1 Super Overdrive, and a new TU-3 Chromatic Tuner.
Billy: My secret weapon: I love the Tremolo pedal.
The TR-2 Tremolo?
Billy: Yeah. I use that on a lot of acoustic stuff subtly underneath; it makes it move. I’ve always been a fan of that kind of early ’50s guitar playing with vibrato and tremolo going on, so I incorporate that where I can.
One of my favorite pedals for leads is the SD-1 Super Overdrive. I know you’re not doing many leads, but is that what you have the SD-1 for?
Billy: Actually, what I use that for is a different tone. I use Marshalls, and I have channel switching. I have the second channel set almost clean, and I have the option of using that as it is, or adding a pedal for a rhythm sound. In “White Wedding” and a couple of other songs, I’m playing [them] with that pedal for tone. It actually sounds killer. It complements what Steve’s doing. It’s great.
I also read you have an AC-3 Acoustic Simulator.
Steve: It’s awesome.
A thing about that pedal that folks don’t always know is that you can take a line output of the acoustic simulation and send it directly to the front-of-house PA.
Billy: That’s by far the best way of getting it to sound exactly like an acoustic guitar. But I actually use it for what it says—it’s an acoustic simulation. If I want an acoustic, I’ll play an acoustic. But what I find is that it’s great for parts. There’s a song that I’m using it on, “Speed,” and I use it for the verses. It does exactly what I want it to do, which is not sound like a clean guitar but not sound like an acoustic. It’s a great effects pedal as well.
Steve, you’ve had this huge, long career, and done just about everything a guitar player can do. Do you have some advice for guitarists out there who are starting out?
Steve: I was fortunate that I started playing and really listening to music in that great, early ’70s British rock guitar era. I would put Hendrix in that category, because he made his career in England. Obviously, you’re going to listen to the stuff that you dig.
As a kid, if you want to pick up the guitar, it’s because you’ve just seen your favorite band and you go, “Hey, I want to do that.” But do it for the right reasons, which is the love of music. That’ll carry you through a 30-year career as it has for me. You know, it’s the love of music that’ll keep it happening. And find music outside of what you’re naturally a fan of, to find your own voice. I went through a period of listening to Miles Davis or Coltrane or something just to see how that could kind of seep into my playing and [create] something unique.
Great advice. Billy, do you have any tips for guitarists out there?
Billy: Exactly the same, actually. I would say do it because you love it. If you’re not doing it because you love music, don’t bother—you ain’t going to get anywhere. You know, it’s a hard business. It’s not what the majority of the world thinks it is, and what carries you through a long career is loving what you do. That way, when you haven’t got any money and you’re eating Pop Tarts out of the back of a van in Peoria, Illinois, you’re still having a good time. You do it because you love music, and I do it because I love to see smiling faces. When I’m on stage and I see people enjoying a show, it takes me back to being 14 and watching The Clash, and it’s just amazing.