Behind the Song: Billy Idol, “Eyes Without a Face”

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Aggression, addiction, very little musical talent and safety pins through the ears were a few of the hallmarks of the ‘70s punk genre, and one of England’s early punk front men was Billy Idol. He was destined for more than the usual poverty of punk life, though, and went on to play with the more mainstream Generation X. Then he made the best move of his life when he went to New York to actually start making money with a solo record deal. Many in the punk community decried him as a poseur, but his ‘80s MTV videos made him a star, a one-of-a-kind singer who crooned and snarled with punk energy, but whose songs were strategically driven by heavy guitars and high danceability, just when the music industry was ushering in the new digital sound quality of the compact disc.

Idol’s single “Eyes Without a Face,” from his second album Rebel Yell, was his first Top Ten hit in the US and was his breakthrough solo single back home in the UK. A melodic ballad that opened with synth strings and percussion handclaps before evolving into a hard-edged rocker, “Eyes Without a Face” became known for its female chorus lyrics, which a lot of people couldn’t understand, like it was in a foreign language.

Well, it was. The reason the chorus didn’t make sense to some people was because the female section was sung in French. Idol’s then-girlfriend sang the French words of the song’s title, Les yeux sans visage, followed by Idol singing Eyes without a face, both repeating three times in each of the three choruses. In his no-holds-barred book Dancing With Myself, Idol talked about where the French lyrics came from and the impact the song had on his career.

“I’ve always had a fascination with the titles of horror films … I was particularly intrigued by the ‘60s French nouvelle vague forerunner Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face), about a brilliant plastic surgeon who vows to restore the face of his daughter, who has been horribly disfigured in a car accident. This vow leads him to murder, as he sets out collecting the facial features of his victims, which he then grafts onto his daughter’s hideous countenance, attempting to restore her beauty. Her staring eyes remain the only thing visible.”

“When I got to the studio [to work on Rebel Yell], I told [guitarist/co-writer] Steve Stevens about the tune I had in my head, though I didn’t have any chords. He showed me a revolving four-chord pattern he’d been working on that fit really well over the top of the tune [Emaj7-C#m-G#m-B].”

“Steve came up with a blistering guitar riff for the middle of the song that added a whole other dimension, rendering it more than just a ballad. I improvised a rapping part to go over the top. Rap was everywhere in New York at the time, in all the discos and clubs, so it made sense after my croon to start talking streetwise over Steve’s supersonic barrage of sound.”

“When the ‘Eyes Without a Face’ video debuted in June of 1984, it went to number one on MTV for six weeks. Add to that the over-the-top radio play for this twisted ballad, which was always paired with the Cars’ ‘Drive’ on the NY drive-time station, and we climbed into the Top Ten singles chart at Billboard.”

This song was really a perfect storm with a melody based on a very non-hard rock chord in the Emaj7, and Idol’s unique voice singing such melodic verses. Combine that with Stevens’ smoking guitar work and a killer bass part, and it’s a song that has stood the test of time. Idol and Stevens still perform the song live, most recently playing it nightly at Idol’s pre-coronavirus residency at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas.     

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