The Smoldering Intensity of “Eyes Without a Face” by Billy Idol and Why He Considers It an “Anti-Love Song”

From the get-go, Billy Idol was readily identifiable as a punk because of his image, menacing snarl, and fiery tracks like “Rebel Yell” and “Dancing with Myself.” But the truth is he was not always as easy to define. Many of his musical influences came from the 1950s, and while his band Generation X had certainly made a lot of noise in the midst of the UK punk explosion of the 1970s, he was more multifaceted than many members of that scene. He had a distinct croon that lent itself to material that wasn’t always raucous. In fact, some of his most intriguing songs are the ones that were more low-key like his most famous ballad, “Eyes Without a Face” from the 1983 album Rebel Yell.

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“I think I was just deliberately trying to write not a love song, because the ‘80s was full of love songs or drippy, soppy love songs,” Idol recently told Vevo Footnotes. “So I thought maybe I just write an anti-love song. It’s almost a murder song. That’s what I was thinking about, almost like a serial killer.”

I spent so much time
Believing all the lies
To keep the dream alive
Now it makes me sad
It makes me mad at truth
For loving what was you

Eyes without a face
(Les yeux sans visage)
Eyes without a face
(Les yeux sans visage)
Eyes without a face
Got no human grace
You’re eyes without a face

The murderer in this relationship, however, was not a person, but more likely a drug. The lyrics for the song express sadness, perhaps even regret, over falling in love with someone who has a problem, like addiction. Two close-ups in the video even show a plastic band being strapped around Idol’s tattooed arm (a more obvious drug-injection reference) while he writhed on the ground. Like many songs and videos of that era, the more adult meanings of certain songs were masked by a layer of lyrical subterfuge. But if you knew what the performer was singing about, it made complete sense.

Perhaps He Was the Killer

In his autobiography, Idol offered another take on the tune: “I used to tell people ‘Eyes Without a Face’ was a murder song. I wonder if I was aware that it was my hijinks and gradual infidelity that were killing Perri’s and my love story. … It’s possible I was predicting our eventual dissolution.” So perhaps he was the killer, although a metaphorical one at that.

The love of his life who got away, Perri Lister was the inspiration for the song “Rebel Yell” and she also sang the title of “Eyes Without a Face” in French in its chorus. However, this was not a fatal, Sid and Nancy-type romance—their partnership eventually just fell apart. Idol has admitted he made mistakes that ultimately drove away Lister, who is the mother of their son. Her influence on Idol’s early work was quite pronounced.

“Eyes Without a Face” was indeed the antithesis of many ‘80s love songs, and the brooding vibe given off by the music came out of an interesting mixture of elements, including a simple yet throbbing bass line, gentle guitar strums from Steve Stevens, very atmospheric keyboards, and that classic “double clap” sound so prominent in a lot of early ‘80s music. A big part of what makes the song so dramatic is the mid-section where Stevens injects bristling guitar riffs and a squealing solo. Later ‘80s power ballads often overdid everything, but the guitarist knew how to get power by increasing the intensity just enough to be effective.

Idol told Vevo Footnotes how the bass part was very important to him. It was not constant throughout the song, but it moved forward in short bursts and rests. “One of the things we were having trouble with was the bass line because I like reggae,” Idol recalled. “I wanted it to be a really prominent bass line, and we were having a hell of a time finding someone who could play my idea until we met Sal Cuevas, who was playing in the Dreamgirls Broadway band. He nailed it.” Cuevas was a salsa bassist known for working with renowned Latin musicians like Héctor Lavoe, Willie Colón, and Ruben Blades.

“Eyes Without A Face” shares a title with the 1960 French film by Georges Franju called Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face). In it, a plastic surgeon seeks to restore the face of his disfigured daughter after a car accident, killing people to get the facial features he needs.

The Iconic Video

The video for the Idol song became as iconic as the tune itself. The singer has acknowledged the influence of early 20th century silent movies like those of Boris Karloff’s on his early videos like “White Wedding” and “Eyes Without a Face,” the latter of which gave nods to the set work in German Expressionist films. There were also some sexy, silhouetted women amid the gothic mise en scène, and many close-ups in Idol’s mirrored the allure and power of the song. He radiated the track’s quiet emotional anguish, and his presence proved he was ready-made for the music video era.

Some of Idol’s most enigmatic numbers have been the ballad-type tracks. The seemingly upbeat yet eerie “Dead Next Door” cryptically dealt with the concept of nuclear holocaust. The haunting ballad “Sweet Sixteen” was inspired by a strange, real-life romantic obsession. The more recent “Bitter Taste,” a hazy track that invokes the sound of Chris Isaak, looked back on his near-fatal motorcycle accident from 1990.

40 Years on

Idol’ Rebel Yell turned 40 years old last December, with a deluxe anniversary edition emerging in April. While there are certainly aspects of the album that feel very ‘80s, the music transcends that particular time period. Idol himself is still out on tour performing a lot of these songs, and his music has spanned multiple generations of fans. Back in the day, “Eyes Without a Face” hit No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart, while Rebel Yell went Double Platinum. The video has racked up nearly 350 million views on YouTube and about 340 million plays on Spotify. This song and “Rebel Yell” remain the most popular in his repertoire. Over the years, Idol and Stevens have performed different variations of “Eyes” from acoustic to electric.

Beyond being an eternally memorable tune, the importance of a song like “Eyes Without a Face” is it showed how diverse Idol could be and how he represented something beyond the two-dimensional punk image that many people had in their minds. He crossed musicals bridge in ways that often defied easy classification. That’s a big reason why he remains popular today.

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Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Empire State Realty Trust

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