Disclaimer: Be Advised, this is an opinion piece, I’m not a music critic. I’m just making this piece more as someone who would have been in the demographic for this at the time the album came out. I was curious to see how people feel about the album now and maybe diving into what went wrong back in the 1990s
In 1992, Billy Idol released the experimental punk-rock album, Cyberpunk. Despite the flashy music videos and media coverage with all the fanfare, the project was deemed a failure. It was canned by music critics for being a bizarre mess, Billy Idol fans seemed more confused by the project as well as the general public that couldn’t make heads or tales of it. Some even called the album overly pretentious and Billy was trying way to hard to keep up with the latest trends. On that same note the cyberpunk community at the time, fans of the genre as well as writers and those who in some way affiliated with the subculture showed clear distain for the album. Some did come to his defense but a good majority felt it was Billy jumping on the bandwagon.
Q Magazine in 2006 even labeled the album as number five on their “50 Worst Albums of All Time” list. The project was mocked and Billy Idol was written off as a joke for a while. It was not a financial success at all from what I was able to find and even today, only a few of the songs are even remembered much less discussed and one of them was featured on some of his most notable hits playlists, Shock to the System.
So as I am a big fan of cyberpunk, vaporwave, and all that neon drenched goodness; I asked myself is the album as bad as they say it was? I also found myself deeply curious of music that labels itself as cyberpunk or inspired by the subgenre.
I was super young when the album came out and I never listened to it until this point mainly because I was never told much about and it never came up in conversation if you talk about weird or interests albums from the 1990s. I never heard any of the songs on the radio or mentioned anywhere else.
In fact I first heard about this album in two ways, when I googled the term “cyberpunk” the album is one of the first 10-15 results to pop up and from a YouTube video posted by Todd in the Shadows about the album and its failure. I’ll link the video below for reference but I highly recommend taking a look at it and his channel. He went into great detail about the project and I also respect that he took the time to at least understand the genre he was tackling.
This album escaped me for many years until I began to get more interested in cyberpunk in the last decade.
When it comes cyberpunk music its generally viewed as industrial, metal, or electronic rock/punk using heavy synthesizers which you mostly find you look up bands that are credited as cyberpunk inspired. A few good modern examples about be bands like Rabbit Junk or Celldweller to some extent. I would view it as very crunchy rock with synth in the background thought there is a lot of room for experimentation among artists to opt for something more synth heavy. Its a hard subgenre to pin down in a musical sense but I’ve seen more heavy metal and rock for bands that self describe themselves as cyberpunk.
Billy’s album is viewed as a cyberdelic with some traditional punk mixed in. Cyberdelic was an underground counterculture that was in its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, this from my understanding was the cyberpunk community essentially that got most of the attention from the media at least. Its an offshoot of cyberpunk that blended the hacker scene with psychedelic subculture. Sources say that Billy was heavily inspired by the cyberdelic community.
Their philosophy was heavily technology positive and they believed that advanced technology could “liberate them from authority” or Cryto-anarchism as its referred too. In fact Timothy Leary who was an advocate for this movement in the 1990s was contacted by Billy Idol to help assist with the album’s creation.
The Cyberdelic community was interesting its own right in terms of their beliefs and how they thought then the internet would create almost an utopian society. From what I read, the community fell apart several years after the album came out with the Dot.com bust on Wallstreet.
The music associated with cyberdelics is generally electronic trance kind of music or psytrance as its also called. A good example of this Goa Trace which gained popularity in the 1980s and originated in Goa, India. I linked a YouTube video with some examples but if you listen to this and then the album, the influence becomes more and more apparent. Billy I think opted for a much slower tempo version of this with some of his songs.
Let’s dive into the Songs!
I decided rather then just touch on the highlights of the album, I’m going through every song and what I have to say about them. Some of the songs I may not have to much to say especially if there really isn’t much to add but I’ll try my best. I’m also giving each song a rating out of five to better some up my thoughts on each song.
I’ll also be quoting an interview a lot as Billy gives more context about some of the more predominate songs and I wanted to share what he had to say.
The first song is called Wasteland and I have to be frank, the beat is pretty good and I can hear that there is some chiptune influence in there. Its like rock and electronic mixed and I enjoyed this song. Its not a head banger like Billy’s other work when he really digs into punk but there is a vibe there that one could consider cyberpunk inspired.
I give it a 3.5 out 5 stars for mostly being okay but it felt like a filler rather then a stand out starter to an album. It also felt sort of cyberpunk inspired but it was very vague.
Next is Shock To The System but before the song starts there is an interlude which plays audio clips of newscasters discussing the situation during the LA Riots in 1992. From what I read the song was ready to go but when Billy saw what was going on, he re-wrote the lyrics to be based around the event. The LA Riots (also known as the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising), for those of you who don’t know, took place after a jury acquitted officers who were involved in causing the death of Rodney King, especially after evidence being recorded on camera of what the officers did.
Tensions were high to say the least, as it was not just King’s death that sparked it. Up until that point throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Black Americans and the Los Angeles police force’s relationship was heavily strained. You can in many ways parallel this to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 in what sparked the protests after the death of George Floyd and a series of deaths up until that point caused by the police. After the not guilty verdict was found for the officers involved in the death of King, protestors marched on the streets. LA was basically shut down for the lack of a better term due to the protests and unrest.
So back to the song. Billy Idol decided to rewrite the lyrics based on the event. Below I put in a portion of the lyrics for context:
It was a night, L.A., burning bright
Oh, what a night
Say yeah, come on
It makes my world stand still
Ahh, riot, rape, race, and revolution, ah yeah
Here come the fire, and my world burns still
It was a night
Hell of a night, L.A., it really was
Oh, what a riot
I said yeah, come on
It makes my life feel real
Fear police and civil corruption, oh yeah
Is there a man who would be king?
And the world stood still
We have always had songs and music dedicated or inspired by tragedy or serious civil and political movements, but the reaction to Shock to the System was a mixed bag back in 1992.
Todd in the Shadows also made note about this as well and I think his discussion on it will do more justice to it then my feeble attempt to dissect the song as he goes into way more detail but I agree with him on his points about the song. Basically while Shock to the System is pretty fun to listen too and inline with his previous work, it makes the LA Riots seem like a party rather then a real time of major social unrest due to a horrific tragedy. The lyrics especially give that impression especially the “Oh what a night, oh what a riot” part. It made me think of that song Oh What a Night by Four Seasons weirdly enough. As I said I agree with this as why people had a problem with this song back then especially since the riots just happened and it was a very raw and emotional subject at the time. I’m sure it was not intentional or meant to be insensitive but at that time I think people had some mixed feelings about it.
I do like the music and production for this song though. I love when Billy gets his rock and roll on, that is where he really shines of course.
I did read some more recent comments about the song on YouTube and a lot of people today really like it as opposed to back when it first came out. I think people look back and enjoy the rock and roll, they like seeing a punk song about the Riots and the social unrest that we are still dealing with today. As I’ll say later the general opinion of this album has softened over time. It also had a very creative music video, I even like it. I’m a sucker for a decent cyberpunk themed music video.
The scenes were Billy is slowly transforming into a robot is just awesome so if anything I can give major points for creativity. Maybe that’s why more people have grown to like the song because its kind of out there and creative much like many music videos of the 1990s.
I think if its good or not depends on the person listening. I agree that this is one of the better songs overall on the album if anything for feeling the most like a Billy Idol song.
3.5 out of 5.
The next song is Tomorrow People. I kind of liked this song. Its slower then Shock to the System as I don’t see myself dancing but the overall music itself is not bad. I can’t deny that I like the electronic chorus and sick guitar riffs. Its a slow but interesting piece of music. Its no joke a weird song it feels like something I found find more on Bandcamp within the very niche circle of vaporwave and underground rock music. Which is probably why I like this a lot. I don’t have a lot to say about it other then to me, its an okay song. Its kind of in the “meh” category for me, doesn’t do a lot but its fun enough to listen to out of most of the songs listed here.
3.5 out of 5
Adam In Chains is a song that I cannot decide if I love or totally hate. The beginning part with the voice telling you to relax was way to long (over two minutes). The beat was fine but it felt like I was listening to bad ASMR then a song on a punk album. The song in total is 6 minutes and 24 seconds, frankly they could have cut this down by a few minutes by removing the opening bit. Then once it gets to Billy its this long very soft tempo song about wanting revenge and how the forces around them are tearing the world apart. According to the biography section album this is what the song was about by Mark Frauenfelder (one of the writers of the song):
“Here’s a prayer for the tomorrow people and power junkies. Can we find the door to our inner self and challenge our spiritual demons? Can new technologies, such as VR and brainwave entertainment devices become new channels for self-realization?”
To be completely honest when I first heard this song, I was totally confused. The music video really helped with this as I was then able to grasp the concept and point of the song after the fact. Apparently the first half was meant to be a meditative section where the listener is lulled into a state of relaxation and zoning out. Then Billy start singing about “Adam being in chains” as he rejects this state he is put into. In the video he is forcibly put into a tranquil virtual reality but then rejects it. Its basically a metaphor but also a more story driven song where the listener is supposed to Billy who is rejecting the VR world he is forced into.
I’m having a super heard time deciding if I like this song or hate it. I don’t think either because part of me likes how experimental this song is, you’ll never quite get it out of your head with how bizarre the set up was. Its one of the more interesting songs on the list and I find myself liking more then I thought after a few listens.
4 out of 5
Neuromancer comes up right after with a much higher tempo and this song is a little more notable as the title is referencing the well known book of the same name, written by William Gibson. Gibson is considered to be the writer that pioneered the cyberpunk subgenre. Neuromancer was published in 1984 and today is still deemed as an important piece of literary work in the science fiction genre and was Gibson’s debut novel after publishing a few short stories up until that point. The basis premise (because diving into this book would be an article unto itself) details the story of Henry Case, a fictional washed up computer hacker who was hired who is offered a path to redemption and to have his life saved in turn for doing a job for a character named Armitage, a ex-military officer of sorts. Not to get too deep intro it but its overall a fantastic piece of fiction. The Neuromancer to put it simply is an AI character in the book with its own personality and thought process.
Fully disclusure I have not read the book, I only have a cliff notes understanding for the sake of this review and album discussion.
The lyrics are vaguely about the book in some respects. Yet I think that might be a problem. There are a TON of fan songs out there based on popular franchises from books to movies and so on, but I feel like the brand needs a HUGE fanbase of people for a song. You need enough people to get the references. I don’t think people were that knowledgeable of Neuromancer at least in a mainstream sense. I don’t think this resonated with a lot of his core audience except those who were in the cyberpunk community, it has a niche appeal.
The song itself is interesting but I think the music kind of brings it down, it goes on for a little too long and is not super exciting to listen too. Its not bad but also in the its okay category for me.
2.5 out of 5
Love Labours On and Shangrila both have this sort of slow-trance-ish vibe going on in the beginning which I’m all for as. The beat and tone is pretty good, slower but I love the electronic sound effects in the background. Lyrically its a pretty standard love song. Its about yearning for your lover and how the person is calling for them and waiting for them. Pretty standard by the way it’s sung and the whole production is well done.
Shangrila was the longest song on the album, over seven minutes. Yet, this is easily one of my favorites. So as I said before this album is certainly heavily Cyberdelic inspired much like Love Labours On, its very in line with the cyberdelic music subgenre but not as techno, its certainly slower. Honestly I kind of wished the whole album was like this.
According to Billy, this was another song he really liked overall and had this to say about it in the Gordon interview:
“”Shangi-La” The most powerful computer in the known universe, your
brain, can be accessed in many ways. Beside ancient and effective methods
of inner exploration, such as acupuncture, meditation, yoga and martial
arts, we have virtual reality and nootropics (psychoactive drugs that
increase intelligence) at our disposal, the new cool tools that people can
use to surf the information waves of the human biocomputer.
– (Billy Idol 1993, R.A.D! ON-LINE and also written within the physical disc copies)
Out of all the songs on the album, they feel much like Alice in Chains very out there and so strange that I can’t help but adore them. I LOVE Shangrila and I don’t even understand why. I think it speaks to my inner fangirl of the 1960s hippie culture and 1980s electronic stuff with a hint of rock that its a perfect combo for me.
Like I said this album shines when Billy is either doing his Rock n’ Roll thing or being as experimental as humanly possible.
4 out of 5 for both
Heroin was one of the weakest songs. This was actually a cover as the original song was from a band called The Velvet Underground from their debut album in 1967. It was a slow, very somber piece written by Lou Reed about drug abuse. You may have heard of it or about it if you’re a major music head as it was controversial with the media at the time. From what I read from some critics and reviewing the lyrics, it neither condones or criticizes drug abuse it just is about the drug heroin so some people found it to be kind of unlistenable. I honestly really like the song and yeah it does have this part where the singer is talking about how good it felt with the drugs in his arm and the beat picks up then just drops. Much like I would assume drug abuse is from what I know about it. The rush and then the withdrawal, then the next rush. Again very rough to listen too if you’re triggered by that or uncomfortable but I totally understand why it made a strong impact. I get what the song is remembered and so acclaimed.
Then Billy did his version. He basically pumped it up into a dance song with electronica in the background and it just kills the point of the song. The cover completely misses the point about what the original was. To be clear, there are upbeat songs about depression and drug abuse. A good example is the song i took a pill in ibiza by Mike Posner. He did a version of this where he played it pretty straight with guitar in the background and then he did a remix that was this dance/electronic version but it didn’t lose the overall point of what it was. It was a song about the singer’s long, hallow descent into debauchery and materialism while telling the audience they don’t want to be like him and be in his horrible mental state. The dance tune actually enhanced the song for me because I can imagine him standing in a club losing himself in partying and hedonism while inside he’s a shadow of his former self. I felt what Mike was trying to convey to the listener. You can totally make dance tunes about depressing subject matters and make it work, that’s a fact. However, Billy’s version totally missed the mark. Its easily the weakest song for me.
0.5 out of 5
Power Junkie is one that I was digging at first but as I listened to it, I think it was kind of boring. There wasn’t really a hook that got me pumped like Billy’s work usually does when he does his usually punk and rock n’ roll type of music. This song is definitely one of the more rock oriented songs on the album but its pretty general. Its about him going crazy and loosing his mind as he’s looking for love and my impression its a drug reference or he’s losing his mind because he’s looking for love which I think that’s what the intention is. But its honestly just a very average song. It was also way too long if you ask me, almost five minutes of Billy saying he’s a crazy man over and over. He has made far, far better rock and punk music then this. Its a shame because I see what he is trying to do here but the execution was not good.
3 out of 5
The last couple of songs Concrete Kingdom, Venus, Then The Night Comes, and finally Mother Dawn were not bad but nothing special. Nothing about them stood out to me and they all kind of blended together. The guitar riffs were great but the songs felt one note and they all felt like there the same with the overall beat and tone. I liked Venus the most of out these last few songs but only just a tony bit more for the music itself. The singing in these last couple were forgettable.
All of these songs get a 3 out of 5 for being just okay.
Reactions from the Cyberpunk community in the 1990s Vs. 2021
The community at the time when the album was released was not exactly thrilled by several accounts with the project as they felt it was a “jumping on the bandwagon” kind of stunt. Basically they believed he was using what was hot and trendy at the time. They felt like it went against much of the community believed especially the ones that were anti-capitalist. Masking a high production album about cyberpunk and an overall underground subgenre.
There were people who defended Billy, claiming that his album was not meant as a cash grab but was a genuine attempt at something new in a subgenre and community that interested him. It was a harmless but failed attempt.
Billy was met with angry responses by the cyberpunk community for not knowing anything about the themes of cyberpunk. Essentially claiming he was wearing the clothes and looked the part but they felt it was more like a Halloween costume then a genuine artistic expression of the subculture.
It seems that maybe people were overreacting a little bit about this, as the new subculture that was still growing and then to have a big rock/pop star come in and some claimed he tried to co-opt the word cyberpunk because that was the title of the album.
Its honestly hard for me to know if it was gatekeeper or genuine anger for someone who they felt was a poser, I was not an adult at that time so I wouldn’t really know. However, on the other hand yeah it does leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth to have someone use a subgenre to hop on a bandwagon in the hopes of being successful in the mainstream. Yet on the other, its someone whos making an artistically fueled project based on a group that they found interesting and wanted to learn more about. So I can understand both arguments.
Overall, the situation was very polarizing for the entire community.
Yet what about in 2021?
From what it looks like online, the consensus about the album has shifted quite a bit.
I checked out the cyberpunk subreddit to see if they had any thoughts and I was surprised.
I’ll link one of these posts below to see for yourselves but the opinion now seems to have soften slightly over the years but there are still plenty of detractors.
I also looked at various websites like All Music to get more recent impressions and comments. I was surprised how people were far more forgiving and seemed to like the album. I’ll list a few of them.
There was also a more recent reviews on the album. One I found was on a blog site called Punknews. While the post had some criticisms, it was overall very positive about the project.
“Looking back on it in 2017, it does seem dated and misconstrued, but do not let that remiss you from taking a gander. It’s an artistic vision that’s rewarding and brave, but also silly honestly.…The reviews and sales were not good and his public image really took a hit as a result. The man did not make another album until 2005.” (punknews.org, October 2017)
Todd in the Shadows had he’s own choice words for the album. Based on his analysis he felt the album was a career stopper, which was definitely true at the time. Yet even then after all his criticism he said this:
“But I can’t help but have affection for this album all the same. Its a cheesy, gaudy, insta-dated disaster…but it speaks to the dork in me.” (Todd in the Shadows, YouTube, 2018)
The community is still, even over 20 years later, torn on the album. Some see it as a nostalgic and fun album while others see it as a clobbered career ending mess that tried to be relevant but missed the mark.
I see now that the album is getting a new lease on life with more people rediscovering and liking some of the songs. I’ve even heard some people say they wish some of the songs were included in the Cyberpunk video game. I think that says a lot on how the feelings about Billy’s project has changed over time. We still have detractors out there but people see to be relating to this album a bit more. Maybe it is just nostalgic or maybe people are more open to albums about cyberpunk and themes regarding science fiction in music as we all now live in a world dominated by computers compared to our lives in the 1990s.
Its most likely a bunch of reasons that the consensus has changed but it was notable from my research how more people like it then don’t.
What Do I Think of the Album and Final Thoughts
The project was very ambitious for its time and not to mention it tried to appeal to mainstream audiences with a type sound that was and still is truly underground. You didn’t hear a lot of computer sound effects and lyrics like this was not common place in 1993.
I think one of the biggest reasons why it failed was the album was WAY too out there for his general fanbase and trying to push underground music into mainstream is a huge risk. I think his audience just didn’t know what to make of this album and I kind of agree with that. If you check out all the albums before Cyberpunk it was a lot of typical yet fun rock n’ roll and punk, he came straight of the 1970s punk scene from the UK after all.
Fans wanted rock and high energy which he was known for. Not a fantasy, concept album with computer sound effects and brief mentions of cyberpunk literature sewn in as well as influences from trance music. Its a completely different crowd. I think this was way too far into experimental territory for general pop music which could either do super well or fail completely. I’ve seen some strange albums make it onto billboard but this was just too out there.
While it was not a success commercially and critically back in the early 1990s, it has earned a more positive reputation from the community over time. I think maybe because people look back and see it was at least something different, not just another typical pop album. Its weird and a bizarre piece of music history all its own and I think people now kind of admire the attempt to make something different. Yet of course nostalgia tends to do that people even if the project is a bit of a mess.
Now as for the actual music itself which is the second biggest issue (obviously), Its not a total wash and I think labeling it as the top 50 worst albums of all time is kind of unjustified. I’ve heard way worse albums in the fact they were were so manufactured and just made to make quick cash. Ones with no ideas and no real attempts to make music. Those kinds of albums I think are the worst. That and where every song is just horrible at least to me. With Cyberpunk, I feel there was an attempt. There was effort and drive to create something so I think that deserves some credit. There was passion in making Cyberpunk.
However, the album is super disjointed with a lot more misses then hits. As you saw in the last section of me going down the list of songs. Most of them were in the ‘ its okay’ category. Some of them were pretty interesting from an experimental standpoint and again I’m someone who would get what they are trying to do because I’m in that demographic. If all the songs were like Alice in Chains or Shangrila in themes and lyrics I think the album would still not be a pop hit (you never know, crazier things have become hits) it could have become a cult classic just for being an extremely unique project overall.
An album that embraced a very small period of time of the Cyberdelic community that soon crashed and burned only a few years later. I find that very artistic and poetic. I kind of wonder if that’s what happened as people are more interested in the album now then they were before. Maybe because it does hit that strange point in history and with computers, hacker culture, and virtual reality becoming more apart of our lives 20 years later, I wonder if Cyberpunk was ahead of its time. Imagine if the album came out in the 2010s for example. Would things have been different?
Generally I enjoy when mainstream artists decide they want to do something out of their scope or to break away from doing the same sound over and over. Yet I also think trying to appease both spheres of typical commercial success and extreme artistic experimentation was the album’s downfall with critics and the marketplace.
Overall, I liked some of the songs especially the more unusual ones to a degree and when you look at how the community reacted and the media reacted, it had influence. It got people talking and asking questions of what was this album meant to be. What is cyberpunk meant to be? The album did fail at the time but the fact that people remember it and sometimes still talk about it, I think speaks for how it certainly left an impact on the music community.
I give this album a thumbs up, if anything for being a interesting piece of music history and a passion project that I’m happy to see people listening to again. If its good or not really depends on the listener. Give it a try!
What did you think of the album? What songs did you like? Why do you think the opinion of the album has slowly become more positive overtime? Leave a Comment!
If you are interesting in listening to Cyberpunk, its readily available across all commonplace platforms including Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, Pandora, Amazon, etc.
References and Links
Billy Idol – Cyberpunk | Punknews.org (2017 retrospective review)
Cyberpunk R.I.P. | WIRED (1993 article about how the movement was quickly dying off by the time the album came out)
Wayback Machine (archive.org) : A link to what looks like an online newsgroup and blog from 1993 about Cyberpunk called R.A.D! ON-LINE. The editor Keith Gordon had an interview with Billy Idol (Very interesting read, highly recommend taking a look).