It took Billy Idol just 20 minutes to write his classic song “White Wedding” after he sat in the recording studio and began thinking about his sister’s recent marriage.
The former Generation X singer had recently arrived in the US in 1981 to record his first solo album, although he knew the project required more material than just the songs he brought with him.
In his 2015 memoir, Dancing With Myself, Idol recalled how producer and drummer Keith Forsey put him to work: “He set me up in the control room with my Epiphone semi-acoustic and a drum machine. ‘See what you can find,’ he said and left the room to give me space to allow ‘Jah to come down’ to invade my senses and infuse the session with some heavenly splendor.”
It wasn’t a long wait. “Jah must’ve known I needed something special on this day,” Idol continued. “I stared at the blank piece of scrap paper in front of me. Taking the pen sitting alongside it in hand, I wrote ‘White Wedding’ at the top. What made me think of that? Well, my sister had recently gone to the altar pregnant. And while that fact was perfectly all right with everyone, seeing as how she loved the guy, I started thinking about how, in the more recent past, this would have been called a ‘shotgun wedding.’ I started to imagine an alternative reality, one in which I was pissed off at this violation of my sister, and I arrived at the wedding hellbent on revenge.”
Idol began playing the guitar in his favorite key as the lyrics began to come to him. “Is this guy in love with his sister in an incestuous way, hating the thought of anyone else having her?” he wondered. “The lyrics imply it, but without spelling it out – they create an uneasy feeling.”
There was another inspiration at work, too, especially in the line “It’s a nice day to start again.” “This was probably me echoing my own experience of starting again after the Gen X breakup,” he noted. “I continued to work around these ideas. I began to play a B minor over the chugging … chord changes and simply picked up and down the strings, giving the music what sounded like a ‘spaghetti western’ feel with which we could start the song .
Watch Billy Idol’s ‘White Wedding’ Video
“Twenty minutes after I had started, I came out of the control room to find Keith. … ‘Teach,’ I said, ‘I’ve done my homework.’ At first, he couldn’t believe I had come up with something that quickly. Still, after he examined my work tape and heard a bit of explaining from me, we immediately started to construct a more coherent demo that we could play for the whole band.”
While the version released as a single is referred to as “White Wedding (Part 1)” the longer, eight-minute track known as “White Wedding (Parts 1 and 2)” was an even longer song when he and Forsey finished. “If overlong and repetitive, it still gave us a picture of the song and something we could edit with the whole band there,” Idol said. “I was pretty knocked out by my efforts and glad that I’d come up with something of the caliber of ‘Dancing With Myself.’ This time, I had written it on my own, without a collaborator. ‘So this is how this solo stuff works,’ I thought to myself.”
The entire band got to work the following day. “‘White Wedding’ turned into a huge production number when we decided to add a second synthesized version to the rock version,” Idol said. “The guitars fade into a doomy keyboard pad with electro-rock rhythms to give it that Giorgio Moroder disco thing I dug. I then intoned another vocal on top of it, enjoying the spare, dark vibe and the different feel.”
He said he aimed for his music to be “pliable, so individual songs could work in a number of different ways.” “When a song is good, the number of interpretations it accommodates grows, as do the instrumental possibilities,” he explained.
Listen to the Full Version of Billy Idol’s ‘White Wedding’
As another example of how fast the band was working, they performed the new song live that same night. “We decided to do a jump-up gig at a small joint on Sunset Boulevard where LA musicians hung out,” Idol recalled. “We debuted ‘White Wedding’ there to a somewhat indifferent audience, but we didn’t care. The song was a blast, and we felt great adding it to our repertoire. The joint was called the Central, which Johnny Depp would later reopen and name the Viper Room.”
“White Wedding” was the second single from Billy Idol in October 1982, following “Dancing With Myself.” It reached No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, and while it’s not Idol’s biggest chart hit, it’s become one of his signature songs.
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A stage name like Billy Idol isn’t chosen just because it sounds cool.