The LinnDrum's Most Surprising Trailblazer?

The LinnDrum LM2 was introduced in 1982.

The knocking on the door of the room at the Hollywood Sunset Marquis was urgent—and very, very early. Guitarist Steve Stevens finally answered, bleary eyed, on this morning in 1982. He was greeted by a grinning Billy Idol, holding up a boombox.

Idol had spent the previous night locked away in the studio by producer Keith Forsey. The former Generation X singer’s full-length debut was nearly complete. But Forsey didn’t hear a hit—and he’d insisted that Idol write one.

“So Billy’s standing there, and he says, ‘I think I got the single!’” Stevens says, smiling at the memory. What Stevens heard next was the first version of “White Wedding,” which became Idol’s signature MTV hit. And its pulse was provided by the LinnDrum, a device that would play a critical role in Idol’s early solo success.

In turn, Idol, Stevens, and Forsey helped make the LinnDrum ubiquitous. The Linn became a signature sound of the early MTV years. And Idol smashes like “White Wedding” and “Eyes Without A Face” were a big part of that dominance.

Stevens had grown up in New York, where he remembers seeing the pioneering punk duo Suicide make use of a drum machine. So, unlike some skeptics in the ’70s and ’80s, he welcomed the new technology.

Not long after Stevens joined Idol’s band in 1981, Keith Forsey bought the brand-new LinnDrum. It was the even more popular follow-up to Roger Linn’s groundbreaking LM-1. “When I saw it, I said, ‘Oh, I gotta get one of those,’” Stevens recalls. “So Billy got one, and I got one too.” That trio of LinnDrums helped generate some of the biggest hits of the ’80s. But not everyone realized that those Billy Idol records were also a master class in combining drum machines and live percussion.

The official video for Billy Idol's "White Wedding (Part 1)", which features the LinnDrum.

For example, the full-length “White Wedding (Parts 1 and 2)” shifts seamlessly from live drumming to the LinnDrum at about the four-minute mark. Asked how this was achieved, Forsey now thinks for a few moments. He finally laughs. “How the fuck did we do it?” He pauses again. “Billy and Steve were coming to it from a punk thing, and I was coming to it from the disco thing,” explains Forsey, who had been the percussionist of choice for disco impresario Giorgio Moroder.

So Forsey had no problems with drum machines. “And I thought nothing of doing a ten-minute extended version. We thought, ‘This’ll be really cool, to start out with live drums and then let the machine take over.’”

The follow-up to Billy Idol was the 1983 album Rebel Yell. It was clear that this time around, the LinnDrum was going to be important to the sound. As one example, “Flesh For Fantasy” started as what Forsey describes as a punk rock song. “And then the guys went away, and I spent the evening in the studio, and I took it apart.” When Idol and Stevens heard the sleek, LinnDrum’d result the next day, “they were like, ‘That’s the shit!’”

The LinnDrum, in fact, provided the basic percussion for all the songs on Rebel Yell. But finding a drummer who could play along seemed nearly impossible. Forsey was well known as one of the world’s most precise drummers. Why didn’t he just play the drums on Rebel Yell himself? “I didn’t want to be in the position of producing myself,” he says, simply. So drummers kept entering and exiting Studio B at New York’s Electric Lady recording complex, withering under Forsey’s critical eye.

“You know, the thing with drummers is that I’m not always sure that it’s their fault,” Forsey admits. “Maybe it’s me. There are just some guys that I’m comfortable with. Maybe it’s because I hear myself in them. Price is one of them.”

“Price” is session drummer Thommy Price, who was then recording Warrior in Electric Lady’s Studio A with the AOR band Scandal. In desperation, Idol’s engineer, Michael Frondelli, had gotten the idea to poach Price during a break. Price played on the Rebel Yell song “(Do Not) Stand In The Shadows,” and he never left. “After that, I was just going up and down in the elevator, making both records,” Price recalls with a laugh.

What was his secret to playing with the LinnDrum? Price shrugs good-naturedly. “I don’t know—no one taught me how to do it,” he says. “Back then, pretty much no one had that skill, to make it sound consistent and natural. I think you just find your space, like Keith showed me.”

Price would record a complete drum track, “and then Keith pulled them in and out, depending on where he wanted the real drums to be featured. But even on songs like ‘Flesh For Fantasy’ and ‘Eyes Without A Face’—I’m in there somewhere!”

The official video for Billy Idol's "Eyes Without A Face", which features the LinnDrum.

After Rebel Yell was released, drum machine technology changed rapidly. Yet Forsey stayed loyal to the LinnDrum. “The Linn—they got it exactly right,” he says. “Why the fuck do I want to re-learn everything again? There’s no reason to change.”

However, by the next Idol LP, 1986’s Whiplash Smile, some changes were in order. “By then, there was the emergence of hip-hop,” says Stevens. “And certainly, living in New York, we started to hear all these records with [the Roland] 808.”

Some of the new songs, like the gospel-tinged cover of “To Be A Lover” and the acoustic, atmospheric “Sweet Sixteen,” were “a little softer—not as aggressive. And it just seemed like that 808 kick and snare really fit well. It didn’t overpower the acoustic instruments. I think that was conscious, to try to dip our toes into a little more of that urban thing.”

Eventually, Stevens would abandon his trusty LinnDrum for the software program Cubase. But when he and Idol went to London in 2014 to record Kings & Queens Of The Underground with producer Trevor Horn, “Trevor pulls out the LinnDrum, and I was like, ‘Wow, it’s still cool to use one of these!’” Idol, who had kept his LinnDrum, was delighted, adds Stevens. “Because it was back to the way we always used to work.”

Stevens was so inspired, in fact, that “when I got back to Los Angeles, I thought, ‘I oughta pull out my LinnDrum.’” He gives a rueful laugh. “And then I realized, ‘Oh shit, I sold it!’” Nevertheless, when he and Idol put together a two-man tour in 2019, Stevens realized that a drum machine might be the perfect third musician.

“The two of us create quite a big sound,” he explains. “So I said, ‘I don’t wanna play to backing tracks. I want everything we do to be real.’ And I said to Billy that it’d be cool to use a drum machine. But it’s gotta be obvious that it’s a drum machine. And I don’t think we should use expensive sounds.”

So Stevens bought a cheap Roland drum machine, which “we proudly displayed on a chair,” and insisted that he operate it himself. As the tour went on, Stevens came to appreciate that the modest little machine made a direct connection to the origins of those classic Idol tracks. “It needed to be very basic—naive,” says Stevens. “Because it was like we were re-creating how we wrote these songs in the first place.

About the Author: Dan LeRoy’s latest book is Dancing To The Drum Machine: How Electronic Percussion Conquered The World (available here). For more information visit

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