The drummer, producer, and songwriter has had a hugely successful career playing multiple, invaluable roles with Billy Idol, Simple Minds, Donna Summer, and other pop and rock greats. Here, close associate Erik Eldenius gets personal with the triple-threat artist, who in the past has tended to steer clear of the spotlight.

Photo by Erik Eldenius

I initially met Keith Forsey in 1999 in Los Angeles, when I auditioned for and then worked with Nik Frost, a local artist that Keith was developing. What stuck out more than anything during that audition was Keith’s energy. He was standing right by my drums, air drumming as he directed the action. I remember thinking, Wow, this guy really knows how to work you up.

Keith also produced four songs on Ex Girlfriends by my band Low Millions, including the album’s two singles. It was riveting to see how he would inspire us with his fierce energy and almost battlefield-like command. And whether playing the role of cheerleader or critic, he was always open to ideas, from whoever had one. He understood the value of the collective effort and the creative joy that it brings to a project. You would always know when something wasn’t working—Keith was very direct—but he would never be negative or put you down. Keith is always looking to make something work out.

One day he asked me if I wanted to record for Billy Idol, who Keith has worked with since the very beginning of his solo career. Billy was writing new material and had songs to demo up. Fast forward to 2012; by now I’d recorded a good amount for Billy over the years, but Keith was calling to say that Billy was wondering if I was available to do some gigs. If all went well, there could even be an opportunity to join the band.

I’ve been with Billy for six years now, so I owe Keith my career. Whenever I tell him that he laughs it off like the immensely humble man that he is. Very few people have the history and reputation that he has, yet it’s always as if he wants to give credit to someone else. But there aren’t enough superlatives for how I feel about the man, who I think of as my mentor.

Erik: What started you playing the drums?

Keith: My brother Colin, who is six years older than me, sang and played guitar—which he made himself—and we would listen to Elvis, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, and all those early records. He would bring home the gear from his band, including the drums. Drums in those days had calfskin heads, and they had a certain smell. That smell fascinated me.

When I was around twelve, Colin started to show me basic beats. Soon after that, I would carry my drums up to the church youth hall, and my band would play all the hits of the time—the Stones, etc. I used to have a mic around my neck so I could sing. [laughs]

Later I went on the road with my brother’s band. I’d help them with the gear and packing the van, and I’d constantly watch them play. One day their drummer got sick and they said, “Do you think you can handle the gig?” We had one rehearsal and pulled it off. Soon after, they fired their drummer. I was sixteen or seventeen. And then when I was around eighteen, we got a deal from Kennedy Street Enterprises, which at the time was the big-time Mersey Beat management company in Manchester.

Erik: Who were some of your drumming influences growing up?

Keith: The first album I ever bought was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I liked Philly Joe Jones, Jon Hiseman, obviously Ringo and the Beatles, Keith Moon, Charlie Watts. I loved Kenney Jones’ style and swing. Simon Kirke from Free and Bad Company—he has great swing and a great feel. I liked more of the drummers that played with less flashy technique and more feel. But it wasn’t so much the drummers that I was chasing; it was more about the music.

Erik: How did all of this lead to you getting into the recording scene?

Keith: My brother’s band eventually broke up. He went on to become head of CBS promotion in London. I carried on playing in a few different bands, and then I went to Germany, which is when I got into the studio world. I was twenty-one and started playing with this acid-rock-electric-violin-crazy-political band [Amon Düül II] for a few years, and one of their managers booked musicians. Because I was a longhaired English rocker type drummer—at that time there weren’t many of those in Germany—I got gigs in the studio. [laughs]

Erik: Is that when you met producer Giorgio Moroder?

Keith: Yes. I started doing studio dates with Pete Bellotte, who was Donna Summer’s coproducer, and he liked what I was playing and pulled me in the studio for Giorgio. I played with Giorgio for the next thirty years. They brought me from Munich to Los Angeles when Donna signed with Casablanca Records. That’s when I started writing with them as well.

Erik: What was the transition from playing drums to writing like?

Keith: When Donna did her double album Bad Girls, we didn’t have enough material, and Moroder said to [multi-instrumentalist] Harold Faltermeyer, who was also working on the gig, “Go write some songs, boys, we need songs!” So Pete Bellotte, Harold, and I went off and wrote songs. I co-wrote “Hot Stuff” and “Sunset People.”

I’m now living in Giorgio’s house in Beverly Hills, doing mostly disco sessions in L.A. with him, and I’m watching as all this music’s coming to him to produce. One day he says to me, “Check out all of this and find the good stuff.” I’m going through it and find a cassette with “Idol” written on it. I didn’t even know what the artist looked like, but I said to Giorgio, “This could be really cool, he has a great voice.” He didn’t really react, so I said, “How about I produce it for yourcompany?” Billy’s band, Generation X, already had an album out and was managed by Kiss’s manager, Bill Aucoin. Giorgio said, “You don’t have to do it for my company; I’ll call Bill and tell him you’re capable of doing it yourself.”

Billy’s debut EP, Don’t Stop, was the first record I ever produced. It had huge underground hits, especially in New York City, but it wasn’t a big [national] success. After that record, Billy left Generation X. They wanted to fire me because we didn’t sell enough records, although “Dancing with Myself” was a hit off that record. And it was Billy who said to all the A-list American producers at the label, “I want to do it with Keith. He understands what I’m all about.” We got along really well. And then he came to the States.

Erik: Did you play drums on those early Idol records?

Keith: I produced them all and played on a couple of the hits. I didn’t play on “Dancing with Myself,” that was [the Clash’s] Terry Chimes. I played on “White Wedding” and a few others that I don’t remember. It was more important and more interesting to me to have other drummers play on it. I didn’t enjoy producing and playing. I wanted to keep it on the producer’s side and not worry about “How am I playing?” It was better to have an objective opinion.

Erik: When producing, how hands-on are you with the drummer?

Keith: I’m pretty easy, and I speak with the drummers. I’ll ask about certain things, maybe different fills here or there. If something’s not sounding right, I might change mic placement, but I usually don’t pay attention to stuff like that because I work with engineers who know what they’re doing.

Erik: Eventually you started doing movie soundtracks like TheBreakfast Club, Beverly Hills Cop, and Flashdance.

Keith: I liked working with Faltermeyer and Giorgio when they were doing soundtracks. I’d come in and play some drums, then co-write some songs with them. When I took on TheBreakfast Club, at first I thought I bit off more than I could chew. We got successful when I co-wrote “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” with Steve Schiff [guitarist/songwriter from the Nina Hagen band]. But scoring was not me; my contribution to those soundtracks was mostly songs.

Erik: There are rumors about “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” being written for Billy Idol.

Keith: No, it was written for Simple Minds. Steve Schiff and I were big Simple Minds fans, but they turned it down. The next possibility was Bryan Ferry, but he didn’t want to do it. The company wanted Corey Hart, who had a huge hit at the time with “Sunglasses at Night,” but I thought he wasn’t the guy. So I kept pushing for Simple Minds. We flew to England and [that’s when they finally] decided to do it.

Form left: Billy Idol, Keith Forsey, guitarist Steve Stevens, and engineer Michael Frondelli in the studio. Photo by Ellen Golden.

Erik: When you decide to work with an artist, what is it that attracts you to them?

Keith: I think you can sum it up with some of the artists I worked with—Psychedelic Furs, Billy Idol, and Nina Hagen. All three are strong personalities. Nina is a totally underrated singer—fantastic voice, incredible personality. The Psychedelic Furs’ vocal sound, they have the whole thing going on. Idol—what a big sound. That’s mainly what I look for. If they have those qualities, it makes the picture clearer to me. I think a producer’s job is in the back of the room. The artist has all the juice, and you’re just helping them put that on tape. You’re their biggest fan and biggest mirror. It’s only when you think they’re missing their own mark that you kind of knock them back on track.

Erik: Did you experience bands that weren’t good enough to cut their own records? Did you have to make a lot of tough decisions as a producer?

Keith: Yes. Funny enough, with drummers—and I don’t know if it was because I was a drummer—but I always thought they didn’t take their pocket and their groove seriously enough. It always seemed to me like they were more worried about the fills.

Erik: Do you think that’s because of the increased use of drum machines?

Keith: That’s certainly one of the reasons. Billy and Steve would write a lot in the studio, and we would program the Linn drum machine to use as a guide. Once we got used to that sound and then tried to replace the machine with a live drummer—especially with the 808 machine—all of a sudden, it’s like, What happened, where did our pocket go? Trying to replace the machine with a real drummer was hard work; not everyone could do it.

Erik: What do you feel is your biggest achievement?

Keith: Probably writing and producing “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” It changed my life, and it seemed to me like I’d finally written a really good song. I loved everything about it. The basic groove was based on a song by the ska band Fun Boy Three’s version of “Our Lips Are Sealed” [which was co-written by Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin and Specials/Fun Boy Three singer Terry Hall]. Fun Boy Three had that groove on their version, but it was looser. I thought, I have to use that groove. So I had that in my head, then Shifty came in and off we went. And then Simple Minds took the demo so much further—it had that great drum fill and Jim Kerr’s “Hey, hey, hey!” vocal. That will probably be on my tombstone when I die. [laughs]

Erik: Do you have tips for someone who would like a career like yours?

Keith: Climb that ladder four or five steps at a time, but don’t try to grab too much at once. Don’t be like, I need the publishing. Maybe you don’t need the publishing right away. Keep writing; when you go up a few more rungs on that ladder, then you can ask for publishing. Don’t be greedy or pushy, just be friendly, be part of the team, and let it grow. When we wrote “Hot Stuff,” I didn’t get a piece of the publishing. I could have said, “Hey, I deserve a piece of that.” But I was happy I got my songwriting credit on a Donna Summer hit; that’s a huge step, why be greedy? Later you’ll write your own songs and get your publishing and everything else.

Assholes will show themselves; don’t work with them no matter how good they are. You’ll get along with the good guys. You’ll create something together, and everybody wins. Find the right team of people who have something to offer, and you’ll get there.

In addition to Low Millions and Billy Idol, Erik Eldenius has worked with Cher, Donna Summer, LeAnn Rimes, Five for Fighting, Anastacia, Jackson Browne, Vanessa Carlton, and Mandy Moore.