Billy Squier was born May 12, 1950 (dang, another birthday I missed!), seventy years ago. His first album “The Tale Of The Tape” was released in May 1980, and for about five years, Squier was one of the biggest names in rock music. Then within the span of six months, he lost it all. Not through drugs, not through scandal, and not through lousy music.
His audience left him because of a four minute music video.
“The Tale Of The Tape” contained the single “The Big Beat” (video link), a song that lives up to the name. His second, third and fourth albums produced many hit singles, five in the top ten, and two #1s. Three of his albums sold platinum or better. Squier produced and co-produced his own albums, heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin’s “up front” drum sound. “The Big Beat” has been sampled by twenty different hiphop or other groups over the years, a cash cow for him. Several of Squier’s songs have been featured in soundtracks and video games. Like Nick Lowe, his music has become more famous than he is (more below).
Some people credit Squier as the inventor of “power pop”, bridging the gap between hard rock and pop music. His music was hard edged and hook laden, a combination that grabbed attention from all directions in the era of synth heavy New Wave and guitar driven Heavy Metal. (Picture Nine Inch Nails, but ten years earlier.) Squier, along with Canadian guitarist Aldo Nova created the template for pop metal that would be exploited for years by the likes of Def Leppard and Bon Jovi.
Live, he was great, a singer who never needed autotune. Listen to his performance of “Lonely Is The Night”. Small wonder he played to arenas.
In 1984, he released “Signs Of Life”, which would become another platinum selling album. The leadoff single “Rock Me Tonite” is a great song which reached #1 on the charts. But the video was perceived as “homoerotic” by the media, by MTV, and by the public. In six months, Squier went from playing to arenas of 20,000 to theatres of a few thousand. It has been labelled “worst video ever” by many.
This was the 1980s when being or appearing gay could damage your career. “Rock Me Tonite” was released in June 1984, two months after Queen’s “I Want To Break Free”, a song which harmed Queen’s sales and popularity in the US, which they only got back after “Wayne’s World”. Americans have never gotten the joke about “camp”.
Squier’s attempts at damage control included firing some of his management team, and the inevitable and awful, “I’m not gay, but I don’t hate them and I have gay friends.” (Again, this was 1984.) Nothing worked. Between 1985 and 1993 Squier released five more albums, several to critical acclaim and had some minor hits, but never regained his earlier success. He left the music business in 1993, recording only one more album in 1998 (the blues album “Happy Blue”), but has made numerous guest appearances and live performances since.
In 2013, the New York Post (normally a trash heap for news) did a respectful retrospective on Squier’s career and life after fame. He may have burnt his wings, but he didn’t crash and managed to land safely.
Ask anyone under 25 if they’ve heard of Billy Squier, and the answer is likely no. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t heard him.
Squier has one of the most unusual stories in all of pop culture: a one-time superstar who, in the ’80s, straddled glam, pop and hard rock. Then, in 1984, after his unintentionally camp video for “Rock Me Tonite” hit MTV, featuring Squier prancing around in fluffy hair and satin sheets, his career was over, just like that. “Flapping his wrists like a French chef whose souffle has just fallen,” said Rolling Stone.
Thirty years on, the most famous of rock ’n’ roll exiles has a stealth second career as the most sampled musician in the history of hip-hop.
“I think he has millions of fans that love his body of work but probably thousands of fans that love him,” says Big Daddy Kane, who has sampled Squier’s “The Big Beat” so often he’s lost count.
“He’s definitely someone who helped mold and shape hip-hop with his music,” Kane says. “I would put him in the category of James Brown, the Honeydrippers and Chic. He gave the B-boys and B-girls a track to dance to, but it would only be a DJ or an MC who knows who Billy Squier is.”