The future Billy Squier was born just outside of Boston on May 12, 1950 and grew up to be an early MTV superstar and one of the defining hard rockers of the 1980s. Here’s to him!
An early student of guitar and piano, Billy took to frequenting Boston’s rock clubs as a teen. On fateful evening in 1967, at a venue called the Psychedelic Supermarket, young Mr. Squier caught a performance by Cream and the fire that propelled him to conquer the pop charts and pack arenas was ignited on the spot.
Squier’s first taste of the music biz came as the lead singer of Piper, a rather kickass hard rock combo that put out two albums chock full of “shoulda been hits” that, for whatever reason, didn’t click. The upside is that Piper’s demise launched Billy Squier as a solo artist.
The Big Beat, Squier’s 1980 debut, didn’t generate any chartbusters either, but its hard and heavy rumblings readied the world for his multi-platinum breakthrough a year later with the instant classic LP, Don’t Say No. For the next half-decade, Billy Squier pumped out hit after hit, toured the world as an A-list headliner, and saw it all come screeching to a halt over a goofy music video. That brutal twist stands as one of the great injustices in all of rock but, regardless, it was one hell of a ride.
Since his ’80s peak, Billy Squier has continually written and performed music, endearing himself to his original fans and winning new ones with each subsequent generation. On his 65th birthday, let’s salute Billy with a countdown of the six-and-a-half songs that best sum up the classic tale of his tape(s).
“The Big Beat” Album: The Tale of the Tape (1980)
The first single from Billy Squier’s first solo album got just a small degree of radio support and never managed to crack the pop charts. Nonetheless, it may be the most listened-to song in Squier’s entire catalogue. The reason? “The Big Beat,” with its brontosaurus-stomp percussion and driving, down-tuned guitars, has been recognized as the all-time #1 most sampled song in hip-hop.
A killer rocker on its own, strains of “The Big Beat” are unmistakable in monster hip-hop and R&B hits ranging from “99 Problems” by Jay-Z to “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys to “Roxanne Roxanne” by UTFO to “Out of This World” by A$AP Rocky.
“Love Is the Hero” Album: Enough Is Enough (1986)
By 1986, Billy Squier was staring down the prospect of having to make a comeback, despite the fact that his previous album sold two million copies. Squier would never scale such commercial heights again, but “Love Is the Hero,” the leadoff single from his Enough Is Enough LP at least secured him a final blaze of glory in the form of a sweeping, soaring duet with Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.
“Love Is the Hero” combines Billy’s Beatles-meets-Zeppelin songwriting, charming Queen-sized pomp, and extremely of-the-moment studio production—i.e., there’s a bass riff that sounds like “Naughty Naughty” by John Paar and the human-played percussion somehow sounds like a drum machine. All told, it’s quite a trip.
“In the Dark” Album: Don’t Say No (1981)
The epic-scaled “In the Dark” kicks off Billy Squier’s breakout LP Don’t Say No with drama, intensity, wit, and rushes of emotion that come from a million different angles. As with “Toys in the Attic” by Aerosmith, “In the Dark” seems to somehow radiate out from within you as hear it. Each arc and crescendo of the song envelopes the listener in a wholly-formed world of its own making—or maybe it’s a world that was inside you to begin with, and Billy Squier just musically cracked the code to finally let it all out. That’s no small feat to pull off in four minutes, and it’s a journey on which “In the Dark” will take you every time.
“Rock Me Tonite” Album: Signs of Life (1984)
“Rock Me Tonite” is Billy Squier’s Waterloo. No, that’s not to liken it to the 1974 pop nugget by ABBA, but instead to the 1815 European battle that French emperor Napoleon fought hard and came close to winning, but ultimately lost in so grand a manner that he it took away his title, his power, and his future as a ruler. The cruel irony is that while “Rock Me Tonite” undid Billy Squier as a star, his fall had nothing to do with the music.
At issue was the “Rock Me Tonite” music video. It’s a clip so notorious that it warrants an entire chapter in the 2011 book I Want My MTV. The video features Billy alone in a pastel-hued bedroom, where skips, prances, power-snaps his fingers, slips into draw-string pants, rolls around on silk sheets, humps the floor, and, with uncomfortable erotic fervor, rips open one tank top before sliding into another.
In general and not entirely without justification, “Rock Me Tonite” is regarded as the single worst music video of all time. Billy Squier himself agrees. The clip turned him into a laughingstock and derailed his career. As Rudolf Schenker of the Scorpions put it: “I liked Billy Squier very much, but then I saw him do this video in a very terrible way. I couldn’t take the music serious anymore.”
The shame, of course, is that “Rock Me Tonite” is a great Billy Squier song. It opens with percussive synthesizer chords that build suspense as the other instruments join one by one. Billy’s singing leads the music upward as though he’s constructing a pyramid and when the band gets to the top, everything explodes into electric guitar and soaring vocal glory.
Even as the music video stupefied viewers, “Rock Me Tonite” ruled as a major radio hit, reaching #15 on the Billboard chart and remaining in regular rotation on classic rock outlets forever after—despite the fact that, inevitably, listeners can’t help think, “Remember that video? Yikes!”
“The Stroke” (1981) Album: Don’t Say No (1980)
The vast, mammoth drum beat that opens “The Stroke” is a cosmic behemoth that rocks in a rarified air occupied only by giants on the order of “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin, “I Love It Loud” by Kiss, and, yes indeed, “We Will Rock You” by Queen.
That sound more than just a rhythmic series of slams on which to construct a killer song: it’s the percussive heart-pumps of the entirety of creation coming alive and cutting loose. Does that seem exaggerated? Just take a listen and feel what those impacts do to you, follow them where they take you. The sky isn’t even the beginning of the limit.
That those drums just get “The Stroke” started is a testament to the shamanic super-power of the song that ensues. The freaky lyrics seem to occasionally parody instructional dance songs of old a la “The Loco-Motion” by Little Eva or “The Time Warp” from Rocky Horror, with Billy dictating, for example, “Put your left foot out/keep it all in pace/Work your way/right into my face.” Yeah, okay. Sure.
Really, though, “The Stroke” is just about the massively intoxicating vibe of the song itself, wherein Billy integrates hyper-masculine hard rock might with a groove that continues to fill dance floors and send the ladies into rapturous outbursts of booty-shaking bliss. As such, “The Stroke” is all things to all people—all things that rock, that is.
“Everybody Wants You” Album: Emotions in Motion (1982)
“Everybody Wants You” works not just as a dizzyingly great and one-of-a-kind hard rock confection, it also works as a table of contents defining the individual elements that, once added up, result in the greatness that is Billy Squier.
The song actually grows itself alive opening with sounds that could be a guitar, a motorcycle, a lion, all three or something else altogether. In the tradition of ’50s doo-wop and ’60s girl groups, finger-snaps follow, under which a funky guitar rises up with a riff that transfixes in the manner of an Indian snake charmer or an Egyptian belly dancer.
Gargantuan drum-beats rain down, adding to the song’s hypnotic spell, after which master mesmerist Squier spins a tale of a rock-and-roll creature of the night and all the ups and downs that entails, but it’s not just some mythic figure he’s describing—as he says, over and over again, it’s YOU!
Best of all, of course, is that everybody wants you.
Urgent keyboards also figure into the mix and a clean, bright, cutting production expands “Everybody Wants You” out from hard rock to pop crossover masterwork. At the exact moment that MTV took initial ascent as music’s great equalizer, Billy built a perfect beast with “Everybody Wants You” in that it’s rock, funk, disco, new wave, and heavy metal all at the same time. No wonder everybody still wants it (and they always will).
And the Half:
“Christmas Is The Time to Say ‘I Love You’” (1981)
Released as the B-side on the “My Kinda Lover” single, “Christmas Is The Time to Say ‘I Love You’” is Billy Squier’s gift to rock radio stations that continues to give every year in between spins of “Father Christmas” by the Kinks and “Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses. It’s also utterly irresistible: a sweet, swaying, head-bopping sing-along that deserves to be as inescapable as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” but that’s so good we should be grateful that it doesn’t getting similarly burnt out by overkill. Any time is the right time to say you love “Christmas Is The Time to Say ‘I Love You’.”