The story of one of the worst videos of all time and the rock singer who could have ruled the new MTV age but instead saw his career die because of it.
“I think that’s probably the most damning four minutes of video ever shot in history! Well, from my perspective it is!” – Billy Squier, 2006.
If you dig around in the annals of rock music you’ll find so many hard luck tales of singers and bands who got within a desperate hand’s-grasp of success only to to have it unjustly whipped away that it’s practically a cliche. Sometimes the blame is on poor management, or contractual wrangles, or a record company that lost interest although often it’s simply a case of never quite being the right thing in the right place at the right time, something only realized when the moments has passed.
However, in Billy Squier’s case it can be and usually is attributed to one video, that for his 1984 single “Rock Me Tonight”.
Prior to this Squire had been busy building a reputation through MTV on which videos from his first three albums, and particularly his second Don’t Say No which spawned his biggest single to date “The Stroke”….
….which was not atypical of the kind of straight performance videos that accompanied other singles such as “In The Dark” and “Lonely Is The Night”, which were also in heavy MTV rotation, and when “The Stroke” reached number 17 on the Billboard chart as well as hitting the top 60 in Canada, Britain and New Zealand it must have seemed like the whole world was just about to open up to him.
So when it came to pushing the lead single from his 4th album Signs Of Life it was decided that something different was needed for the video, something different and more conceptual than before. Having hired and fired two different directors and finding themselves just weeks away from a scheduled debut on MTV they decided to give the job to choreographer Kenny Ortega (who went on to do the High School Musical films) whom Squier initially approved of saying “(he had) what seemed to be a pretty unique idea about taking me away from the band and cataloging all my moves. So I thought that it sounded very interesting, the fact that we were exploring a different aspect of my performing persona”.
And explore a different side it certainly would. Beginning with Squier waking up on what looks like a typical teenage girl’s bed, the next three and a half minutes are maybe the most excruciating in music video history as he effeminately cavorts around in a pink shirt, dancing in fact just like a teenage girl , all limp-wristed finger snaps and bursts of skipping. Even though he willingly allowed himself to be filmed performing in such a decidedly un-macho, un-rock way, Squier was distraught recognizing at once the irreparable damage this could and would do to his reputation. “My girlfriend said something like, ‘This is gonna ruin you,’” he later recalled “I was a mess . . . It’s like ‘Rock Me Tonite’ is an MBA course on how a video can go really wrong.”
Despite a last minute bid by his manager to get the video nixed it aired to howls of general derision and had immediate consequences with stadium gigs that had previously been sold-out now being barely half full. Some have wondered whether they shouldn’t have tried harder, and indeed what Squier was thinking in the first place. Van Halen manager Pete Angelus noted ” “I don’t care if the director was lying dead on the floor, you shouldn’t have put on a fucking pink T-shirt and danced around like that” and Squier himself would later lament “It knocked me right off the top of the mountain and I never got back! And it wasn’t for a lack of trying. I made four records after that all of which were up to the previous standard if not higher, but nobody cared”.
Over time Squier’s reputation has been repaired a bit and he is now rightly seen as a high quality exponent of the sort of pop-rock that dominated so much of the 80’s, particularly on MTV. On top of that more unlikely recognition has come from the world of hip-hop where his song “The Big Beat”, the opening track of his debut lp The Tale Of The Tape, has been sampled some 200 times featuring on records such as Jay Z’s “99 Problems” and Dizzee Rascal’s “Fix Up, Look Sharp” as well as records by the likes of Ice Cube, Kanye West and Alicia Keys. It’s reckoned that he earns a seven-figure sum in royalties every year from this track alone.
As for Squier himself, he seems to have found happiness and when he’s not indulging his passion for horticulture on a 20-acre plot in New York’s Central Park he voluntarily takes care of, he can still be found touring and says he feels much happier than he used to. “Whenever I go out to sing… I’m comfortable in my skin. Because it’s been a long time, and you suddenly realize gee, I guess I don’t have anything to prove anymore. I guess people DO like me. I guess I am good, you know? (laughs)”. Indeed you are Billy, indeed you are…