As a member of the Vault's review panel, I'm always looking for music that'll get both my pen and my booty moving. While rummaging through my sister's CDs recently, I considered (and discarded) dozens of options. It wasn't until I flipped over the final case that inspiration struck… but lo, how it did. With one glimpse of an oddly-familiar mullet, the heavens opened up -- or rather, the ‘80s version thereof. The room filled with fake fog and fuchsia lasers. The double-necked, flame-painted guitar within my heart sang. Within my trembling hands, I held the greatest record in the history of the world.
Lest Sgt. Pepper get its boxers in a bunch, I'll concede that Billy Squier's Absolute Hits isn't technically a “record.” It's a compilation. But before spurning it, consider this: champagne is compiled from thousands of squished grapes. The Mona Lisa was compiled from innumerable blobs of paint. Let the popular kids brag all they want. “Oooh, look at me! I'm such a modern classic! I'm soooo critically acclaimed!”
Absolute Hits isn't ashamed of its origins. Quite the contrary. It is the Chateau Lafite-Rothschild of arena rock, culled from the finest power chords, synthesizers, and hilarious displays of machismo. In hoity-toity circles, only “serious” albums are considered masterpieces. However, Absolute Hits' milieu isn't most circles. It's actually kind of oblong. It's the Arena of Awesomeness, where men are men, jeans are tight and -- as Squier's "All Night Long" clearly states – “…survival is the art of turning me on!”
In this rarefied, “WOOOOOO!”-filled air, does Blood On The Tracks have what it takes to survive? No. It does not. It would receive a firm metaphorical wedgie. But you, constant listener? If you tease your hair, close your eyes, and take Billy's hand, you just might.
Absolute Hits' selections are neither diverse nor surprising. They're formulaic -- however, the formula was solid enough to catapult man and mullet to superstardom. Like his pout-tastic cover photo, Squier's songs are clean and lean, suggestive and aggressive. “Everybody Wants You” pairs taut, undulating guitar with a drum line simple enough to stomp along to, insistent enough that entire stadiums of Reagan-era rock fans did precisely that. This stripped-down, amped-up style is what makes Squier absurdly enjoyable to this day. Other ‘80s acts were undone by their own laziness, lack of focus and guitar solos which sounded like someone feeding a screech owl through a Cuisinart.
Billy Squier, however, rocked. He rocked well. He rocked without frills or silliness. And when sufficient heights of rock-itude had been achieved, he knew when to stop. His best-known song, “The Stroke,” is a splendid example of the Squier aesthetic. Not since “We Will Rock You” has there been such an irresistible hard-rock Sousa march. The magic's is in what's missing. The lead guitar's got a nice touch of funk, but other than that, there's nary a hint of frivolity. Even synthesizers -- so often a harbinger of Lycra and shame -- are used judiciously. The synths on “My Kinda Lover” are subtle, steady little swells which complement the track's rough-edged guitars. Like the majority of songs, it's built on a killer rhythm. “In The Dark" is faster and more jagged, “Eye on You” is softer and more organic; however, they're all a variation on the same theme: a beating heart, a pumping fist, a thousand sneakers pounding on bleachers. It's a hook as old as music itself, and Squier works it for all it's worth.
The greatest record in the history of the world is not without problems. I'm sure there are sections of the Sistine Chapel which Michelangelo would've preferred to Wite-Out, had that fine product been available in his era. Absolute Hit's canvas is marred by asinine lyrics, for sure. “She Goes Down” (the sloppiest track as well as the newest) doesn't even bother with innuendo (lines like "She'll make you swallow" indicate that perhaps Bernie Taupin was on vacation that week). Squier’s vocals often evoke Robert Plant, sans shrillness (good!) and range (not so good). His delivery, unlike Plant's, is more often sultry than shrieky. That silly, overinflated sexiness helped drive Squier’s music (pelvic thrusts have a distinguished role in the history of rock); alas, it was also his downfall.
To my knowledge, the “Rock Me Tonite” video wasn't conceived as a joke. However, it did feature Squier flouncing around a bedroom like a cross between a sulky teenager and Silence Of The Lambs' Jame Gumb (who enjoyed transvestite vamping almost as much as peeling his victims like bananas).