Album Lookback: Billy Squier, ‘Don’t Say No,’ – Forgotten Gem Of An Album?

image

I must apologize, I’ve been away for a while. The Rock Chick and I rented a U-Haul and moved all of our worldly possessions across town to a new abode. As I loaded everything I own into the truck I couldn’t help but wonder about the pioneers crossing the fruited plains. I don’t know how those guys made it out here to the Midwest, let alone all the way to California. I just moved across town and it about killed me. How anything could survive cross country in a covered wagon is a mystery to me. Luckily for me the Rock Chick really knows how to pack a truck. It’s the difference between people who grew up on a farm vs people who grew up in the suburbs – people from the country just know how to do things. My old roommate Stormin’ who was from rural Kansas could pack an entire house into the trunk of a car… Drew used to refer to him as “a master of time and space.”

There are certain inflection points in everyone’s life that cause deep introspection. For example, New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day tends to be one of those moments when people reflect on the passing of time. Memories tend to flood the brain. Temporary resolutions are made, goals are set as people take stock of where they are, where they’ve been and more importantly where they want to go. I tend to think of moving as one of those “inflection” points that also causes a temporary flood of memories and thoughts. I think what triggers it is the sudden realization that over the years you tend to accumulate an amazing amount of crap. When you’re moving it becomes very cut and dried – keep this, throw this away, or donate it to charity – with little thought of the sentimental value of the item. Everything we own is subject to that cut throat judgment when there’s only so much room in the van. Sure, it’s not exactly Sophie’s Choice, but I was fond of that bean bag chair from the 80s.

This moving phenomenon really struck me as I went through the act of moving my vinyl albums. I pack them all up, move them gently in the back seat of my car and then go through the ritual of re alphabetizing them by artist (and further, in chronological order for each artist). I realized that over time I’ve lost, given away or had stolen a number of albums that I really liked. From the day I went to college to now, my album collection has been like an accordion, swelling at some points, contracting at others. One album I did stumble across that I hadn’t heard in quite a while was Billy Squier’s Don’t Say No from 1981. Talk about a flood of memories. I never hear or see anything about Billy Squier any more. I began to wonder if Don’t Say No has become a forgotten gem… huge in it’s time but slowly disappearing over time…

I think the problem with Billy Squier is that after the huge success of Don’t Say No and the follow-up Emotions In Motion Squier started to change his sound from the straight up rock approach of those records to a more synth-laden, pop oriented approach. I don’t have any problem with an artist wanting to mix it up but perhaps Squier leaned a little too hard into the synths and lost his core audience. Squier was also notably short tempered in the studio. He was also unlucky on producers – he tried to hire Queen’s Brian May and Mutt Lange at different times but both were unavailable. If I’m being honest, the reason most people tie his fall from grace to is as simple as MTV. He did a video for the song “Rock Me Tonight” (a great tune, by the way) and it ruined him. He “dances” around in a pink tank top. Not even all by myself have I danced around to music like this…sure an occasional air guitar gets played at my place but this was… bad. The clip was voted worst video of all time. It caused people to recoil from Billy Squier. And that’s too bad. Here is the video:

As I said, it’s a shame something as insipid as MTV can ruin a guy. Before all that went down we all dug Billy Squier. Squier came out of virtually nowhere. He’d been in a band called Piper that no one I know has ever heard or heard of. The first I ever heard Billy was the first single from Don’t Say No, in the spring of 1981, “The Stroke.” At the time, we all thought Don’t Say No was his debut album. While on the surface “The Stroke” sounded like a song about what the kids call a “hand job,” it’s actually a scathing indictment of the record industry. I remember a girl I knew and her friend had a choreographed, rather vulgar dance they’d do to the song. It was a great, riff-y song. It just bore into your brain.

It’s hard to overstate how ubiquitous the songs from Don’t Say No were in 1981 and into 1982. I remember hearing “In The Dark” a synth heavy, atmospheric track and thinking, yes, I like this. “My Kind Of Lover,” an anthemic rock song, that came out around the time I was dating my first girlfriend and that was it, I knew I must buy the album. I actually bought it again on (gads) cassette and gifted it to the young lady. What a romantic I was, sigh. Everyone loved this album. I don’t know anybody who didn’t own it. “Two Daze Gone” was a great rocking party track that is best played at maximum volume. A rock album with 4 singles is a pretty impressive feat.

Beyond the singles, there were so many great rock songs. I think I heard most if not all of these songs on KY/102, the local rock station. “You Know What I Like” was a great riff heavy rock song. “You’re no stranger, you know what I like…” Squier snarls over the crunchy guitars. There are a few quiet or at least quieter moments. “Nobody Knows,” which was dedicated to John Lennon, as many tunes were in the early 80s, is a quiet, very pretty ballad. I like the Lennon/Beatles reference in that song, “You might think you see a lucky man who made the grade.” “I Need You” is a midtempo big riff track that’s also driven by a heavy bass line. “Whadda Ya Want From Me” and the title track are sloppy almost Stonesy rock tracks.

While there are moments that veer into that Big Star, Cheap Trick pop rock area, Don’t Say No is a great rock album. It certainly deserves more mentions and attention than it seems to get these days… and I realize we’re a lot of years down the road. It certainly conjured some very nice memories for me as I was taking the album out of a box and sliding it between Springsteen and Starcrawler on my newly minted album shelf. I urge everyone unfamiliar with this masterwork to check it out. And for those of you who remember the album… maybe slip it on the stereo tonight with a glass of wine and let those wonderful early-80s memories engulf you for a while… maybe tease up your  hair and put on some leg warmers… to each their own.

Cheers!