Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Billy Squier Strokes The Music Charts

Maybe it had something to do with the naming habits parents had for their ‘Baby Boomer’ generation kids, but the early 80s saw a bit of a surge in the name Billy on popular music charts. Billy Joel, Billy Idol, and Billy Field (see previous post), all had top forty hits in Australia during the early chapters of the 1980s. Hard rock singer Billy Squier was another artist to feature in this regular ‘Bill-fest’, AKA ‘an extremely loose affiliation of popular music artists united by nomenclature’ (I tried to mangle that into a catchy acronym - AELAOPMAUBN- but it just didn‘t work).

Young squire Billy may not have been of royal lineage, but he grew up in a nice area called Wellesley Hills, in the U.S. state of Massachusetts (though I’m not sure how often the lights went out). His grandfather taught him to tinker on the ivories when Billy was about nine, and for a couple of years at least, he resisted the temptation to pick up a guitar. But it was the early 60s, and a guitar in hand seemed much cooler than trying to lug a piano around, so Billy saved up his pennies and purchased a Danelectro guitar, and Supro brand amp from one of his neighbours for the princely sum of $90. Like the Clapton’s of this world, Billy Squier taught himself to play the guitar during his teen years, and by age sixteen had formed a blues based high school band with two friends, called the Bluesbreakers. The name of his high school band was a clear reflection of one of Billy Squier’s major inspirations, and influences of the time, Eric Clapton, who just happened to have done a stint in a more renowned version of a band called the Bluesbreakers, driven by blues legend John Mayall. Squier also cited The Rolling Stones as having been a primary driving force behind his commitment to a career in rock music during this period.

After graduating from high school, Squier continued to rack up the live music miles with local Boston bands. He landed a gig with the house band at Boston’s Psychedelic Supermarket venue, opening for the likes of the Grateful Dead and Steve Miller, but soon Squier set his sights on the New York City scene. Having recently seen his hero Eric Clapton perform with Cream, Squier formed a new band called Magic Terry & The Universe. The band played a mix of contemporary music styles, along with reciting poetry to the audience at selected intervals (a wee bit beatnik). The line-up also featured bassist Klaus Flouride, who went on to play with seminal Californian punk rock outfit, the Dead Kennedys. During the early 70s, Billy Squier combined periods playing music in New York, with formal studies at the Berklee College of Music (studying to become a music teacher). Among the bands Squier played with during that period, was an outfit called Kicks, which featured future New York Dolls’ drummer Jerry Nolan, and a Boston band called the Sidewinders (who apparently recorded an album, but not during Squier’s short tenure).

Billy Squier then formed the hard rock outfit Piper, fronting the band on vocals/guitar. Among the Piper personnel were, guitarist Tommy Gunn, guitarist Alan Nolan, bassist Danny McGary, and drummer Richie Fontana. Piper (under the auspices of KISS manager Bill Aucoin) were signed to A&M Records and released their self-titled debut album in 1976. Their second album, 1977’s ‘Can’t Wait’, was produced by KISS associate Sean Delaney, and though Piper didn’t ascend to the ‘rock-god’ heights of KISS, they found a market among lovers of guitar driven, arena style rock. In fact, Piper soon found themselves opening for the likes of KISS and Electric Light Orchestra, but by the late 70s it was apparent that Squier was the primary driving force within Piper, something that inevitably caused friction within the rank and file. The combination of internal angst, and the fact that large scale commercial success eluded them, combined to see Piper split by decade’s end.

Post-Piper life, Billy Squier soldiered on with guitar in hand as a solo act, and by 1980 had signed on with Capitol Records. Squier’s debut set, ‘Tale Of The Tape’ (US#169), boasted a strong support cast, including future KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick. Squier co-produced the album with Eddy Offord (producer with Yes), and penned most of the tracks. Squier modified Piper’s earlier stadium rock formula, with a more commercially palatable infusion of pop melodicism, but the album failed to yield any chart hits - though ‘You Should Be High Love’ (co-written with songwriter/producer extraordinaire Desmond Child) became a regular on FM playlists. Curiously, the album’s opening track, ‘The Big Beat’, has been regularly sampled by rap artists during the 90s and 00s, taking on a life in hip-hop way beyond its humble pop-metal roots. With commercial success eluding him, Squier sought the production services of Queen’s Brian May, but May was otherwise engaged. Instead, May hooked Squier up with Queen producer Reinhold Mack (who also engineered several E.L.O. albums), and the pair struck upon just the right commercial rock formula, drawing on the more bombastic elements of Led Zeppelin, and contemporary melodic based hard rock for the 1981 album, ‘Don’t Say No’.

The lead out single, ‘The Stroke’, became an instant rock radio hit, and by May of ‘81 had debuted on the U.S. Hot 100. It was 80s power-rock personified, and peaked at #17 on the U.S. charts (#3 Rock Chart, UK#52), but became a virtual rock anthem in Australia, where it soared to #5. Around the time that ‘The Stroke’ was sitting high on the charts, MTV launched in the U.S., and Squier soon became a regular on the network’s early video rotation. I scored my first copy of the song on the cassette compilation, ‘1981 Over The Top’, and I recall playing it over and over. The section that featured a keyboard rendition of the melody ‘The Volga Boatmen’s Song’, always induced an increase in volume to near speaker splitting proportions. Fans answered the former piper’s call with a resounding yes, as sales for the ‘Don’t Say No’ album went through the roof, and by September of ‘81 had reached platinum (US#5/OZ#34), eventually going on to be certified triple platinum (over 3 million), and spending over 100 weeks inside the U.S. charts. It spawned two more top fifty hits, with ‘In The Dark’ (US#35), and ‘My Kinda Lover’ (US#45/OZ#64). During 1981 Squier toured with the likes of hard rock giants Whitesnake, Journey, Foreigner, and Pat Benatar, and was a headline act at the Reading Festival - but were the best years of his hard rocking life still ahead of him?

1 comment:

Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas said...

Wow. Billy Squier was a staple on radio where I grew up (and well beyond the hits). I had no idea that he was in a band with Klaus Floride.

I did have a friend who made a killing selling his out-of-print Piper CDs on eBay :-)