Much has been written and said about Billy Squier and how his 1981 album, Don’t Say No, provided the spark in the gap between 1970s hard rock and ’80s heavy metal.
Indeed, when he rose to fame in the early 1980s on the strength of “The Stroke,” his mega-hit ode to glad-handing record executies, Squier had something for every fan of hard-edged melodic rock and roll; girls dug his hair and sensitive-guy balladry, while guys were into his badass guitar tones and the heavy rock riffs that garnered comparisons to acts like Led Zeppelin.
Squier emerged from the East Coast pop music scene in the late 1960s carrying all the tools to become a star, from his knowledge of rock and roll to the influences shared by so many guitarists at the time and ever since – Clapton, Hendrix, Page, et al. And he was bolstered by an undeniable talent for songwriting that brought him a string of hit singles, platinum-level album sales (some 12 million units total), and a fan base that made him a stadium-filling entity on par with Queen and Def Leppard.
These days, Squier’s life is downright bucolic compared to the ’80s. After tending to his daily affairs, he tends a 20-acre garden plot in New York City’s Central Park. And when the mood or inspiration strikes, he’ll pick up one of his vintage guitars, strum a few bars, and see what becomes of it. We spoke with him recently about his past, what’s up now, and of course, his modest-but-notable collection of guitars and amps.
Vintage Guitar: At what age did you start really paying attention to music, or realize it had significance to you?
Billy Squier: Around age 13. I’d had various exposure to music; I started piano lessons at nine, financially motivated by by my grandfather, and I was singing in church and school groups. Then I had an “American Bandstand” routine with a friend where we’d set up in my garage and one of us would be Dick Clark, the other would be the artist. I remember doing a mean Jimmy Jones on “Handy Man,” miming and dancing to the record.
I took up ukulele as my first stringed instrument – my uncle was a bit of a player. Then I moved up to guitar, at first playing folk music – Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary tunes – then going electric when the Beatles hit. And it built from there.
Do you remember hearing a particular song, band, album, or riff that pushed your interest beyond merely listening?
Like many other people, I was blown away by the American debut of The Beatles and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” first on the radio and soon after by their Ed Sullivan appearance. I had a guitar at the time, but that was when I started paying attention to the instruments these guys were playing, and thinking about how those instruments and amps were contributing to their sound.
What was your first electric guitar and amp?
My first rig was a two-pickup Danelectro with a little Supro amp. I got it from the older brother of a friend who’d gotten tired of it. Cool guitar, although I didn’t know just how cool until many years later.
Did you take lessons on guitar?
No, I taught myself. I’d draw up chord diagrams and pick songs by ear. Later, when I worked up to doing lead stuff, it basically happened the same way. I’ve always had a good ear for stuff, and I’d visualize the fretboard and figure out where notes go. I had pretty good retention back then [laughs].
When did you first play in front of people?
Around 14, I got my first band together – The Reltneys. One of my bandmates found out it was a Cockney expression for the dominant feature of the male anatomy [laughs]! Anyway, we’d rehearse in the basement and our parents would chauffeur us around to play school dances or church gigs. We played Beatles, Stones, Kinks… mostly British stuff.
Was was your first experience with a record label?
My first flirtation with the record business was with a band called Magic Terry and the Universe. This was the brainchild of another schoolmate, an eccentric poet who tapped me to write music to complement his epic poetic journeys. We threw the idea around during the end of our high school years, but it didn’t really take shape until we got to college. He went to N.Y.U. and got heavily into the scene. After a couple of months, he rang me up in Boston and said, “Billy, it’s time to do the band!”
I went down to see him, and he’d just gotten signed by Jac Holzman, at Electra – he had a real buzz going around him. The Electra deal fell through for one reason or another, but we went on to record at Atlantic and Columbia before ultimately self-destructing in the way that befalls many 19-year-olds.
And then came Piper…
Yeah. Piper was basically a veiled solo effort inspired by a relationship I struck up with Bill Aucoin, who managed Kiss. Having grown up with bands as my primary influence, I gravitated toward that sort of presentation, but I was writing all the songs, and singing them… as well as playing more than my fair share of guitar. I wanted to explore the three-guitar lineup, an idea I got from seeing Fleetwood Mac when Danny Kirwan joined up with Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer – what a band that, was!
Anway, I’d done demos with Danny McGary, a bass player I’d known from my early New York days, and his buddy Richie Fontana, who played drums. I liked that unit, so we set about auditioning guitar players and settled on Tommy Gunn – a native New Yorker who’d played on Broadway – and a kid from Kansas named Alan Nolan, who was kicking around the Aucoin office, trying to get a gig.
Under Bill’s tutelage, we secured a deal with A&M, and went from there. The band gave me a vehicle to start focusing my songwriting and overall direction. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t enough. We were close, but friction was developing between band members, and I was getting more confident and precise in my vision. One day I just decided that success for me would lie in becoming a solo artist… which came as quite a surprise, I must say.
Your first solo album, Tale of the Tape, garnered a good bit of attention nationally. Most artists have a special affinity for their first albums. Is that the case with you and Tale?
Yes, Tale was a major milestone for me. It was when I started getting comfortable in my own skin. The Piper records had a lot of good bits, but they weren’t cohesive in their overall scope. Side one of (Piper’s second and final album) Can’t Wait hung together quite well… It gave me a sense of what I could do. But Tale of the Tape pretty much ran start to finish. Everything started to come together with that record, which, by the way, has just been re-released on Rock Candy Records in the U.K., with remastering by Jon Astley, two bonus tracks, and a lot of input from yours truly [laughs]!
Who was in your touring band at the time?
I had Bobby Chouinard on drums, Mark Clarke on bass, Alan St. Jon on keyboards, and Cary Sharaf on guitar. Bobby, Mark, and Alan went on to become regulars.
After Tale, you wrote and recorded Don’t Say No, which is today regarded as a classic hard rock/power pop album. Did you have a sense at the time that the songs on it, which are ubiquotous classic-rock radio material, were any different from other songs you’d written up to that point?
I did, actually. First off, I had a lot more confidence as a result of Tale of the Tape. I felt that I was in a position to make a major statement, and that people would be listening. I remember making two conscious decisions: one was to narrow the scope of my writing – I wanted the songs to really hang together as a body of work; the other was to stretch out as a lyricist, to try to create a unique voice.
As the album came together, did you have any sense that it was going to be such a success, either in terms of sales or its impact on pop music at the time?
I knew it was the record I’d always wanted to make. I didn’t know how the public would react, but I remember saying that if it wasn’t a hit, I would quit the business because I really believed it had everything on it that I had to give. So in that sense, I had a lot of faith in it.
Which guitars and amps do we hear on the album?
My 1960 Fender Tele Custom was really the guitar of record, excuse the pun… It’s the one you hear on “In The Dark,” “My Kinda Lover,” “You Know What I Like,” “Too Daze Gone,” and “Lonely Is The Night.” On “The Stroke” I played my ’57 Strat, and on “Whadda You Want From Me” it’s my ’56 Gibson Les Paul Special.
I don’t remember what I used on the solo for “Nobody Knows” because I tracked it a bunch of times, so the resulting sound isn’t tone-specific. It was definitely a Paul, however, and my guess would be my ’58 ‘Burst. These days, I play a ‘Burst when we do “I Need You” and “Nobody Knows,” so that makes me think I did the same on the record.
And as for amps, it’s all Marshall Lead 100 with a single cabinet with a combination of Altec and Celestion speakers. I’d put one mic up close and one out in the room, wherever it sounded best to my ear. This is a deceptively simple trick that I learned from (the album’s producer) Mack – find the spot where the amp sounds the way you want, and put a mic there. It usually works.
How do you view the album, in retrospect?
Well, 25 years is a long time… It almost seems like another life, in many respects. But I think the album holds up very well; it doesn’t sound dated. There’s magic to it, and magic isn’t something you can quantify or manufacture. The stars were aligned around that project, and you can hear it! When that happens, you have to feel very fortunate.
What was your reaction at the time to its sound being compared to Led Zeppelin or Queen?
I was very humbled by the “one-man Led Zeppelin” comparisons. They were a band of staggering proportion and incredible vision. And the Queen comparisons also made me very proud. To be mentioned in the same breath with any of those guys is a huge compliment. People do have a tendency to exaggerate, but who am I to correct them (laughs)?
After touring behind Don’t Say No, you released Emotions In Motion in 1982. That album did an excellent job of keeping you on top of the game with hits like the title track, “Learn How to Live,” “Everybody Wants You,” and “She’s a Runner.” Do you have any specific memories about the challenges of making that album?
Emotions was a very spontaneous album. Don’t Say No came out in May of ’81 and we went back in to cut Emotions in February of ’82, after being on the road through December. That means I basically wrote the record in January.
In those days, I’d catalog bits and pieces of riffs, melodies, song titles, and lyrics, and then pull them all out and cobble them together in one concerted effort. But mostly what I remember about writing those songs was not second-guessing myself. I saw what worked on Don’t Say No and decided not to mess with the formula. I was very confident at the time, and I think that shows in that there’s a bit more swagger to Emotions. You might say it was the sequel to Don’t Say No.
Do you view any particular album as your best work?
That’s a tough one – they’re all important to me. If pushed, though, I’d name three – Don’t Say No, of course, Tell The Truth, and Happy Blue.
For those who may not be aware, Tell The Truth was your last album for Capitol, and though its material was viewed favorably by critics and fans, the label did little to support it. So, what it makes it so significant to you, personally?
Truth was a pretty spontaneous record, and a return to the basics, in a way. I felt there was a unique chemistry on it, not only between (producer) Mike Chapman and myself, but the various players; I put together different groups for each song, combinations I thought would work. As a result, each track had its own particular energy, as opposed to a more uniform vibe you might expect from using the same band from start to finish.
And Mike was very supportive of my songwriting, so I pushed myself in a few different directions. In the end, everything hangs together quite well; the project had a real momentum to it, which like you said, was not carried on by the label.
And you did Happy Blue, a solo acoustic record with no overdubs, in what is now “way back” in 1998. What was motivating you by then?
(pauses)… It was unlike anything I’d done before or have done since. It came about because I just was not impressed with the trend where people who knew very little about music were making records – in droves. I wanted to make a record that required actual musicianship, and for that, I thought, “What’s more challenging than throwing away all the studio tricks, jettisoning the band, and trying to do it all myself? After all, my gifts are my voice, my guitar, and my songwriting – maybe I can put that all together in a way that calls attention to the notion that this sort of thing can still happen.”
Plus, I’d never really devoted any time to acoustic playing, so that was a challenge in itself. And when I started to throw in different tunings, it really took on a new significance; I was going places I’d never been before, and that’s the ultimate high. I really dug that!
Everything on that record is live – no overdubs, no effects – just me and a guitar. It was the most challenging record I’ve ever done, and I found myself going places musically that I never would have imagined. I’m very proud of it because I broke a lot of new ground by not adhering to the constraints of any particular format. I just let the songs go where they wanted to go.
And I really stretched out on the lyrics, as well. Everything has to be top-drawer when you’re working in such a minimalist environment.
What guitars did you use on the album?
A Collings dreadnought OM-size, a Lowden, a Martin D-42, and my 1918 Gibson. And a lot of the inspiration came from the guitars.
I’d never given acoustic instruments much thought, aside from the occasional rhythm double or an odd bit of color here or there. So when I looked deeper, I really started to appreciate the nuances and characteristics of different makes and models. I shopped around to acquaint myself with acoustics, and each time I found a particularly striking guitar, it would motivate me in a specific way. I’d think to myself, “This’ll sound good in some sort of alternate tuning.” So I ended up using specific guitars for specific tunings that I created based on intuition. The fact that I hadn’t played in many of these tunings before was a bit tricky, but that, too, became part of the inspiration. I’d explore and come up with stuff as I went along. Nothing was preconceived.
Your website says that after you recorded Tell The Truth, you underwent a “less than harmonious” breakup with Capitol, then turned your back on the music business. That sounds a bit dramatic. What was going on?
Well, I always took my music very seriously and poured my life into it. As time passed and the business became more about the business than the music, I felt that music became less and less important to many of the people running the industry – the focus was on having hits and making money, not on nurturing artists and fostering creativity.
I went through four presidents at Capitol, and the last one decided I didn’t fit into his plans. So he went out of his way to drive me away. I woke up one day and said, “I don’t need this s***.” So I walked.
The whole thing was just too painful to continue my commitment to my music, when it became subject to the whim of someone sitting across a desk, determining whether I met his standard of hipness.
When did you last play a concert?
The band went out in 2001, the 20th anniversary of Don’t Say No. We played it pretty much straight through, along with a couple of other crowd favorites. And I did a couple of acoustic shows last year, based around Happy Blue. The last one was at B.B. King’s at the end of November.
Do you still play out?
I’m doing a bit more these days, and this summer I’m doing something I haven’t done since I was a kid – I’m gonna play in a band [laughs]! Ringo Starr has been gracious enough to invite me to play with his All-Starrs, so I’ll be doing that in June.
I like doing the acoustic shows a lot, too. It’s a whole different energy from the shows with the band. It’s very intimate, and as such can be a bit scary at times, but that’s also the payoff – there’s nothing between you and the audience. It really gives you a chance to communicate on a high level.
You’ve said in other interviews that these days you’re not all that involved in creating music, but “just doing things you like to do.” What would that be?
Well, I’ve become a nature fanatic. I often prefer the company of trees and plants, and I tend a fairly sizeable plot in Central Park, which is a responsibility I take very seriously. I’m very grateful for the chance I’ve been given to be a part of this community.
I also find myself taking the time to do all the things I never had time to do when I was in the rock-star biz; not necessarily big things, but everyday bits and pieces that teach me something and put me more in touch with the real world.
What are your thoughts on “The Big Beat” (from Tale of the Tape) being sampled by hip-hop artists?
That has been totally unexpected – and mindblowing. Obviously, I had no idea what lay in store when I recorded the song back in ’79, but it has taken on its own cult of personality, and I’m kind of like the Robert Johnson of hip-hop [laughs]! I think it’s very cool, but I don’t think I can claim all that much credit – after all, I just gave them a beat, and in the end, if they’re happy, I’m happy.
Let’s talk about your guitars. When did you get the first guitar that would now be considered collectible?
I had a Gibson ES-335 in 1965 that I bought new. I don’t remember who or what influenced me to get it, and I subsequently traded it for something else – I used to do a lot of trading, depending on what I thought was cool at the time. And while I was never able to get a Les Paul Standard in those early days, I did follow Clapton’s route through the SG and from there into the double-cutaway Les Paul Special, of which I had two. After Derek & The Dominos, was released, I tracked down a ’57 Strat without a tremolo. It was then that I came up with what I believe to be the original expanded wiring design for this guitar. What happened was, I didn’t like having to jockey the toggle switch into those in-between positions for the out-of-phase funky sounds that Clapton was using, so I went to a couple of hot-shot guitar techs to see if they could help. The catch was I didn’t want to alter any of the original knobs or introduce anything new that would disturb the integrity of the instrument. When they couldn’t sort me out, I came up with the idea of converting the second tone control into a volume control for the neck pickup. I then wired the middle and lead pickups to the toggle switch in a normal two-pickup configuration. This enabled me to play any combination of pickups – seven in all – with no alterations to the body or pickguard. The Strats I have today are wired this way.
The guitar that’s been with me the longest at present is my ’56 Les Paul Special, which I bought in ’74.
When and how did the others come along?
My next move was to swap my ’57 Strat for a similar one with a whammy bar, in ’76. I acquired the Tele Custom for Tale of the Tape around the time I hooked up with Richie Friedman at We Buy Guitars on 48th Street. After Don’t Say No, he got me my first ‘Burst – a ’58.
I picked up my ’56 Les Paul Junior in Red Bank, New Jersey, and in ’82, Richie got me my ’51 No-Caster. Next was my ’63 Strat, which I believe came from Perry Margolof. In ’83, I was given a ’58 Burst by my merchandiser and friend, Peter Lubin, at the start of the second leg of the Emotions tour. After my original ’58 was stolen, I eased the pain by buying a ’59 from a guy in the Midwest. I also went back to Richie and picked up a ’58 goldtop that had previously belonged to Henry Gross, who previously owned my ’58 Burst. I found the ’58 Rick from a collector named Richard Heyman, in the East Village; he had a bunch of them. That must have been around 1990 or ’91. During a photo shoot in L.A. for the Truth album, I borrowed a ’52 goldtop that had been refinished in green and black, and I liked it so much that I went back to the shop and bought it. That was in early ’93.
Did you ever consciously say, “Yeah, I collect guitars,” or did you acquire them as you needed them?
If only [laughs]! I don’t consider myself a collector – I have a player’s collection. I buy the guitars I love for the music I make. They go on the road with me and are an integral part of what I do… they’re very personal. So I’ve never bought a guitar simply as an investment. If I buy something – not just guitars – that I truly feel passionate about, and it’s a quality piece, it will invariably appreciate in value. So in that way, I recognize their investment potential, but it’s strictly a bonus.
Ever trade off or sell a ‘Burst?
Who in his right mind would ever do that?
Are there any vintage pieces that have left your collection, and maybe wish you had back?
The 335 I had back in high school would be quite highly regarded today. I wouldn’t mind having that one. Of course, I still tell myself that one day my ’58 is gonna turn up.
You’ve always been a Marshall guy. Any particular reason ?
Well, Clapton has influenced pretty much all of my gear decisions. Of course, with Marshalls, you also had Jimi and Jeff and Pagey playing them, which gave them iconic status.
What amps did you use to record with back in the day?
In the studio, I used my Marshalls almost exclusively. I had them wired by this mad genius named Frank Levy, here in New York, in the ’70s. We’d hang out in the shop and tinker with them, he’d stay up all night and come in the next day and say, “Whadda ya think of this?” We’d mess around until we got what I wanted, and that has worked to this day. I also split up my cabinets with Celestions and Altecs, which gave me a bit more punch and definition without sacrificing the warm distortion characteristics of the Celestions. When I ran out of Altecs, I switched to EVs for the 2001 tour.
What are your most straight-up collectible amps?
I got my first Marshalls at Manny’s in ’69, before I even knew what a plexi was. I got my next batch in ’76, when I was putting Piper together. Dave Pastore hooked me up with those, and I still have most of them, along with some newer stuff Marshall throws my way from time to time, like the JCM 800s. But I stick with the originals almost exclusively. I’ve also got a Bluesbreaker combo that’s really fine – warm and sweet, just like the record. I’ve also got a nice Fender Deluxe from around ’52 that I keep at home. And I just picked up a Bogner Ecstasy Classic with the oversized 2×12″ cab, which I expect will be very collectible.
How did the gig come about with Ringo’s All-Starrs?
Well, Ringo first approached me back in 2001, but the timing wasn’t right for me. I didn’t really expect him to ask me again, and I didn’t want to turn him down again…
Who else is playing on it?
It’s an eclectic mix: besides me and Ringo, there’s Edgar Winter, Rod Argent, Sheila E, Hamish Stewart, and Richard Marx… whadda you think that’s gonna sound like (laughs)? Rehearsals start in June, and I’m very curious to see what we come up with.
And after it’s done, what’s in the works for you, music-wise and otherwise?
After this, it’s back to the garden – thanks for the inspiration, Joni!
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.