40 years ago, America said yes to Don’t Say No
In the midst of New Wave’s mainstream takeover in the U.S., Don’t Say No informed the world that America still had one last old-school rock star left to offer up.
Billy Squier didn’t have a stylish haircut, a drum machine, or a futuristic jumpsuit. But with some help from Queen’s producer, his merger of hard rock guitar crunch and power pop hooks still put him on the shortlist of 1981’s most resplendent rockers.
Don’t Say No was most people’s first exposure to Squier, but it was far from his first rodeo. The 31-year-old singer/guitarist had been in a boatload of bands, and most recently grabbed for the brass ring as frontman for Piper, with two albums on A&M. Squier’s 1980 solo debut, The Tale of the Tape, scarcely troubled the charts. But when he hooked up with German producer Reinhold Mack — who’d just become pals with posterity by overseeing Queen’s career peak The Game — the Boston rocker set himself up for a little immortality of his own.
AUDIO: Piper Can’t Wait LP 1977
Squier was a hard-rock tenor in the classic mode, with a tone somewhere between Freddie Mercury and Robert Plant, minus the former’s theatricality and the latter’s fire-engine whine. His songs had the pop concision of a kid who’d grown up with The Beatles, likely flattening his ear against a transistor radio on school nights to soak up as much of that Merseyside mojo as possible, and the classic-rock heft of a starry-eyed Telecaster addict who’d started making his bid for stardom right when rock began moving into arenas.
As early as Piper’s 1977 debut LP, it was clear that Squier had the Right Stuff. But it took Mack’s studio savvy to help him harness those raw materials and give them enough juice to jolt the kids who’d been losing their minds over “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust.”
Don’t Say No had enough AOR girth to make hormone-addled teens hoist their girlfriends up on their shoulders in exultation at the local Enormodome. But it also brought a soupcon of up-to-the-moment tech to the table — enough to make Squier sound more like a man of the moment than a throwback, and enough to finally put his name on the top of those Enormodome bills after years of being rock stardom’s perennial bridesmaid.
It was “The Stroke” that sealed the deal for Squier. Though it only went to 17 on the pop charts, it was as inescapable on rock radio as monster truck rally commercials. Squier’s last single, from his previous album, was “The Big Beat” (which actually ended up becoming sample fodder for countless hip-hop records), but it was “The Stroke” that boasted the most gargantuan beat of the era, triangulated somewhere between glam, AOR, and the dance rock of the day. Mack employed some studio sorcery and sprinkled a little fairy dust on drummer Bobby Chouinard’s pachyderm stomp, giving it the impact of an anvil dropped from the ceiling of an aluminum-walled warehouse.
Given the “stroke me, stroke me” refrain, fans could be forgiven for assuming that the song’s lyrical theme was as prurient as 99 percent of the era’s other rock radio staples. Even decades later, that misconception still lingers, but in fact the song is about Squier’s experiences with music-biz BS artists giving him “the stroke” instead of a fair shake. Presumably neither Squier nor his label were shocked when the song’s less-than-subtle metaphor earned it a spot on the list of rock’s great digital-stimulation songs.
VIDEO: Billy Squier “The Stroke”
The album’s next single, “In the Dark,” was powered by a New Wave-informed synth hook in tune with the times, and a dynamic that shifted between simmering verses and a balls-out “B” section. It upped Squier’s profile even further by allowing him to tap into the Top 40 a second time.
Don’t Say No’s other two singles didn’t become pop hits, but they were all over rock radio (and they remain classic-rock staples to this day). “Lonely Is the Night” shows off Squier’s knack for the killer riff, as Chouinard leans into the track with a Bonham-like wallop and the whole things ends up in an old-school double-time rave-up.
The riff that runs “My Kinda Lover” comes dangerously close to reggae-rock, usually a bad idea for any band whose name doesn’t rhyme with “the slow geese.” But between Alan St. John’s colorful keyboard orchestrations and Mack’s electronic enhancements of the beat, it comes off as a sleek, slinky earworm.
VIDEO: Billy Squier Live in Santa Monica 1981
The surging “You Know What I Like,” bluesy “Too Daze Gone,” and slide guitar-slathered “Whadda You Want From Me” all shore up Squier’s credentials as a straight-up rocker. “Nobody Knows” is the album’s only pause for breath. Singing in a gentle falsetto, Squier comes across as a convincing balladeer on a tune dedicated to John Lennon. It was written while Lennon was alive, but Billy was in the studio putting the finishing touches on it the night the ex-Beatle was assassinated, and the sadness-behind-success theme seemed to fit.
Squier went on to score a couple of other indelible ‘80s hits like “Everybody Wants You” and “Rock Me Tonite,” but he never equaled the monster success of Don’t Say No. Who could? The remarkable thing is that he got there to begin with.
When Don’t Say No was released in April of ‘81, the wild-tressed, Telecaster-wielding arena rockers of the ‘70s were enjoying their last hurrah while the New Wave was rushing in. But Squier had what it took to make the old ways work with a new twist. And Don’t Say No still stands up after four decades of service.