Billy Squier admits that his first new studio album in five years "will surprise, possibly horrify" some fans. A live, solo, acoustic guitar-and-voice album, written, performed and produced by Squier, Happy Blue (J-Bird Records, released September 15, 1998) is, he says, "a step in a completely new direction."
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Last summer Squier's classic "The Stroke" was remixed for the Small Soldiers motion picture soundtrack, his song "The Big Beat" is reportedly the most sampled track in hip-hop and he's been the subject of three greatest hits albums since 1995. But for the four years prior to summer 1996, Squier did not write a song. Despite nearly 15 million records sold worldwide, platinum albums and Top 40 singles, he'd grown disenchanted with the music business. But his success had nonetheless provided him with the freedom to delve into other creative pursuits (including becoming a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriting Competition).
Finally it was a famous painter, a two-year-old boy, VH1, and a record label based on the Internet that redirected Squier and changed everything.
During an art history lecture on Cezanne he attended one night in his hometown of New York City, Squier read a letter from the Impressionist from when he was young and full of himself, and then another from the end of his life when he was destitute. "He said he had worked his whole life and was just beginning to realize his vision. It hit me like a lightning bolt: my responsibility is to fulfill my vision to the best of my ability. If I don't care about commercial success or pleasing the industry, I can still make music!"
He then wrote a poem to an ex-girlfriend's son on the boy's second birthday; when she suggested he put it to music, Squier was a songwriter once more. In June 1997, came a call from VH1. The channel was doing a show on major artists of the eighties and wanted him to perform "The Stroke." Squier said sure, but he wasn't about to do the song the way everyone remembers.
"I thought, 'Let's see if I can make this relevant to where I'm at now.'" At a funky studio in New Jersey, VH1 recorded and filmed his live acoustic performance of "Stroke Me Blues" as well as another new song, "Inferno (Everybody Cries Sometimes)." "I was blown away by how powerful a single voice and a guitar can be; not small or empty but intimate, full and nuanced. I thought, 'Wow, I can really do this, if I don't let the business get in my way.'"
Before writing more songs, he bought more guitars. "An instrument can inspire creativity; the way it sounds, plays, looks. You develop a relationship with each one." Searching out new guitar makers and rekindling contacts with established ones, he accumulated several guitars�and played them in different tunings in an effort to widen his musical vocabulary. "I was still not thinking about an album, but I decided to record so I'd have some sort of concrete representation of my songs for posterity."
Enter Jay Barbieri, Founder, President and CEO of J-Bird Records, "The First World Wide Web Recording Label". Barbieri bumped into Squier outside a New York club and told him about his label, dedicated to providing complete freedom to its artist. Squier had first heard about the company when he helped out on a J-Bird album for his longtime keyboardist Alan St. Jon, and now the label loomed as a vehicle for his new work. Yet he was determined to avoid anything that would invite comparisons to his past. "The hip-shakin' guitar-god thing was great, but it's the past. Artists by nature evolve; I've got a different, broader creative palette now. I believe I do my best work when I give myself total creative freedom and focus on the music. There was a master plan for this project apart from those criteria. It really wasn't a project in the traditional sense; the pieces seemed to fall into place as I went along. It's not about selling millions of records � it's about being true to your best nature. By that measure, I've succeeded. If it had anything to do wit money or acceptance, this album sure wouldn't sound like this."
Happy Blue is filled songs about coming to grips with life and love, from the bittersweet "Happy Blues" to the revelatory "The Pursuit Of Happiness," from the folkie "Grasping For Oblivion" to the roots-rocker "If You Could Hate Me Less, I'd Love You More," from the tender "More Than Words Can Say" to the unsparing "Long Way To Fall," from a cover of Joni Mitchell's "River" to "Stroke Me Blues." "Musically, this is uncharted water for me. If I had sat down to do a Billy Squier electric guitar record; none of these songs would've come out. But lyrically I'm pretty consistent. I like to play with words. But it's more than an intellectual exercise; the goal is to always dig deeper, tap your innermost feelings, and become more honest." Squier's uncompromising attitude is reflected in his explanation of the album's title: "In our society, we're led to believe that life is this beautiful thing � work hard, find a mate, have kids, be happy. It's not all that easy. Life's more a blue condition � not so much sad, but difficult and overwhelming. It takes a lot just to get by. 'Boy meets girl, falls in love, etc.' doesn't happen. But if you realize that life's a struggle and everyone's going through it in their own way, then you cope."
Squier's life took shape in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts. First studying piano, he was soon inspired to take up guitar and pursue rock 'n' roll. At 14, a friend sold him his first electric guitar with a small amp; it cost $90. Influenced by the Rolling Stones, he grew his hair long and began hanging out around Cambridge's Harvard Square. While still in high school, his group, The Tom Swift Electric Band, played at The Psychedelic Supermarket opening for the Grateful Dead, the Moody Blues, the Steve Miller Band and Cream (with his guitar idol Eric Clapton).
After a few months at Boston University, Squier moved to New York when a high school friend convinced him to collaborate on a project the two had discussed for some time � a rock 'n roll poetry band called Magic Terry and the Universe. But after attracting no less than Ahmet Ertegun and Frank Barsalona, and recording for both Atlantic and Columbia, Magic Terry imploded after just one public performance (that with Ten Years After at The Boston Tea Party in the summer of 1969). Squier's vision � though still undeveloped� was already changing. With $40 in his pocket, he became an urban nomad: house-sitting for artists in Soho, flirting with rock nobility ("I played with Jimi and ran from Janis"), and starting up various bands. In 1973, he returned to Boston and joined The Sidewinders, a band produced by Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye. But Squier's desire for songs that were sharp and dark, hard yet melodic, conflicted with the more pop-oriented trend of the time. He quit the band in 1974, and began singing in earnest, picking up the basics from an opera singer who lived across the hall. "I'd spend an hour a day in the kitchen doing vocal exercises. I'd write songs all day long and spend hours singing them."
Now a singer-songwriter-guitarist, his next band, Piper, was signed to A&M and recorded two albums, Piper and Can't Wait, before disbanding in 1978. But Squier made an impression. Wrote one critic: "Billy Squier may be the most articulate, emotionally intense total rocker the 70's has produced to date." His solo demo prompted his signing to Capitol, and his debut 1980 disk, Tale Of The Tape, included "The Big Beat."
But his breakthrough came with 1981's Don't Say No, which went Top 5 and triple platinum, and spun off the singles "The Stroke," "In The Dark," and "My Kinda Lover". Emotions In Motion followed in 1982 and also reached #5 and double platinum, with the single "Everybody Wants You" topping the rock charts. That fall, Squier joined forces with his friends from Queen to barnstorm the U.S. before going out as a headliner himself. Wrote Chris Connelly in Rolling Stone, "The reaction to Squier (was) a set-long, deep-throated roar of the kind usually heard only at Springsteen shows."
In 1984, Signs Of Life charted at #11 and cracked the platinum level; its "Rock Me Tonite" single peaked in the Top 20. But the awkward video for that song, Squier notes, "wreaked havoc on my career." He also wanted to progress musically, but had little support. "My success created a perception of who I was, and therefore how I should look and what I symbolized. If I deviated, I lost credibility. If I stepped out of "the box," there was no acceptance. It's one of the ironies of success: people don't want you to change."
His subsequent albums � Enough Is Enough (1986), Hear & Now (1989), Creatures Of Habit (1991) and Tell The Truth (1993) did not match his previous commercial success. But along with his fall from grace came a growing sense of self. "I stopped measuring success by how many people appreciated me, but rather who appreciated me." Apparently, quite a few fit into that category. There have since been three compilations: 16 Strokes (the singles, Capitol, 1995), Reach For The Sky (double CD anthology, Polygram, 1996) and The Best of Billy Squier (Capitol 1997). A live album, King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents Billy Squier In Concert (BMG, 1996), has also been released.
But it's Happy Blue that finally has Squier, well, happy. "This is a collection of songs, pure and simple; there's no pretense or facade. The music is me � and I like it."
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