Revisiting Billy Squier’s Don’t Say No
by Robert Ham
Don’t Say No isn’t an album that oft gets name-checked as a key influencer on popular music. It’s one of those records that feels like it has always been there, folded deep within the foundation of rock, metal and even hip-hop. It’s so elemental that it should have a spot on the Periodic table near iron and cobalt.
But listening to Don’t Say No today, nearly forty years after it was unleashed on an unsuspecting world and sounding better than ever in this freshly remastered edition, its significance is clearer than ever. It provided the spark that fueled the arrival of glam metal and grunge in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It gave many a DJ and sample-happy producer rich fodder to create fist-pumping anthems. And it soundtracks thousands of sporting events, house parties and fast drives down open roads.
The success of Don’t Say No wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but it wasn’t a total surprise either. When it was released in April of 1981, Squier was already in his thirties and had spent a decade and change prior to that grinding it out in and around his hometown of Boston. Not your typical candidate for rock stardom. At the same time, heavier rock music was still holding strong against the rising tide of formerly outlier genres like new wave, punk and rap as heard in the grooves of every copy sold of Back In Black, Moving Pictures, and British Steel.
Squier already had the attention of rock radio stations thanks to his 1980 album The Tale of the Tape—”You Should Be High, Love” was one of the most-requested songs in the U.S. for a couple of months—and a high profile tour supporting Alice Cooper. With the pump primed, Squier set about refining and clarifying his musical vision for his second trip into the studio. And he couldn’t have asked for a better foil to make it a reality than producer Reinhold Mack.
By the early ‘80s, Mack had established himself as one of the best producers and engineers for rock bands of all stripes. To that point, he logged studio time with the Rolling Stones (Black & Blue), Scorpions (Fly To The Rainbow), ELO, and Deep Purple. It was Mack’s work with Queen that landed him on Squier’s radar. Initially, guitarist Brian May was going to produce Tale but had to bow out as he was working on The Game and the Flash Gordon soundtrack. In his place, he recommended Mack.
While it took another year before that collaboration could come to pass, Mack cemented what Don’t Say No became. As Squier told Addicted To Vinyl for the 30th anniversary of the album’s release, “Mack was a big part of the success of [Don’t Say No]. The sound of that record and the way he put it together, it was definitely important. I could not have done that record without him.”
With the assistance of a crack group of session musicians that included former Uriah Heep member Mark Clarke and keyboardist Alan St. Jon, Squier and Mack gave these songs a lean, muscular feel that’s evident from the first grinding chords of “In The Dark” and doesn’t let up until the double-time rhythm of the title track fades out. Heartfelt as many of these tunes are, there’s not a ballad in the bunch. This album is pitched for maximum volume and maximum impact.
But what drove Don’t Say No into the top five of Billboard’s album charts (and kept it there for the better part of two years) and made its debut single “The Stroke” the song of the summer ca. 1981 was how unabashedly catchy it all was. When combined with St. Jon’s synth swells, the bouncy vocal melody of “My Kinda Lover” sticks hard in the brain. Same goes for “Lonely Is The Night,” a rocker with a steady pulse courtesy of drummer Bobby Chouinard and a romantic edge thanks to Squier’s pleading performance and lyrics.
So what’s keeping Don’t Say No from its inclusion in the canon of great rock albums? The tastemakers of modern pop culture have clearly been paying attention as “The Stroke” has been heard in dozens of films and TV shows, on top of being sampled by uber-producer Rick Rubin for Eminem’s 2013 single “Berserk.” Even after selling three million copies since its release, the album somehow remains in the dark, if you will, to many modern music fans.
Perhaps rock fans just need to hear it anew, which is now more possible than ever thanks to Intervention Records and the careful, crystalline work that Kevin Gray of CoHEARent Audio did remastering the album from the original analog master tapes. The 180-gram vinyl/CD + SACD hybrid release is nothing short of revelatory, bringing Squier’s vision, his band’s performances and Mack’s production to IMAX-like proportions. It’s long past time for Squier and Don’t Say No to get their just due. Let that start right here.