Genius of "Stroke"
Rock icon Billy Squier's '80s anthems are still in heavy rotation. Maybe that's why he has so much time for gardening.
Andy Warhol painted Billy Squier for the cover of his 1982 Emotions in Motion album. "I realized that my record company was going to want to have my face on my album cover," Squier says, "but I didn't want it to be just me with a guitar." The work now hangs in his apartment. (Globe Photo / Joe Tabacca) Globe Photo / Joe Tabacca
Retiring rapper Jay-Z's farewell anthem, "99 Problems," booms with a big beat. In fact, it booms with "The Big Beat," the lead track from Tale of the Tape, Billy Squier's 1980 solo debut. The Wellesley-born rock icon's bombastic pop-metal songs, which went on to define the hard sound of the '80s, have been routinely sampled by rappers from Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane to British newcomer Dizzee Rascal. "The Stroke," Squier's suggestive signature song, popped up in the movie The Longest Yard, and his "Everybody Wants You" was reworked for the television show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Now 55, Squier spoke with us about the excesses of the '80s and trading his ax for pruning shears.
You've been asked to appear on "Where-are-they-now" shows but turned them down.
Without a second thought. I think those things are horrifying. These are desperate people. I'm not trying to cast aspersions, but I would like to hold onto whatever integrity I still have.
Your rock song "The Big Beat" just turned up on a new compilation called "Hip Hop Roots." What do you think of the reference?
It's the most sampled song in history - they said that on MTV, so even if I'm wrong, I'm not making it up. The intro of the song is me with my hands in a trap case, beating on the side of it. I just walked around the studio banging on stuff, looking for a sound. . . . People sometimes write that Billy is the king of hip-hop. I didn't even know what hip-hop was then.
How many times has "The Stroke" been remixed?
I think if I had one more version, I'd put out a Stroke Volume 1 album. I've got probably eight or nine, which are all really different. Actually, someone approached us about doing that with "The Big Beat," too. I wouldn't want to end up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as the "Master of Hip-Hop Samples," but you take what you can get.
Have you done better financially than some of your peers from all these samples?
Well, I wouldn't lie. I'm the publisher of the songs and the writer. I do very well from that.
At the height of your popularity, you were one of the biggest rock stars around. You were hanging out with Def Leppard and Queen. How crazy was that?
I like to think that in my case it was relatively controlled, if decadence can be. I stepped up to the edge of the cliff a few times, but I never went over.
In hindsight, what was the worst thing about the '80s?
MTV! It completely changed the face of music. For me, music is this incredibly cerebral trip. You turn on the radio or put on a record, and it's your song, it's what you see. When MTV came along, you didn't have your story anymore.
Andy Warhol did the cover for 1982's Emotions in Motion. How did that happen?
Andy was at the height of his popularity. So I called him up, and he said, "Sure." He asked me what colors I didn't like.
You grew up in Wellesley Hills?
Yes. My father worked for Converse Rubber. He was a regional sales manager back in their glory days - the Celtics, Bill Russell, and all that.
The Psychedelic Supermarket was the first nightclub you played regularly in the '60s. What was that like?
It was just outside Kenmore Square, down an alley, no windows, not particularly high ceilings. Not a magic place like the [Boston] Tea Party, just a very industrial place. But I had a lot of great times there. We'd open for the Grateful Dead, the Moody Blues, Steve Miller. I spent six nights at [Eric] Clapton's feet when Cream came there.
Your Berklee experience was short?
I went there for a year. I'd gone to New York at an early age, and I got beat up a little bit, emotionally. So I thought I'd go home and go to music school. Berklee's a great school, but what Berklee teaches you is not what Billy Squier is about. I remember the last straw was when I did a recital for the head of the department. He said, "You played it fine, but you're not playing it the way we want you to."
Since dropping out of public view, you've immersed yourself in gardening and screenplays. Why?
Well, I got out of the business because I went from being the biggest artist on my record label to someone they didn't even want to have around. I woke up one day and said, "I don't need this." I was walking down the street, and I saw this advertisement for writing screenplays. The first one I wrote ended up being a Sundance finalist for writing. I got into it for a couple of years, and then I realized I was talking to the same people I'd been talking to in the music business. I'm a huge garden and landscape fanatic. That happened when I bought a house on Long Island, back in 1988. The house was nice, but the land was terrible. Now I take care of 20 acres of Central Park, right in front of my place [as a volunteer for the park's Conservancy]. I walk out to the park, and it's like my garden. I've come across other things which have enabled me to learn about myself and what it is to be alive. Which is certainly not all about fame.
When you're working in the park, unrecognized, does anyone ever say anything?
Yeah! When you're getting adulation from 10,000 or 20,000 people, it's pretty powerful. But getting thanked by one person is just as important.
James Sullivan's book on the history of blue jeans will be out in 2006. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.