When Joe Satriani announced he’d be releasing a set of demos from the early 80s the natural assumption was that we’d be getting embryonic versions of tracks from albums such as ‘Not of this Earth’ or ‘Surfing with the Alien’. Truth be told - and as cool as that might have been - ‘Squares’ is actually more interesting. Many artists shun their earliest musical endeavours, happy to lock them away in a vault somewhere and seemingly have no recollection of their earliest attempts at rock stardom. Joe obviously has a soft spot for those early days, which is hardly surprising as some of the people involved in Squares still play a big part in the Joe Satriani story in 2019
The roots of Squares go all the way back to when Satriani was teaching guitar in San Francisco with Kirk Hammett (Metallica), Steve Vai, Larry LaLonde (Primus) and Alex Skolnick (Testament) among the many fledgling players who booked lessons. Satriani joined forces with his brother-in-law Neil Sheehan as manager and lyricist and they soon enlisted drummer Jeff Campitelli and Andy Milton (lead vocals/bass) to form Squares (sometimes referred to as The Squares). Eagle-eyed Satriani fans will notice the name of Campitelli who continues to feature on Satriani albums and tours to this day. John Cuniberti, who also continues to work with Satriani and many, many more artists, was the original live sound man for Squares and a natural fit to polish up the tracks for release.
Squares, it must be said, is of its time but if you’ve a love of the late 70s, early 80s power pop/new wave scene then Squares is well worth checking out. It’s also going to be interesting for many Satriani fans to hear the guitarist in a band format outside of his work as an occasional hired gun (Deep Purple/Mick Jagger) or in Chickenfoot. Squares set their stall out with opener ‘Give It Up’ based on an insistent Satriani riff and driven by Campitelli’s pounding drums - particularly effective on the chorus - throw in a few wo oh-oh vocals and a short/sharp solo and you’ve a sure-fire power pop winner done and dusted in three minutes as it should be. Next up ‘Everybody’s Girl’ is as ridiculously OTT a power pop tune as I’ve heard, but it’s still good fun. Campitelli is again the star, throwing in all manner of Latin influenced shuffles at breakneck speed while vocalist Andy Milton gives us his best la la la refrain on the chorus. ‘B Side Girl’ finds Milton employing a falsetto vocal over Satriani’s clean guitars and the guys throw in some pretty nice harmonies, the sitar sounding guitar solo is a little odd but does demonstrate the band was looking to explore lots of different ideas. ‘I Need A Lot Of Love’ is a bit of a miss as it sounds like Van Halen playing Buddy Holly tunes at 78 rpm, doesn’t have a chorus and honestly is best avoided while ‘Can’t Take It Anymore’ is a standard mid-paced hard rocker saved by a deceptively simple chorus.
Things take a really interesting turn with ‘So Used Up’ which brings to mind Canadian trio Rush with Satriani employing guitar lines reminiscent of Alex Lifeson circa ‘Spirit of Radio’. The guys pack a lot into three minutes with a catchy chorus and a breakdown that finds guitars spiralling to all corners of the mix while Milton’s underlying bass work has a ‘Synchronicity’ feel to it. ‘You Can Light the Way’ continues in a similar vein, but displays more light and shade in the arrangement with Satriani finding plenty of room to show his chops on a fantastic ascending solo. ‘So Used Up’ and ‘You Can Light The Way’ are terrific tracks which add a progressive twist to the sound - kinda like The Police jamming with Rush - which really is a welcome development. Moving on, the Punchy ‘Tonight’ is owned by Satriani’s solo before ‘Never Let It Get You Down’ finds the band in big ballad territory and Satriani again has lots of room to breathe, but to be honest the band don’t quite have the vocal chops to carry off this sort of thing. ‘Follow Your Heart’ is good fun with its rumbling bass, cool riff and a flashy solo, but lacks a real killer hook. The album concludes with a surprising cover choice in Barry Mann’s ‘I Love How You Love Me’. The song was originally fashioned into a hit by producer Phil Spector for The Paris Sisters in the early 60s. Squares take on the track starts slowly with gentle tone control guitar soundscapes before they up the tempo and Satriani embarks on a string of outlandish guitar breaks sure to please any budding guitar players in the house.
Squares didn't get their big break and Satriani would embark on a solo career by way of a stint with the Greg Kihn Band. Coincidentally, Kihn was signed to the Beserkley label famed as the home of all things power pop, which might have been the perfect environment to iron out the kinks in the Squares sound but alas it was too late. Satriani describes the band in the press release as “Part Van Halen and part Everly Brothers. A mix of Heavy Metal, Rock n’ Roll, Punk and New Wave” which sums it up pretty well with the possible caveat that the guys would never be able to match Don and Phil in the harmony stakes. In a sad side note to the Squares story, Andy Milton would, unfortunately, pass away in 1999 but did contribute backing vocals alongside Satriani on the debut Crowded House record (which is a slightly baffling credit if ever there was one). Squares might not quite have had the songs to compare with contemporaries such as Breathless or more recently Waltham but their eclectic mix of styles - understandable as the band were still finding their feet - is definitely worth checking out. The really odd thing is fans of Satriani’s solo work might best be advised to approach with a little caution and an open mind. If they do I’m pretty sure they’ll find something to like.
Review by David Vousden
“Squares” will be available on July 12th, 2019 as CD Digipak, Vinyl and digital on earMUSIC.