(Back in 1987, I interviewed Jools Holland in his hotel room, and Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook over the phone for Creem. A great experience and reprinted here as the folks from rock’s back pages tracked it down for me -IL)
Squeeze: Access All Areas
“NOW 64 JUMPS!” shouts Glenn Tilbrook onstage at New York’s The Ritz. The dancefloor reverberates as the audience musters what little energy it has left. It’s nearly midnight on a Monday and many of us have been standing since 7:30 p.m. for our first glimpse of Squeeze in two years. In their infinite wisdom the Ritz has cordoned off the only seats; people are dropping like flies.
At least Squeeze are having a good time. “We made no bones about coming to play a club, something we hadn’t done for a long time,” Chris Difford said eight days later. “And as exhausted as I was after each show, I thought the audience was equally exhausted and left equally happy. Because I did.”
In a separate interview Jools Holland got closer to the truth. “Two of us liked it, three of us didn’t. I think we played too long.”
If Jools meant the songs were too long, he was right. Many of them could’ve been shaved by a minute. Still, length wasn’t the problem. Squeeze played well. They’re a first-division progressive pop group (Tilbrook: “I don’t think we’ve ever been a rock band. We’re just a straightforward pop music band — maybe a British definition of pop, not an American one. But that’s what we are.”) who seldom descend into the whimsical wanking of a 10CC. Squeeze were professional to a fault. Aware of their effect even as they were skewering said effect, the pacing of the set was purposely off: for every hit there was a track off the naff ’85 comeback LP, Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti, and the still-to-be-released-as-of-this-writing follow-up, tentatively titled Five Angry Men.
Of the new songs, ‘The Prisoner’ and ‘Cigarette For A Single Man’ fit nicely in the set. Which doesn’t mean much: they should have stood out a little. And while Cosi’s ‘Home Is Where The Heart Is’ improved vastly live, it’ll never be one of Squeeze’s shining moments. The net result was a disappointment for a long-term fan. I could feel my patience running out as I limped home a coupla hours before I had to go to work.
The Past Has Been Bottled
THIS ISN’T A matter of Squeeze having an off night. With the exception of a three year divorce (’82-’85), they have played since 1975. And with the exception of 1982’s Annie Get Your Gun, Squeeze have been going downhill since ’81.
“I don’t agree with that at all,” Tilbrook declared. “I’d say we’ve been on a couple of diversions. We’ve made two albums that’ve had their low points, probably lower than the albums that came before them. But I’m in the position where I’m involved with the new album now and I don’t think we’re going downhill. It’s getting a lot better and this will be our best LP ever.”
During the early ’80s Squeeze were world conquerors with three hit singles in a row: ‘Tempted’, ‘Black Coffee In Bed’, and ‘Annie Get Your Gun’. Lyricist Chris Difford had perfected his dense, picturesque, short story-ish writing. Unlike a man he’s been compared to, Elvis Costello, Difford doesn’t write catechisms. He always seems removed from his lyrics. “I can be protected by using a third person. I can use a third person to say things about myself and other people I wouldn’t normally say.”
If Difford’s words work into a world-view, it’s because of the accumulation of the many stories he’s told about loneliness (‘Labelled With Love’), adultery (‘Tempted’), broken marriages (‘Up The Junction’), and fake male bravado (‘Cool For Cats’) among the English working class. Another comparison is Ray Davies, only Ray’s relationship with the proles is based upon an ambiguity: Ray pities them their poverty and loathes their bourgeois pretensions and hopes. Chris empathizes with the proles and he sees their lot as a universal truth of human relationships, a microcosm.
“It’s where I’m from, it’s what I know about, so it’s what I write about.” If Chris was a polemist, I’d claim it’s where he takes his stand.
Ninety-nine percent of the time Chris writes the lyric and gives the lyric to Glenn who composes the music. Glenn once had an uncanny knack for melodies. He thinks he still does: “I don’t think a sense of melody has been missing; a sense of accessibility maybe. Let me explain: if you put on Shostakovich on one hand and Eddie Cochran on the other, one will be easier to listen to. Now I’m not equating that with quality, all I’m saying is both are melodic but one is more accessible.”
Let’s say Glenn’s music used to be more accessible. Juxtaposed against funk, soul, power and pure pop, rockabilly and psychedelia, Glenn changed Chris’s stories into songs. A telling example is the way the perfect lyric to ‘Up The Junction’ (more like a poem really, it doesn’t even have a chorus) is transformed into the sort of number that can be crooned in the shower.
A better example is ‘Vanity Fair’, the disturbing story of a woman’s hopes and reality: “She comes home late with another screw loose/She swears that she’s had just a pineapple juice/Falls asleep fully clothed in the chair.”) Glenn composed quiet, beautifully orchestrated music for it, far from rock, pastoral and melancholy. At the end of the song, violins swell and fade describing, indeed expressing a sentiment left hanging in the lyric.
We don’t have to be told the woman’s “dreams of vanity fair” will never come true and never go away. Tilbrook’s already informed us. Difford: “I guess, deep down, at that stage of my life, I wanted to be a woman.” Glenn knew what he wanted.
I can do no more than point you in the direction of the Squeeze compilation of their singles 45s And Under; an album brimming over with wit and smarts and tall tales and accessibility. The only thing that comes close is a Beatles tape made at home or the Buzzcocks’ classic Singles Going Steady.
However, Sweets From A Stranger, the follow-up to two flawless LPs (Argy Bargy and East Side Story),was the real indication as to where Squeeze were heading. Despite the hits ‘Black Coffee In Bed’ and ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ (the latter not on the LP, though recorded at the same sessions), Sweets was difficult, ambiguous, depressing and open ended. Difford: “We’d been on the road for seven years, we were tired and you can tell.”
Tilbrook: “I don’t particularly like Sweets as a record. It was our biggest seller but it was all tied into the mood of the band. We’d worked too long and too much. It didn’t seem right and that’s why I split up the band.” Sweets hasn’t stood the test of time.
If Glenn split up the band to make Difford/Tilbrook, he shouldn’t have bothered. They both claim to love the songs on it and they both realize it didn’t come out right. Chris falls back on that old standby, the production. Glenn is a bit more thorough: “It was a bit of a coffee table record, because we’d just got out of a pop group and wanted to do something different. It doesn’t work well as a record because it sounds too relaxed.”
In 1985, Squeeze reformed with original keyboardist Jools Holland (MIA since ’80) back in the fold. Things got worse.
A Gaggle (Of Likely Lads)
THIS IS THE story of three separate and distinct interviews. Set up by A&M’s tireless Vivian Piazza, two were conducted over the phone to London, one at a hotel suite in New York. You can’t tell a damn thing about a person in an hour.
Jools: Laconic, easygoing, bored, a trifle indifferent. He’s the former co-presenter of The Tube,an English youth-pop-comedy TV program, seen occasionally on MTV. Suspended for six weeks after saying “groovy fucker” on the air (“the straw that broke the camel’s back”), The Tube was highly rated by critics, not highly rated in the Nielsens. Before the six weeks were over, the producer had quit and, after five years, The Tube was cancelled. Quote: “It was high profile but I only worked two days a week. A part-time job.”
Chris: My favorite Squeeze. Reasonable, intense, self-critical, polite. He’s collaborating with Louise Geffen (Carole King’s daughter) and I can’t wait to hear the results. Quote: “In our adolescent albums, like Cool For Cats, drinking was the order of the day. That’s because we were a bit younger, we were out on the road, and we were being filthy with girls. Being louts.”
Glenn: Self-confident, smart-alecky, cool. The sex symbol of the group. Quote: “Has being married changed the way I write? No.”
All clear? OK, let’s see how things got worse.
Guilty, Yes Guilty
COSI FAN TUTTI Frutti would be an iffy LP by anybody’s standard; by Squeeze’s big comeback standard it was a disaster. There was one pop song, ‘By Your Side’, that was alright, if not much compared to ‘Take Me, I’m Yours’. And one track I like after hearing it live, ‘No Place Like Home’. But there’s no excuse for ‘Big Beng’, ‘Last Time Forever’, ‘Break My Heart’ and ‘I Won’t Ever Go Drinking Again’. ‘King George Street’ had a good lyric ruined by Tilbrook’s music.
‘Hits Of The Year’ had iffy music, made worse by a terrible lyric. Difford: “It was an abortion, actually. It was a song from Difford/Tilbrook which hadn’t come out right and we decided to record it again. I decided I didn’t like the lyric, Glenn said the lyric wasn’t strong enough, the producer didn’t like the lyric. I was tearing my hair out and trying to think of new words. In the end I came up with five different lyrics, put them on the table and said ‘you choose one.’ They didn’t choose my favorite.”
Jools likes Cosi full stop. Glenn hedges, finally opting for a standby I’m getting used to. “We worked with a producer and if you’re working with a producer you broadly agree with, you should make it the way they want to.” Blah, blah, blah. Three in a row boiled down to poor production. There is more truth in Jools’s and Glenn’s contention that the lack of razzle dazzle is due to the way in which the album was made. The layering of instruments, slowly overdubbed to make a finished track. From drum machine to vocals, records become an assembly line.
I’d leave it at that, but Chris’s dissection of Cosi is a study in the way even the most talented of groups can come apart at the seams.
“I see the record as kind of like our first one all those years ago. As though the band was together for the first time. When Cosi first came out, I was bubbling over. As time’s gone by I can see the mistakes.
“I thought Cosi was very clever dicky. To be honest with you, there’s a lot of it I don’t like. I can’t speak on Glenn’s behalf, but I think he was being too clever for his own good. As a lyricist I was trying to reach subjects I wasn’t competent of reaching. That came across very much in the album.”‘
Now for the last word on Cosi. “I’m glad I’ve had an experience that taught me something about myself and my group. I’m willing to find some good in all things.”
Prisoners In A Recording Studio
“I’M NOT NOSTRADAMUS, but the people at A&M who’ve heard the new LP are very excited,” says Jools.
“I’ve never seen the band as a band so enthused,” says Glenn.
“If the new songs sounded like the same old stuff put it down to the hall or our playing,” says Chris.
More or less what they said before Cosi. Without the benefit of killing ducks and studying their entrails, the auspices for Five Angry Men seem very good and rotten. On the plus side, it was recorded “the exact opposite to the last one. We rehearsed for seven months and recorded live.” On the minus, the co-producer is Eric “ET” Thorngren. ET has worked with Robert Palmer, Peter Wolf and the Talking Heads: the acceptable side of decidedly unexceptional sounds. On the plus, Glenn himself is co-producing.
Back on the minus, according to Jools, Squeeze have been in the studio with Five Angry Men for nearly a year; an amount of time which suggests confusion. “We’ve been a long time doing this. It’s cost us an enormous amount of money because it’s taken so long. We’d do something then we’d say ‘We don’t like that’ and start again. Or we’d say ‘We don’t like this song, let’s start another one now.
Chris and Glenn dispute Jools’s claim. “If you had all the studio bills out on the table, it would add up to seven or eight months,” says Chris. “We started writing in February 1986 and finished in August. From September to November we rehearsed 20 to 25 songs. We went into the studio and started recording but finally decided to record it live, the way albums used to be made. We laid down 15 tracks in two weeks.”
Don’t Pull That Trigger (reprise)
“LEGS UP WITH a book and a drink, now is that love that’s making you think?” It’s still Monday at the Ritz, and Glenn is bringing to life one of Squeeze’s greatest moments.
Has this article been an obituary? Difford: “I don’t know about that; I’m already working on the album after next.”
Squeeze are a fire or a cinder. They hold a place in my heart apart from the fickle finger of fashion. I watch them slip away. The cinder.
“The better, better, better it gets. Right now, now this minute, in the midst of a mass of bodies, I’m swayed towards Squeeze, a rarity, a pop group worth worrying about. And now, right now this minute, I have no doubt. The fire.
It’s the music, stupid
a restless and fearless freak show
Eminem and Calvin couldn’t move Bey
summer’s entertainment is rewarded
compares the end of a romance to the end of life
House pure and simple
lays down his claim to being a giant
Elvis Costello And The Imposters and Nick Lowe And Los Straightjackets At The Rooftop At Pier 17, Thursday, August 11th, 2022
embraces the moment with a big smile