Tuesday, November 13, 2007

An Illustrated Guide To... Squeeze

On 26th November the reformed Squeeze, or reformed in the sense it ever was for a good half of its lifespan in being Chris Difford, Glenn Tilbrook and others (returning bassist John Bentley and Stephen Large and Simon Hanson from Tilbrook's band The Fluffers, to be exact), begin a UK tour they thought might never happen. The figureheads, having been tarred at their peak with Rolling Stone's 'new Lennon & McCartney' tag, never made it to How Do You Sleep? levels of antipathy - the split was too civil for that - but there was a barely disguised depth of feeling between the pair well before the parting of band ways. Although the impasse long thawed completely, Difford has intimated that the tour is only happening because Universal wanted to promote this year's Essential Squeeze compilation, their tenth Best Of, and although Tilbrook has made encouraging noises about an eventual album and Difford has spoken of getting his own long gestated Squeeze musical going both are releasing solo albums next year. Whatever, it brings back into the spotlight one of the most literate and effective bands Britain has produced in the last thirty years or so.

In 1973, 18 year old Chris Difford placed a guitarist wanted advert in a shop in Blackheath, to which one of few respondents was 15 year old hippy Glenn Tilbrook. As their friendship and musical partnership blossomed the more musically able Tilbrook took up the melodic side while the longer standing songwriting half concentrated on lyrics, and the pair played at the bottom of bills for a couple of years, mostly under the name Skyco. On the side Tilbrook continued to sketch out songs with talented pianist schoolfriend Julian Holland, Jools to one and all, who Difford has described as resembling a Hell's Angel hanger-on at the time, if you can imagine such a thing. Mutual acquaintance Harry Kakoulli, who'd been in a band with future Only One and briefly Tilbrook flatmate Peter Perrett, joined the nascent outfit on bass, and with shortlived drummer Paul Gunn the band built up a south London following throughout 1975 under a name taken from a late Velvet Underground album. Perrett's friend's friend Miles Copeland was a managerial mover and shaker who would later turn his brother Stewart's band The Police into worldwide superstars, and he convinced the teenagers to sign a managerial contract that year on the promise of better paid gigs, handing over an unrecoupable fifty percent of all publishing rights in the process. A couple of aborted sessions followed before sessioner Gilson Lavis joined as drummer and a set of demos was finally recorded. Watching some of the session was John Cale, who produced debut release Packet Of Three EP, which sold 25,000 copies on the tiny Deptford Fun City label.

Cale was entrusted the self-titled debut album, but, heavily reliant on drink and drugs at this point, insisted first off that the band ditch all their road-tested songs and come up with a whole new set in the studio which abandoned their harmonic post-Beatles melodies for aggressiveness and subjects he suggested. Both main parties disown the album, released in March 1978, the two singles being the sole album tracks produced by the band themselves when ill health forced Cale out early. The first, Take Me I'm Yours, went top twenty, while Copeland hired a cramping van and drove them round America's byways for two months.

Take Me, I'm Yours

With a stockpile of their own earlier unreleased songs, second album syndrome was quelled until A&M recommended they scrap the sessions with Pink Floyd engineer Brian Humphries, the band ending up co-producing it themselves with first album engineer John Wood to what everyone refers to as superior results. Writing Cool For Cats, for a start, which ended up as the title track of the album released in March 1979. Difford took influence from Ian Dury, Nick Drake and the crew of local ne'er do wells who were hanging around the band at the time, while Tilbrook's musical experimentation was encouraged, early synths dotted about the record. The album is full of band classics - Slap And Tickle, Goodbye Girl, Cool For Cats - inspired by the musical segments of The Benny Hill Show - and Up The Junction, written in New Orleans in the Dylan reportage style. The last two sold a combined million records and the latter two tracks both reached number two as singles, so on with ever lengthening tours they went.

Slap And Tickle

At the end of 1979 Kakoulli was sacked, replaced by John Bentley, and after a single Christmas Day was curiously banned by the BBC and flopped as a result, Squeeze went back into the studio with three albums' worth of Difford songs, the best of which became Argybargy, a less successful but no less succinctly captured collection. Just after its February 1980 release Holland, who was seen as the band's calming internal force but had been sidelined during much of the previous two albums' recording sessions, left to pursue his own musical and soon enough televisual projects. Copeland was also summarily excommunicated as manager, Chris and Glenn feeling he'd taken his eye off the Squeeze ball as the Police rose steadily. Instead they hooked up with Stiff Records founder Jake Riviera, now operating his own management company, and his associate Elvis Costello agreed to produce the May 1981 fourth album East Side Story alongside Undertones producer Roger Bechirian. Operating to strict working hours and pub banning orders so work could be completed before Elvis' other commitments, the decision was also made to bring in Paul Carrack on vocals and keyboard. It was his soul background that encouraged the band to come up with Tempted, a song Difford admits is partly autobiographical, and at Costello's suggestion to put Carrack on lead. Widely regarded as their pinnacle, it's almost a theme album of love either going wrong or setting about things the wrong way, shaded by soul and country and moving away from earlier blanket accusations of a sexist nature. Labelled With Love went to number four, aided by B-side joke Squabs On Forty Fab, a Stars On 45-style disco medley of previous singles.

In Quintessence
Squabs On Forty Fab

By then Riviera and A&M had already come to loggerheads, and when having promised a contractless agreement Riviera presented a lengthy and detailed document for signing the die was cast against the manager. Five years' pauseless work behind them Squeeze needed rest; instead what they got was studio time for another album and a new keyboard player after the pivotal Carrack left, Don Snow his replacement. Sweets From A Stranger, released in May 1982 and produced, as much has he could with Tilbrook in particular dominating proceedings, by Phil MacDonald, was a major step backwards, exacerbating existing tensions and not selling half as well in Britain, although America proved less elusive. Standalone single Annie Get Your Gun also failed to make the top 40, the band surprised to find its producer had recorded all but lead vocals in their absence, and with members wracked in heavy drinking and success falling apart it was decided to end the band from late 1982, a hits compilation Singles 45s And Under being issued.

Difford and Tilbrook were reconciled by playwright John Turner, who wrote a script around their songs called Labelled With Love and with their musical arrangements ran it for three months at the Albany Theatre, Deptford. This led to Difford & Tilbrook, using mostly leftover songs from the previous two albums, a more grandiose and not nearly achieved take on the Squeeze sound. It didn't help that both had got into hard drugs and still didn't trust the other anyway, and that the album didn't sell. The Argybargy line-up reformed for a charity show in January 1985 which was so successful the proper name was resuscitated without Bentley, Keith Wilkinson taking up the bass, and the band also got back together with Miles Copeland despite an outstanding legal action over royalties. August's Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti was recorded in Belgium with Paul Young producer Laurie Latham but sounds like a band re-entering the studio before they're ready, inconsistency squared with 80s production values. The Soft Boys' Andy Metcalfe came on tour as a second keyboard player and stayed for September 1987's Babylon And On, recorded in six different studios at great expense but their most consistent album since East Side Story. Their biggest selling too, going gold in America on the back of an Ade Edmondson-directed video for Hourglass and a proper hit in 853-5937, Tilbrook's old phone number allied to a song they thought was so throwaway they refused to play it live even after it had broken big. Tilbrook took a co-producer's credit, leading to further internal fallouts and what he now calls the lowest point in his partnership with Difford, although in public things were going better than ever with a successful Bowie support slot and a Madison Square Garden sellout.

Metcalfe replaced by Matt Irving, the task again of following up a hugely successful album fell to September 1989's Frank, which was even more artistically successful, Difford back to lyrical sharpness, Tilbrook ever improving as an arranger, Holland and Lavis on form. Of course, it sank without trace commercially.

Love Circles

Holland's televisual CV was increasing and he jumped ship afterwards, and when A&M was taken over the band were dumped. Warners Bros picked them up and the two's personal lives changed - Glenn divorcing his much-unloved by bandmates wife, Chris getting married for the second time - but a soul-destroying Fleetwood Mac support tour and Difford's deteriorating mental state, as well as disputes with producer Tony Berg, meant August 1991's Play went similarly unrewarded. Both men remain proud of the album despite a much less happy-go-lucky lyrical content and overly smooth production. Lavis left again, Warners dropped them (although they were picked up by...A&M) and Difford walked out literally on the eve of an American tour to get to grips with his drinking. Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas from Costello's Attractions filled in for the tour, but Tilbrook was left alone up front. Difford meanwhile went through rehabilitation and rejoined the outside world in autumn 1992.

Carrack returned and Thomas continued for September 1993's revitalising Some Fantastic Place, the title track a tribute to Glenn's ex-girlfriend Maxine, who had acted as a middleman when the pair had fallen out and had recently died of leukaemia. Upbeat in tone if not lyrically, Difford's words often musing on man's relationships with women, men and drink, everyone pushing the same way for once led to a favourite recording for everyone, if again more successful in reviews than sales. Aimee Mann, who Difford had worked with, played several shows on the album's tour as a band member.

Some Fantastic Place

Carrack and Thomas disappeared again, Kevin Wilkinson the new drummer, and Copeland finally severed band ties before Ridiculous, which, released in November 1995, saw the band positioned as godfathers of Britpop and managed a couple of top 40 placings, but by now that was the limit of Squeeze's commercial ability. In 1997 they found themselves £30,000 in the hole on unpaid tax and were dropped by A&M again. Tilbrook's Quixotic label released Down In The Valley, a single to mark Charlton Athletic's 1998 Division 1 play-off final appearance featuring squad members, before changing the rest of the band completely, including Jools' younger brother Chris Holland on keys. An entirely new band and a rushed recording, Tilbrook producing, led to November 1998's Domino, a last album as regretted by the frontmen as the first.

Although both were out of ideas and patience with the band, neither admitted it at the time until in January 1999 Difford, depressed and feeling his demons return, walked out on an American tour again at the last moment. Personal clashes followed until Difford decided to finally call the partnership off, the band's last gig to date being in Aberdeen on November 27th 1999. Difford went on to write for and manage others and has released two solo albums, 2003's I Didn't Get Where I Am, co-written with It Bites' Francis Dunnery, and last year's live retrospective South East Side Story. Tilbrook has also released two albums, 2001's The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook and 2005's Transatlantic Ping Pong, which featured a Difford co-write, and was the subject of the 2006 documentary film One For The Road, which followed him round America in a hired RV. Tilbrook released an album of early Squeeze demos, The Past Has Been Bottled, joined Difford onstage for a couple of songs at Glastonbury 2003 and there was a one-off acoustic session to launch Squeeze Song By Song, an oral history both contributed to with Jim Drury, but Squeeze only properly resuscitated at the Return to the Summer of Love Party at Hawkhurst, Kent in July, followed by a headline slot at Guilfest and some US dates in August supported by Fountains Of Wayne. It may or may not go any further once the tour wraps up on December 11th, but there's been a long and bumpy but worthwhile road getting there.

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