The Seven Trials of Squeeze
How Everything That Could Go Wrong Did and Why You Should Still Care
from Musician Magazine, c. 1987
We might have a problem with this article. A lot of readers are going to look at this and say, "Squeeze? They're still around, huh? What's on the next page?" Very few bands have blown their momentum as completely as Squeeze did when, from late 1982 to early 85, they did the full Spinal Tap circle in record time. After years of cult-dom they finally hit it big, sold out Madison Square Garden and did the Celebratory Breakthrough Arena Tour, followed immediately by the Farewell Break-up Tour, followed by the two leaders' Difford & Tilbrook Band Tour, followed by a Squeeze Reunion Tour. It seemed silly; a real case of "How can I miss you if you won't go away?" A lot of people who had liked Squeeze lost track or stopped caring.
The confusion was compounded by a string of albums that found Squeeze thinking too much. 1982's farewell effort Sweets From a Stranger was weighed down with lugubrious white soul; 1984's Chris Difford & Glenn Tilbrook album was desperately clever: it felt like a day with the class science whiz. And on 1985's reunion LP, Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti, Squeeze worked so hard at being technically adept that they polished their humanity right out of the grooves. Which is why it's great that their new album, Babylon & On, finds Squeeze back to their strength - good-natured, melodic pop 'n' roll. But if all we had to talk about was a fine new LP by a once proud band, we would be sitting in the record review section right now. Instead we are sitting backstage with Squeeze at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, where they are about to open for David Bowie. We are here to unravel the story behind the band's strange leaps and shifts.
Squeeze fell victim to all the plagues that hit musicians perched constantly on the edge of great success. The Lord looked down on Squeeze and dropped the Seven Deadly Trials of Rock 'n' Roll: Artistic Ambition, Ego Expansion, Substance Abuse, Concern For Image, Lawsuits with Managers, Shattered Friendships, and the most dreaded of all - Input From the Wives. Somehow Squeeze came through all seven and, though a little worn for wear, are today back on track.
"It's very hard to keep your head together in this business," says drummer Gilson Lavis. "The first time Squeeze went round this roundabout we got a bit caught up in all the criticisms and compliments: 'the new Beatles,' 'the new 10cc,' 'the thinking man's rock band!' You tend to try a bit too hard. You want to keep pushing the musical boundaries, but I think we were sort of trying to push them out in the wrong way. We might have been getting a bit too clever for our own good."
Gilson has pulled up a stool at an empty lunch table. He is healthy, young-looking and articulate. Five years ago he was none of those. "I don't think we have anything to prove as musicians, now," he continues. "On Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti we were getting a bit too arty." Gilson says "arty" in a posh, upper-class voice. Then he switches to a California accent for, "Now we're discovering our roots, man." He switches back to Gilson: "Everything's been pared down to a minimum. There's no uncalled-for drum fills, no extended chords, no repetition. Chris and Glenn have come up with a batch of blazing songs, killer songs. And we structured the arrangements of them in a sympathetic way, so as not to crowd the songs but to give the band a chance to play and do what I think we do best - rock out. This is a meat-and-potatoes album. The other one was all french dressing."
Which is part of the story, but not the whole story. The problems Squeeze has overcome were more than musical. For one thing, when Difford and Tilbrook broke up Squeeze in 1982, Gilson was overweight, alcoholic and could not play the drums half as well as he plays today. Emotionally, Chris and Glenn may have found it easier to disband Squeeze than to just fire Gilson, who was by then the only other original member. Certainly business advisers felt strongly that they should have kept the Squeeze name on the Difford & Tilbrook Band. "We were under quite a lot of pressure, originally, to do that," Tilbrook admits later. "But that wouldn't have been fair, because we'd all worked to build that. Gil has always been a part of the band and the band sound. If it'd been just Chris and me with different people, it wouldn't have been Squeeze. And certainly there wouldn't be any Squeeze today."
But if Chris and Glenn were trying to be decent to Gilson, he sure didn't see it that way. When Musician spoke to Difford and Tilbrook in 1984, Chris admitted that Gilson was bitter about the break-up, and refused to have anything to do with his old friends. He wasn't even making a living as a musician anymore - he was driving a London taxi. Today Gilson shifts the blame to himself. "I wasn't the person that you see before you today," the drummer smiles. "I had a serious drinking habit. It wasn't good for my body and it certainly wasn't good for my mind. I was caught in a nightmare situation where I didn't know what else I could do. I had to keep going, I couldn't stop drinking. Drinking was the be-all and end-all of my existence by the end of Squeeze. The band breaking up, in a way, was a relief. The animosity I felt was a sort of animal instinct that was left because I had to blame somebody, and I wasn't in an intellectual position to blame myself."
Gilson's descent into the bottle was the straw that broke Squeeze's back five years ago, and his rebirth is the most obvious sign of their renewed vitality. But it was only one of the seven plagues that befell them. Let's tear through the Squeeze history so you'll understand the context in which these trials came down.
Singer/guitarist/composer Glenn Tilbrook and singer/guitarist/lyricist Chris Difford played together in pubs as teenagers with their pianist pal Jools Holland. The three formed Squeeze in the mid-70s, with Gilson and a bassist named Harry Kakoulli (later replaced by John Bentley). They built their following on the clever, hooky, Beatles-like pop they perfected with 1980's Argybargy and the semi-hit "Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)." But put this in your memory bank for later reference - after Argybargy Squeeze split from their manager, Miles Copeland, who they felt was devoting too much energy to the Police and not enough to them. The split led to a lawsuit with Copeland, and it also led to the first serious rupture within the band: Jools Holland elected to quit Squeeze and stay with Miles. Jools became host of the MTV import The Tube and released his own albums.
Glenn Tilbrook was hurt by Jools' desertion. "It was tremendously upsetting to me," Glenn says, "because we'd been friends for such a long time and to me it came out of the blue. Looking back on it I can see there were all sorts of things that should have been pretty obvious to me that I was oblivious to. He needed to establish himself. It's a pretty traditional thing in bands - everyone has a time at which they have to go and do things on their own."
Squeeze reached their peak with the next album, East Side Story, and hit single "Tempted" in 1981. But that's when the worms started eating the apple, too. Jools was gone, Miles was in court, Gilson was drinking. And Squeeze began getting self-conscious. Glenn decided he wanted to be a soul man. Not a Motown soul man (given Squeeze's extreme whiteness, Atlantic and Stax were not really options), but a mid-70s Philly International "One of a Kind Love Affair"/"Could It Be I'm Falling In Love" sort of soul man. Now, that music was okay, but nobody was clamoring to hear it in the 80s, least of all as interpreted by new wave kids from South London. But Glenn pushed it through and Squeeze's first last album was Sweets From a Stranger, which included the very long hit "Black Coffee In Bed." It did not bode well that two members of the group - bassist John Bentley and pianist Don Snow - lobbied to keep that song off the album. Never mind put it out as a 45.
At the time such dissent only made Glenn resent that, while he and Chris wrote and sang the songs, they were stuck in a democracy with two latecomers. What's ironic is that in retrospect John and Don's instincts seem right. Glenn now admits that the tempo of "Black Coffee In Bed" was deadly: "We now play 'Black Coffee' at twice the speed we recorded it," he sighs. "I can't bear to listen to the record. It goes on and on and on and on. I don't like Sweets From a Stranger much. It sounds very tired and apathetic. Maybe that's clouded with my memories of what it was like to be in the band at the time. It was not a joyful record by any stretch of the imagination."
It was the end of Squeeze. No more democracy, no more Gilson, no more great expectations to live up to. Chris and Glenn were like new divorcees giddy with freedom after a long stretch chained to the stove. This liberation manifested itself in odd ways. First, Chris got the idea that they should form a new band with the Sugar Hill rhythm section. Glenn leaned more toward a state-of-the-art double-synthed Euro-pop MTV-era star vehicle. At this time Glenn also married Pam Baker, a designer, who had plenty of ideas about how to spruce up the new band's image. When the Difford & Tilbrook band debuted in 1984, Glenn Tilbrook no longer looked like the bloke next door. He had long, golden curls falling to his shoulders and dressed in flowing robes. The back-up group sported similar sartorial splendor.
But not Chris Difford. The quiet, boxy lyricist was damned if he was going to dress up in a drape. Amid all the Mahavishnu muu-muus, Difford wore the clothes of a traveling salesman.
"The original idea," Glenn explains, "was that Pam being a designer could help the band get an image. But everyone would have to be agreeable to whatever sort of style came up. And whatever it was that Pam came up with certainly wasn't right for Chris."
Difford recalls the Clothes War this way: "We had very different ideas and I wasn't prepared to compensate and wear things that I didn't want to wear. I didn't expect Glenn to want to do that either. But there was no compromise reached, so it always looked awkward. That was one of the big downfalls of that particular band." Well, wait a minute, Chris. Surely it was not raiment alone that sank the Difford & Tilbrook band? "Also the musicianship in the band was sort of fair English standard," Chris admits. "It wasn't what I would call anything more than just good. Whereas Squeeze, to me, is great. Squeeze is a band. So there was a lot learned from that. I guess everybody goes through weird periods and that was ours."
"There's a few songs on the Difford & Tilbrook record that I really like," Glenn says. "But we didn't record them the right way. 'Hope Fell Down,' 'The Apple Tree' and 'On My Mind Tonight' are all songs I'm really proud of. But the album sounds like coffee-table music. It's all a bit polite."
"I was looking more towards poetry and trying to be a bit more clever," Chris adds. "Trying to be like Noel Coward or get some kind of theatrical language into the lyrics, which doesn't always work."
"I thought the Difford & Tilbrook band live was better than the record," Glenn says, "but my overriding impression of it was that it was all a bit too precise, which was exactly what I was looking for after playing with Squeeze. Because Squeeze, until the point we broke up, was the sort of band that could be really awful one night and great the next. We weren't terribly consistent. I was after a sort of consistency and I got it, but I found that while we could always play a really good show with Difford & Tilbrook, I'd wind up feeling not that inspired by it, either. Having all that competence around wasn't exciting or moving. It didn't change, it was always the same."
Meanwhile Jools Holland was still buzzing around London, playing one-man shows and being a wiseguy on TV. Jools decided to try to pry Gilson out of his taxicab and back behind a drum kit. Having hit bottom, Gilson had begun to reconstruct his life without alcohol or music. Jools convinced him there was no harm in having a go at the latter.
"Gilson and I did some gigs together," Jools explains. "I said, 'Why don't we just go out and play for fun, just the two of us, piano and drums? And it went really well."
Gilson says, "Jools and I had remained close, I think, because he left the band before it broke up, so there wasn't that feeling of animosity, deserved or undeserved. I played some odd gigs with him and then one day Glenn came by and jammed. That was a weird experience. I hadn't seen him for such a long time. First song I was going, 'Come on, ya bastard, impress me now!' But by the second song that was all gone and I was having a great time."
"The thing with Gilson was the most difficult to broach," Tilbrook says. "But I was totally knocked out with the way he was playing. I hadn't heard him play like that in years and I want up and said so to him. He'd improved so much. Communicating with him was a bit difficult at first 'cause he had a little resentment toward Chris and me for breaking up the band."
Now, Glenn Tilbrook does not sit on his hands when he's off the road. One year he assembled the world's largest country and western band, a twenty-piece aggregation that played 'Wichita Lineman' and 'Leaving On a Jet Plane' to confused Squeeze fans. When he ran into Gilson and Jools, Glenn had agreed to play at a local charity show under his own name. So for the sake of mending old feuds, he figured it would be a good excuse for a one-time-only reunion between Difford & Tilbrook and Holland & Lavis.
"A couple of days after we played together, Glenn phoned me up, much to my surprise," Gilson says. "He said, 'I'm doing a benefit show. Would you like to come down?'"
Glenn was delighted when Gilson said okay. Chris Difford was not so enthusiastic. "I was very reserved about the whole idea," Chris admits. "I didn't really want to do it, to be honest. But that was a stupid attitude - to know somebody for a long time and not to see them ever again. A lot of marriages end the same way. We just went down and played the gig and it turned my mind around. Because I realized how important a friend - more than anything else - Gilson is to me."
"When we met for sound check," Glenn recalls, "it was like meeting an old girlfriend - a tremendous amount of familiarity, yet it was also like we didn't quite know each other. It was sort of strange, but by the end of the set we got over that and had a good time. I hadn't even been thinking of re-forming the band. But the gig was fiery and exciting and it suddenly felt right."
"It all made sense then," Gilson says, "because everybody had gone out into the wide world and touched and fondled reality a bit and then came back and said, 'Come on chaps, this is what we do. So let's do it.'"
Glenn was determined to have the Difford & Tilbrook band's Keith Wilkinson aboard as bassist, which broke the heart of John Bentley, who had been part of the one-shot reunion gig. "I'd never met Jools and Gilson," Keith explains. "I had to meet them and see if we got on, because that is the whole essence of a band. It took me a little while to get over having replaced John. It felt strange to be onstage, having taken somebody else's role. I wasn't sure how the fans would react, but two albums later I think all is forgiven."
Another impediment was removed when Difford and Tilbrook won their three-year battle with their ex-manager, Miles Copeland. Eventually Chris and Glenn accepted Miles again, completing the reunion. Jools figured he could not have reunited with the others if they had not accepted Miles. "It would have been very difficult," Jools says. "Miles was very responsible for getting us back together, as well. After the one gig, Miles was the one who stepped forward and said, 'Come on, I think you should do a record and a tour and I can arrange it.'"
"We'd been in court with Miles for three years and we'd won," Chris says. "We came to an agreement. Miles is extremely powerful within the record company, and you couldn't ask for more than that, really." "We'd all done another little bit of growing up," Glenn adds. "I wasn't happy with the way our management was handled with Miles in the old days. Now I've got a bit more perspective on the reasons why. If you're managing the most successful band in the world, it's hard to find time to concentrate on other things, and we were one of the other things."
So bring on the Squeeze reunion album, Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti. The trouble was, for all their good intentions Chris and Glenn were still trembling under the weight of artistic ambition. Many battered Squeeze fans dismissed Cosi as more over-thinking from a once-fun band now sadly hung up on trying to be clever. Over the next couple of years the album earned some very devoted fans, people who swore that once you got by the self-conscious keyboard sounds and odd rhythms, the songs on that album would weasel into your heart and stand with Squeeze's very best. But not many people worked that hard at it. Most old Squeeze fans just said, "Three strikes, boys, bring on Crowded House."
"Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti was the band all getting together and tremendously pleased to be working together again," Glenn explains. "But we never played any instrument on the album together with another person playing at the same time! It was all overdubbed. So the band was a bit squashed on that - it was not like a real band. It was only when we toured that we discovered our mistake in making the record. But that's what led to this record, which is the proper reunion album to me."
That's for sure. The rhythm tracks for Babylon & On (the title a last-minute substitution for Life In The Bus Lane) were laid down live in the studio - a result of the band confidence that came out of the Cosi tour. That tour saw Squeeze kicking with a power they had not displayed in years. Gilson not only played like a new man - he was so physically revitalized that some fans literally did not recognize him.
Cosi had been so heavy with Emulators and synths that a second keyboard player was added. Andy Metcalfe, best known as Robyn Hitchcock's bassist, quickly settled into Squeeze. "They sent me a set of their albums three days before the first rehearsal," Andy laughs. "I had ten days to learn all of the songs; it was absolutely mad."
By the end of the Cosi tour, Squeeze had figured out what their long-suffering fans knew all along: that they were at their best when they didn't get carried away, when they just executed Difford and Tilbrook's melodic tunes in a straightforward rock 'n' roll manner. But if that were as easy to do as it is to say, rock critics would be rock stars. Squeeze still had to translate what they'd learned into Babylon & On.
"We spent a long time writing the album," Chris says. "Consciously or semi-consciously, Glenn and I had both been thinking, 'It's about time we wrote with a little less pretension.' When I was writing the lyrics I thought, 'I must try to simplify things a little bit. We're not talking to professors here.'"
Tilbrook: "After listening to Cosi I said to myself, 'I really do want to keep things simple and short. There were stray minutes in almost every song on that album that shouldn't have been there. This time my approach was to come up with a chord sheet that would consist of as few chords as possible for it to still be interesting. If we had a fade, fade as quickly as possible; if there's a middle eight, keep it short. Something we've been quite bad at before is finding the right tempo. When we play these songs live the tempos don't speed up - which is a sign we got it right."
A silver lining appeared when Squeeze ran out of money last spring and had to hit the road for a month to replenish the album budget. Playing the songs live, they discovered which sections were awkward, and which keyboard parts were extraneous. They returned to the studio even more anxious to pare things down. They were encouraged in all this by producer Eric Thorngren (Peter Wolf, Talking Heads), who was merciless in his hunger for musical straightforwardness. Chris recalls Eric as "the guy who would say, 'Hey, wait a minute. Why do you need to go down that road when this road is much easier?'"
Thorngren says of Squeeze's new album, "All it was was getting them to go back to where they came from - reality. They got influenced by drum machines and that whole thing that everybody was doing at the time. Now they're playing like a band, like they should. The album has its clever moments, but it doesn't get obtuse, it doesn't get distracting. I have a little editor in my mind.
"When I sit down to mix I don't care how long it took to add all the parts; I turn on the drums and the voice. Then I find out if it needs the bass and go from there. The least amount of things you can do with a song and still get the song across is the secret. Everything else is gravy and - goddamn - I don't like gravy on the steak and the salad. On 'Prisoner' the piano played through the whole song but we only turned it on for one eight-bar piece at the end. I don't care if you spent a month putting a part on; if you can get away without it, forget it."
So seven years after splitting from Jools and Miles, six years after their last solid album, five years after they disbanded, and two years after they reunited, Squeeze are finally back where they should be. The Beatles went from "Love Me Do" to "Let It Be" in the amount of time Squeeze has wasted. But here at Giants Stadium, dressing to impress the tens of thousands of people waiting outside, Squeeze act like they never made any wrong turns at all. Jools enters the room in a three-piece banker's suit and plug hat. "It's interesting when you get the feeling of a band," he says. "There's a certain sympathy between all the members. Yesterday Glenn started playing 'Return To Sender.' Other days I'll start playing something and we can all play it in a way that's not like a wanky club band - but that sounds really good. We immediately pick up on what everyone else is going to do. We've all come from the same musical background. I think that's the strength. Though we've gone our separate ways, when we play together we still sound like one big lump, one big blob."
Glenn figures the wrong turns have taught him a little humility. "I used to be a lot more inadvertently dictatorial," he admits. It's two days after Squeeze won the hearts of the Bowie crowd, and Glenn's having lunch at his New York hotel before catching a plane back to London. "On Argy Bargy and Cool For Cats a lot of stuff was directed the way I wanted it, and to an extent that steamrolled over Jools' style of piano playing. I had the idea that I wrote the song and it must be this way and if Jools didn't fit in with that way, then I'd do it myself. I've realized since then that the band is made up of a bunch of different people who play in different ways, and what comes out is the band. The thing is to tailor things so everyone is comfortable."
"There's a lot more give and take," Gilson observes. "Now everybody's willing to listen to everybody else and nobody's jumping on anybody else's back. And we're all good friends. It's relaxed, wives come on the road, we try to be adults about this now. We realize it's not the be-all and end-all if we have a hit record. It's about playing music and enjoying it. Because if you don't enjoy it, you're starting on a slippery road down to not only obscurity, but to a miserable lifestyle. If you're a musician and the music's good, your life's good." Gilson Lavis is hardly the first musician to learn that lesson the hard way - but he's one of the few who has come all the way back.
When Gilson's not around, Glenn says, "I have such a tremendous admiration for what he did. The whole thing about the band becoming more and more successful is that we were more and more protected. In that sort of environment it must have been difficult for Gil to come to terms with what was happening to him." Glenn agrees that a new peace has settled over Squeeze since the rebirth. "I think relaxed is the key word," he says. "I would look forward to and hope for a lot of success for what we've done now, because I can honestly say - hand on heart - that it's the first thing we've done in a long while that I can honestly believe in. But I'm not going to tear my hair out worrying about it. I feel a lot more secure in myself than I used to. I used to worry about what would happen if we got big or if the band broke up, but it just doesn't worry me now." Of course not - both those things happened, and a whole lot of other things, too.
But for all the obvious joy and comfort in reuniting with old pals and righting old wrongs, there must be a flip side - a creepy deja vu. You wonder if Glenn and Chris ever wake up in the night and say, Gee - I went through losing Jools, fighting Miles, splitting the band, and feuding with Gilson, finally got free, and now I'm all tangled up again!
Glenn, the optimist, says no no, it's all great. But Chris Difford, quiet man with dark moods, says, "I never thought that, no. It did happen to me, though. Sometimes when emotions or stress build up inside you and you don't release it in the right manner, it can make you depressed or ill. So now I have to watch out. I get really tensed up for these gigs. The last couple of tours I've made myself ill worrying. I'm trying to learn not to."
Chris is a hard guy to figure. His lyrics are filled with double-entendres and he's written more odes to drinking than George Jones, yet he appears to be the most sensitive member of Squeeze, a fellow who can be brought to tears by the sight of lonely farms glimpsed through a bus window. His wife, Cindy, an American, seems as friendly and boisterous as Chris is reserved. Asked if Cindy ever offers advice on his lyrics, Chris says, "No, she doesn't hear the songs until they're on the album, then she threatens divorce. We had a bit of a rough time at one particular point and she was going to use the lyrics from the Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti album against me in court.
"Gilson inspired such a lot of things on the album for me," Chris says softly. "He inspired the lyrics of 'Tough Love'. I still drink, sometimes heavily. When I see him on the bus first thing in the morning, I think, 'Shit, this guy's got it sussed out.' I wish I did. But maybe one of these days that'll all change."
Let's give Gilson the last word. "I used to have ludicrously high standards that I tried to maintain," he says. "Which was madness. Now I take the show as it comes. If I screw up a song I don't let it spoil the rest of the show. I just wait for the next song and play that. That's another thing that's fresh about the band. This is going to sound a bit hard - but we don't really care so much now if a song doesn't work. Because maybe we used to try a bit too hard.
"You have to balance the energy against control, and it's very hard to do. A few nights ago we played RFK Stadium in Philadelphia and for some reason my brain had gone and I was convinced that I had to play really loud to get the people in the back to hear me! But of course we've got a 25,00-watt PA here! In the old days - and I don't want to keep talking about it because I consider that to be another person - I never knew how to pull back. 'It isn't going well, so try harder! Come on! Try harder! Harder! It's still not going well, do something, make your hands bleed!' Now it's not that desperate. If this song doesn't work I'll take a deep breath and we'll go on to the next one. And that one'll work. That's what it's about. That's the way we do it now. There's a nice relaxed atmosphere in the band.
"It's all a matter of balance and control. I'm convinced - this is Gilson Lavis' theory of life, now - life is a balancing act and all the way along you have to weigh up the pros and cons of every situation - emotionally and physically. That's what I'm trying to do now. And if a day doesn't go that well, there's always tomorrow.