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Squeeze gets grip on pure pop power

Squeeze gets grip on pure pop power
Toronto Star, March 4 1988. by Craig MacInnis

But behind the chalet
My holiday is complete
And I feel like William Tell
Maid Marion on her tiptoed feet
- "Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)"

I won't bore you with the details, but I still remember where I was the first time I heard it.

It was the summer of 1980 and it rose up from my tinny car radio like a musical zephyr, a sweet breeze that licked the senses and seduced the soul. By the end of it, I was grinning like an idiot, certain that the world was a better place because of this new band, Squeeze.

They weren't new, really. The group had formed in London back in the mid 1970s and had released its debut album, U.K. Squeeze (produced by former Velvet Undergrounder John Cale) in '78.

It's true that early trouser rousers like "Sex Master" and "Bang Bang" haven't survived as part of the Squeeze canon, yet there's a rough charm there that suggests endless possibility. (Try cranking "Sex Master" up to 10 on your stereo some night just to see if your pain threshold has receded any).

But it wasn't until Argybargy and the semi-hit "Pulling Mussels" that I fell headlong for lyricist Chris Difford and songwriter Glenn Tilbrook's pure pop persuasions. East Side Story, a year later, only convinced me how right I'd been in the first place.

Even now, there is nothing quite as sensuous as the fine play of their two voices in full flight - Tilbrook's high keening tenor brushing against Difford's plummy baritone, melding into one voice rife with suggestion.

Musically, Squeeze was - and is - the synthesis of rock's two great options. At once cynical and slap-happy, they have that rare ability to uplift even while they're bringing you down. It's the blues given a modern, streetwise spin, turned inside out and dusted with dark, bittersweet sugar.

Some Americans are very lucky
Some Americans are very poor
Some Americans are burger people
Some Americans say no to war
- "Some Americans"

Elvis Costello, their old friend, is the only other voice in modern pop who comes close to understanding the ironic clash of form and content. But his anger usually rides higher than his sense of melody, spoiling the delicate effect.

10cc. Badfinger. Nick Lowe. Joe Jackson before he discovered symphonic pomp. Close, all of them, but no cigars.

Squeeze's "Black Coffee In Bed", a soul-pop favorite from 1982's Sweets From A Stranger, is arguably their tour de force, a song that revels in the glow of a new romantic liaison even as it struggles to erase the memory of a recent heartbreak.

There's a stain on my notebook
Where the coffee cup was
And there's ash on the page
Where I got myself lost
- "Black Coffee In Bed"

Forget the hardbitten subtext - it's danceable. But the album's poor sales led to the group's breakup, followed by an unsuccessful duo project featuring Difford and Tilbrook that would have been laughable if it weren't so pretentious.

When the pair played El Mocambo in '84, Tilbrook strode out in a white caftan - the high priest of pop. Difford, head down and hair slicked back, looked embarrassed to be there. So was I.

It was as if an age of innocence - mine - had passed. Difford told me later, as if apologizing: "East Side Story and Argy Bargy were done in our teens - as it were - before we were all married.

"It gets harder and harder as you get older. Glenn and I have been writing together for more than 10 years. He's a completely different person than when I first met him, and I probably am, too."

It looked like it was all over. When the original band reformed two years ago (including drummer Gilson Lavis, keyboardist Jools Holland and new bassist Keith Wilkinson) for Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti, that suspicion was more or less confirmed.

The production was ponderous, the words were stilted and even Tilbrook's normally airy arrangements were bolted hard to reality.

"I think the next album is going to have more Beach Boys-type songs, it'll be more happy-go-lucky," Difford predicted after Cosi, but it seemed like wishful thinking.

One critic noted: "So what's the problem? Lennon and McCartney, Lerner and Lowe, and Gilbert and Sullivan didn't go on forever, either".

But here we are. As Difford promised, Squeeze is back with an upbeat album, Babylon And On, a couple of hit singles, "853-5937"" and "Hourglass", and a concert at Massey Hall Tuesday night.

For heaven's sake, little girls are ringing phones off the hook all across America, dialling the number of their favorite Squeeze song! The story of how frustrated householders from Kentucky to Long Island were disconnecting their phones made headlines in USA Today last month, and if that isn't success, well, you tell me...

Drummer Lavis, an odd man out when Difford and Tilbrook gassed the band five years ago, feels it's not entirely by accident that Squeeze is finally getting the airing it deserves.

"Why? I think it can be answered in two one-liners," he says. "We're getting better at it and the Americans are getting better at listening to it.

"I hope that doesn't sound pretentious, but Babylon And On is our most crafted album. The thing is, we've always tried to play intelligent pop and it's quite hard to get that in a three-minute pop song.

"It's taken a long time for people to put a name to the records..."

Says Tilbrook: "I think there's a certain amount of familiarity now. It's not unlike a box of soap or a brand of sausages in that name recognition counts for something.

"I don't think, for want of a better word, the blueprint of what we do has changed that much. I think the world around us has changed."

Picking up the pieces
And putting them down again
Picking up the pieces
Maybe they'll fit some day
- "Picking Up The Pieces"

Pop will out.

Over the past decade, Squeeze has been lumped, wrongly, into every passing musical phase from punk to pub rock to the new Motown.

While they have an uncanny knack of absorbing the best of other genres, you almost get the feeling they're dabbling for the sheer hell of it.

"Tempted" is pure Motown, "When The Hangover Strikes" would fit nicely onto a Billie Holiday blues anthology and "Labelled With Love" has a deft country twang that wouldn't be out of place in an Austin roadhouse.

Lavis figures that may have been one reason the band briefly lost its course. The layoff in the mid '80s sapped the band of its instincts, forcing it to create what had once been achieved through an effortless sort of osmosis.

"There'd been all these developments in the recording industry while we were away and we tried to put them all on Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti," he says.

"It doesn't have a lingering quality the way East Side Story or Argybargy has, but it was a process we had to go through to get back to that.

"I think Chris and Glenn wrote great songs on Babylon. I feel like a bit of a cheat, it's so easy to play those songs..."

In more ways than one, Lavis embodies the new/old Squeeze. A former alcoholic who was "drunk most of the time," the Brighton native has shed more than 30 pounds for this tour. He's the first one on the bus each morning as the group makes its way from one end of America to the other, determined to conquer a country that finally shows signs of bending to Squeeze's pure-pop gospel.

"We've been through a lot of needless aggravation and I guess we're a little stronger for it," says Lavis.

"But we've never been a bunch of posers up there onstage. Everybody in this band keeps everyone else on their feet - it's just the way we are."
 

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