After A Decade And A Half In The Biz, Chris Difford, Glenn Tilbrook And Company Still Write Great Pop Songs And Record Them Brilliantly. But, In 1993, Is That Enough?
By Harold Dumuir
Pulse! December 1993
When it first emerged as the smartest and catchiest band of the late-'70s new-wave boom, Squeeze was roundly embraced by critical intelligentsia and discriminating fans alike. At the time, the London combo's effortlessly accessible, quintessentially British pop - driven by barbed lyrical humor and hook-intensive tunesmithery of singer/guitarists Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook-was perfectly suited to the post punk era's renewed appreciation for concise, unpretentious songcraft.
In the decade and a half since (interrupted by a two-year band layoff during which Difford and Tilbrook worked as a twosome), Squeeze has gracefully matured from precocious cleverness to grown-up insight, without sacrificing any of the tunefulness or verbal wit that first endeared the group to its admirers. But fashion is a fickle mistress, and the musical values that Squeeze has always embodied have largely fallen out of favor.
It's not simply a case of the next-big-thing sweepstakes being dominated by stance and bombast, and the pop charts settling for facile hackery. In the age of rap and rave, hip-hop and techno, the collective pop ear is far more attuned to studio invention than to what we used to call songwriting-what in many quarters today is tellingly regarded as "preproducition." In such a climate, it's not surprising that a band noted for subtlety and craftsmanship might seem passe' to new listeners.
Though Squeeze maintains a loyal fan base, particularly in the U.S., the band now finds itself at an awkward career crossroads, perched somewhere between an alternative scene which it long ago outgrew and the musical mainstream that it never quite got around to conquering. Despite containing some of the band's strongest and most sophisticated work to date, Squeeze's last two studio albums - 1989's Frank and 1991's Play - racked up relatively disappointing sales figures, a fate that Difford and Tilbrook are determined not to see befall their latest effort, Some Fantastic Place.
"In some respects, we really need to reeducate people about Squeeze, and remind them that we're here," admits Difford. "And I think that this is a good album to do that with, because it contains all the best elements of what Squeeze has always been. It's got a good balance of optimism and pessimism, light and dark, up and down, yin and yang."
Indeed, Some Fantastic Place- Squeeze's 10th studio album- offers a sublimely focused <Picture: Band Photo w/Selling Point Quote>sampling of the group's salient qualities. It also returns the band to A&M Records- which released Squeeze's first eight albums as well as Difford & Tilbrook's eponymous effort- after single-album associations with I.R.S. and Reprise. The new disc marks the recording debut of a new band lineup that's bound to have sentimental appeal for longtime fans, with Difford, Tilbrook and bassist Keith Wilkinson joined by drummer Pete Thomas, a charter member of Elvis Costello's Attractions, and keyboardist/vocalist Paul Carrack, whose brief but fondly remembered tenure in Squeeze's 1981 configuration yielded one of the band's most popular albums: the Costello-produced East Side Story, which included the Carrack-sung hit "Tempted."
Some Fantastic Place also introduces a new element which lyricist Difford and melodist Tilbrook claim has revitalized their working relationship. After two decades of working on their words and music individually, the pair sat down together and wrote most of the new album as a team. "That brought about a big jump in our level of creativity," Tilbrook enthuses. "It was like discovering a new partnership, because suddenly we were able to bounce ideas back and forth off eachother."
That sense of creative give-and-take extended to the album's recording sessions, which took place in the band's newly built studio, conveniently located in Tilbrook's London home. Difford, Tilbrook and Wilkinson had originally intended to record the album as a trio, with the aid of programmed keyboard and drum parts, but the availability of Thomas (who'd been playing with a Squeeze touring lineup that included ex-Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve) and Carrack (who'd opened some London dates for that version of the band) rendered that approach obsolete.
"There was more open debate on thie album than there's been on any other Squeeze record, and I think that's helped to make it one of our better ones," says Difford. "There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on the arrangements. Everybody had very fierce ideas of the way the songs shouls be, and everybody stood firm on what they thought was right. That was great, because it showed that people really cared."
Some Fantastic Place is also the first Squeeze release not to feature original drummer Gilson Lavis, Difford and Tilbrook's last link to the band's early days. Tilbrook is vague about the circumstances surrounding Lavis's departure, but speaks fondly of his longtime bandmate. "He just got tired of being in the band, and it was time for him to move on," he says. "It's bound to be emotional when you've worked with somebody for that long, but I think it was the right decision for Gil to make, and it's not tempered with any bitterness."
The album's title track offers a touching tribute to Maxine Barker, the longtime friend who was responsible for introducing Difford and Tilbrook in the early '70's, and who died of leukemia last year. It's a fitting memorial, with a bittersweet balance of loss and acceptance that's all too rare in four-and-a-half-minute pop songs. "That one means a lot to us both," says Tilbrook. "It was one of those songs that wrote itself; it was done straight off in about 10 minutes."
The album's 10 remaining songs (most of them sung by Tilbrook, with the increasingly mic-shy Difford relegated to background harmonies) maintain a similar mix of emotionally complex storytelling and uplifting songcraft. "Everything in the World" and "Third Rail" leaven rueful observations of stalled romances with buoyant melodies, while the ambitious album closer, "Pinocchio," ranks with Difford's most heartbreakingly forthright lyrics, and "Jolly Comes Home" and "Cold Shoulder" address painful domestic disfunction with mordant humor.
"I'm really proud of 'Cold Shoulder,'" says Difford. "The lyric was written in one long car journey. I had a little Sony dictaphone thing in the car, and I more or less dictated the lyric verbatim during this 65-mile drive, only to discover when I got there that I'd had it on pause the whole time. I was determined not to do anything else until I got the lyric back, and gradually I was able to piece it back together."
Elsewhere, Carrack - one of pop music's few credible white-soul singers, no matter what a Squeeze thing may think of his work in Mike and the Mechanics- lends a typically persuasive vocal to the smoochy Difford-Tilbrook composition "Loving You Tonight," while Wilkinson makes a convincing vocal/songwriting debut with the witty, tropical-flavored "True Colors (The Storm)." "He's brought us a lot of good songs over the years," Tilbrook says of Wilkinson, "and we'd figured he'd waited in line long enough."
It's now been a decade since Difford and Tilbrook surprised the pop world by announcing Squeeze's breakup, just months after the band had celebrated the success of its 1982 LP Sweets From A Stranger by headlining Madison Square Garden. The pair reconvened Squeeze in 1985, with Lavis, Wilkinson (who'd recorded and toured with Difford and Tilbrook during the group's hiatus) and original keyboardist/emcee Jools Holland (who left again in 1990).
With the benefit of hindsight, Difford calls Squeeze's less-than-permanent split "a knee-jerk reaction to doing too many tours back-to-back with too many albums, too many changes of keyboard players, too many changes of managers. The whole thing had steamed out of all proportion, and in retrospect it would have been better to say, 'OK, let's take a sabbatical for a year or two and then come back to the band'- which is what we ended up doing anyway."
But the outside musical landscape has changed considerably in the years since Squeeze's return to action, and the song-oriented stuff that fans still refer to as "pop" isn't actually all that popular anymore. Subtlety and craftsmanship rank pretty low on most kids' wish lists these days, as evidenced by the uncertain commercial status of Squeeze and its surviving contemporaries. For example, pivotal figures Nick Lowe and Graham Parker have produced some of their strongest work in recent years, yet they currently exist as virtual cult acts in the margins of the major-label biz, and Elvis Costello and XTC- who with Squeeze once stood as the old new wave's brightest commercial prospects- maintain respectable but unspectacular sales figures.
So is there a place for Squeeze in the cold, cruel marketplace of the Lollapalooza '90s? Brad Pollak, who as the band's product manager at A&M is responsible for translating Squeeze's refined pop sense into practical marketing strategy, thinks so. "In 1980," Pollak says, "the selling point was that Squeeze was a cool, hip new band that was writing better than anybody else. In 1993, they're not necessarily cool or hip or new, but they're still writing songs better than anybody else, and I think that's still a hell of a selling point."
Pollak feels Squeeze stands to substantially augment its sales base by recapturing old fans who'd lost touch with the band (whose last substantial airplay hit was "Hourglass" from the 1987 album Babylon and On). "For most people in their 30s or 40s," Pollak says, "music isn't nearly as important as it was when they were in their teens or 20s, because they've got jobs and families and futures to worry about. But those people still hold dear the music that was important to them when they were younger. They may not have the time to actively seek out new music, but if you get a song like 'Everything in the World' [Some Fantastic Place's first single] in front of them, they will respond, and they'll want to hear it again. Those people aren't concerned with whether Squeeze is hip; they may not even know that Squeeze is still together because they haven't heard them on the radio for a few years. It's an interesting audience to target, because we have to seek them out quite aggressively, in a way that's different from the way we'd go after people who actively keep on top of what's going on in music."
For their part, Difford and Tilbrook strove to keep Squeeze's strong points in focus on Some Fantastic Place. "Before we started the album," Tilbrook says, "we sat down and decided that we should strip away everything that's not absolutely necessary, anything that made the songs less direct. So in the writing and the arranging and the recording, there was this constant process of pairing the songs down, which I think has made it a better album and an album that will stand a better chance in the marketplace."
It's entirely possible that the current version of Squeeze may not remain intact past the band's upcoming tour, since Thomas remains Elvis Costello's drummer of choice and Carrack has various commitments to his solo career as well as his continuing work with Mike and the Mechanics. "Nothing's cast in stone," says Difford. "I think it would be great to make another album with this lineup, but if either Paul or Pete isn't available when it's time to record again, it'll be all right, because working with new people always brings new life into it."
"We're just sort of playing it by ear and taking it as it comes," says Carrack, who in the 12 years since his last Squeeze stint has released three solo albums (on which he's cowritten songs with Difford) and worked with artists as diverse as Nick Lowe, Carlene Carter and Roger Waters. "I'm really enjoying playing with the band, but I think everyone understands that I'm feeling the need to get my solo thing going again. The last time around it got a bit frustrating, because at the time being in Squeeze was a 12-months-a-year commitment, but now it's a lot less pressurized. And because I've got other outlets now, with Squeeze I can sit back and enjoy playing keyboards and singing the occasional song. I've always been a fan of the band and of Chris and Glenn's songwriting, and I think the unit we've got now - musically and personally - is really great."
Thomas, meanwhile, is enthusiastic about his role in Squeeze. "I'm prepared to pitch in for the duration," the drummer says. "Everything's seemed to fall into place quite naturally, on the album and in the live shows. We've been playing with soul and hitting some good grooves, and it's really made me fell like I'm involved with something special."
That's a sentiment shared which Difford and Tilbrook share. "I think that, right now, we're the most determined that we've ever been at any point in the history of Squeeze," says Tilbrook. "We've been working together for 20 years and - like any long-term relationship - it's had its ups and downs. There's been times when we've gotten on really well, and other times when our relationship has been strictly professional. But writing together has brought on a big improvement in our communication, and that's made our friendship stronger and made the songs better."
"Gilson leaving us really forced us to think, what is Squeeze?, and made us finally face the fact that Squeeze is a thing that revolves around Chris' and my songwriting," states Tilbrook. "It's always been that, but it's something we've not always been comfortable admitting to, and it's taken us all this time to figure that out. And, in finally getting comfortable with the idea, we can really appreciate what a great group of people we have around us at the moment."
"It's not just about being in a band; there's lots of other aspects of music that we haven't even had the chance to delve into," adds Difford. "But Squeeze is the priority at this point in time, and it's important for us to devote 100 percent of our time and energy and devotion to making this album work. For me, this album feels like it's the beginning of a completely new phase of our partnership. In some ways it fels like we're just starting."