A big career retrospective feature about Squeeze, including interviews with their mainstays Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, original member Jools Holland and ex-manager Miles Copeland. It was written for MOJO’s edition of January 1996.
(Their old drummer Gilson Lavis isn’t overlooked either. His interview is here.)
His camel is so tired. Amusing belly dancers distract him from his wine. The Sweeney’s doing 90 cos they’ve got nowhere to go. He never thought it would happen with him and the girl from Clapham. You have to throw a stone to get the pool to ripple. They do it down on Camber Sands, they do it in Waikiki. Behind the chalet, the holiday’s complete.
All of this tonight’s audience can absorb. The lines above are snatches of the catchiest hits in what we now call Britpop. But the next announcement from the stage is a shock. Barely time to check the chin for lager dribblings or nudge that hair into something windswept and magnificent. Oh, tonight of all nights!
For tonight’s the night the audience is getting its collective photograph taken by the photographer from MOJO. With cruel efficiency the house lights of the Wolverhampton Civic Hall are turned full upon the crowd, who stand like unsuccessful escapees from a POW camp. But it’s a tribute to the persuasive charms of Squeeze, that the entire hall lifts its arms in cheerful salutation.
Thus the picture of Squeeze and their dramatically expanded line-up – a 2,000-strong vocal back-up that acquits itself especially well through Black Coffee In Bed supplying a lusty duh du-duh-duh across the clipped guitar chords and the supple Stax beat. They love their Squeeze, these people, and their Squeeze loves them back.
In the afterglow, the band consider how they got here. Chris Difford is the darker, plumper half of the partnership that has helmed Squeeze these past two decades. Across the dressing room from him sits Glenn Tilbrook, the still boyish lead vocalist with the fair hair and the light, angelic singing voice. Offstage and on, these two men have the empathy that enables couples to complete one another’s sentences. But when Difford offers the observation that, “We’re not like the Romans, in Squeeze,” his other half looks momentarily unsure.
“What I mean is,” the group’s lyricist continues, “the Romans came to Dover and built a completely straight road to London. We came to Dover and went to London via Maidstone, Basingstoke and Hull. It’s just been Squeeze’s folly, really.”
The group have indeed been ones to zig and zag. Their route has been beset by endless roadworks, scenic diversions and downright wrong turnings. The irony is that, in spite of it all, Squeeze may have wound up exactly where they need to be.
It was the band’s press officer who figured the best way to announce their return might be to dub them “not the kindly uncles of Britpop, but rather the slightly wiser older brothers.” The first single off their new album Ridiculous was an archetypal slice of winsome English breeziness, This Summer. An extra track on the CD was Squeeze’s live version of Blur’s song End Of A Century, from Parklife. The two acts know each other socially and share a mutual regard.
There are probably more newcomers who owe a creative debt to Deptford’s jangling ambassadors. Certainly there’s evidence that public tastes have come around again to the Difford and Tilbrook school of wit and melody – a style with its roots in the obvious 1960s instigators, and which enjoyed its last upsurge in the new wave era when Squeeze were first adhered to the public bosom.
“There’s more music around at the moment that sounds as if it’s come from the same sort of mould as we did,” Tilbrook concurs, though a little cautiously. “But I’m never quite sure where we fit in with anything. And that hasn’t changed except that we’ve got our own place now. But we’re still a going concern. I’m very aware of the importance of our history so far as bringing people in to see us, but that’s not the reason for the band still being around.”
On the one hand being Squeeze is easy. Their repertoire is stuffed with a jukebox-worth of smart pop classics – more than you realise until you see them play. Goodbye Girl, Annie Get Your Gun, Slap And Tickle, et cetera, all mean they can lift any gig simply by dipping back into their stockpile. On the other hand there are compositions on Ridiculous with a rare beauty and hard-won maturity. The band are passionately concerned that people hear a group who have developed, who are not ensconced in some nostalgic siding just outside of Clapham Junction.
Just for the hell of it, though, let’s look back anyhow. Let’s re-live the laughter and the tears, and perhaps note the bloodstains on the carpet.
Before Difford met Tilbrook, Tilbrook met Holland. Julian ‘Jools’ Holland was, like Glenn, a south London schoolboy who’d outgrown his first musical chums. The pianist and the guitarist were introduced by a mutual friend.
Holland, who left Squeeze five years ago, speaks today from his home, where he is preparing for his TV show, Later With… “He was a hippy,” he recalls of his first encounter with Tilbrook. Holland had designs on a skinhead girl, who’d brought around some smoothie pals. Tilbrook arrived with his guitar and an entourage of barefooted longhairs. “Everybody eyed each other up suspiciously,” says Jools. “But then we played and it was heaven. He did Little Wing.”
Schooldays almost over, the pair began playing local pubs: “Which confirmed that it was a good idea. Music was interesting and enjoyable to do. Girls wanted to be our friends, we got free drinks, there was a party wherever we went and we didn’t have to get up early in the morning.
“We used to do an instrumental version of She, the Charles Aznavour hit, which used to have people in tears. I’m not sure what emotion the tears represented but a lot of blubbering went on.”
Tilbrook met Difford after seeing an ad in a tobacconist’s window (“Recording contract, imminent tour” – both claims fictitious – “Influences Kinks, Lou Reed, Glenn Miller”). They arranged to convene at a Blackheath pub, Chris to be carrying an Evening Standard. In fact he also wore a multi-coloured lurex coat, but didn’t think to mention it. (“That still makes me laugh,” says Tilbrook, laughing.)
They next auditioned drummers, alighting on the experienced older pro, Gilson Lavis. “He was a big man of 24, and we were boys of 17,” says Holland. “But he was a great drummer and had a car, which impressed us.” Finding a bassist was harder: “There was a bit of dissatisfaction with bass players and they moved around a bit, as you do in groups. It’s like Macbeth – once one goes, that’s it, look out, who’s next?”
But they settled on Harry Kakoulli, who remained in the line-up for many years. Securing the Velvets’ John Cale to produce, they made an indie EP, Packet Of Three, and signed to A&M for the debut LP, which contained the first hit Take Me I’m Yours. They were managed by Miles Copeland, American-born overseer to The Police and founder of the IRS label. And, more by accident than design, Squeeze were received as something like a punk band.
Miles Copeland still manages Sting, but not Squeeze. He remembers he first saw them play around 1975, “in a sleazy dump in Deptford. I thought, My God, this is like discovering The Beatles. Jools Holland had long hair and black teeth, they were all pretty scruffy. I said, I wanna sign you guys up.
“The punk thing was a big jolt,” Copeland continues. “These guys were the right age but they were singing love songs. At the time you had to play three chords, badly, and sing about politics. So Squeeze were not the flavour being sought by record companies. I had Tony James of Generation X say to me, ‘How can you be dealing with Squeeze? They’re irrelevant! They’re singing’ – and he spat the words out with venom – ‘love songs!’ And I said, well you know what, I see a lot of punks with girlfriends. Punks love too, buddy. And love ain’t goin’ away, no matter how big the punk thing gets.”
“Before the punk thing,” says Jools Holland, “Glenn wrote a lot of songs in the Burt Bacharach. Holland/Dozier/Holland styles. At the same time we liked the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, so we had our foot in that camp too. But the punks were a bit like pantomime pirates. We went through the gobbing stage – the audience would gob on us, then we’d go backstage and gob on one another. We were quite aggressive onstage, we used to do things with blow-up dolls. We had dog foetuses thrown at us at one stage. Happy memories…”
Tilbrook describes the early Squeeze material as “very poppy, but all over the place. Around that time we’d been doing gigs supporting Renaissance, Climax Blues Band and Curved Air, and it was obvious that the stuff we were doing was incongruous. There wasn’t really a home for us to fit into. The only band who were doing short songs and getting reviews were Dr Feelgood.
“But then Miles got very enthused with punk. He took us down to see a Generation X gig: “You gotta come and see this band! It’s the future!’ And I remember seeing it with two hats on. You couldn’t help but be taken aback by the energy. On the other hand I was amused by how naïve it all was, because we weren’t. But Miles said, “People won’t understand you coming in from all sorts of influences. You’ve got to narrow down what you’re doing, give people a chance to get to know it and then broaden it.’ Very good advice. So that’s where we slotted into new wave.”
The new wave time, of course, was a busy one for the salons of Chelsea and the alteration tailors of Berwick Street. Shrewd managers frog-marched their charges in for an image overhaul. Were Squeeze ever put through such a process?
Chris: “Miles did give us spending money to go and buy some clothes. Me and Glenn rebelled. We went down Oxford Street and nought red and blue pairs of suede shoes and we swapped the left and right together, so we had one red shoe and one blue shoe each. And then we bought some cheesecloth shirts in an Indian shop. And Miles fucking hit the roof! I think he wanted us to buy a couple of really tight shirts with collars sticking up and safety pins.”
They toured non-stop. Jools remembers staying with friends in Europe: “There was one big bed, beautifully made up. We’d all get in like the seven dwarfs. One night somebody managed to wet himself in the car and was left there. Another evening we stayed in a disused concentration camp. Quite nice times, in retrospect. We used to laugh a lot at that stage, but the ‘space cake’ probably helped.”
Then Squeeze had big hits and became quite huge. But they could have been huger, thinks Holland: “We never managed to be in the right place at the right time. Cool For Cats and Up The Junction both only went to Number 2, yet they each sold half a million. If there was ever any chance of adulation, of Squeeze Frenzy going on, that was when we went straight to America on Freddie Laker. On the first tour, us and The Police tried to break America, we used to tour a great deal there. But it was always when we were having hits in Britain. We could never be there to get into clubs and be photographed with Bunny Girls, or drive sports cars down to the coast at five o’clock in the morning.”
But, says Chris Difford, “We were local heroes. The pubs stayed open for us, we were swanning around from pub to pub making the most of it. Outside of Deptford and Greenwich, though, I don’t know what it really meant. We were big in the baker’s shop…
“I probably suffered much more out of the two of us. I went through the dramas of having 15 cars, and custom-made guitars and this, that and the other gadget. I went through all that stuff, and promptly blew it all. I enjoyed it, I can’t say I didn’t. I used to go out and test drive cars that I knew I couldn’t afford. I remember going up to Bristol Motors in Kensington and the guy who owned Bristol Motors personally took me out in his car. We were going along the Westway, fucking enormous leather seats, we’re driving along and I asked him, How much is this, then? He said, £120,000. Gulp! Er, I’ll be back next week for this one. There was a touch of the Matt Goss in me there for a minute.”
Strangely, in 1982 at the apparent peak of their success (they’d just played Madison Square Garden) Difford and Tilbrook decided to split the band up. Holland had already left to form his own band and to pursue his TV career presenting The Tubeand documentary films. Lavis was gobsmacked by the news. (Read the Gilson Lavis interview here.)
“I think we were on self-destruct for a time before we split up,” frowns Glenn. “By that time we were burnt out, five albums in five years, loads of tours and all that stuff. It very frighteningly and very horribly stopped being enjoyable… I remember specifically reading too many newspapers and thinking our time was up, best to get out while we could. I look back now and think it was an absolutely mad way to think.”
Were the reviews turning bad?
“Yes, that kind of thing, and being 25, 26, I felt too old. I just can’t see that point of view at all now. But the band was not as good as it had been, and the record we made [Sweets From A Stranger] wasn’t as good as the records we made before. Rather than be sensible and take a rest, we split up.”
Miles Copeland had already gone by this point, taking Jools with him, and he recalls the strain of business taking a toll: “Squeeze were such a talented band but, if I had to fault them, they never had a sense of business. That’s part of their charm. They don’t guide their life by it, they know it’s there but it’s an unreal world. They’re immersed in their music. If there was something wrong they’d assume the problem was on the business side, so they’d change the manager, then another manager and so on. But it’s never one factor.”
Glenn and Chris, however, remained together and made one ‘solo’ album, Difford & Tilbrook. Their next bizarre move was to re-form Squeeze with Holland and Lavis for a one-off charity gig in Catford. Copeland: “I thought it was a crime that Squeeze were no longer together. I called up Jools and said, If I could put this group back together, would you join them? He said, ‘You’ll never do it.’ I took Chris and Glenn out for dinner in Blackheath and damn me if they didn’t say Yes.”
By 1985 the old firm was up and running again, full time. “It was for the right reasons,” Tilbrook insists. “I thought I would never want to get the band back together; it seemed a backwards move to me. Then the reality of us playing together at that gig was embarrassing to me because it felt so right. Everything that I’d thought was wrong. It was silly to not be in this band. So we went ahead and made… a terrible album! Ha ha! With some hastily cobbled-together songs. “ (This was Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti, a period in which – history compels us to record – Tilbrook affected shoulder-length pre-Raphaelite curls.)
By now their bass-player was Keith Wilkinson, who remains to this day. A procession of temporary Other Blokes has come and gone. In 1990 Jools Holland resigned for the second and final time, citing career conflicts. “I was being pulled in every direction,” he says. In fact there were also some ‘musical differences’: “A lot of the songs didn’t leave much room for improvisation or the particular sound I was becoming interested in, the arrangement for five horns, which was not the sound of Squeeze. I just wanted to make the music I’d loved growing up. A lot of that was English pop music, but I thought, I’ve done that now, so I moved on.”
Chris Difford: “The last tours that we did with Jools he was flying between doing his TV shows and then doing our shows and it was wearing him out and wearing us out because it was frustrating not having him around for rehearsals.”
Glenn Tilbrook: “It’s difficult to contain someone like him within the environment of the band we have, because it’s song structured, and Jools’s playing doesn’t always work well in that format. By the time we did the last album with him it was like we had this guest pianist come in to play on these already-assembled tracks. We fairly naturally drifted apart and to me it was a relief that he had the courage to say, ‘Well, that’s it then.’”
A&M also thought it time to call Last Orders. In a shock move akin to the Rock of Gibraltar telling its apes to sod off, A&M dropped Squeeze from the roster.
Chris: “When that actually happened I thought it was devastating, but within two days we were picked up by Warner Brothers, so it was a very mild blip.” For Warners’ Reprise label they made Play, the album that many regard as the start of Squeeze’s return to top form. But, alas… “It was more devastating being dropped by Warners a year later!”
Miles Copeland, now on his second managerial stint with Squeeze, thinks back: “They made a series of records very expensively, spending too much in the studio, $3-400,000 per album. And we weren’t coming through in the States, the figures just didn’t get it right… Then we got a huge deal at Warners, huge. Delivered the record. But there wasn’t a single on it, and by the second week it was obvious that Warners had moved on to the other 20 groups they’d signed. It started becoming difficult to get people on the phone. They were nice as could be, but when these huge companies sign 10 acts, they expect nine to go away. And were they emotional about whether Squeeze were one of the nine that went away? Probably not.”
Glenn: “Those were two good doses of reality for us. At the time we were dropped by A&M I had never considered the possibility of being dropped. That was how remote I was. To actually have it happen to you was a great way of saying, Well, better get on with it properly. I think we slept-walked through Frank [the last A&M record] to a large extent, and they were probably right to drop us. It focused our minds wonderfully for Play, which was the first record we did where we thought, It’s not a case of whatever we do will be absolutely fantastic, we have to work at making it good. And I don’t think we’ve stopped since then. I feel like every Squeeze album has the potential to be the last one. You never know if you’re going to be tossed out at the end of it.”
Weirdly, Squeeze were then picked up again by A&M: “It was a very rewarding time. It was almost like going home, having slept with some other woman for a year. It was rewarding to get back in bed with the same people.” In 1993 they released Some Fantastic Place, another very strong record, and the discography continues with the new record, Ridiculous.
Observing from a distance, Jools Holland says of his old band now: “It’s like a steam railway. I’m pleased somebody’s keeping the spirit of it alive… They are very gifted songwriters. Difford has the most extraordinary use of words and the most perfect metre that I’ve ever come across. You could be an absolute idiot and make a song out of his words, because they just flow.”
Miles Copeland: “Although I’m no longer involved with the band, we keep in touch. I’d say they were some of the most talented artists that England has ever produced. If you cut the top off Glenn’s head musical notes would come out.”
Sitting in this dressing room, Difford and Tilbrook look uncomfortable examining their past. Some of it is admittedly very sad. In the story of Squeeze are quarrels and sackings, at least one bankruptcy (Difford’s), the death of a close friend (Maxine Barker, the inspiration for that sublime track Some Fantastic Place), failed marriages and serious drink problems.
“Moodiness” is the worst word one hears about the duo these days. “Chris and Glenn,” says another old acquaintance, “are good geezers, deep down, but they suffer from an artistic temperament.” Aimee Mann, who is also a friend of theirs, said recently: “Being a musician or an artist is a way of compensating for an enormous lack in other respects. Songwriting is compensating for being unable to communicate in any other way… I don’t think people understand how dysfunctional that is.”
Difford and Tilbrook are, perhaps, more reserved than their onstage Cheeky Chappiness suggests. But in truth, things are going well just now. The tour so far has been excellent, and hopes are high for the album. After an ecstatic Blackburn gig their dressing room resounds to sweaty and upbeat repartee between the group members – Difford and Tilbrook, Keith Wilkinson, new drummer Kevin (no relation) Wilkinson and, on keyboards, one Johnny Savannah, aka “the artist formerly known as Don Snow”.
When they’re not touring, Difford and Tilbrook are famous for working apart and then combining the results. Years ago they shared a house but lived in separate flats. Difford would leave his lyrics outside the door, for Tilbrook to pick up in the mornings when he came downstairs for the milk.
They went through a recent phase of writing together, in Glenn’s studio in south-east London. Chris drove up each day from his home in Rye, Sussex. “It just proves there are more ways than one to skin a cat when you’re writing a song. Glenn’s studio created this island whereby you could just hang out and work on a song. It’s quite pressurising but that means good things can come out of the pot. I live about 60 miles from Glenn so it gave me an hour or two to think about the backing track he’d written. I’d listen to it constantly, and give myself this goal of by the time I get home I’ll have the lyric sewn up, so I can have the rest of the night to myself.”
The lyric of the single Electric Trains is, says Difford, one of his most directly autobiographical. “In fact it’s my father’s birthday today, I called him this morning. He’s just got a cassette of the album and he said, ‘I was really touched that you remembered me taking you to school on that bike; it did us proud, didn’t it?’”
Playing with train sets, listening to Julie Andrews, riding on Dad’s crossbar… It’s somehow typical of a quality people love in Squeeze, namely the utter absence of rock’n’roll swagger. On a scale of nought to David Coverdale, you’re sort of – well – nought, really, aren’t you?
Difford: “Ha ha! That’s lucky, then… I dunno. I like realism, I like people who write like that, and you can mix it up with imagination from time to time. That particular song, I thought, was too autobiographical. Then Glenn saw it in my pack of lyrics and convinced me it could fit. An amazing feat of melodic change made it work.”
You must have reached the point in your careers, now, where you realise that this is what you’re going to do when you grow up. There is no going back to anything else.
Difford (soberly): “Yes, but there is the reality that you can only bang your head against a wall for a certain amount of time. Then you get a headache and think, Well maybe I should stop banging my head and I’ll feel much better. I think there might still be a Squeeze, but as individuals we could go off and do other things and Squeeze would remain as a workhorse for us to come back to. But we have to take it as it comes and see what happens.”
Like any partners they must have had strains in their relationship. But, by reputation, their style is for icy silences, not explosive bust-ups.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” Tilbrook allows. “Obviously. But we started out very strongly as friends. Then the whole experience of being successful sent us off in different directions for quite a long time and we weren’t so close. But throughout that we always managed to maintain our work together with no problems. As long as we ignored our problems of personal communication and got on with what we were doing, that was OK. That’s come around a lot in the last few years. We were never like Ray and Dave Davies, but it was… frosty, at times.”
Difford: “Early rehearsals consisted of greeting each other with happy smiles, then leaving in a sulk. It got ridiculous until we said, ‘We can’t all be Gary Lineker; one of us has got to play in goal, one of us has got to play on each wing, one’s got to be in defence, let’s get on with it.’”
Do you expect your partnership to continue?
“I’d like to think so. I want to be in that Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame so bad! When we’re both in our sixties I want those long, slow walks up to the podium, when they’re giving out prizes to people for being good.”
Has life in Squeeze made your personal lives difficult?
“Ask my kids. It can be and it is, but if I… If I were a carpenter, I’d be home at six o’clock and I’d have my tea. I’d sit there, watch a bit of telly and go to bed. But I’m not. I have this mad lifestyle of going off touring for three months and then being at home on everybody’s nerves the whole time. It’s an odd lifestyle, but everybody in the family understands that’s the way it is, that we’re all in the circus together here.”
Tilbrook, meanwhile, loves touring so much that he goes off on solo jaunts when Squeeze are resting. (He wrote about his 1994 dates in a brilliant series in The Independent.) “As bland as it sounds, just playing live is great. I’ve really enjoyed doing that. The context is, you turn up at a gig, loads of people want to see you. You want to play, it all goes swimmingly well and it’s great. I can’t imagine anything that could be more fun. I can’t see a time when I’d want to stop doing it.”
Difford is pensive. “I might do the odd poetry recital,” he says at length. “Or sheepdog trials. I fancy having a go at sheepdog trials.”