When you tell people you're writing about Squeeze, you get one of three responses:
a) "Are they still together?"
b) "They used to be really good."
c) "They're a little too clever for their own good."
Yes kids, Squeeze did split up back in 1982, but the band reassembled three years later, a lifetime in pop, where people announce their retirement and return nine months down the line. They haven't called it quits once since then, though everyone but the band's superb songwriters, Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, has taken turns quitting, or getting sacked. And, yes, they used to be really good, exceptionally so.
Critics hailed Tilbrook and Difford as the new Lennon & McCartney, the next Gilbert & Sullivan, the less Jewish George & Ira, the funnier Allen & Rossi, almost unanimously until they broke up the band. Since then, opinions have varied wildly.
The conventional wisdom is that the band lost the plot and never again scaled the commercial heights of 1982, when Squeeze sold out Madison Square Garden. In fact Squeeze released their most successful album in '87, Babylon and On which contained two American Top-40 hits, something none of their hits on Singles 45 and Under came close to achieving.
And while the group hasn't made another album as brilliant all the way through as East Side Story--which was turned into a successful West End stage musical, Labeled With Love--they've made some immensely satisfying ones since then. Critics who can't forget the thrill of first hearing "Another Nail in My Heart" or "Pulling Mussels From a Shell" will periodically get behind a new Squeeze album, announcing it's "a splendid return to form," when it's actually just the band dumbing down for maximum commerciality, just like the Kinks.
Difford and Tilbrook will either try to oversimplify things and curb their cleverness or else try a more "mature" approach that purposely sounds like they're not having fun. Then they're not Squeeze. If you read Glen & Chris' self-critiquing interviews, they'll often dismiss their better instinctual albums and praise their worst "think-too-much" ones. How clever is that?
You won't read such an interview here, though not for a lack of trying. Without an American record label and still no sign of their latest CD, Domino, turning up at a mall near you anytime soon, trying to get an interview proved a frustrating exercise with more mundane plot twists than a typical Chris Difford lyric. At last glance, I'd left my number with the flatmate of some girl named Sukie, who was handling their press, and she promised to relay the message when Sukie got back from shopping.
But let's make up our own minds about Squeeze by examining the six of one and half-dozen other albums they've kindly bestowed upon us in their 25-year career.
UK Squeeze (1978): Unable to be just plain Squeeze because a Connecticut bar band named Tight Squeeze registered the name in five states and threatened to sue, our Brits added the humiliating "UK" prefix. Unfortunately, people mistake them for U.K., a pretentious prog supergroup featuring the usual prog rock suspects Bill Bruford and John Wetton. The John Cale production credit must've confused the matter ever further. These guys were once borderline punks, with young Tilbrook outreeding the Clash's Mick Jones, and Difford sounding like a slightly more Cockney Robyn Hitchcock while furnishing impenetrable song titles like "Wild Sewerage Tickles Brazil." This album would've been a complete wash if not for the two songs the band produces, "Bang Bang" and "Take Me I'm Yours." Nearly as attention-provoking is the album's rear sleeve, which depicts the band pulling mussels from their puny shells, beefy Gilson Lavis notwithstanding. The enormous-looking trouser trout in Tilbrook's Speedo no doubt caused David Coverdale many sleepless nights.
Cool for Cats (1979): The band's sophomore effort is full of sophomore high jinx, silly pop songs ("you better watch out here comes a tornado, you're gonna end up looking like a mashed potato") that are aggressively likable and impossible to shake off after one listen.
The full-tilt pathos of "Up the Junction" is like a Buster Keaton domestic comedy set to music, and it blatantly cops the intro of "Excitable Boy" for no apparent good reason. The title song gave the band its first U.K. hit, even with Difford's low dungeon groaning, which makes Ringo sound like Steve Winwood. What's more Beatlesque is Tilbrook's uncanny vocal resemblance to Paulie boy, a sweet tenor that could've fooled Linda on the McCartney house intercom. That this album came out at the same time as Wings' rotten Back to the Egg fooled fans into temporarily thinking Paul still had it in him to write gems like "Goodbye Girl" and "Touching Me, Touching You."
Soon after, bassist Harry Kakoulli is fired for reasons never completely explained. An official Squeeze Web site is still cagey about the band's first official dischargee, only claiming that Harry the K left "to pursue his disco muse." This LP also contains Squeeze's most blatant sexist/S&M anthem and a song called "The Knack." And they're not even the same song!
Argybargy (1980): The peak of Squeeze's joyous frivolity. "Pulling Mussels From a Shell" best demonstrates the band's strengths (Glenn sings it high, Chris sings it low--the trademark Squeeze sound that probably inspired thousands to use harmonizers on their vocals) and weakness (try singing along with the lyric sheet; once you stumble on a line--"Shrinking in the sea so cold, topless ladies look away"--you wonder if the band got its name for trying to cram as many words as possible into every line). Songs like "If I Didn't Love You" and "Separate Beds" cement the band's image as goofy, stay-at-home malcontents, forever dunking biscuits in tea and complaining about girlfriends who'd "never peel the spuds."
East Side Story (1981): A milestone like Aftermath was for Mick and Keith, as this is the first Squeeze album consisting of only Tilbrook & Difford compositions. This is largely due to keyboardist extraordinaire Jools Holland's unexpected exit.
His replacement is former Ace vocalist, Paul Carrack, who sings lead on what became the biggest Squeeze hit to date, "Tempted." No one gets the joke implied by the title, that Squeeze and producer Elvis Costello are actually imitating the Temptations in the background-vocal department. Costello makes the band seem more important by curbing its cutesy excesses and introducing them to the joy of unhappy songs. He even manages to get Difford's tuneless Gary Numan voice to sound like Chris White of the Zombies on "Someone Else's Heart." East Side provides us with the first of what will be numerous hangover simulation songs like the hellish "Heaven," which sounds as if the record were pressed off center and forced to play until the stylus gets nauseous.
Sweets From a Stranger (1982): Faced with a second keyboardist defection in little more than a year, Squeeze replaces Paul Carrack with the nondescript ex-Sincero Don Snow. In the mid-'90s, long after Squeeze albums cease being impulse purchases, Snow will rejoin the band undetected under the nom de plume "Johnny Savannah." The "new Lennon & McCartney" hype is in full swing, yet outside of Dave Edmunds and the Rumour, few people cover any Difford & Tilbrook songs.
First issues of this album came with a detachable flap containing important rave reviews for the last album. Sweets won't meet with such accolades. It's viewed as a disappointment, especially by Glenn and Chris. Talk about overreacting; they decide that the band should break up! True, the album contains one or two uneven songs, including the never-ending hit "Black Coffee in Bed," a monotonous "Tempted" remake that even cameos by Costello and Paul Young can't jump start. Six minutes and 15 seconds is much too long to blather on about a goddammned stain on your notebook. No wonder she's gone, you dink!
Other than that, the album's second half contains perhaps the best uninterrupted stretch of Squeeze songs outside of East Side Story. What was everyone's problem with this charming record?
Singles 45 and Under (1982): "Singles remind me of kisses/albums remind me of plans," our heroes sing on "If I Didn't Love You," and if the fans want to be reminded of kisses rather than plans, this is the album to own. It's the only one that goes gold here. With a premeditated breakup, you might suspect a teary sign-off single like "The Long and Winding Road." Instead you get the chipper but anticlimactic "Annie Get Your Gun."
Difford & Tilbrook (1984): Besides internal Squeeze squabbles, one ventures to guess the other reason Glenn and Chris broke up the band is that it's much harder to cram five people onto an album cover than it is two. With tubby Gilson Lavis out of the way, there's some room for lovely architecture on this album sleeve. D&T address Squeeze's lack of image by trying to make a new one up, a sort of new wave Odd Couple. Tilbrook's wife tries to give the band style counseling by fitting him with flowing shirts and encouraging to grow his hair out, while Difford just wears crummy dark clothes and scowls.
Tilbrook's shoulder-length locks have a reverse Samson effect on the duo's chart performances, as does hanging out with Grandmaster Flash. They're no Hall & Oates, as their misguided attempts at danceability prove. Save for a few boring risks, this might as well have been a Squeeze album. Leave it to this Orwellian year for Difford to get all serious on us with his post-nuclear protest song, "The Apple Tree," and then surprise everyone by reuniting Squeeze when unsold copies of this album begin selling at post-nuclear-holocaust discount prices.
Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti (1985): The rumors of Squeeze's reunion are greatly exaggerated on this album since producer Laurie Latham (of Paul Young defame) has the group tracking every note on this album separately. Cosi's less than cozy kitchen-sink approach is one few English pop records manage to escape at this time.
This poor choice of producers obscures some of D&T's best-ever writing, a great song cycle about an extinguished relationship. If the Bond people would've only tapped Squeeze instead of the Durannies for a song--instead of "View To a Kill" they could've had a really great song like the non-hit "Hits of the Year." The fact that it's about being on a hijacked plane conveys the sense that the band isn't having too much fun these days.
Still, the album does contain another fine hangover simulation song "I Won't Ever Go Drinking Again(?)"! The question mark is theirs but the exclamation point is ours.
Babylon and On (1987): Much of the clutter from the last outing is gone but unfortunately there aren't any interesting songs underneath. This is the first LP to be called "a return to form," because it yielded two American hits, "Hourglass" and "853-5937," possibly since they're two of the most annoying songs in the Squeeze canon. The latter's annoyance isn't restricted to bringing back unpleasant memories of Tommy Tutone. Seems the band never cleared using Tilbrook's old telephone number with Ma Bell, and people in all 50 states were answering someone else's bell around the clock. Sure Squeeze were attempting to sound soulful here, but you don't think Wilson Pickett, you think the Commitments. Worse, when Tilbrook is given inane dumbed-down lyrics like, "Some Americans are party people/some Americans go out and sing," his voice doesn't recall Paulie or early Elton--we're talking Boy George! Circa "War Song"!
Frank (1989): Most of the MTV fair-weather fans accrued by the last calculation are gone by now, making love by the fire to someone else's records. Squeeze predicts the oncoming of grunge by getting rid of the extra keyboard player and going for a live garagey sound that finally gives Lavis' powerhouse drumming center-stage placement.
Unfortunately, like the turtle camouflaged in the grass on the cover, this album has been seen and heard by very few people. Their loss, since they missed out on "If It's Love," D&T's answer record to their own "Is That Love" and their most infectious single in many a moon in June. So is "Peyton Place," which for some reason isn't released as its follow-up.
But Frank's turtlesque chart performance weighs heavily on the band's own low assessment of what is the group's most nonstop, energetic and exciting album since Argybargy. As Glenn told Mojo in 1996, "I think we slept-walked through Frank to a large extent and [A&M Records] were probably right to drop us." Some people, apparently, get their best ideas sleepwalking. In that same interview, Glenn talked up Play, the follow-up to Frank, as a really focused album, and it's as dull as Dishwalla. What's the thinking here, man?
A Round and A Bout (1990): In between labels, the band issues its first live album on IRS. The live arena is the best place to experience the splendor of Squeeze. With no producer around to screw things up, the band's enthusiasm is always at a high, Jools Holland can't leave to host a TV show, and Glenn's angelic tenor retains a lot of the grit that the studio recordings gloss over. Even "Black Coffee" gets a much-needed caffeine rush. After this tour of duty, Holland leaves again, this time to be a Beatles Anthology interviewee. Look for his bobbing head during McCartney's millionth explanation of how he came to write "Yesterday."
Play (1991): On second thought, don't. The sleeve's playful screwing up of their names as Tilford and Difbrook just drives home the point that even the people at the label probably don't know who they are. Producer Tony Berg decides to further the identity crisis by adult-contemporizin' Squeeze. So what does he do? Turns it into a Tilbrook solo album by taking away all of Difford's lead-vocal duties and burying his backgrounds so low that only every fourth note is discernible. Any hint of fun in this sea of sloggy introspection is removed like it's a tumor sure to kill off any record sales.
Some Fantastic Place (1993): Back at A&M again, but not for long, the band turns in an adult, yet considerably bouncier, work. Gilson Lavis is fired again for drinking, and Attraction Pete Thomas assumes the drumming duties. Plus, Paul Carrack returns, but now the knowledge that a card-carrying member of Mike and the Mechanics is on board threatens to ruin all the fun for pure-pop snobs. "Loving You Tonight," the attempted "Tempted" remake, lacks any of the former's humor, and this time no one from the group chimes in to lend a hand.
The title track is possibly their most sensible, mature song to date, dealing with the death of a friend in a far less schmaltzy manner than Elton throw-meself-on-the-casket-and-weep John would. But despite the optimistic "return to form" reviews, A&M was already throwing dirt on Squeeze's newly dug-up grave.
Ridiculous (1996): In England, Britpop gave this album quite a boost with the kids, as did covering Blur's "End of the Century" on a B-side. A bit like The Beatles covering Badfinger, but perhaps Blur will one day return the compliment. IRS Records comes to the rescue again, releasing the album just weeks before closing its door for good.
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It's still pretty hard to find. Reviews were especially good but Squeeze's modus operandi since reuniting has been "good album, not so good album, great album, not so good album," so this would probably meet a "not so good" assessment, which is good news for Squeeze since they're due for a great album, which Domino could be, if it ever washes up on these shores.
Squeeze has little to prove at this point, which makes one of their concerts a joyous occasion. Even the band's erratic string of recent albums has guaranteed more brilliant songsmithing per square inch than you're likely to find elsewhere.
Two greatest-hits packages have been released in recent years, as was a six-CD U.K. set called Six of One that collected the first six Squeeze albums with bonus cuts. Given the recent demise of A&M, the companion, Half Dozen of the Other--which collects the latter six Squeeze albums with bonus cuts--is unlikely to appear soon. Individual re-releases of all the albums with bonus cuts have been promised but do be a dear: Dig out the old records and see that they're still all right.
Squeeze is scheduled to perform on Monday, February 8, at Cajun House in Scottsdale. Showtime is 8 p.m.