I was a little alarmed at first. I tuned into watch the BBC 4 Squeeze documentary, Take Me I’m Yours, only to find an acoustic tribute act comprising a lesser-known member of ZZ Top jamming with a geography teacher.
I need not have worried, as somewhere behind that vast goatee was one of my guitar heroes, possessing one of the finest voices that has graced the charts these past three and a bit decades. And the slightly-more rotund partner was his octave-lower mate, a master wordsmith who at an early age redefined poetry as cool for this scribe.
I’m talking of course about Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, one of the greatest songwriting partnerships of all time. That’s not over-exaggeration. I see them up there alongside Lennon and McCartney, Ray Davies and the very best of those that followed in their wake.
It was nice to see a documentary that finally got to the heart of this sometimes-troubled duo, telling a more complete version of a tale that for many seemingly ended around the time of Annie Get Your Gun, a lesser single on the 1982 Singles – 45’s and under compilation LP, some of their finest works following between 1985 and 1995.
I was also pleased to hear a little airtime for the largely unappreciated 1991 album Play, always a winter warmer for me (even though I was reminded it was made in California), taking me back to a cold December day at Greenwich Market, its songs in my head and repeated in the warm later on, with my loved one at my side. Great music has that ability to take you to another place, and in Squeeze’s case it’s often Some Fantastic Place.
It’s a similar tale with that aforementioned follow-up, in many respects their finest album, not least the title track – one that still bring tears to the eyes. I recall Danny Baker almost loving it to death (to paraphrase Difford’s later Heaven Knows), and this time I’m transported back to a week holidaying in Northern France, Squeeze again providing an essential soundtrack.
Much of what was covered in the latest documentary was superbly catalogued in Jim Drury’s superb 2004 interview biog Song By Song, his insight book-ending the retrospective thoughts of Chris and Glenn as we followed the band story from a brazen ad in a Blackheath sweet shop through to 1998’s Domino swansong and an inevitable break-up.
Yet the band finally re-surfaced, their solo projects finally put aside in 2007 with a succession of live gigs, tours, one-offs and re-recordings of old hits leading to the promise of new material next year. And hurrah for that.
The documentary filled in a few of the gaps, taking us from early-day influences to the most recent realignment. In many ways it’s a standard story of a band learning their craft, getting the breaks and reaching initial goals (in some style), then losing their way, in turn falling out and making up throughout.
But the difference for me is that with Squeeze I always cared about the outcome. While drink, drugs and petty arguments often got out of hand and threatened to spoil the ride, there was always an easy charm about these South London boys. You somehow knew they were never going to fall out for too long, however much living in each other’s pockets scarred them. Jools Holland, an integral part of six Squeeze LPs, said, “The more success there is, the less of a laugh there is”. But while diplomatic drummer Gilson Lavis felt the band’s ‘strong personalities’ had an impact, these were above all good, honest blokes, and that was always going to pull them through and keep them grounded.
Along the way, we were reminded about Chris and Glenn’s roots, their initial bonding strengthened by the addition of boogie woogie piano man Jools and treasured Gilson. A succession of bit-part players also added invaluable contributions, not least Harry Kakoulli, John Bentley, all-round good guy Paul Carrack, and later arrival Keith Wilkinson.
From their timely emergence in the punk era to Miles Copeland’s steering and an A&M deal to the first album tragi-comic production by The Velvet Underground’s John Cale, the scene was set. Few bands would have survived that, but Squeeze always had the strength of their own songwriting to fall back on. Chris’ words and Glenn’s sculpting of those lines into classic songs ensured longevity, and quality always shines through given the right breaks and backing.
It was the late addition of Take Me I’m Yours (after Cale’s exit) that saved them the first time, and tracks of the quality of Goodbye Girl, Cool for Cats and the stupendous Up The Junction assured their survival from there. In fact, you have to go a long way to find an opening verse of a song as good as the latter.
So many more great singles followed, yet they never really showed their worth as an albums band until Elvis Costello’s production of the East Side Story project, the band stepping outside the bounds of three-minute new wave to great effect, somehow rising to the challenge after the blow of Jools’ departure, unearthing another nugget of a contributor in former Ace and Roxy Music keyboard player Carrack.
It was never going to be easy though, the personnel continuing to change around Chris and Glenn as the drugs, the drink and the fall-outs left their mark. Yet for all the animosity on board from time to time, Chris clearly needed Glenn, and Glenn needed Chris – that bumpy, up and down career path often leading to creative highs.
The initial break didn’t last long, and despite the fact that the dynamic duo refused to speak to each other between songs during the Difford and Tilbrook album, they soon got the band together again, Jools rejoining for Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti, Babylon and On and the mighty fine Frank during what proved an increasingly frustrating period for the band as the corporate power of the record company left these artisans of the pop song out in the cold.
A further Jools exit led to another difficult phase and wake-up call, yet out of despair often comes triumph, and Chris’ acceptance of his drug problem (beautifully illustrated by The Truth) led to those creative high-points of Play and Some Fantastic Place, although the industry missed the point, flagging sales ultimately scuppering matters after the commercial failures of the partly-superb Ridiculous and disappointing Domino.
The story is far from finished though, and last week Chris and Glenn announced on BBC Radio 6’s Radcliffe and Maconie Show details of their next tour complete with innovative ‘pop-up shop’, while debuting Tommy from an as-yet untitled new studio album.
But whatever happens next, there is already so much of worth in the Squeeze locker. While much of their latter material largely failed to rise above the masses’ radar, Chris and Glenn and all those who have contributed to their success over the years have a lot to be proud of.
And this particular South London (East Side) story deserves to be continued. Because as that breakthrough single duly noted, dreams are made of this.
25 Great Tracks To Remind You Why Squeeze Are On The Top Table
The following list is in rough chronological order, but -let’s face it – it’s subject to alteration, as the blogger reserves the right to change his mind at least twice a day:
1. Take Me I’m Yours
2. Goodbye Girl
3. Cool for Cats
4. Up The Junction
5. Another Nail In My Heart
6. Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)
8. Black Coffee In Bed
9. Last Time Forever
12. If It’s Love
13. Rose I Said
14. Slaughtered, Gutted & Heartbroken
16. The Day I Get Home
17. The Truth
18. Gone To the Dogs
19. Some Fantastic Place
20. Third Rail
21. Loving You Tonight
22. It’s Over
23. Electric Trains
24. Heaven Knows
25. This Summer