After nearly 40 years on the road, with the band that made his name and various solo and side-projects, Glenn Tilbrook remains as committed as ever to the live cause.
You’d have thought he’d have been ready for a break after a seven-week US stint, but the Squeeze front-man went straight out there again – for an extensive UK acoustic tour.
He’s cramming 33 more gigs in between his November 3 start and the week before Christmas, the last eight of which start this Sunday (December 8) at Preston’s 53 Degrees.
Then it’s Stockton-on-Tees ARC (December 10), Bingley Arts Centre (December 11), Barton-upon-Humber Ropewalk (December 12), Blackheath Halls (December 14), Brighton Komedia (December 16), Reading South Street Arts Centre (December 17) and finally Southampton The Brook (December 18).
Glenn’s Happy Ending tour – thankfully the name of his new album rather than notice that he’s about to hang up his plectrum – is his first completely-solo UK tour in four years.
As you’ll know, Glenn is one of our most treasured musicians, his output including three top-five hits – Cool For Cats, Up The Junction and Labelled With Love – and 12 original studio albums with Squeeze, another LP with the band’s co-founder Chris Difford in 1984, and three more on his own.
Add to all that the many compilations, collaborations, DVD releases and seemingly never-ending tour dates, and you realise this 56-year-old’s not one to rest on his laurels.
Away from Squeeze he’d already released 2001’s The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook, 2004’s Transatlantic Ping-Pong, and 2009’s Pandemonium Ensues, recruiting his own band, The Fluffers, for that last one.
What’s more, in 2011 Glenn released The Co-Operative, a collaboration with cult South London r’n’b outfit Nine Below Zero.
In fact, the last few years have remained extremely busy for Glenn, having also returned to his roots with Squeeze for Spot The Difference, a 14-song collection of the band’s best-known hits, re-recorded as close to the original versions as possible.
The band then took to the road with their biggest UK tour in more than a decade, capping an exhilarating year in which Squeeze’s contribution to music was noted with the site of their first gig being awarded a prestigious PRS For Music Heritage Plaque.
That joined an ever-increasing list of Squeeze accolades, not least an Ivor Novello for Outstanding Contribution to British Music and their Nordoff-Robbins Icon Award, as well as the Mojo Magazine Icon Award.
Glenn’s 2011 tour saw him joined by Simon Hanson and Chris McNally, and was recorded each evening and made available at the end of the night from the merchandise stand, something Squeeze repeated on their 2012 Pop Up Shop tour.
He’s carrying that concept on for this tour too. And whether he’s playing to a club audience or to a festival crowd, he clearly still gets the buzz from playing and making music, as I soon found out.
Glenn was fresh from a date on the Isle of Wight and en route to Whitstable, Kent, when I caught up with him, four nights into his UK tour. So after all these years, does he still find it worrying taking on such a big commitment? And does he still get nervous?
“I do get nervous before a tour. I haven’t been solo acoustic for quite a while, so it takes quite a while to get used to that. But I think I’m already over that.”
He clearly still has the buzz for playing live. But Glenn likes to test himself too.
“I like to make it up as I go along. It’s like when you learn to float in the water. You have to take that leap of faith and say it’s alright, it’s going to work. Now I’m at that stage that I know it does work, and I’m confident I can do more.”
Does he get to see something of the towns he visits other than the venues themselves and motorways in between?
“I try and look around everywhere I go, but travel in an American motor home, which I’ve had for about 10 years, and it’s really transformed the way I tour. So I do try and get out and about the country where I am and enjoy my time rather than just pass through.”
Does he have to avoid the country lanes in his big wagon?
“I’ve got a fairly good knowledge of where to go and where not to, but every so often you find yourself reversing down a country lane. At the moment I have the luxury of being driven though, so don’t even worry about where we’re going.”
And when he finally does get home, where will that be?
“In Charlton, South-East London, very handy for The Valley, where I’m a season-ticket holder (Charlton Athletic FC). Not that I’ve been at all this season – I haven’t been around. But I do like to go when I’m at home.”
Glenn has carved out quite a reputation in recent years for not only taking requests from the audience, but also inviting fans on stage to duet with him on guitar. So does that ever go drastically wrong?
“It’s one of the things about doing requests and part of the trust I have with the audience. If you do something like that, you have to be prepared to fail.
“Sometimes it does go wrong. You launch into a song and they say ‘no, actually I don’t know this’. But that’s ok. It’s alright, you can fail, do something else … as long as you don’t fail too often.”
And are there songs you fall out of love with and can’t bear to hear again, let alone play?
“Yeah … but I wouldn’t play them! It’s that simple.”
Glenn will be showcasing songs from his new album on this tour, as well as a few Squeeze favourites and maybe even the odd cover. CD copies of the new album have been available initially at his tour dates, before January’s New Year vinyl, CD and download release package.
Happy Ending features what the artist suggests is a ‘stripped-back sound, a totally different feel to previous releases’. Tell us more, Glenn.
“Musically, my starting point was Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Incredible String Band. Acoustic guitars and bongos, that sort of thing. It doesn’t sound anything like that now, but that’s how it started. No electric guitars and no drums.
“I called it Happy Ending because I just like the sound of the title. The album itself is a mixture of narrative-driven story-lines. About half of the songs on the album are names of people, a mixture of people who are either real or imagined, it’s a mixture of both.
“I’m also getting political with a small ‘p’. On songs Everybody Sometimes and Rupert I’m thinking about how justice and Government in this country seem to be seriously skewed at the moment.
“My second-eldest son went to protest against student grants being cut a couple of years ago and was held for seven hours, while a friend of his – one of the gentlest I know – was charged for assaulting a police officer, which didn’t happen. Yet the police pursued the case for 18 months, with the threat of jail hanging over him.
“They put all that time, effort and money into doing that, and I know it’s an isolated case, but when you look at that and then look at the people who financially brought this country to its knees, they seem to sail off into other well-paid jobs. I really resent that lack of cohesion up and down the social scale.
“But try getting all that into a three-minute pop song! It’s got to be interesting too, and it’s got to be tuneful, so I think I’ve done that. That’s what I’m trying to do – write about things I feel about.”
I know you’re chiefly seen as the melody man, weaving your magic with all those great words from a certain Chris Difford. So who’s penning the words on this album, chiefly yourself?
“I wrote all the lyrics on this record, and I’m really enjoying that spate of writing.”
Are there collaborations as well, people brought in on the album?
“I recorded with Simon Hanson, who plays drums with Squeeze and The Fluffers, and Chris McNally, who again toured with me. He’s half my age, but we’ve written songs together and I really like working with him. Then there’s Chris Braide, from Warrington. I’ve known him since he was 17. He’s now in Los Angeles and works with people like Beyonce. We get on really well and really love working with each other.”
Any celeb appearances this time? Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis were on the last album. Will they be on this one?
“No, that was definitely a one-off! It was really great fun though.”
You had a little help last time around, but this time you’re completely solo – is this your way of testing yourself after all these years, keeping it fresh maybe?
“Absolutely. I like that. A couple of years ago I did an album with Nine Below Zero. It was a real privilege to work with such a great band, and we absorbed a bit of what each other does. And I guess this tour is another extension of that.”
I told Glenn how I’d heard his version of One Day I’ll Fly Away recently, and how he seemed to totally own that song – as if Randy Crawford had covered one of his songs rather than the opposite! Will there be any cover versions live?
“I absolutely adore that song. And there will be, yes.”
A big question now – probably one of the deeper ones you’ll hear. Are you still sporting that beard? The bulk of the tour is in Movember, after all.
“No I’m not. No facial hair action with me. It’s something I wanted to do, and I kept it for longer than I was going to. So many people hated it, but I enjoyed that reaction!”
Is there anyone out there you’re listening to at the moment and want to work with – established or up & coming?
“There are two young bands I really like. A band from New Jersey called River City Extension and some Australian band called Millions … although I should declare an interest, as my two eldest sons are in it!”
Will there be a pop-up style shop facility at the live dates, offering live official bootlegs and so on?
“Yes, I’ll be there, signing away, selling mugs, t-shirts, albums, DNA samples, whatever you like!”
Is there still plenty of life in the album format in this day and age of Spotify, downloads etc?
“There’s room for it. I’m thinking about what to do. On this tour I’m selling Happy Ending as a CD, but in the New Year I’m getting it cut as a vinyl album, and from next year I want to release everything in one format – a vinyl album that contains a CD and a download. There’s no choice – you get the one thing then choose what you like from it.”
What’s Chris up to while you’re out on the road?
“He manages The Strypes.”
A friend of mine (my fellow scribe Jim Wilkinson, who strummed along on Labelled With Love with Glenn live at The Witchwood in Ashton-under-Lyne once) reminded me about a shared appreciation with Chris of Lou Reed in your early days? Did Lou’s recent death have an impact on you?
“He was a big influence. You wouldn’t really hear it in Squeeze, although John Cale produced our first album. But there was all that stuff, and it was the parting of a legend – very sad.”
I had a lot more questions still to come at that stage, but Glenn had to fit in a whole load more interviews and my allotted 15 minutes (with a few more sneaked in) was over. So I missed out on asking a bit more about Chris Difford, Jools Holland, Paul Carrack, The Fluffers, his friendship with The Alarm and Big Country’s Mike Peters and their work with the Love Hope Strength charity … and when Squeeze might be getting back together.
But I did manage to get a question in that led to a further Lancashire Evening Post piece, for a regular feature, asking Glenn about his most mortifying moment. And he didn’t have to think long before coming up with the answer, re-living a harrowing experience more than three decades ago as if it happened the day before. So I’ll leave you with a potted version of that.
“Many years ago, in 1982 I think, I was singing Up the Junction to a crowd where Squeeze were doing a small gig in Camden.
“The song was already three years old by then, and I already knew it very well. But I’d had some cheese on toast before I left home and I found myself wondering in the middle of singing Up The Junction whether I’d turned the grill off or not.
“It was like I’d woken up in the middle of the song and I had no idea where I was. The crowd turned into an Alfred Hitchcock-esque sea of faces pointing and laughing at me, and I had to somehow pick up the thread and carry on.”
It appears that the end result proved somewhat calamitous for Glenn, and might even have led to a change of career.
“That really spooked me, and ended up giving me serious stage fright, so I started having notes all over the floor. And the more you do that the more you rely on them, and the more you trip yourself up the more scary it becomes.
“I actually had to give up gigging for a year after that, but then I thought ‘hang on a minute, I’m absolutely terrified of going on stage now whereas I used to love it – what’s going on here?’
“I did love it, so plainly if this was going to cause me so much bother I should either find something else to do or get back up in the saddle – I couldn’t carry on feeling that way.
“So I did a couple of low-key gigs without any notes, and I was petrified. But I got through them, and then thought if I stuff up, no one dies. It’s alright. It’s about putting some sense of perspective on it. But it really, truly was a mortifying moment.”
And needless to say, 31 years on Glenn’s still going strong, as those who have just caught him live or are about to in the coming fortnight will find out.
* For an appreciation I penned on this here blog about Squeeze in October 2012, check out this link here
* And for a review of Glenn at Preston’s 53 Degrees in December, 2013, try here.
* This feature is a longer, revised version of a Malcolm Wyatt interview with Glenn Tilbrook that appeared in the Lancashire Evening Post on December 5 (original piece here).