Old-fashioned pop craftsmen saved from a workingman’s death in English pubs by the new wave, singer/guitarists Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook — the core of Squeeze — found their forte/niche in setting small dramas of British life to music that can be ebullient, reflective, gay or morose. Aided along the way by tasteful rhythm sections and keyboard players both flamboyant (Jools Holland) and soulful (Paul Carrack), the duo has weathered stylistic digressions, endless lineup adjustments and the onset of maturity to become the resident bridgemen on the span between British dancehall tradition and modern tuneful ironists. It’s a wobbly bridge, though, and the band’s records are aggressively uneven: few groups have thrown the dice with as unpredictable results as Squeeze. If closer in tone to Paul McCartney than Ray Davies, Squeeze — even at its worst — always produced catchy songs inhabited by real people.
The early records put the London quintet on a solidly upward trajectory. A classic premature debut, Squeeze (which was obliged to bill the group as Squeeze U.K. in the US) finds the five lads barreling through inconsistent material, a situation exacerbated by John Cale’s cluttered production. (He tries too hard to be wacky; cut without him, “Take Me I’m Yours” is the easy highlight.) “Take Me I’m Yours” and “Bang Bang” (both produced by the band) also display spirit and potential.
Squeeze entered adolescence with Cool for Cats. Primary vocalist Tilbrook, a sweet triller, and the gruffer Difford show greater confidence at the mic; together, they create arresting, odd harmonies to go with their bent pop tunes. Wonderful cuts abound, including “Slap & Tickle,” a sleazy synth rocker, “Cool for Cats,” a modern pub-rock romp, and the cinematically inspired “Up the Junction,” three minutes of working-class heartbreak that outdoes McCartney for pathos. 6 Squeeze Songs, a well-chosen mini-greatest hits, was an effort to establish the band in the US.
Squeeze grew up on Argybargy. Tilbrook and Difford had found their style and were settling into it, creating finely etched pop music with increasing intricacy. “If I Didn’t Love You” is wryly awkward; “Farfisa Beat” is a delightful throwaway; “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)” teaches a herky-jerky lesson in catchy cleverness and “Another Nail in My Heart” puts wit in service of sad sack romantic defeat. “If I Didn’t Love You” spins the same idea around. Any apparent lack of commitment is outweighed by the witty humor, variety and freshness of the material. Holland then left and was replaced by ex-Ace singer/keyboardist Paul Carrack.
Produced (apart from one cut by Dave Edmunds) by Elvis Costello and Roger Bechirian, East Side Story‘s fourteen-song jumble is an incoherent tour de force (think of the Beatles’ White Album) that touches on everything from soul to country to psychedelia. Highlights include Carrack’s vocal showcase “Tempted,” “In Quintessence,” “Someone Else’s Heart” (a Difford excursion into sentiment that recalls the Zombies), “Mumbo Jumbo” (reflecting Costello’s influence), “Messed Around” (a slick piece of fake rockabilly) and the winsome “Is That Love.”
After Don Snow replaced Carrack (who went to do very nicely for himself in Mike and the Mechanics), Squeeze pulled in its stylistic horns a bit for Sweets From a Stranger. “When the Hangover Strikes” conducts a leisurely trip into Cole Porter terrain; “I’ve Returned” soars on the strength of ringing guitars and an exuberant Tilbrook vocal.
As Squeeze concentrated on making albums rather than singles after Cool for Cats, Singles — 45’s and Under, a compilation released soon after the announcement of the band’s dissolution, was an oddly chosen eulogy. As the band’s selection of which LP tracks to release as 45s often seemed totally arbitrary, there’s no sense of occasion. Even “Annie Get Your Gun,” the sole new track, isn’t so great. Still, the LP is a handy introduction to the band’s early triumphs.
As it was their decision to disband Squeeze and continue writing and performing together, Difford and Tilbrook surprised no one by releasing an album that, except for being funkier and even more boring, basically sounds no different from the band’s lesser efforts. Joined by the rest of a Squeezelike lineup (drums/bass/keyboards) plus occasional horns and strings, the dull duo try to come on like Hall and Oates, but lack the cynical instincts to make a slick veneer interesting. “Action Speaks Faster,” “Love’s Crashing Waves” and “Picking Up the Pieces” are merely turgid, overproduced and lifelessly smooth.
Two years of unsatisfying divorce later, Tilbrook and Difford reconvened Squeeze with Holland, drummer Gilson Lavis and new bassist Keith Wilkinson. But things didn’t fall back into place. The Laurie Latham-produced Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti is afflicted by the same bland ineffectuality as Difford & Tilbrook. The depressed “Last Time Forever,” while sonically impressive, is a regrettably somber turn for Squeeze, no longer able to manage even a wry smile in the face of life’s inexorable calamities.
Refitted with a second keyboardist, Andy Metcalfe (who was, at the time, also serving as Robyn Hitchcock’s bassist), a twelve-legged Squeeze righted itself on Babylon and On, a confident and likable return to the band’s pre-breakup sound and form. “Tough Love,” “Footprints” and especially “The Prisoner” affirm Squeeze’s aptitude for agreeable pop. Dubious stabs at soul and funk fall flat, however, and Tilbrook’s sitar playing on the insipid “Some Americans” is simply absurd.
The surprisingly overlooked Frank completed Squeeze’s rehabilitation, bringing the group full circle to a modernized version of jaunty pub rock. Relocating its original magic with memorably inventive material and spirited delivery, Squeeze here seems exuberantly youthful, as if music-making had suddenly become fun again. From giddy celebrations of new romance (“If It’s Love,” “Peyton Place”) to sardonic views of emotional wreckage (“Slaughtered, Gutted and Heartbroken,” “Rose I Said”), the songs surge with wit and melodic energy. (And who else would write a truly sensitive song about melancholy and menstruation?) Co-produced by Tilbrook and Eric Thorngren, Frank has a relaxed, live-in-the-studio sound that makes it intimate and inviting. Easily Squeeze’s best since Argybargy.
The same enthusiasm flows in A Round and a Bout, recorded live at a pair of English dates in January ’90. Matt Irving (keyboards, accordion) joins the re- Hollandaised lineup for a delightful career summary, complete with four numbers from Frank. The brisk, no- nonsense performances work wonders, recharging the entire program. Proof that miracles do happen: an upbeat overhaul turns Sweets From a Stranger‘s plodding “Black Coffee in Bed” into a marvelous jolt of pop soul. Even the audience-participation “If It’s Love” sounds like fun.
A dozen years after fitting a complete and satisfying soap opera into the three sprightly minutes of “Up the Junction,” Play finds Squeeze’s songwriters no longer capable of such acuity or efficiency. The simple good-love-gone-bad concept album (the booklet is a script that incorporates song lyrics) attempts a breakup in the similarly intimate “Letting Go,” but can’t come to the point. The song’s wishy-washy tone, uncharacteristically clunky lyrics and general spinelessness typify this listless album. (Does the guest involvement of Bruce Hornsby suggest anything? To be fair, Steve Nieve is involved as well.) Things pick up near the end — “Gone to the Dogs” has some of the band’s old charm, the massed chorus of “Sunday Street” essays British gospel with stirring results and “Wicked and Cruel” is venomous enough to be entertaining — but getting there is no fun at all.
Made with a new lineup (Carrack and Attractions drummer Pete Thomas joining Tilbrook, Difford and Wilkinson), the lively and unpretentious Some Fantastic Place partly undoes the damage of Play; it’s a simple, warm album hindered only by poor quality control on the writing. Too many of the songs revisit overly familiar terrain of failed and failing relationships, leaving tired melodies to be spiffed up by sharply noted details: the initialed 45s left behind in “Images of Loving,” an attempted rapprochement in “It’s Over,” a cat flap in the kitchen door that provides a dog’s-eye view in “Cold Shoulder.” Still, the Vandellas-like “Everything in the World” is a spunky opener, and the mellow soul of Carrack’s “Loving You Tonight” does the record a heap of good. In the minor-key title track, a downcast showstopper that somehow doesn’t dominate the album’s mood, Tilbrook pays loving tribute to a recently deceased young woman, keeping a stiff upper lip while making no effort to hide a broken heart; even his guitar solo burns with unbridled passion.
With Squeeze reduced for the first time to a quartet (Difford, Tilbrook, bassist Keith Wilkinson and new drummer Kevin Wilkinson, who passed away in 1999), the affecting Ridiculous displays a minimum of fuss (other than the strings contributing cinematic sweep to childhood in “Electric Trains” and desire in “I Want You”). After all this time, the band’s reports from the home front have a familial intimacy; since so many of the songs instill at least the assumption of personal reality, it’s hard not to think of the two writers as central characters in a long- running serial. And, though obscured by the shared credits and the sweet-voiced Tilbrook’s preeminence as the band’s lead singer, it does sound as if one partner is faring a lot better than the other. (The notion of two strong, autonomous auteurs going through individual adulthoods in tandem, delivering the public results to record year after year, does have a hairy 28 Up aspect to it.) On one side of the couch are golden-colored reminiscences (“Electric Trains,” “Walk Away”), rocky but resilient relationships (“Heaven Knows,” “Daphne”), love rushes (“This Summer”) and positive self-knowledge (“Grouch of the Day,” “Long Face”). Then there’s the abject guilt of “Temptation for Love,” the blocked vacancy of “Lost for Words,” the shame and desperation of “Great Escape” and the reluctant, dysfunctional romanticism of “Fingertips”: “It’s funny how I loved you like the bottle at my lips…You typify the things to me that I no longer do…You’re always there right in my face but that is nothing new/I’m so in love with you.” It doesn’t take a psychiatric social worker to discern a pattern in there. When he’s in the spotlight, Difford recites his bits as if some posh old uncle of Neil Tennant’s had been heavily sedated and hauled unawares into the studio-an approach that doesn’t make him out to be the happy camper here. Ridiculous? Not hardly.
Piccadilly Collection is as confusing to navigate as the cover-pictured London circus: the 16-track retrospective works backwards from Some Fantastic Place to Argybargy, with twice as many tunes from Difford & Tilbrook as East Side Story. If not a balanced aesthetic recapitulation of any sort, the album repeats only four songs from the 1982 singles compilation, and the appearance of five non-LP items (including the great B-side medley “Squabs on Forty Fab”) makes it a must-have for completists.
Following his involuntary departure after Cool for Cats, original bassist Harry Kakoulli recorded a likeminded set of dignified pop tunes. Even When I’m Not is an adequate record, although Kakoulli’s compositions lack the clarity and crackle that typify Difford and Tilbrook’s best work.