Squeeze: The Most Underrated Band Of All Time

A new documentary detailing the story of Squeeze brought back memories of just what a brilliant band they are, and why there's so much more to them than just 'Up Junction'...
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Take Me I’m Yours was the latest in what’s proving to be a well-crafted series of documentaries on early 1980s bands, and this one on Squeeze topped even the superb recent Undertones episode. I’ve been a huge fan for years, and I’ve never understood why the band are so often dismissed as pop/pub band candy floss.

I can remember standing with my schoolmates outside a church in Bounds Green, having been told to queue up to get homework during a teachers’ strike in the early 1980s. If you wanted to look cool at the time, you could reel off all the words to 'Cool for Cats', which was Squeeze’s current hit evoking a Sweeney-like world of coppers and villains in London. These were London boys singing about London things in accents we identified with and although there was something of a novelty appeal about the single – and about the way the tune was marketed – we also sensed there was something more to it. The lyrical dexterity that has attracted thoughtful kids to well-crafted pop music for ages was on display early on.

That was followed up by 'Up The Junction', a song Chris Difford explains in the programme that was inspired by the short kitchen sink dramas shown on the Play for Today TV slot at the time, and one of the many classic story songs Squeeze produced. 'Tempted' is, in my opinion, the finest of the story songs, but what’s remarkable is how much Chris Difford got into his lyrics. 'Tempted' lasts for four minutes and four seconds, 'Up the Junction' for three minutes and 10, and yet those songs pack in more drama, observation and emotion than many bands manage in their whole career.

Difford is without doubt one of pop music’s finest lyricists and, without sounding too old, I wonder how many 16-year-olds today are moved to look up the definition of “quintessence” after hearing a song that rhymes it with “adolescence”.

One of the many fascinating revelations on the programme was that Difford wrote many of his lyrics in one take, writing them out in longhand in a neat script on lined paper. Showing some of those original sheets to the camera, what strikes the viewer as remarkable is how few corrections there were. The impact of his ability to do this really comes across in a very emotional moment about the writing of Some Fantastic Place, a track which I’ve rediscovered since watching the programme and have been driving my family mad with all weekend.

Difford is without doubt one of pop music’s finest lyricists and, without sounding too old, I wonder how many 16-year-olds today are moved to look up the definition of “quintessence” after hearing a song that rhymes it with “adolescence”. The fact that Difford managed to do this without appearing to be a smart-arse makes his writing, in my eyes, even better. This was a south London boy writing about his world in a language that betrayed none of the modern fear of appearing too clever. Put that songwriting together with Glenn Tilbrook’s arrangements and there’s no question in my mind that the comparisons with Lennon and McCartney are justified. The guitar break in 'In Quintessence', the harmonising on the closing choruses of 'Black Coffee in Bed', the walking bassline in 'Love Circles', the whole beautiful arrangement on 'Some Fantastic Place', the guitar solo on 'Another Nail in My Heart'– all those and more are up there with the finest of Difford’s lyrical flourishes on songs such as 'Is That Love?', 'Pulling Mussels from a Shel'l, 'Slap and Tickle' and 'Hourglass'.

The band’s best songs have been more than covered off by the many greatest hits albums produced over the years – 'Junction', 'Cats', 'Nail', 'Mussels', 'Labelled with Love', 'Is that Love?', 'Slap and Tickle', 'Goodbye Girl' – all are rightly recognised. But like any dedicated fan I’ve got some favourites from off the beaten track too. 'Woman’s World' and 'Vanity Fair' from East Side Story – in my view their finest album – are wonderful slices of pop storytelling. 'Vicky Verky' from the often overlooked Argy Bargy album, a song that Jim Drury’s excellent Squeeze, Song By Song book tells is is the prequel to 'Up the Junction', is another great story and there are some classic lyrical observations – “With her hair up in his fingers/The fish n chip smell lingers”. In the same vein, there’s a great section in that same album’s 'Separate Beds' – “Her mother didn’t like me/She thought I was on drugs/My mother didn’t like her/She wouldn’t peel the spuds”.

I also love the fun of Jools Holland’s boogie-woogie workout 'Dr Jazz' from 1989′s Frank, and the driving blues of 'I Can’t Hold On from Sweets From a Stranger'. In fact, I’ve more affection for Sweets… than many. It’s clear when you listen to the album that the fun was going out of the band, and it was to be the end for the first episode of the Squeeze story, but – perhaps because I spent many hours listening to it with my first long-term girlfriend from school – I still really like the album. 'Points of View' and 'Tongue Like a Knife' are quite complex songs with lyrics and arrangements that started to widen my horizons, while 'When the Hangover Strikes' prompted my then girlfriend’s jazz buff father to exclaim with surprise “I haven’t heard anyone sing the blues like that in years”.

When Squeeze returned to the fray, pop music had moved on to a stage where it was not just the music that a successful act needed

I’ve been challenged a few times on whether any of the songs from the later incarnations of the band match up to the heady days of those early singles. But Frank is second only to East Side Story in my opinion, and 'King George Street', 'Hourglass', 'Trust Me To Open My Mouth' and 'Some Fantastic Place' all deserve to be up there in any favourites list – and you can throw in 'Love’s Crashing Waves', 'Hope Fell Down', 'Tears for Attention' and 'The Apple Tree' from the criminally-neglected solo album Difford and Tilbrook too. They are, as David Hepworth says in the documentary, quoting Bob Dylan, “songs that walk by themselves”.

Something else Hepworth says in the programme stayed with me too. He observes that, when Squeeze returned to the fray, pop music had moved on to a stage where it was not just the music that a successful act needed. You needed a visual approach too, something Hepworth underlines when he points out that to imagine Madonna or Michael Jackson without the visuals would be “inconceivable”. Squeeze were never quite up there with those two, but I wonder if at a different time Jools Holland’s colourful character would be played up more. And I also remember that, for certain early teenaged boys, Chris Difford represented everything we wanted to be, a straight down the line geezer who looked like he could take care of himself, charm the ladies and certainly wear a Harrington jacket like it should be worn. I also remember I desperately wanted to get a chequerboard two-piece suit with thin lapels like the one Glenn Tilbrook wears on the picture bag for the 'Up the Junction' single pictured at the top of this post. Thankfully, perhaps, I never managed to find one. I mention all that because I don’t think it’s quite right to say that Squeeze didn’t have much visual appeal. They certainly took second place to Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde for me, even before the monster production values of Jacko and Madge changed the game, but there was something we liked, a look that went with the witty, gritty lyrics that also said – as so much that had its effect at the time did – that this band was ‘ours’.

The documentary is also a bit of a love story. I realise love’s a loaded word to use, but it’s appropriate – this is a love story about the relationship between Difford and Tilbrook that has no homo-erotic overtones but one which, rarely, recognises the many forms love can take and sets it down to be savoured as part of the continuing appeal of humanity. It’s great to see the two back on terms after years of twists and turns, and it was exciting to hear that they intend to approach their forthcoming tour by giving some fresh treatment to their back catalogue while remaining faithful to what they do. Having booked a ticket months ago for their gig at the T&C, or whatever it’s called that week, I couldn’t be more excited. Somehow, it’s 30 years since I last saw them – a farewell gig at the Hammersmith Palais since you ask – but in all that time the band’s music has never been far from my mind.

It’s been 33 years since I stood in that queue reeling off “It’s funny ‘ow the missus always looks the bleedin same” in a terrible mockney accent, but it was then that one of Britain’s finest bands took me, and I’m still theirs.

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