Squeeze – Interview – 2015

Squeeze - Interview - 2015
They were once called the new Lennon and McCartney. In their commercial and artistic heyday of the late 70s and 80s, Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook were a super melodic, and sublime songwriting partnership, that while nowhere near as commercially successful as the Fab Four, magically evoked the spirit and times of their South London roots and upbringing, many of their songs up there with the best of John and Paul. Songs such as 'Cool for Cats', 'Up The Junction', 'Take Me I'm Yours', 'Another Nail In The Heart', 'Is That Love', 'Labelled With Love' and 'Hourglass' were highly melodic, clever, and distinctly British pop gems, that rode the new wave era, when records were selling by the boat load. With roots in council estate South London, and featuring the lyrical nous of Difford along with musicality of Tilbrook (as well as Jools Holland, a school mate of Tilbrook's, and founder member of what became Squeeze), the band were pop sophisticates, where Tilbrook's music often brilliantly interpreted and elaborated on the literate and engaging story songs of Difford.
And now, 17 years after their last original studio album, Squeeze have returned with Cradle To The Grave, a joyous collection of songs themed around the autobiography of fellow south Londoner, and NME writer-turned-TV presenter and DJ, Danny Baker. That book, Going To Sea In A Sieve, has been turned into a new BBC comedy series, itself called Cradle to Grave, which will be screened in the Autumn, and starring Peter Kay. Baker was brought up in Deptford, the old stomping ground of the band, and Squeeze were asked to become involved at an early stage, as Glenn recalls: “When I read the book, I got in contact with Danny and said that I thought we could do something together with his book. Danny was already talking with (co-writer) Jeff Pope about a TV series and the mood and sentiment of Cradle were completely in sync. Danny and Jeff both loved it and everything else followed on from there.”
When the team behind the show heard the song 'Cradle To The Grave', they were so impressed that it was used as the inspiration for the name of the series. "We (Glenn and Chris) had been talking about making a new album," says Chris, "very coyly, dancing around a tree, and not really getting on with it until Danny Baker was offered a TV series and he liked us on Cradle To The Grave, and he took that as the title song. And before we knew where we were, we were given scripts, thrust under our noses, and that prompted the idea of making an album.
“The scripts were hugely funny. It tapped into a period that lyrically I was very familiar with, as I grew up in the same neighbourhood as Danny. He and I both went to the same school. He was slightly younger than me, but I remember his presence. We had pretty much the same teachers, wore the same uniform, and had a similar upbringing."
And how does it look on the screen? "It's one of the funniest shows I've seen… since Only Fools And Horses. I can't wait for people to watch it and get off on it in the same ways I have.
"The series is based in the 70s, about Danny as young boy, going to school. It's focused on his father and what his father was up to, working the docks and the challenge of what to do when the docks started closing, which was a very sad thing. He was a ducker and a diver; there was always a wheel and a deal going on. That's what makes it very funny, I think."
From the joyful optimism of 'Cradle To The Grave', to the offbeat kitchen sink disco grooves of 'Nirvana'; and from the nostalgia-hued 'Happy Days' to the gospel soul of 'Open' and the uplifting boy-to-man story of 'Sunny', it's a great return to form for Squeeze, and a happy turnaround from 2010's Spot The Difference album. That was a collection of re-worked, albeit very similarly arranged and played 'Greatest Hits' which Rolling Stone summed up by saying: 'You can't really go wrong with such great material, but this cynical ploy to sell an oldies tour is completely superfluous'.
With Cradle To The Grave, Difford and Tilbrook have found their mojo again. Songs about football, being 15, trips to the seaside, wedding bliss, school and young love permeate throughout. As well as the title track, other tracks off the album will be included in eight-part TV series that starts on September 3, on BBC 2. "They say time is of the essence, they say time will always tell/I wasted time in constant panic… and each moment that is stolen, gives another time to breathe, in a life of turning pages, with the bit between my teeth. From the cradle to the grave I know I won't be a slave, to the mistakes I have made," goes the title track, a life affirming ode to youthful innocence, energy and optimism. "We've been writing a lot closer together," says Chris. We used to write very separately; I would write the lyrics, Glenn the music. On this album we were pretty much in each other's pockets. That was revealing and very interesting, and because of that we have a much more cohesive record."
It's been a remarkable story for Difford and Tilbrook, one that stretches back to 1973, when Glenn (who had to be persuaded by his then girlfriend, Maxine) responded to an ad Chris had placed in a newsagent’s window, calling for someone into Hendrix, Lou Reed, The Kinks, Beatles, Small Faces, and Glenn MIller… Difford had also mischievously claimed in the ad that there was a record deal and tour in place… "I took 50p out of my mum's purse (to pay for the ad), the most amazing 50p I have spent in my entire life. I'm extraordinarily grateful that Glenn was the only one to pick up the phone…
"When I was at school," Chris has previously said, "I read Pete Townsend's interview in the Melody Maker (RIP), which was about going around the world, meeting women, making money, and taking drugs…. Hold on a minute, this is the job for me!"
The marrying of Difford's lyrics with Tilbrook's music was a marriage made in heaven. "Most of the lyrics I have written were taken from the imagination, but based around characters I had met. Many story songs such as 'Up The Junction'." As far as Chris is concerned, the test is whether people like it… "That's the greatest test… people take the story home with them. That's the job people have as songwriters, for people to own the stories themselves."
But, like many a great band, Squeeze have endured umpteen road bumps along the way. Following Jools Holland's initial departure in the early 80s, the band brought in Paul Carrack on keys, and with Elvis Costello at the controls, they made perhaps their best known album, East Side Story, which yielded their first US hit, 'Tempted'. But the stresses and strains were starting to take their toll, Difford and Tilbrook barely talking to each other for a while. They did however continue to work together, producing the Difford & Tilbrook album of 1984, considered by many a Squeeze album in all but name. "Strangely enough the video we made for the single ('Love's Crashing Waves') that came off that album was filmed in Brighton. And the house that we filmed it in, is now owned by Adele. It's the only link I have to her, apart from seeing her in Waitrose once…"
When Jools Holland decided to get back on board in 1985, Squeeze were off and running again, enjoying a further hit in 'Hourglass', and continued commercial success, but from the late 80s their fortunes declined, culminating in the disappointing and long-forgotten 1998 album, Domino. Furthermore, Holland had left again, and Difford's alcohol and drug abuse was creating much friction between himself and Glenn, which ended with a time in rehab. "I think we did get tired," says Chris. "You've got to be careful how long you spend in each other's pockets. Because, we both have ambitions, individually as well collectively, and that has to be respected; solo albums, writers workshops (which Chris does regularly), writing with other people, and so does Glenn. We have to give each other time; if we can't breathe independently of each other then we just suffocate.
"We didn't speak to each other for nine years, we went in different directions. I watched his career from over a hedge. I went to see him a couple of times incognito, just to see what I was missing, or what I wasn't missing." Indeed, Chris was present (but not incognito) when Glenn performed a solo gig at the Brighton Spiegeltent in 2006, as part of a song writing festival called Carousel (which I helped to organise with Chris), and it seemed then that they weren't really talking. Certainly, Chris was thinking seriously about trying to get Squeeze together again, looking to get Glenn on board. A year later, it happened…
Initially, the tours proved to be decent money spinners, as Squeeze rode the continuing trend for reformations and revivalists. "We were playing out the museum of our lives," as Chris rather dryly puts it. But the desire to make something new was always there, especially as Difford and Tilbrook have both continued to be relatively prolific writers in their solo capacities. "It's always the want of a band, and this TV series promoted that idea," says Chris. "And now we have an album coming out. Thank God for that! It motivated us in many ways. Like Danny, we were council estate kids, who went to secondary modern schools, and came from working class families. So we kind of appreciate those roots, and the emotions of where we were as teenagers. It's been a very reflective time and it's the reason why the record sounds so good to us."
Obviously, I say, record sales are not what the used to be… "I think it's too true for most people now, except for people like Ed Sheeran. I look at the charts these days and there's only a small amount of people selling records. Ed has been in the charts for 57 weeks, Squeeze will be lucky to be there for two or three. But, that's OK. We have a very healthy touring schedule."
Indeed they have, although Chris did sight the rigmarole of touring as a reason for calling off Squeeze band in the late 90s…. "It's a big tour this time, I was thinking about it this morning. It's difficult to get out of bed thinking about it…. But, I am looking forward to it, it will be a bigger production than ever, and it will be more challenging. It will be a cocktail of our normal hits and the album."
Also, it must be borne in mind, Chris is clean these days, and has been for many years. His rapacious appetite back in the day was a major factor why he couldn't face touring again. "Only in my dreams I think," he remarks about getting up to mischief. "I'm 60 years old now, and the days of sitting in a pub chopping up lines of cocaine are probably well behind me. I don't think I would get up in the morning…"
Chris, who lived in Brighton for a few years in the mid-noughties, now lives in Firle, about fifteen miles east of Brighton in one of those tied properties that are owned by the landed gentry Gage family. "I love it, it's a fantastic environment to live in. It's wild. It is a Lord of the Manor type thing where everyone pays rent. If you want something done you have to wait for it. But, it can be a magical place. I go to Brighton occasionally, to do shopping. It's still a very vibrant place"
In addition to his Squeeze and song writing duties, Chris continues to have an active role in management, including with young Irish tyros The Strypes. I'm co-managing them. They are wonderful. They have a new record out today called Little Victories… I don't get involved with their song writing, they are too good at that. I have been co-managing them since the beginning, as part of Rocket Management, Elton John's company. It's something that really thrills me to hear them play.

"It's more day-to-day personal management and mentoring, if you like. I've done it over a number of years and it is something I enjoy doing very much. Sometimes it's a bit exhausting; handling the balance between that and real life… I worked with Bryan Ferry on two separate occasions. It was lovely working with him, I was a huge fan, and to work with somebody you idolise."
Back in the late 70s and 80s, Squeeze imparted an adventurous, care free, yet disciplined creative spirit, with Difford and Tilbrook at the epicentre. And four decades on the adventure continues. "Here we are 42 years later, still treading the floorboards and making life interesting. We are very lucky to have fallen into each others laps."
Jeff Hemmings
The album will be available as a twelve song CD, digital download and on 12” double vinyl, including four exclusive cover versions of songs by Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Tom T. Hall and Ray Davies. A special ‘Collector’s Edition’ CD (including a numbered insert)
Essential Squeeze
Sweets From A Stranger
Cool For Cats
East Side Story