Sunday, June 8, 2014

Squeeze - Too Cool For Cats

Back in the late 80s I borrowed a CD titled ‘Singles - 45’s And Under’.  It was a ‘best of’ collection from the British band Squeeze.  I recall being well chuffed that I could finally listen to the song ‘Cool For Cats’ in pure digital format, but I admit that at the time I wasn’t that familiar with the body of work that Squeeze had produced to that point in time.  As brilliant a song as ‘Cool For Cats’ is, it wasn’t, and isn’t, representative of the Squeeze style and sound overall.  So it was a great pleasure to hear and immerse myself in the music of Squeeze to a greater degree.  I’ve since purchased that ‘best of’ CD for myself, along with a ‘Greatest Hits’ on DVD, and some of the other albums of this much underrated band of the new wave era.  Though I confess, as much as I’ve grown to love so many other songs from Squeeze, ‘Cool For Cats’ remains a favourite track.  So, just as I broadened my own Squeeze knowledge all those years ago, please read on if you’d like to avail yourself of some of that knowledge now.

In Deptford, South London during March of 1974, friends Chris Difford (guitar/vocals), and Glenn Tilbrook (vocals/guitar) started a song writing partnership, with Difford handling lyrics, and Tilbrook the music.  After accruing a repertoire of material they recruited the services of Jools Holland (keyboards), Harry Kakoulli (bass), and Paul Gunn (drums), and adopted the group name Squeeze (named after a Velvet Underground album).

After playing the local pub and club circuit, the quintet were signed to the Miles Copeland owned independent label B.T.M., and released their debut single, ‘Take Me I’m Yours’ in early ‘77.  But, the label went bankrupt and the single was withdrawn shortly after its release.  Shortly after that, Gunn was replaced on drums by Gilson Lavis.  But Squeeze had caught the ear of producer John Cale (of Velvet Underground), who cast a production ear over the three track EP ‘Packet Of Three’, released on the Deptford Fun City label in August of ‘77.

The band then came to the attention of major label A&M, who signed them to a recording contract in late ‘77 (this was during a period where the major labels were in a fit of chaotic clamouring to sign up ‘new wave’ acts with potential).  The lead out single to Squeeze’s eponymous debut album, released in March of ’78 and produced by Cale, was the reworked ‘Take Me I’m Yours’ (UK#19), one of many cockney adolescent anecdotes that would crop up on the quintet’s early work.  The hypnotic rhythm of the track was backed by a straight up performance based clip.  The follow up single, ‘Bang Bang’ (UK#49), also registered a hit in the lower reaches of the British charts.  .  Shortly after the ‘Squeeze’ album came another personnel change, with John Bentley taking over from Kakoulli on bass, the latter leaving to pursue a solo career.

Following the release of the lead out single, ‘Goodbye Girl’ (UK#63), in late ‘78, Squeeze finished work on their sophomore album, ‘Cool For Cats’ in early ‘79 (produced by John Wood).  The title track, and second single, ‘Cool For Cats’ surfaced from the cat’s box in March of ‘79.  Whilst Glenn Tilbrook handled the bulk of the band’s vocals, Chris Difford took the mike on ‘Cool For Cats’, employing a kind of cockney style rap to sing the lyrically jocular material.  It was pop rock at its best, backed by an eye catching promotional video which featured Difford snarling into the microphone, backed by the band (with Jools Holland resplendent in flying jacket and trademark cigar in mouth).  The back up singers wore matching red sunglasses and black leather jackets, one with the letters ‘SQU’, the other with ‘EEZE’ emblazoned on the back.  I first saw/heard the song on Australia’s ‘Countdown’, and was awestruck by it from the get go.  I also recall that Squeeze were referred to on the show as U.K. Squeeze.  I later discovered the reason for this was there was an American band called Tight Squeeze, and for the purposes of not confusing bands, Squeeze were referred to as U.K. Squeeze outside Britain (a similar thing happened with The Beat/The English Beat) - eventually the band Tight Squeeze folded, and Squeeze were known as just that the globe over.  But I digress.  ‘Cool For Cats’ purred up the pop charts and peaked at #2 in Britain, a whisker away from being top cat, and #5 in Australia in mid ‘79.  A few years later I recall hearing the song used in a commercial for Bridgestone tyres - the lyrics amended to “cool for cats, Bridgestone cats” - hardly did the original justice.

The song writing partnership of Difford and Tilbrook, in particular Difford’s lyrics, were earning a reputation as being astute observations of working class Britain, a darkly droll, and impishly witty, socio-economic commentary (drawing on influence from Ray Davies of the Kinks), encased within a sophisticated pop-rock structure, as evidenced in the follow up single ‘Up The Junction’, a gripping tale of working class love swept away in the face of disenchantment.  The record buying public clearly empathised with the tale, matched perfectly with melancholic tinged music, as ‘Up The Junction’ arrived at the UK#2 traffic lights during August of ‘79.  The promotional video featured Squeeze playing in the kitchen of a council tenancy.  The follow up singles, ‘Slightly Drunk’, and ‘Slap And Tickle’ (UK#24) witnessed Difford’s playful lyrics, and helped to further fuel sales for the source album, ‘Cool For Cats’ (UK#45/OZ#18).  The album had established Squeeze as a serious player on the post-punk, new wave scene.

Squeeze’s third album, ‘Argybargy’, jostled for business in early 1980, with the lead out single ‘Another Nail In My Heart’ hammering down #17 on the U.K. charts.  The band turned in another eye catching performance in the promo video.  ‘If I Didn’t Love You’ strangely missed the mark, whilst the premium pop of ‘Pulling Mussels (From A Shell)’ notched up #44 in Britain.  The track afforded Holland the room to stretch his pianist skills, whilst Difford’s lyrics were more evocative than ever  Despite releasing consistently high quality singles, Squeeze were finding substantial album sales harder to attain, with ‘Argybargy’ only able to push its way to #32 in Britain.  It did become the first Squeeze album to chart in the U.S. (#71), due in large part to college-radio picking up on the three single releases.  It also reflected the growing craftsmanship of both Difford and Tilbrook, via a diversity of cracking tracks from the percolating ‘Misadventure’ to the Motown-ish ‘There At The Top’.

Keyboardist Jools Holland then departed the band to pursue his musical muse via the vehicle Jools Holland and the Millionaires, through which he could indulge his growing devotion to boogie-woogie piano.  He would soon also lend his talents to co-hosting Channel 4’s ‘The Tube’ on television.  A hard act to follow, Squeeze set their sights on recruiting rock/soul journeyman Paul Carrack to the vacant keyboardist position.  Carrack had already played with the likes of Ace, Frankie Miller, and Roxy Music and would go on to contribute to many more artists work, and a solo career - see future posts for more.

Carracks’ first duties with Squeeze were on the breakthrough ‘East Side Story’ album, co-produced by Elvis Costello.  The album was intended to be a concept outing of sorts, a kind of new wave answer to ‘Sgt. Peppers’.  Four producers were sounded out to cut one side each of a planned double album set - Paul McCartney, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, and Elvis Costello (all but Costello withdrew).  The lead out single was the compact pop of ‘Is That Love’ (UK#35) released during April of ‘81.  The reception for the song was much more favourable compared to the poor reception effects in the music video.  The track was followed mid year by the soulful ‘Tempted’ (UK#40/ US#49/OZ#95), which showcased Carrack’s smooth vocal delivery, and Difford’s brilliantly woven lyrics of a tale of infidelity.  The track was backed by a simple but effective performance video.  ‘Labour Of Love’ (UK#4) returned Squeeze to the British top five, via a touching country-rock flavoured number.  The critics raved, and sales for ‘East Side Story’ were solid in the U.K. (#19), but pushed into brave new territory Stateside (#44).

Paul Carrack left Squeeze after a one album tenure, with ex-Sinceros’ player Don Snow taking his place.  Carrack, ever the rock journeyman, moved on to tour with Carlene Carter, then played with her husband Nick Lowe’s project Noise To Go (see separate Nick Lowe posts), before embarking on a solo tilt.

In May of ‘82, Squeeze released their fifth album, ‘Sweets From A Stranger’ (UK#37/US#32), the band seemingly on the edge of breaching the big time in the U.S., though the associated single releases sold modestly, the smooth, soulful ‘Black Coffee In Bed’ reaching a drowsy #51 in Britain, whilst the brooding ‘When The Hangover Strikes’ might as well have stayed in bed.  Other album highlights worth noting for reference in the Difford/Tilbrook songbook, were the lively ‘I’ve Returned’, and the seductive ‘The Elephant Ride’.  Lyricist Chris Difford had become involved in the British antinuclear movement during this period, and had penned the protest song ‘Apple Tree’ for inclusion on the ‘Sweets’ album, but possibly wanting to avoid the wrong kind of attention the label de-cider-d not to include it.  On the back of solid album sales in the U.S., Squeeze kicked off a nationwide tour over the summer of ‘82, including a gig at Madison Square Garden.  But with five albums released in five years, and a relentless touring schedule, the song writing team of Difford and Tilbrook were feeling the squeeze for energy and inspiration, and took the decision to disband Squeeze before the end of ‘82.

A ‘best of’ compilation, ‘Singles - 45s And Under’ (the CD I first borrowed), was released in November of ‘82, and featured the new track and single, ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ (UK#43/OZ#52), the track ‘going electric’, a not altogether unexpected move.  The ‘Singles’ album squashed the competition to peak at #3 in Britain (OZ#76/US#47 - it would eventually be accredited platinum in the U.S.).

With Squeeze placed on indefinite hold, the creative partnership of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, looked to life beyond the band, and found it as the duo…wait for it… Difford & Tilbrook.  They recruited bass player Keith Wilkinson (with various and sundry session players), to record a self titled album during the first half of ‘84 (UK#47/US#55).  Boasting a more sophisticated sound, the album spawned three singles, ‘Love’s Crashing Waves’ (UK#57 - the promotional video filmed, appropriately enough by the seaside), ‘Picking Up The Pieces’, and ‘Hope Fell Down’, without substantial chart success.  In 1983, the duo also found time to write a stage play, ‘Labelled With Love’, in which they featured.

Though the only encore in sight would feature their old band Squeeze taking the stage once more.

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