Guided by the redoubtable songwriting team of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, enduring South London quintet Squeeze have created one of the most covetable – and quintessentially English – catalogues in pop over the past four decades.
Famous for their signature hits ‘Cool For Cats’ and ‘Up The Junction’, the band originally rose to prominence as punk segued into new wave. No strangers to life’s vicissitudes, they’ve split up and reformed twice, yet have regularly frequented the UK Top 40. They can also boast of a dedicated following in North America, and, after a five-year break, returned sounding refreshed with 2015’s critically acclaimed Cradle To The Grave, based upon fellow South Londoner Danny Baker’s acclaimed autobiography Going To Sea In A Sieve.
Hailing from Deptford, in south-east London, budding teenage singer-songwriters Difford and Tilbrook founded the band in 1974, taking their name from The Velvet Underground’s obscure final LP, recorded after the departure of mainstays Lou Reed and John Cale. After some line-up changes and a fanbase-building residency at The Bricklayers Arms in Greenwich, the band settled into their “classic” line-up, with Difford and Tilbrook supplemented by powerhouse drummer Gilson Lavis, bassist Harri Kakoulli (later replaced by John Bentley) and prodigiously gifted pianist Jools Holland.
Squeeze made their vinyl debut in July 1977. Featuring the fierce, atypically punky ‘Cat On A Wall’, their initial Packet Of Three EP was released through Deptford Fun City, the independent imprint formed by Alternative TV frontman/Sniffin’ Glue fanzine founder Mark Perry and the band’s manager Miles Copeland (brother of The Police’s Stewart).
Selling a highly respectable 25,000 copies and significantly raising the band’s profile (they were invited to record a coveted Peel session on 17 August), Packet Of Three led to Squeeze signing to major label A&M late in ’77. The fledgling band quickly laid down their self-titled debut LP (recently reissued on vinyl, along with 1980s Argybargy) with one of their heroes, ex-Velvet Underground star John Cale, producing. Highlights from the sessions included the aggressive ‘Sex Master’, the Velvets-esque ‘Strong In Reason’ and the Eastern-influenced ‘Take Me, I’m Yours’, which provided the band with a Top 20 hit and their first appearance on Top Of The Pops.
Squeeze really got into their stride with April 1979’s Cool For Cats, wherein their natural, streetwise Cockney charm usurped the punky aggression of their debut. An eclectic treat, the LP included everything from saucy 60s-style pop (‘It’s So Dirty’) to the synth-swathed, Giorgio Moroder-esque ‘Slap And Tickle’, while its two towering Top 10 hits, the cheeky, Ian Dury-ish ‘Cool For Cats’ and ‘Up The Junction’ – a superb and still-resonant portrait of a doomed relationship – showed that Difford was fast becoming an adept lyricist.
Cool For Cats earned the band a silver disc in the UK, while February 1980’s Argybargy helped swell the band’s Stateside popularity, cracking the Top 75 of the Billboard 200 and going gold in Canada. Another sparkling pop record, Argybargy included two popular 45s in Top 20 smash ‘Another Nail For My Heart’ and ‘Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)’ – a vivid portrait of a British seaside vacation – along with vivacious cuts such as the wonderful ‘Separate Beds’, wherein Difford’s brilliant lyric recounted the awkwardness of a young man staying over at his girlfriend’s parents’ house for the first time.
Argybargy made it abundantly clear that Squeeze would outlast England’s new wave pop pack, but with Jools Holland leaving to embark on a highly successful career in television (he initially co-presented Channel 4’s The Tube with Paula Yates), talented ex-Ace keyboardist/vocalist Paul Carrack was recruited for 1981’s East Side Story. Arguably the band’s most critically acclaimed release, the album was produced by Elvis Costello and peaked at No.19 in the UK, where it earned Squeeze a second silver disc.
A consummate pop record, with Difford and chief tunesmith Tilbrook firing on all cylinders, the diverse East Side Story featured enduring fan favourites including the sublime, infidelity-related radio hit ‘Tempted’ and the exuberant soul-pop of ‘In Quintessence’, while the country-flavoured ‘Labelled With Love’ swept up to No.4 on the UK singles chart.
Recorded after Don Snow replaced the departing Carrack, 1982’s Sweets From A Stranger included several gems such as the understated, string-kissed ‘When The Hangover Strikes’, the glorious, Beach Boys-esque ‘The Elephant Ride’ and yearning 45 ‘Black Coffee In Bed’. The album’s release capitalised on the band’s burgeoning popularity in the States (where it peaked at No.32 on the Billboard 200), but success came at a price, with Squeeze splitting in the wake of the ensuing, stress-fuelled world tour.
A&M released the self-explanatory Singles: 45s And Under compilation to coincide with the band’s parting of the ways and – ironically – it went platinum on both sides of the Atlantic. As it turned out, the group’s split proved to be short-lived; after Difford and Tilbrook reconvened for 1984’s Difford & Tilbrook, they reformed Squeeze with Lavis, a returning Jools Holland, and Keith Wilkinson replacing John Bentley on bass.
This line-up recorded 1985’s Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti – distinguished by the vivid, childhood-related ‘King George Street’ – and September ’87’s solid Babylon And On, which rose to No.14 on the UK Top 40 and yielded Squeeze’s two biggest US Top 40 hits courtesy of ‘853-5937’ and ‘Hourglass’: the latter promoted by a striking, optical-illusion-filled video directed by comedian Adrian Edmondson.
After the triumph of Babylon And On, Squeeze suffered the relative disappointment of 1989’s Frank, which – despite sterling 45s ‘If It’s Love’ and ‘Love Circles’, and Difford’s pro-feminist ‘She Doesn’t Have To Shave’ – failed to chart, leading to Squeeze parting company with long-time label A&M. Warners/Reprise stepped in to release 1991’s sophisticated Play, which was recorded with Elvis Costello’s keyboardist Steve Nieve filling in for the departing Holland, who, from 1992 on, was preoccupied presenting BBC Two’s consistently popular Later… With Jools Holland.
A mature and consistent album, Play contained two popular US radio hits, ‘Satisfied’ and the horn-assisted ‘Crying In Your Sleep’, but it was made in difficult circumstances, hinted at on the album’s ominous closing track ‘There Is A Voice’.
Long-serving drummer Gilson Lavis departed in 1992 and, from then on, Squeeze became primarily Difford and Tilbrook’s concern, with collaborators regularly coming and going. A&M re-engaged the band for two excellent mid-90s albums, Some Fantastic Place (featuring the returning Paul Carrack and Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas) and ’95’s Ridiculous, both of which showcased a slew of excellent tracks.
Peaking at No.26 in the UK, Some Fantastic Place included the sprightly Top 40 single ‘Third Rail’ and the poignant titular song, written in tribute to Tilbrook’s first girlfriend, Maxine, who had recently died from leukaemia. Squeeze’s renaissance then continued with the vibrant Ridiculous, which arguably benefitted from being released while Britpop was at its height, and yielded two glorious Top 40 hits courtesy of the wistful ‘This Summer’ and the joyous yet nostalgic ‘Electric Trains’.
Ridiculous, however, would prove to be Squeeze’s final foray into the pop mainstream, as A&M decided not to renew the band’s contract. The band subsequently released 1998’s Domino, their final studio set for 17 years, on Tilbrook’s own Quixotic imprint. The album featured several notable moments, not least the sparky title track and the touching ‘Without You Here’, but it was overlooked and, after a difficult tour (minus the absent Difford), Squeeze called it a day for a second time.
Both Difford and Tilbrook remained active within the industry, and, while both have released critically hailed solo material, they also reformed Squeeze for a third spell in 2010. Extensive UK and US tours, plus Spot The Difference (featuring new recordings of selected band highlights) followed, but fans awaiting new music were rewarded in style with October 2015’s superb Cradle To The Grave. The record’s numerous stand-outs – from the celebratory, Tamla Motown-esque title track to the uplifting, spiritual ‘Snap, Crackle & Pop’ – ensured critics were reaching for the superlatives. Its impressive UK chart peak of No.12 proved categorically that you can never write a great band off.