Squeeze/Paul Heaton December 1, Manchester Apollo
Often when I write these reviews, it’s because it’s an incredibly rare event, a life-changing encounter with musical genius. This year, for example, I’ve written about Van Dyke Parks performing with the Britten Sinfonia, the Beach Boys playing together for the first time in sixteen years (and their last ever show), and Mike Nesmith’s first solo shows in the UK in my lifetime. You know, major events.
A Squeeze show isn’t a major event, but I should write about it anyway.
Squeeze are the closest I come to understanding what it’s like to support a football club, because I feel a loyalty towards them that isn’t really borne out by their work, at least on record. They’re a wonderful live act — one of the best — and they always had the potential. Jools Holland once said of Glenn Tilbrook that “he can write songs like Brian Wilson and play guitar like Jimi Hendrix”, and that’s not actually far wrong — and Chris Difford, when he’s on form, is as good a lyricist as, say, Elvis Costello.
But despite that, they’ve never quite managed to pull together the perfect album. East Side Story came close, but in general their albums have two perfect singles, two or three great obscure tracks, and a bunch of filler.
They also split up twice — once in the early 80s for a couple of years, and between 1999 and 2008 — and they’ve had a huge turnover of band members. While Glenn Tilbrook has always been the lead vocalist/guitarist and Chris Difford has almost always been on second guitar and vocals, they’ve had four bass players, six drummers and six keyboard players over the years (those are the ones I could name off the top of my head; I may have missed a couple).
And this has led to them being underrated and ignored, despite them having a catalogue of singles that stands up against any band in the world. But despite this they have a devoted fanbase, and that’s mostly to do with their live shows, which are spectacular.
Squeeze were the first band I saw live, in 1992, and I’ve seen them on all but one of their subsequent UK tours. I’ve also seen Glenn Tilbrook, their frontman, live something like twenty times, mostly during the band’s ten-year split. They (and he) are extraordinarily good live, but have never had huge recording success. And this has led their former record label, A&M, to treat them fairly badly, even though they had their fair share of hits.
So since their reunion in 2008 (the line-up touring at the moment, consisting of Difford, Tilbrook, returning early-80s bass player John Bentley, and the keyboard player and drummer from Tilbrook’s solo backing band, the Fluffers, Stephen Large and Simon Hanson), they’ve been trying to find a way to make their back catalogue work for them.
So two years go, they recorded an album of remakes of their classic hits, Spot The Difference, which they sold via the internet and on tour, because they weren’t making much in royalties from the various hits compilations available. This time, though, they’ve done something more special.
For this tour (the “Pop-Up Shop” tour), they’ve recorded an EP of new material — their first new songs since a 1999 charity single recorded with Charlton Athletic — and they’re selling it at the gigs. But not just on its own — for fifteen quid you get an instant CD of the gig you attended, a copy of the EP, and a brief meet & greet/signing with the band afterward.
I’ve been listening to my CD pretty much incessantly since the gig on Saturday night, and it hasn’t palled yet.
The gig itself opened with Paul Heaton, the former lead singer of the Housemartins and the Beautiful South, doing a short set with his new backing band. It was rather odd for me watching Heaton on stage, because while the voice coming out was “90s pop star Paul Heaton”, my eyes were telling me “that’s the bloke who used to live round the corner from you, who you used to see when you went to the pub quiz” (Heaton lived on the next street from me when I lived in Didsbury a few years back).
Heaton’s often dismissed as a songwriter, because of the soft, bland, acoustic, Radio 2 friendly sound of the Beautiful South (something they mocked themselves towards the end, saying they’d split due to ‘musical similarities’). But in fact at his best he’s quite an acerbic songwriter, not a million miles away from Jarvis Cocker. Here, with a stripped-down rock band backing him, his songs worked better than one would expect, and he won the crowd round completely by his last song, a spellbinding a capella rendition of Caravan Of Love.
After Heaton came the event’s one low point. Peter Sodding Kay came on to introduce the band. Apparently he’s a big fan (and from his introduction, he was actually at the same gig in 1992 that I was at), but the very first words out of his mouth were “I’ve got a DVD out”. The crowd seemed to like him, though — they laughed uproariously at him just mentioning mint imperials. Personally I prefer comedians who have some material, or, failing that, a sense of humour or, failing that, a personality that isn’t completely repellent, but I’m clearly in the minority there.
But after that, the show couldn’t have been better. Squeeze opened with Bang Bang, their second single — an odd choice, as it was a massive flop at the time, and they’ve said on many occasions that they hated it. But by the second song, Annie Get Your Gun, the crowd were enraptured. It was particularly wonderful for me to look over at my wife, who doesn’t normally enjoy live music, bouncing up and down in her seat, grinning and singing along with every word.
The first part of the set mostly concentrated on obscure-ish material. Along with the hit Slap And Tickle we had Tilbrook’s solo single Still, No Place From Home, the flop single from the mid-80s (one of only four songs from the 1985-1999 period of their career — they didn’t even do the big hit Hourglass) and the songs from the new EP.
The new EP, incidentally, is really bloody good. This is a pleasant surprise, since while both Difford and Tilbrook have made some very good music in their solo careers since the band’s second split, the last album they made as a group, 1998’s Domino, was, frankly, piss-poor, as they’d admit themselves now.
The new EP has four songs. Tommy, a baroque-pop piece about a racist getting his comeuppance, is backed by a string quartet (who were present in video form for the gig), From The Cradle To The Grave is a lovely ukulele-driven pub-rock song, very like the better tracks off Ridiculous, while Top Of The Form is a merely good pop-rocker that could have been an album track on any of their 80s albums. The EP also features a remake of Without You Here, the one good song from Domino.
But it was the second half of the show that really grabbed the audience. This featured three tracks from solo albums (Difford’s lovely country song Cowboys Are My Weakness, his Ian Dury-esque singalong On My Own I’m Never Bored, and Tilbrook’s sunshine pop song Black Sheep (chorus “Black Sheep/baa baa baa baa baa”)), and it was nice to hear these songs the way they always should have sounded, played by Squeeze (what I missed more than anything when they were split up was hearing that unique blend of Tilbrook’s light, McCartneyesque tenor being doubled an octave below by Difford’s raspy, nasal baritone. Nothing sounds quite like that), but it was otherwise almost all hits.
And it’s only when you hear a dozen or so of Squeeze’s finest songs played back to back that you realise just how great their best music is. Labelled With Love, in particular, is a song that is a worthy contender for best ever written. Every time I’ve seen Squeeze or Tilbrook perform that song live, the crowd reaction has been unbelievable. I’ve only ever seen five other songs cause the same crowd reaction — Wouldn’t It Be Nice, God Only Knows, Daydream Believer, Waterloo Sunset and Days. And frankly, Labelled With Love is better than at least two of those.
But there was also Some Fantastic Place, Goodbye Girl, Tempted, Up The Junction, Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)… these are singles as good as any by any band.
And Glenn Tilbrook is like a one-man Beatles — he has the melodic gift and voice of Paul McCartney, but much like George Harrison he plays wonderfully thought-out lead lines that are perfectly integrated into the music. He’s just flashy enough, as both a singer and a guitarist, that when you watch and listen to him you think “Wow, he’s really, *really* good”, but still restrained enough that everything is in service to the song.
But even though in a way I miss Tilbrook’s solo shows (especially his early, looser ones, where he’d invite random audience members onto the stage, do mini comedy routines about the history of pop music, and perform whatever covers entered his head) he works better with Chris Difford.
Chris Difford is not someone who’s comfortable on stage — he seems very happy to be in a band apart from the playing an instrument, singing and being on stage bits — but his curmudgeonly demeanour works well to ground the more ebullient Tilbrook. He’s also a fine, fine lyricist when he wants to be, as good as Ray Davies or Elvis Costello when he’s on form. And while his voice is not as great as Tilbrook’s, his sardonic delivery is perfect for a song like Slaughtered, Gutted And Heartbroken (a lounge jazz song from the band’s 1989 album Frank, one of the more obscure songs they played).
Squeeze aren’t tortured geniuses. They may not be geniuses at all. They don’t make difficult music, and they’re not reclusive. But much as I enjoy, say, Scott Walker’s new album, we also need bands like Squeeze — bands who, for nearly forty years, just put out consistently good singles with funny or sad lyrics and catchy melodies, and who get up on stage and play and sing those songs really, really well. It’s a lot harder to articulate what it is that’s special about a Squeeze gig than about Bisch Bosch, but if you have any love at all for the three-minute pop song I can’t imagine you not enjoying their shows.