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.
Spotify Playlist For 16/01/10 – Klaatu, Roy Wood, France Gall, Ella Fitzgerald, Mississippi John Hurt…
I’ve had a little while off from the internet, as a whole pile of things have been building up that needed dealing with offline, so I’ve not even checked my email for a week (I see I have emails from Sarah, Pillock, Brad, Tilt, Trevor, Alex and Richard that need dealing with…) and Twitter for longer but I’m off work for 9 days now, so by the end of the week PEP! will be out, and I should have something posted every day. (For those who’ve sent me concerned emails, everything’s fine…)
I haven’t done a spotify playlist for a while, so here’s one with no theme except that the songs sounded good in a row together:
10358 Overture by ELO is one of two Roy Wood tracks on this. The song was actually written by Jeff Lynne (the man who after this first album to all intents and purposes was ELO) but that wonderful string and horn arrangement is not only written by Wood, but he played all of it himself. Wood is one of the great unsung musical geniuses of British pop music, and those who don’t know his work (especially with the Move, and his solo albums) are missing out.
Open Your Window by Ella Fitzgerald is from an absolutely marvellous album called Ella, from 1969, that I discovered through a playlist by my friend Tilt that included her version of Savoy Truffle. It includes versions of Got To Get You Into My Life, Randy Newman’s Yellow Man, Knock On Wood and more, but somehow works very, very well. This is the best track though, a version of a Nilsson song that is close to her style anyway. One of the few examples of a pre-60s artist coping well, and with dignity, with the transition to a new style of music.
Songs Of Praise by Roy Wood is from his solo album Boulders – and it was an actual solo album. He wrote every song, produced it, played every instrument, did all the lead and backing vocals, and drew the cover art. This is probably the catchiest and most conventional thing on the album (apart from the varispeeded backing vocals) – a fairly straightforward pop-gospel song along the lines of the Beach Boys’ then-recent He Came Down – but the whole album is just wonderful, and one of the most imaginative things I’ve ever heard.
Electric Trains by Squeeze is the last great single that great singles band did, mostly due to being one of Chris Difford’s few truly strong late-period lyrics (though it would still be nothing without Glenn Tilbrook’s music and vocals, as Difford’s solo remake with different music showed a few years later). The listing of very specific memories actually manages to get across a very accurate feeling of what it’s like for all adolescents growing up.
Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby? by Jimmy Reed is one of the all-time blues classics. You all know this one, I’m sure.
Stagger Lee by Mississippi John Hurt is one of the earliest variants of this blues standard, and as you can hear very different from the later versions (the most famous of which is the version popularised by Lloyd Price, though everyone from Doctor John to Nick Cave has done their own version of it), Personally I like this folk-blues style far more than the swaggering R&B strut of the more famous versions, though both have their merits.
In Germany Before The War by Randy Newman is the most beautiful song about child murder ever written. This version is from Songbook, Vol 1, an album of solo piano rerecordings of many of his best songs (a better idea than it sounds, as many of his best songs had backing from people like the Eagles, which detracted from them quite a bit – he’s a far better songwriter than producer).
A Magical Night by Laurie Biagini is probably my favourite song from Ridin’ The Wave. Biagini is another one who writes and plays everything herself (though far from Wood’s level) and this one reminds me of Kirsty MacColl.
Revolution #9 by The Thurston Lava Tube I discovered through the same playlist that had the Ella Savoy Truffle in. I love this just because it manages to turn Revolution #9 into a two-minute surf instrumental that is still recognisable, more or less.
Don’t Let It Go by L.E.O. is a perfect imitation of the ELO sound, by a ‘supergroup’ including members of Hanson, Chicago and Jellyfish among others. Amazingly, this is actually a good thing. No, really. Really.
Still I Dream Of It by Brian Wilson is one of the most heartbreaking recordings ever to be released. His home demo of a song he later recorded with full orchestration, this was written at his most mentally ill – and it clearly shows, the lyrics being more or less a stream of consciousness. But this isn’t ‘outsider music’ – it’s some of the most heartfelt communication ever to have been made into art. The reason Wilson’s work is so variable is the same reason he’s so adored by musicians – the man has absolute command of the technical aspects of his work, but has no filters at all – his music is an absolutely open, honest, almost childlike expression of everything going through his mind, but it has an extraordinary technical complexity that makes it a *PRECISE* expression.
Dann Schon Eher Der Pianoplayer by France Gall is there to cheer you up after the depressing song before it. As it’s in German, I have no idea what it’s about, but it’s a very cheery arrangement.
G-Spot Tornado by The Invisible Birds is a surf-guitar and organ version of one of Frank Zappa’s most fiendishly complex pieces (one he thought for many years was unplayable by human beings at all). It’s rather remarkable both how well the piece suits the idiom and how well they render it, though they take it at a much slower pace than it’s intended. (This is from an album of surf versions of Zappa songs by various artists, many of which are surprisingly good).
Maybe I’ll Move To Mars by Klaatu might be the most 1970s thing ever.
And I Go To Sleep by The Kinks was Ray Davies’ very first truly great song (though the Kinks had made great records before this) – obviously hugely influenced by Bacharach, but very much the first sign of the man who would shortly be giving us Something Else and Village Green Preservation Society
Continuing with the theme from yesterday, this week’s Spotify playlist (which you can access from here ) is based around the themes of politics, police violence, the Depression, depression and poverty.
We start with a little spoken section, by Laurel And Hardy, in which they are Victims Of The Depression.
Following this is Bing Crosby with the Depression-era classic Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?. Co-written of course by the great Yip Harburg, one of the greatest songwriters of the ‘Golden Age of American Song’. A little-known fact about Harburg is that ‘Yip’ was actually short for ‘yipsel’, which in turn was short for Young Person’s Socialist League – Harburg was an incredibly political songwriter. But he’s probably best known now, other than this song, for Over The Rainbow, April In Paris and It’s Only A Paper Moon.
Following this is Linton Kwesi Johnson with Reggae Fi Peach. Johnson was a very politically-active dub poet in the early 1980s, and this is his tribute to Blair Peach, a teacher who was battered to death by the police when taking part in an Anti-Nazi League protest.
XTC‘s Earn Enough For Us is a song that means a lot to me – it essentially describes my life for the first two years after I married (as well as the year before) – “I’ve been praying I can keep you/and can earn enough for us”. Not political as such, but a perfect description of the life of low earners.
Glad To Be Gay by The Tom Robinson Band is a song I loved when I was a very young child – my parents got quite embarassed picking five-year-old me up from school and having me sing it loudly on the way out. Robinson was an overly didactic lyricist of the Billy Bragg type, but this one is genuinely heartfelt, and still moving even now I’m old enough to know what it’s about…
The Policeman’s Jig is a great little song from Jake Thackray. Someone should really write a book on Thackray, and the particularly Yorkshire way he combines an earthy sense of humour and an utter loathing of all forms of authority with a very devout Catholic faith. This is definitely Thackray in anti-authority mode, and anti-censorship.
Political Science by Randy Newman is a song I used to think was an overly-broad satire, but which appears to have been used by the Bush regime as a policy briefing document…
Shipbuilding by Elvis Costello is one of the very best songs ever written, looking at one of the more pointless wars of our time (the Falklands) from the point of view of the unemployed dock workers who were given work again by the conflict – “Is it worth it? A new winter coat and shoes for the wife/And a bicycle for the boy’s birthday/It’s just a rumour that’s been spread around town, soon we’ll be shipbuilding”. A more damning indictment of the Thatcher years – and a sadder song – you’ll never hear.
Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash by The Clovers and Get A Job by The Silhouettes are two great doo-wop classics. Doo-wop these days is thought of as mindless silliness, but it was a really vibrant, inventive artform for a few years in the late 50s.
WPA Blues is credited to Meade Lux Lewis, but it’s far more guitar-based than Lewis’ normal stuff (Lewis was one of the all-time great boogie-woogie piano players) , so much so that I’m not even sure it’s him. Either way, it’s a great little track. (For those who don’t know the WPA was the Roosevelt-era public works programme which was brought in to try to end the Depression).
Money Honey by Little Richard is just great.
Up The Junction by Squeeze is very much of a piece with Earn Enough For Us, a glorious story song which was a huge hit over here but never did anything in the US.
‘Til I Die by The Beach Boys is the greatest track ever about the other kind of depression, and probably the best song Brian Wilson ever wrote without a collaborator.
And just in case that was too depressing for you, we finish with a nice cheery track – Music To Commit Suicide By by Roy Wood.
Let me know what you think, and if I should carry on doing these…
As we are now at the start of Advent I thought I’d supply a set of Christmas music that’s a little out of the ordinary. This is partly in memory of my friend Pete Fenelon, who died a month or so ago and did this last year – some of the tracks here were on his compilation.
I’m not a very Christmassey person, generally, but nor do I ever want to be a killjoy, and so there’s a tension in these songs between the traditional “Isn’t Christmas great?” and the non-traditional “Bah, humbug” – sometimes even in the individual song. I’ve tried where possible to choose songs that people won’t be familiar with – the whole point of this list is that much as I love Wizzard and Slade and the Ronettes and Bing Crosby, I expect to wish to massacre everyone in sight if I hear them from about a week from now. However, some of the songs will undoubtedly be familiar to some of you, if only because there’s a difference between what was a hit in the US and what in the UK.
Our Prayer by Dave Gregory, the former XTC guitarist, is a cover of (part of) a wordless a capella track by the Beach Boys, from Remoulds, an album he made of note-for-note cover versions of 60s pop songs. I’ve included it even though it’s not strictly a Christmas song because it’s got the right kind of feel for this, and also because it leads beautifully into…
It’s Cliched To Be Cynical At Christmas by Half Man Half Biscuit. While, as I said before, I’m not the most festive of people, I find this song a valuable reminder not to inflict my curmudgeonly misanthropy on everyone else, and at least try to get into ‘the festive spirit’. I also have it on good authority (from my friend Tilt, who interviewed him for his radio show) that this is in fact Father Christmas’ favourite Christmas record of all time.
Fairytale Of New York by The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl is a Christmas perennial over here, but I’ve been told it’s barely heard in the US, hence its inclusion here. This is a shame, as nothing is quite as cheery as the cognitive dissonance of walking round Tesco or Woolworths (RIP) and hearing “You’re a bum, you’re a punk, you’re an old slut on junk, lying there almost dead on that drip in that bed/You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot, happy Christmas me arse I pray God it’s our last” over the tannoy. There is a certain breed of tedious poseur who refers to this as ‘the only good Christmas song ever’ – while this is absolute nonsense, the song itself is quite beautiful, and far more romantic and life-affirming than the lyric I quoted suggests. Just a beautiful, gorgeous song.
Sugar Wassail is by Waterson:Carthy. The Waterson/Carthy clan have for nearly 50 years been at the forefront of traditional English folk music – pushing the music forward and incorporating new influences while stlll ensuring that the music they play is an honest representation of the traditions that inspire them, and also while being genuinely enjoyable music. This is from their album Holy Heathens and the Green Man, a collection of mostly winter/Christmas themed traditional music which can be downloaded from eMusic.
Joy To The World by Brian Wilson is a recording from his ‘second comeback’ ten years ago that was made available as a free download from his website, and more recently was included as a bonus track on his 2005 album What I Really Want For Christmas. You can tell that he hadn’t sung much for a few years – he’s neither got the purity of his youthful voice nor the assured but limited range of today – but this still sends shivers down my spine.
Remember Bethlehem by Jake Thackray is one of the first songs Thackray ever wrote – he actually wrote it as a carol for the school where he was teaching, and the finished studio version included a school choir. One of the things I love about Thackray’s music is his Yorkshire bluntness – even his religious music (and Thackray was a deeply religious man) has the same real world love of humanity with all its smells and warts as Chaucer or the York mystery plays. This is a demo version, from disc four of the wonderful Jake In A Box box set, which I reviewed here (still one of my favourite pieces of my own writing) if you want to know more about Jake…
I Want A Girl For Christmas by The Knickerbockers is just a fun bit of pop music from the band who did Lies, possibly the best Beatles soundalike record ever. Here, the lead singer is clearly still trying to be John Lennon, but the rest of the band can’t decide if they’re the Beach Boys or the Four Seasons. There’s a couple of wonderful little a capella breaks here. It’s not a great lost classic or anything, but it’s a nice song (it’s available on eMusic).
Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis by Tom Waits is one of the most depressing songs to feature Christmas as a subject, and very far from festive. On the other hand, it’s a great song, and also I include it because I’ll be spending at least part of the Christmas period in Minneapolis, en route to the tiny Minnesota town where my in-laws live… This is from Blue Valentines, one of the best of Waits’ early beatnik period, just before he went into his Beefheart-by-way-of-Kurt-Weill mode.
What Child Is This by Mahalia Jackson is just a stunning performance. I’m sure you’ve all heard it, but it’s wonderful anyway…
The Happiest Time Of The Year by Candypants is a Christmas single produced by Darian Sahanaja of the Wondermints, which has been available for download most years from Candypants’ MySpace page. Candypants are one of my very favourite bands of the moment, and I can’t wait for the new material Lisa is apparently working on.
Morning Christmas by Dennis Wilson is a typical piece of late Dennis Wilson, all bass harmonica, gruff vocals and ARP string synthesiser. Recorded for an aborted Beach Boys Christmas album in the late 70s, it was eventually released on the Beach Boys’ Ultimate Christmas CD in 1999. It’s very much of a piece with his brother’s Joy To The World, actually.
A Christmas Carol by Tom Lehrer is on because everyone needs a bit of Tom Lehrer. I was going to include I’m Spending Hanukkah In Santa Monica, but this is far better. It’s from the box set The Remains Of Tom Lehrer
Christmas Day by Squeeze is an interesting attempt at something that doesn’t quite come off, but is still worth a listen.
Tinsel and String by Neil Innes is a lovely, tongue-in-cheek take on the normal sort of Christmas music by one of the finest songwriters alive today. For those who don’t know, Innes was the principal songwriter with the Bonzo Dog Band, co-wrote several songs with the Monty Python team and appeared with them on stage and in their films, and was the songwriter for The Rutles, in which he played Ron Nasty. When he’s on form, he’s as good a songwriter as anyone, and if he’d stuck to ‘serious’ music and not indulged his tremendous comic talent he’d probably be regarded as another Paul McCartney or Ray Davies. This was downloaded from his website, which has tons of MP3s and RealAudio files of his work.
Christmas In Suburbia by Martin Newell is from the album The Greatest Living Englishman (which is available from eMusic), which was produced by Andy Partridge of XTC, who also played many of the instruments. As a result the album bears at least as much resemblance to Skylarking or the Dukes Of Stratosphear album (the instrumental figure here seems distantly related to the melody of Vanishing Girl) as it does to Newell’s work with the Cleaners From Venus – but that is, of course, no bad thing. I just wish Newell didn’t pronounce the ‘t’ in Christmas…
Jesus Christ by Big Star is one of those songs you should already own. But just in case, here it is… from the classic Sister Lovers.
Baby It’s Cold Outside by Ray Charles and Betty Carter (from the Ray Charles and Betty Carter album) is the only version of this song – don’t give me your Bing Crosbys or Dean Martins or Tom Joneses, this is the *only* version worth owning. Until recently, I never understood why this was a ‘Christmas’ song, but Brad Hicks put forward a good case in a two-part blog post that this was a ‘date rape Christmas carol’. Which it is, at least in some versions, but Betty Carter sounds far from unwilling here…
Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming by Pete Seeger (from the album Traditional Christmas Carols, another one available from eMusic) is a lovely banjo-and-vocal version of the hymn.
In The Bleak Midwinter by Bert Jansch is included mostly because it follows very well from the previous track. I’m a big fan of Jansch, but the production on here is too wet, and the song doesn’t sound bleak enough. But it’s a nice version, and a good closer to the collection proper.
However, as you can fit a *little* more onto a CD, I’ve included two more tracks…
Santa Claus Has Got The AIDS This Year by Tiny Tim may be the most offensive track ever recorded – “He won’t be singing out ‘ho ho ho ho’/But he’ll be crying out ‘no, no, no, no!’” . When Tim realised how badly everyone had taken the song, he tried to claim it was about the slimming bar Ayds, but the lyrics (and the fact that the B-side of the single was called She Left Me WIth The Herpes) tell a different story.
And there’s a final little message from Andy Partridge, wishing everyone a psychedelic Christmas…
(BFAW coming shortly)
Ten years after Squeeze split up, their reunion has allowed Glenn Tilbrook to go solo for the first time.
Glenn Tilbrook is a favourite live performer of mine, and I’ve seen him live, either solo, with his band the Fluffers, or with Squeeze, at least twenty-five times, probably closer to thirty, since my first proper gig in 1993, and I thought I knew what to expect from one of his shows. But last night’s gig by Tilbrook and The Fluffers at Club Academy was completely shocking – in a good way.
For those who don’t know Tilbrook, he was the principal lead singer of the band Squeeze, who had a string of hits with some great pop singles in the late 70s/early 80s, and a string of flops with some equally great pop singles in the late 80s/early 90s. Squeeze always had a rotating membership (there would rarely be two albums in a row with precisely the same line-up, although many band members would leave and come back a decade later) but always centred on the songwriting and vocal partnership of Tilbrook (lead vocals, lead guitar, music) and Chris Difford (backing vocals, occasional lead vocals, on-stage rhythm guitar, lyrics). After Squeeze were dropped by their major label, for the second time, in 1996, they released one last album, the lacklustre Domino, in 1998 on Tilbrook’s own Quixotic Records before Difford and Tilbrook split their twenty-five year partnership. (Tilbrook played some gigs as Squeeze in 1999 with a band of session musicians, to fulfill some remaining contractual obligations).
During the last few years Squeeze were together, Tilbrook would also do solo acoustic gigs, seemingly at any opportunity (one of the reasons for the band splitting was Difford’s distaste for touring). Those gigs were some of the best I’ve ever seen – Tilbrook was clearly performing just for the fun of it, and he’d play any song that came into his head – his own band’s stuff, but also Drinkin’ Wine Spo-De-O-Dee (the Sonny Terry & Sticks McGhee song, not the Pere Ubu one) or Can’t Buy Me Love. He’d also do little humourous bits like playing ‘great seconds from rock history’, playing just the bit in Space Oddity where David Bowie says “sssseven” very camply, or the bit in All You Need Is Love where George Harrison fluffs his solo. These intimate, fun shows are some of the most memorable gigs I’ve seen – I can remember huge chunks of them a decade later.
But once Squeeze had officially split, touring solo became Tilbrook’s day job, and while I’ve never seen him give a bad show (Tilbrook is a born performer, who happens to be blessed with a great McCartney-esque singing voice, a natural melodic talent, and incredible chops on the guitar. He’s also a really nice bloke. Bastard) they became steadily more formalised. The joking and chatting with the audience decreased noticeably, and the setlists became more predictable – in any given five songs you’d have two Squeeze hits, a good Squeeze album track from the 90s like The Truth or Cold Shoulder, a well-known cover version (something like Voodoo Chile or Tracks Of My Tears, something everyone could sing along with) and a track from his solo albums.
The two solo albums Tilbrook has released so far (not counting his albums of Squeeze demos) were workmanlike – never less than pleasant to listen to, but Tilbrook clearly missed Difford’s lyrical ability, especially on his first solo album, and the albums felt more like tour souvenirs than fully-formed artistic works (they weren’t helped by the fact that Tilbrook produces his own stuff – he’s not an especially good producer. This also may be why the later Squeeze records weren’t as commercially successful as the earlier ones, which had people like Elvis Costello producing). There were some nice songs, but the only really great track he’s so far released as a solo artist is the B-side By The Light Of The Cash Machine, a Ron Sexsmith co-write which may be the best powerpop track of the last 15 years.
Last year, Squeeze ‘reformed’ (with a band consisting of Difford and Tilbrook, John Bentley, the bass player from the early 80s, and the drummer and keyboard player from Tilbrook’s touring band The Fluffers) and started touring the nostalgia circuit, and on the evidence of Tilbrook and the Fluffers’ show last night, that’s freed Tilbrook to finally become a solo artist, freed from Squeeze.
He seems to have calculated – possibly correctly – that those who want to hear the Squeeze hits will go to the Squeeze shows, while only his bigger fans will go to his solo shows. This seems to be borne out by the relative emptiness of the venue last night (still a reasonable crowd, but hardly packed), compared to Squeeze last year selling out the Apollo, a venue with something like ten times the capacity. So he’s dropped pretty much all the Squeeze material from his shows. Last night’s show only contained four Squeeze songs – Up The Junction, Tempted, a *really* strong version of Slap And Tickle and an extended version of Take Me I’m Yours that also included the band’s keyboard player singing most of Video Killed The Radio Star and bass player Lucy doing a spoken received-pronunciation version of Cool For Cats (a song that Difford sang on the record).
Now, if you’d told me before I went that those were going to be the only Squeeze songs we’d hear, and the rest would be Tilbrook’s solo material, I wouldn’t have bothered going – his solo songs haven’t been good enough so far to support a full set, even though they do work much better live than on record. But even more bravely than structuring the show around his fairly obscure solo records, the bulk of the set was taken up with material from an album that won’t be released until next February.
And it’s really good. I can’t judge it too well on only one hearing, but it seemed to me that it’s the biggest leap forward in Tilbrook’s songwriting since 1981′s East Side Story. Tilbrook has always tried to experiment with different styles and unusual chord changes, but in the past this has always been at the expense of his knack for catchy melody – his best songs have usually been the most straightforward ones, though his experiments are interesting. But these new ones seemed to combine both elements in a way he’s never managed before. Two songs in particular leaped out, Caught In The Net, which was equal parts Zombies, Beach Boys and Dead End Street-era Kinks, and Product, a bossa nova song sung by Fluffers bass player Lucy that sounded uncannily like Astrud Gilberto on first hearing.
Tilbrook’s obviously been paying attention to Brian Wilson’s music (I’ve seen him at several of Wilson’s London gigs in the last few years), and the new material is filled with Wilsonian touches – complex contrapuntal backing vocals, middle eights full of extended jazz chords, unusual structures – while still sounding like Tilbrook’s own work. It’s varied, as well – of the songs that stick in my head, I remember one being the most punky thing he’s done since the first Squeeze album, while another sounded uncannily like John Lennon doing girl groups.
The lyrics, what I could make out of them (I never catch lyrics on a first listen) sounded more interesting than Tilbrook’s usual solo lyrics too. There seemed to be a lot of references to different US places, and my guess is that his experiences criss-crossing the US touring in his van have informed his writing a lot. He’ll never be the greatest lyricist in the world, but these ones sound competent and interesting.
Unfortunately, the song he introduced as the new single, Bing A Bong, is an attempt to write a parody Eurovision lyric, pidgin English and all, set to a comically downbeat Gary Numan-esque electro backing, with some bits of protest against the neo-con regimes in the US and UK thrown into the mix. I think very few radio listeners will get the joke without the explanation Tilbrook provided before the song, and it’ll probably put a lot of people off. But then, he wouldn’t be Glenn Tilbrook without making wilfully uncommercial decisions like touring to promote an album which won’t be out for six months or releasing the comedy song as the single…
If Squeeze split up again, or go on any kind of extended hiatus, I do hope Tilbrook re-introduces many of his classics into the set – songs like Goodbye Girl, Some Fantastic Place, Labelled With Love and Electric Trains are far too good not to perform live. But for now the freedom he’s got in his solo career seems to have energised Tilbrook again.