(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.