With a new U.S. tour alongside Aimee Mann and a fresh look at their greatest hits, U.K. pop geniuses Squeeze are reunited, reinvented — and rejuvenated

Aug 27, 2008 at 4:00 am

When it comes to pop songwriters from the UK, several names always crop up as inspirations: Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Elvis Costello, David Bowie and Andy Partridge. But one of the most enduring influences on melody-makers is a pair few would suspect: the Squeeze songwriting team of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook.

Founded by the pair in 1974, Squeeze had more in common with the pub-punk of Ian Dury and Devo's proto-synthpunk on its 1978 self-titled debut LP. But on its three subsequent albums (1979's Cool for Cats, 1980's Argybargy and the 1981 Costello-co-produced East Side Story) the London group evolved into a smart, new-wave pop band. Its keen observations about broken relationships, quirky characters and love's tribulations were delivered with a distinctly British bent and cadence. Jaunty keyboards and snappy mod-rock riffs buoyed hits such as "Cool for Cats," "Another Nail in My Heart," "Up the Junction" and "Labelled With Love," which exemplified the group's gift for harmony.

Squeeze continued to churn out quality singles — including perhaps its most famous song, 1981's "Tempted" — even after its lineup became increasingly unstable after keyboardist Jools Holland left in 1980. A brief breakup ended in 1985 and most of the Argybargy lineup reunited for several albums. Squeeze had its biggest U.S. chart hit with 1987's glossy, sax-driven "Hourglass," but subsequent albums didn't find as large of an audience. In November 1999, Squeeze — by then down to Tilbrook and a cast of auxiliary musicians — broke up.

As with many bands who split (see also: the Pixies, Mission of Burma), interest in and curiosity about the group increased once it wasn't around. Although Britpop staples such as Blur always nodded to Squeeze's harmonies and lyrical emphasis on location — as did cult power-poppers Fountains of Wayne — countless bands in the United States (most notably Spoon) and the United Kingdom (Kaiser Chiefs, the Kooks, the Libertines) echoed the group's legacy in its absence.

But because both Difford and Tilbrook had established solo careers in the ensuing years, it wasn't like either man needed to revisit his past. (In fact, Tilbrook says the band was "offered loads to tour" during its time apart, but turned down every overture.) The pair didn't forge a permanent musical relationship again until summer 2007, when Squeeze reunited for a few UK gigs and a U.S. tour.

Tilbrook admits he finds it "weird" that Squeeze is "sort of bigger now than we've ever been." However, that's not the only difference between past Squeeze tours and its current trek.

"Chris [Difford] is much happier than he's been for a long time," Tilbrook says. "He's enjoying it onstage, and that reflects on the whole atmosphere on the stage. I always loved being in Squeeze, but by the time it split up, I was just really fed up. There was always a certain amount of drama and endless, what I'll call kerfuffle, about things that were just unnecessary in my eyes, and I was just done with that.

"I've been happier in the last ten years than I think I ever was with Squeeze, and that was a real eye-opener for me," he continues. "Chris and I have now got to be friends over the last three or four years, and that's really the driving thing behind it. I've always loved Squeeze and I've always loved what we've done with it, I've always been very proud of it. I want to enjoy it. When we got back together last year, it's a labor of love."

Accordingly, the current lineup of Squeeze — which includes bassist John Bentley from the Argybargy/East Side Story era and two members of Tilbrook's latest band, the Fluffers — is treating its older material with the respect and care it deserves. The set lists on the current reunion tour reflect Squeeze's greatest hits, but it's not a nostalgia trip.

"We've learned our old songs in a way that we've never done them before," Tilbrook says. "In other words, we've just gone back to the records and said, 'OK, how did we do that? Let's pick that apart and let's do it like that.' We're doing 'Take Me I'm Yours' with the drum machine, back to the original arrangement. 'Goodbye Girl,' we never did that live the way that we're doing it now. It just sounds great; it sounds so fresh."

Staying relevant and interesting is also a priority for Tilbrook and the Fluffers. He calls its forthcoming album — which is due in February 2009 and was recorded mostly live in the studio — "the best record I've ever done. It's got this heart and soul and enthusiasm, what more can you want?" (Difford also has a new solo record out, called The Last Temptation of Chris.) Tilbrook plans to maintain that open-minded vision when the time comes to record a new Squeeze album. Although the band only has one song written for it, he stresses that the process comes with no preconceived notions.

"I want it to be the best record that Squeeze has ever done, just like my record with the Fluffers is the best record I've ever done," Tilbrook says. "I don't want it to be, 'OK, well, we sound like we're supposed to do that.' I want it to be really, really digging at what we are and producing something new.

"Musically with Squeeze, we started out much more experimental and adventurous than we ended up, generally," he says. "It's not always true — there were certain directions that we took on the last record that were really quite stunning. But generally we had more of a willingness to go left field when we started out. We didn't have a clear idea of what we were.

"The longer you go and you have a clearer idea of what you are, the more you box yourself in. And you have to keep on breaking that cage open. I've certainly learned that now."

For someone whose formative influence was the pop music of the '60s, Tilbrook's not one to be overly nostalgic. He doesn't listen to oldies stations (modern pop bands the Zutons and the Coral, and electro-whizzes Hot Chip, are his current favorites) and he says he's proud that he and Difford's songs have "always reflected our lives and our positions and our ages." And it's not something he's looking to change.

"With the last album Squeeze released on a major label, all our photographs were airbrushed and we'd been A&R'd to death," he says. "I asked for [the airbrushing] to be taken off, but I discovered I couldn't get it taken off, so I looked ridiculously ten years younger than I was. I'm 51 now, and I don't mind being 51. I'm enjoying myself and really enjoying my music and enjoying Squeeze and enjoying the Fluffers. I don't want to sound like I'm 20, I want to sound like I'm 50. Fifty can be a good place to be — and for me, it is."