Glenn Tilbrook Squeezes Into 65
Read a previously unpublished interview with the New Wave legend
It was 2015 and Squeeze – singer-songwriter-guitarists Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford being the main men – was about three-quarters the way through its show at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston.
The stage was set up like two teenage boys’ adjacent room, with beds, lamps and a desk. On the walls behind them in big colorful letters: CHRIS (stage right) and GLENN (stage left). Their trek through America’s theaters was dubbed the At Odds Couple tour and each musician pretty much stuck to his side during the two-hour show.
Of course, there’s a double entendre at work too; the two have been at odds at times over the course of a career that – with noticeable gaps – goes back to 1978 and extends into 2022. At points they were apart; at others they toured as Difford & Tilbrook.
In each half of the two sets, they did this bit of shtick. They put the music on pause as a man with a cordless microphone (dubbed “The Man with the Golden Cape”) waded into the audience to give a few lucky souls the opportunity to ask a question of the Difford and/or Tilbrook.
They got a real nice softball from one fellow in the balcony: “Which album are you most proud of it why?”
Tilbrook looked at Difford, smiled slightly and deferred. Difford took a beat before answering what he and EVERY rocker MUST ALWAYS answer NO MATTER WHAT: “We’ve got a new album.” He took another beat, feigning reconsideration about its worth. “Yeah, that one.”
The album was Cradle to the Grave and, thing is, Difford may well be right – improbably enough given the arc of most rock ‘n’ rollers’ creativity. They broke up in ’82, re-formed in ’85, broke up in ’99, reformed in ’07. The last Squeeze album was 2017’s The Knowledge. A lot zigs and zags along the way.
“I think it happened quite early,” Tilbrook told me when I asked about when the creativity started to fail. “I don’t think we were as consistent, anything past 1982, as consistent as we had been before. And I think that process went right up to the last [previous] Squeeze album [Spot the Difference in 2010]. There was always good stuff, but it sort of somehow lost our sense of, you know, going for it properly.”
The childhood friends from the Deptford part of London started playing together in the early ‘70s and in 1978 we got to know them as Squeeze, with their John Cale-produced debut, with that synth-squiggle semi-hit, “Take Me I’m Yours.” A couple more albums, Cool for Cats in 1979 and Argybargy in 1980 and they’d hit their stride: “Goodbye Girl,” “Up the Junction,” “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell),” “Another Nail in My Heart.” Some of us rock crit types were bantering around phrases like “The Difford-Tilbrook songwriting duo may be the Lennon-McCartney of this generation.” (Me? Guilty as self-charged.) Difford and Tilbrook always felt a little dicey about that.
Here, for the first time the full unpublished interview (slightly edited) with Tilbrook from 2015, who hits the big 65 on Aug. 31.
Rock and Roll Globe: When I saw you’d re-formed this time, I didn’t see it coming. Did you?
Tilbrook: I didn’t see it coming for a long time. I think what happened is Chris and I worked our way back into it very slowly. First of all, being inspired by Brian Wilson and his band and how lovingly they treated Brian’s past. Let’s do that with Squeeze. That was our entry point for getting back together, just to curate our past. That was enough for a while. But you can only do that for so long before you discover you realize it’s time to do something new. For us, it was about seeing what we could do together. That was the hardest part of the journey. Initially, our writing was a bit harder til we got to a place where we thought we were good again. The record is something I’m very proud of and it can stand alongside the best of Squeeze before as a contemporary thing.
I concur, and I’m not just sucking up here. It is a pleasure to behold. Not a surprise, but it seems for a lot of rock guys the creativity falls off in their 40s and 50s. You know, it’s a young man’s game. Do you find that and did it happen to you at some point?
I think for me, I’ve had that [songwriting] thing back since I did the Fluffers record. [That was Pandemonium Ensues in 2009. The Fluffers are a quartet Tilbrook plays with, still during non-Squeeze tours.] Everything I’ve done since then has been getting better and better.
What prompted the decision to start writing with Chris again?
Initially, I said to Chris, before we were doing a tour in 2011 or 12, I said “Let’s write a couple of songs and make them the centerpiece of the show.” And that would just give us a different vibe. So, we actually did Cradle to the Grave then the song that’s called “Sunny” on the new record, which was then called “Tummy.” We did those two songs in the set and saw that they went down really well. We can do that. So, then we got involved with a friend of ours called Danny Baker. He’s a journalist/broadcaster in the UK. He wrote his autobiography and it was a mirror of my and Chris’s life, as we were the same age as us and grew up in the same area. So, I contacted him about doing a musical and he said “Actually, we’re doing a TV series, but let’s have you write [songs] for it.” That was actually how the album got started; we had purpose for it. And we had funding for it as well, which was great.
So, was it conceived as a soundtrack?
It was the impetus and they had first pick of the songs from the record and they used “Cradle to the Grave” as the theme tune for the show and some of the songs were written about certain situations within the script but they more widely referred to our lives.
Was it cool to have this outline or framework?
Exactly. I think it’s unlikely that we’d have had a song like “Happy Days” if not for us being pressed to write something insanely cheerful otherwise.
VIDEO: Squeeze “Happy Days”
You have “Happy Days”; The Kinks had “Good Day.” Which opens the door for me to make a Squeeze-Kinks comparison.
I certainly hear The Kinks in Squeeze. And that leap – them going from the ‘60s to the ’70s to the ’80s and ‘90s, with breaks. But they kept going as did you, through various fads and trends. So, any analogies you see between Ray Davies and you guys?
I think other than Lennon and McCartney, [Ray Davies] was the most consistent writer from that time, far and away, more that Pete Townshend, more than Jagger-Richards. I think of that particular class of people he had it all going as a writer, and there are other things that made him less successful than they might have been.
How would say this Squeeze differs from the days when you guys went out as Difford & Tilbrook?
I love the McCartney quote about when they recorded Sgt. Pepper, calling themselves Sgt Pepper saying they’d be free of the Beatles and in a way Difford & Tilbrook was that same leap for us, going to try something a bit different. It was only partially successful in my view but bits of it were really good. People will always see this: No matter who else is in Squeeze, it will always be me and Chris. And the At Odds Couple [tour], part of the conceit of this is it makes a cartoon out of how people think of us, if they think of us at all. I think they think of us as a single entity. Squeeze is very much a band – it’s had 35 members in it.
Is the songwriting still pretty much divided with you doing the music and Chris doing the words?
I think it’s fair to say that’s where we start. But this time around we were both coming around toward the center so we both have more hands on everything and I think we’re stronger for it.
Going back to that first album …
When Squeeze started in ’78, or when Chris and I started more to the point, I hadn’t written lyrics since I was 15. I’d always been very happy with what Chris wrote it was brilliant. But I learned how to write lyrics and my biggest influence was Chris Difford. So that was a bit strange! But now I’ve got different strengths from Chris and we can combine those strengths.
Do you have to agree with what he’s writing – you’re singing those words after all? Did you ever say, “No, that’s rubbish”?
No, that didn’t really happen.
Flip question: Did Chris have veto power on melodies?
It worked out that we spent a lot of time, the first three months of the recording process [on this record] wasn’t recording, it was sitting in rooms. Funny enough, we weren’t in the same rooms; we were in adjacent rooms with a door open and we’d be working on our respective stuff and it worked out really great that way.
What kind of pressure was there doing this record?
The only pressure is to deliver and not take our eye off the ball. We’ve been firmly focused on this for what feels like about ten years now and I’m really proud of it. It’s “Let’s make it count every time and not get sloppy about it.”
Glenn, there was a quote I saw from you at some point I wanted to ask you about. You said, “Competing with your own past is hard”.
Yeah, that’s one of those things I really wouldn’t think about except when you’re involving the name Squeeze, it comes with a certain set of expectations. I suggested to Chris that we do a record under a different name, but why would we do that? The only reason would to do that would be to do something very different and actually then you would find your way back to what the next version of Squeeze is going to be like. It wouldn’t make any sense.
Your song “Nirvana.” It’s a story about a marriage floundering after the children have left home. To me, was almost a companion piece to “Up the Junction.” Ever see it like that?
No, but now that you’ve said it, yes, very much so. Thank you.
VIDEO: Squeeze “Up The Junction”
And I gotta heap praise on “Up the Junction.” I keep hearing it on SiriusXM’s new wave station. I hadn’t heard it a few years and I had this big smile that lasted 2:48 and thought, “There’s not a better pop song that describes the beginning of a relationship, the middle end that I’ve ever heard.”
You’ve ridden the rock ‘n’ roller coaster. I liked what The Guardian wrote about a recent concert: “Most striking is how clearly material from Cradle to the Grave shows that Difford and Tilbrook’s talents are undimmed. ‘Play more new stuff!’ shouts a plaintive and apparently unironic voice from the circle. You don’t have to be an expert in gigs by bands with a 40-year history to know that doesn’t happen often.” So, any chance you might be approaching another heyday?
No, I wouldn’t dare say it, but what I would say is the feeling now around us that I haven’t experienced for a long while and that’s really great.
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