Some Fantastic Place: My Life In and Out of Squeeze
One of the tropes of music writing I dislike the most is the “the first time I heard this band” story. I equally hate the “collection of moments from my life that are tied to a band’s songs” thing. These techniques are used as a way to prove not only how meaningful the band is to the writer but also how good the band is in general. If the writer felt something, then the reader understands that the band is worthy of contemplation and adoration. I get why it’s popular. Listening to music is a personal, subjective experience and falling in love with a band is a heady experience and it feels good to share it. I’ve avoided talking too much about my personal likes and dislikes on this blog as much as possible because I have just gotten tired of reading those stories on other blog posts, in books, and magazine articles. But here I am ready to betray all of my principles by posting a personal recollection about a band!
Our family vacations were always interesting because my parents liked to go places we could drive to (there were a few trips – England, Scotland, and Wales, Jamaica, Hawaii – which needed a plane ride) from our Southern California home. My parents were interested in the Southwest primarily for the history, Native American culture and art, and the scenery (my dad was a very gifted amateur photographer — see the glamorous family vacation shot below. We look like Ansel Adams went on the trip with us!). We went to investigate the most obvious of the Southwest – the Grand Canyon – but also explored sites like First, Second, and Third Mesa among many other places.
These trips required a lot of time in the car either driving or waiting for my dad to finish photographing something alongside the road. Once the radio stations started to give out in the more rural areas, I got to play DJ. Before we left home, I carefully selected the cassette tapes that would be played throughout the trip, looking to old favorites and new obsessions to clear away the boredom of highways that took us through miles of desert landscape. My command station was the backseat where within two plastic, pastel colored cassette boxes (one mint green, the other light pink) , I would carefully consider which cassette should brighten up a half hour or so. For more than one summer, I handed the cassette of Squeeze’s Singles: 45s and Under up to my mom to pop into the car’s cassette player. I was obsessed with Squeeze after hearing some of their songs on the local alternative station, KROQ and seeing them on Saturday Night Live (November 20, 1982). When I hear one of their famous songs like “Pulling Mussels From the Shell,” “Goodbye Girl”, or “Up the Junction”, I automatically begin to play the next song on 45s and Under in my head. Even though I eventually bought all of the Squeeze albums and I’ve heard all of those singles in the context of their respective albums, I still think of them tumbling one after the other; one fabulous single at a time.
My next major Squeeze memory is Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook (along with Keith Wilkinson, Jools Holland, and Gilson Lavis) appearing on that VH1 show Bands Reunited from 2003. I’d followed them a bit through their makeups and breakups but in pre-and-early Internet days, you had to work a little harder to keep up with music gossip unless the story was really spectacular and made Rolling Stone or Spin. But here Squeeze was right on VH1 and I settled in to watch my old favorites play together again.
I was shocked to see how much tension there was between them. Glenn makes a quip in the clip about how fans thought Glenn and Chris were like The Waltons as if they snuggled up next to each other, sweetly bidding one another goodnight. The reality was much different. Though they didn’t reunite on the show, Difford and Tilbrook are back together as Squeeze, releasing albums and touring frequently.
Chris Difford’s autobiography, Some Fantastic Place: My Life In and Out of Squeeze, was released in 2017, though my edition is from 2018 and includes a “new final chapter” in which Difford reflects on the publication of the book and his current relationship with Glenn and Squeeze. As the main lyricist for Squeeze, Difford’s writing skill is obvious and he brings his facility for word play coupled earnest emotion and wry observations in his autobiography. Difford’s book is nice. He’s nice. He’s nice about his relationship with Glenn (and largely takes the blame for the breakdown of friendship and communication between them), he’s nice about his childhood (which was so nice!), and he’s nice about other bands even when criticizing them. He’s fairly relentless, though, in condemning himself for his alcoholism and in taking stock of what it was like for friends, family, and band members to be dealing with him while he drank. He’s funny, charming, and seems both humble and aware of his songwriting talents.
Difford covers the requisite “getting the band together” story but fills it in with lots of sweet details about his friendship with Glenn. Like a lot of bands forming in the 70s, they were caught between wanting to be like Bowie or more folky, hippie bands and trying for something new. Punk became the driving force of change, though not in the “Sex Pistols were amazing!” kind of way. Difford recalls:
Suddenly, in 1977, punk happened […] but I never really liked the music. I was always looking for the lyric and I felt there was no depth to it; it was just kids trying to get a record deal. The music sounded like it was falling down the stairs. […] It was until Dot, my flatmate, played me the first Clash album that I heard a punk record that I loved. It had a depth and energy to it that was totally lacking from stuff like Sex Pistols. (77-78)
Difford wasn’t interested in writing about politics, he was rather hoping to capture simple human moments that had “depth and energy” like The Clash but which were more, well, fun. He and Tilbrook began writing songs together but eventually settled into a pattern in which he would give Tilbrook lyrics and Tilbrook would come up with the music. As their relationship disintegrated, this process would take place via the mail with each sending their part back to the other! It says something about their creative chemistry that good songs were still made in this rather remote working relationship.
I was skimming through The Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records (published in 1983) to see what they had to say about Squeeze, and unlike so much press coverage of the band, Trouser Press was not impressed by the duo of Difford and Tilbrook. Squeeze’s entry in this encyclopedia of new wave music begins:
Squeeze’s songwriting team of Glenn Tilbrook (melody) and Chris Difford (lyrics) has been compared favorably to Lennon and McCartney that’s not only a reflection on their abilities but also an indication of how little real craftsmanship can be found in rock’n’roll these days. Like their supposed models, Tilbrook and Difford are blessed with enormous talent, which has enabled them to get by on less-than-full expense of effort. What has often passed for ingenuity in Squeeze has in fact been little more than glibness. When the competition’s weak, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference” (300).
The entry goes on to say that “Black Coffee in Bed” is one of Difford and Tilbrook’s “worst ever” efforts. Oof. Difford records his memory of “Black Coffee in Bed” (from the album Sweets From a Stranger) in his book. He notes that the song was originally:
too long but did get some plays on the radio after a brutal edit. Record companies were in the habit of playing with your art without you knowing about it. We first heard the new version of the song when a promo cassette arrived through the post. It was hilarious and very, very wrong. We were livid. Elvis [Costello] and Paul Young dropped in to sing on ‘Black Coffee in Bed’, and that was the highlight of the recording for me. […] It was a friendly afternoon filled with back-slapping banter, but I felt like I had fallen from the lyrical challenges of the previous album and had delivered some lazy writing. I was not on my game and had gone backwards into a safe but untidy mind. (127)
Difford is often hard on himself about his songwriting. What fans would deem classic songs filled with clever lyrics (I always love “I want to be good/is that not enough? from “Another Nail in My Heart” as if the desire to be good is the same as actually being good), though Chris cites that as a slight song that benefited from Tilbrook’s catchy, hook-filled music), Difford often calls a disappointment. The above memory, then, gives you a good sense of the book in whole. Elvis Costello pops up a lot! Difford is self-deprecating. And fans get a nice glimpse inside the writing and recording of favorite songs. Difford also writes about his celebrity encounters (the stuff about Bryan Ferry is WILD!), his love life, and his work with the band The Strypes (who broke up in 2018) among other topics. If you’re a fan of Squeeze, I highly recommend the book.
Not only do I love Squeeze, but I also read Difford’s book with an eye toward using it for my current project on new wave masculinities. I’m presenting a paper at a conference in the spring on the topic which I would also like to turn it into a larger endeavor. This blog is a way of keeping track of everything I’m reading and thinking about in terms of post punk music in general and New Wave and New Romanticism specifically. I’ve been gathering ideas about different categories of New Wave men – the avenging nerd, the pretty boy, the gender bender, etc. – and I believe the men of Squeeze fit into the first category. Squeeze always leaned heavily on humor in their videos and their songs are frequently written from the point of a view a smart but damaged man.
Difford reflects on the band’s image in his book, saying:
MTV was the thing to be on and we were on it all the time, along with Sting and Dire Straits, Duran Duran and the other all-male bands that wore make-up. On the screen we had none of the seriousness of some of our contemporaries – thankfully. Our childish take on life served us well and kept us apart from the pouting pencil-thin band that filled the MTV screens across the world with their well-tailored collars sticking up. (147)
Squeeze certainly wasn’t polished like Duran Duran and their lyrics reveal a world that is far less rarefied and abstract than the ones Simon Le Bon conjured up. Squeeze and Duran Duran also represent two ends of the New Wave spectrum with Squeeze more closely associated with punk and Duran Duran with pop. (See Like Punk Never Happened for an overview of New Pop in the 1980s). In his book Are We Not New Wave?: Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s, Theo Cateforis clarifies that:
To the major labels, punk appeared to be virtually unmarketable. In its stead, the music industry embraced new wave groups like the Talking Heads, Blondie, Devo, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and Squeeze, all of whom shared punk’s energy but tempered its vitriol with more accessible and novel songwriting sprinkled with liberal doses of humor, irreverence, and irony. Like their punk rock forebears, new wave musicians openly rejected the tired clichés of rock star abundance and bloated stadium extravaganzas that had come to dominate the 1970s. (10)
Difford concurs with this assessment when he reflected on the band’s first visit to America:
We became a ‘new wave’ band when we went to America, along with Blondie, Elvis Costello, The Stranglers and other great bands that had both the attitude and the musicality that punk lacked. We were comfortable with that tag. […] We were riding that new-wave wave and getting credibility on the back of it too. But Squeeze were always a pop band in my eyes. (90-91)
So is Squeeze a new wave band? A pop band? For my purposes, I’m selfishly keeping them in the new wave category. Cateforis remarks that this confusion is common:
As new wave has increasingly become equated with the nostalgically aged technological modernity of 1980s synthpop, new wave’s deeper roots in the late 1970s have become obscured. Groups and artists like the Pretenders, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Squeeze, and the Knack—all of whom essentially launched new wave in the United States—are much more likely to turn up on a classic rock playlist than they are to show up listed as an influence on some new wave revivalist’s MySpace page. As we find new wave increasingly collapsed, for the sake of convenience, into a mélange of synthesizers, MTV videos, and overarching 1980s nostalgia, the earlier new wavers have drifted backward into a closer association with 1970s punk. (220-221)
This is ironic given Difford’s nearly wholesale rejection of punk in the book. His dismissal of the Sex Pistols is the first I’ve found in the autobiographical reading I’ve been doing. That fits Difford, though. In his own quiet, unassuming way he has bucked the system one song at a time.
On that note, I’ll leave you with Squeeze’s latest!
2 thoughts on “Some Fantastic Place”
That whole lazy “New Wave = synthpop” trope drives me bonkers as someone who was a teenager during the Punk/New Wave period. New Wave was incredibly eclectic; that was part of the point! Since I also heard the emergence of synthesizer-led New Wave, many of the biggest and most enduringly popular bands like Depeche Mode were also-rans, in my opinion, to groundbreakers like Ultravox and OMD. I didn’t think they were anything to get too worked up over. All of the hard word had been done a year or two earlier.
OMD was definitely way ahead of the pack!