AS SONGWRITERS for Squeeze, Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook were, at one point, considered "the Lennon and McCartney of New Wave." It's a lofty comparison and perhaps an inaccurate one—if only because the whip-smart lyrical style of Difford and Tilbrook, which in songs like "Piccadilly" and "Pulling Mussels (from the Shell)" focused on lower- and middle-class British musings, was more of a bedfellow of the songs of the Kinks' Ray Davies.
In truth, Tilbrook and Difford are their own unique entity. With their penchant for the turn of phrase and the court and spark of Tilbrook's honeyed, soulful voice backed by Difford's octave-lower robotic croak, Squeeze is a band that should have been much bigger, especially during the era of their back-to-back classic albums Argybargy (1980) and East Side Story (1981). In America, Squeeze currently falls somewhere between still being able to sell out mid-size theaters, and being known as the band responsible for "Tempted."
This week, Tilbrook plays solo at Mississippi Studios, where you will hear all the classic Squeeze songs and also be witness to Tilbrook's deft, vastly underrated guitar playing. The Mercury caught up with him by phone.
MERCURY: Do you approach a Squeeze show differently than a solo show?
GLENN TILBROOK: There is no fast set of rules between one and the other. I actually thought we were going to carry on a bit longer with Squeeze this year, but Chris [Difford] wanted to hop off for a bit, so I thought I would take the opportunity to do my own thing. I will say that on my new record that will be out in a few months, I did choose to stretch out a bit in a different direction, which was fun.
Isn't the deal with Chris that he doesn't love touring, and with his sobriety, he sometimes likes to be able to call a timeout and not be on the road?
I completely respect Chris' opinion on touring, and I understand that some people can't thrive in that environment. I don't like being away from home, but playing live is a big part of what I do, and I love it.
You have a new album in the can, what can we expect, and are you happy with how it turned out?
Yes, extremely happy. I originally started it as a "character album" and the first six songs I did all had a person's name in the title. But I stopped after six songs with the names, so it's half names and half not. The thing about making records is it's a comparable cycle; you make the album, love it and live it, then move on. The way I view this record is that in my career I've made five big records in my life: Pandemonium Ensues with the Fluffers—I'm really proud of that record—and then Cool for Cats, Argybargy, and East Side Story with Squeeze. I feel this record is with those four. Of course, that big gap in the middle, I can't account for.
Do you ever have the issue of writing a song and debating on whether it should be a Squeeze song or a Glenn Tilbrook solo song?
I try to separate it by time. For example, I was writing a song last year that was supposed to go on the Squeeze record we are going to be recording in January of this year. I will sit down and say, "This goes to this project," and have at it.
So, breaking news! There's a new Squeeze album coming out?
Yeah, we are recording January through March, so it should be out by fall of next year.
Label or no label?
No, no label. What we are doing is, in the UK there is a TV series that commissions you to do two songs, and we've been commissioned, so that essentially is our label. But we still have the freedom to do what we like within that budget, so it's a fantastic platform for us, and it also means we can do what we want within that budget to make a proper album.
Then you own it?
Yes! Which is important.
Which takes us to Spot the Difference, an album Squeeze did three years ago, which was a note-for-note rendering of your classic songs. Haven't you been able to wrestle the rights to your songs from those bastards at A&M yet?
It's not even A&M anymore, it's some conglomerate. Literally yesterday all my publishing was switched over from EMI to Sony. You know, it's a piece of property now; they aren't really interested what Chris and I have to say about it. It's a nice piece of property to them.
It has to be maddening that 30 years on, you still don't own the rights.
Believe me, it's upsetting. I would be tearing my hair out if I thought about it all the time. I just have to be grateful that I can make my living as a musician, and I am really grateful.
In hindsight, was A&M the right label for Squeeze?
You know, in hindsight, A&M were really supportive of us. If you think about it, we had seven albums with them to grow, and that is amazing. In the '90s some bands recorded and recorded, and nothing was even released, and the record industry ate itself. So when you think about it, we were quite lucky. We would have loved to have had more commercial success, but to be signed at that time, it was lovely and some of the reasons we weren't more commercially successful were our own. Before our first album, we were signed to RCA and produced by a guy who was trying to make us the next Bay City Rollers, so we had all of these songs and they were just steamrolled by the producer. If that had come out, I would probably be making a living as a decorator now, because that would have been a stigma we couldn't have gotten rid of.
You had different producers for every album but one. Why couldn't you ever settle on one producer that got your sound?
It's funny, we were constantly looking for that magic formula that could take us over the hill commercially. It's almost like the more success you don't have, the more people know how to fix it. We really had more freedom earlier in our career and not at the end of it.
You had the golden period with the Cool for Cats, Argybargy, and East Side Story releases, and you were critics' darlings. Did you ever say, "I wish the critics liked us less but we sold more records"?
Just selling more records would have been great. I don't know, there was a stage during Argybargy and East Side Story where the Police were getting billboards on Sunset Strip and that was very much how it crumbled at the time. We never got that big push, but we were never nakedly up for success like Sting was. He was a homicidal maniac for success—he pre-dated Madonna in that way. I don't think we wanted it in that way, but I think other people can say that, you can never say that about yourself.
Whenever you read about Squeeze, they always mention you are from South London. Even in the liner notes to Elvis Costello's album Trust, he mentions you guys coming from the strange exotic lands of South London. What is it about South London that makes everybody describe it that way?
Well it is weird [laughs]. It's a blue-collar section that goes back hundreds of years. People tend to look down on South London. I understand why; it might not be as peaceful as central London, but it's my home and I still live there. It has a localism mentality.
Chris writes all of the lyrics and you write all of the music, but I think of a song like "Piccadilly" or "Pulling Mussels (from the Shell)" and I wonder, do you ever tell Chris, "I have to sing this! Will you quit cramming so many words into these songs?"
No, no, never did that [laughs]. We always do the lyrics first so it always feels natural to me.
"Tempted" is by far your most well-known song, but I don't think people realize it didn't even crack the top 40. It wasn't until "Hourglass," which got heavy rotation on MTV, did you have a song that cracked the charts.
That's a funny story. A&M had this head of publicity, a flamboyant character named Charlie Minor, and he took me aside when we delivered "Hourglass," and he said, "You've got your first hit record." He knew it was going to be a hit, because he knew the label was going to deliver on it. It caught me by surprise, but he was being straightforward about it because I was quite naïve. And he was right, "the machine" was going to make sure it was a hit.
You have this unique soulful voice, and you and Chris write these great pop songs, but I think you are vastly underrated as a guitarist. You could have been a guitar rock god with the violin bow and 10-minute solos if you wanted. Do you wish you got more credit for that?
I kind of like surprising people with that. I like them coming up to me and telling me that I can really have a go at the guitar.
Now the most important question. As a follower of Squeeze, there are usually about six "go-to" Glenn Tilbrook hairstyles. Which one are we going to see in Portland? The shaggy look, the tight on the sides look... can you give us a peek?
[Laughs maniacally] I will be going short, swept back, and no beard! I say that because I had some facial hair the last year and I could not believe the outrage. People were really upset about that.
Glenn, I will say, when I saw the BBC documentary of you guys last year and you had the facial hair, you are a good-looking guy, but you did look like you were maybe heading out into the countryside with Robert Plant.
Yes! Maybe I can do that, grow the facial hair back and have a 10-minute guitar solo up in the mountains with Robert and his goats.
You and Chris have a well-documented stormy relationship, but you have come through the other side 30 years later as friends and are still making music. How were you able to overcome some of those things to get where you are now?
I just think we are professionals about it, and realize what each person brings to the table. We get on great when we see each other, but honestly we hardly see each other [laughs].