Ok, let’s get this out of the way. Yes, Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, the songwriters in the sublime pop/rock band Squeeze, repeatedly were labeled the next Lennon and McCartney during the 1980s.
It was not a publicist’s hype. Their songs were catchy. It seemed like you’d heard them before from the first spin. The melodies wormed into your head and stayed for days and days. The lyrics explored everything from meditations on love to fractured internal monologues. The sophisticated songs shifted from slow burns like “Black Coffee in Bed” to the wacky, pulsing “Pulling Mussels from a Shell” to the Stones-country-era twang of “Labelled with Love.” The Velvet Underground’s John Cale and Elvis Costello produced albums for them.
But they never became superstars. And then it came apart, as it does for so many groups. Difford is sober and has been for years, but in those days he had a rapacious appetite for booze and drugs.
Difford and Tilbrook didn’t speak for nine years. Difford focused on management and writing for others. Tilbrook toured, paying his dues again, solo and with a Squeeze-like group, The Fluffers.
They got together, then broke up. Then tried to write again and failed.
“I thought after that after the last time we split up, I was pretty sure that was it,” Tilbrook says by phone.
It wasn’t. Television — the BBC — brought them together one more time.
When the BBC decided to turn the autobiography of TV reporter, host, and DJ Danny Baker into a comedy series, they approached the duo.
Difford and Tilbrook had not written together since a try at one song in 2004. They gave it one more try and this time, they reconciled. Slowly. “I’d come on as a writer. I respected what Chris had done (since then),” Tilbrook says. “It was important to have that time apart and the experience of learning something new. Still it was hard to get started. It was hard to get properly working in the same room. That took a while.”
Their first song, “Cradle to Grave,” became not only the title to the album first Squeeze album in 17 years, but the title of the series. The producers were thrilled.
So was Tilbrook. “I thought that’s right up there with everything we’ve done,” he says after finishing the tune. “It had a sort of joyfulness to it, a bounce to it, things that are quite important to Squeeze.”
Over about six months, the two wrote about 25 songs, most for the television show, which is based in the 1970s when Barker is going to school as a young boy. The time coincides with the period that when Squeeze was forming after Tilbrook answered an ad that Difford posted on a sweet shop window in southeast London.
“The BBC series gave us the impetus, A, not only to write, but, B, we created a more nostalgic record than we would have otherwise,” he says. “See, we shared a lot of those experiences. It was fun. Our job was to look back on that time.”
From the bouncy beat of “Cradle” to the keyboard disco opening of “Nirvana” to the soulful story of a wedding in “Open” to the New Wave-y groove of “Honeytrap,” the album sits easily alongside “East Side Story,” “Argybargy,” and “Sweets from a Stranger.”
While the songs were inspired by the script, they also stand as album tracks. In fact, Tilbrook notes that “Open,” about a wedding on the show is really about Difford’s wedding. “I knew what it was when I read it,” he says. “It’s about Chris’s wedding where he and I both disappeared. It’s a very emotionally-charged occasion. To see him settle down with his wife. It was just lovely.”
The two had long promised new material after getting together to play as Squeeze in 2007. “We’ve been back together since then, but the always difficult thing was going to be moving forward,” Tilbrook says. “Up until about four years ago, we were the best Squeeze tribute band playing the songs faithfully.”
He says Brian Wilson does that and does it well. So it wasn’t horrible. “”If you pay attention to detail and also remember it’s got to be fun. It’s not just the thing you do to subsidize your life. It’s got to be with a passion,” he adds. “Otherwise, it doesn’t work.”
But the new record means a future, not just a past for Squeeze. They’ve already recorded one song for a new album and will get together to write a new record next year. “We’re proud of our history,” he says. “We don’t ignore it. But the thing that propels us forward is there’s a current thing (album) that stands up to the rest.”
The set list features a healthy dose of the classics with a few from the new disc thrown in. So far, one of the group’s great almost-lost songs, “Annie Get Your Gun,” has not appeared. It was a casualty of their first breakup. The two had written it and “Action Speaks Faster,” offering the group to choose one. Squeeze chose “Annie,” while “Action” ended up on the Tilbook and Difford duo disc.
When they got to the studio to record “Annie,” the engineer had set up the backing tracks. “I’m very proud of that record,” Tilbrook says. “It was made on a Fairlight (an early computer music synthesizer) and we just sang on top of it (the track),” he says. “So it was a bit like being on The Monkees. Of course, the way it was going, the writing was on the wall.”
They broke up before the Squeeze album with the song was released, then got back together a few years later, lasted for a handful more albums, and then split again in 1999.
Difford and Tilbrook are the only original members in the band, but then Squeeze has always been a revolving-door band. “We’re in such a good place,” he says. “The band is incredible. I think the album reflects that.”
Tilbrook also thinks he brings different things to the band and the writing room. He wrote with Ron Sexsmith, Aimee Mann and others. The split freed him to do more touring solo and with The Fluffers, who are now essentially the rest of Squeeze. “It was really back to basics,” he says. “We were sleeping on people’s couches. I was paying my dues all over again. That’s what I wanted to do. I really wanted to be an accountable musician.”
Now, he’s a musician with accountants. The new album is a hit in the UK. “So to be where we are now — this record has done better than any other Squeeze record — is quite amazing. People are going crazy for us like we’re a new band. It’s a strange and humbling experience, but a really beautiful one.”
Squeeze with The English Beat Monday, Oct. 10 at The NorVa.