BY ALLEN RABINOWITZ
The term “pop group” has taken on negative connotations in recent years. Say the word “pop’’ to folks who pride themselves in their musical tastes and watch faces cringe. A picture comes to mind of wimp singers backed by slushy melodies mouthing banal lyrics, all of which is over-produced to the hilt. Nothing for ·people to get thrilled over, sink their teeth into. Pop has become the aural equivalent of baby food. But it hasn’t always been this way.
On a long-distance call from Kansas City, Chris Difford of Squeeze speaks about his band: “If we’re anything, I guess we’re a pop group.” The English group has been described as many different things in its career, but pop is something it can live with. Not the “pop” that clutters up the nation’s airwaves, but the Pop that first crossed the Atlantic with the British Invasion of the Sixties.
Squeeze follows in the tradition of English bands such as The Kinks, The Who and The Beatles. Not that they’re revivalists or necro-rockers, but rather that they’re cut from the same cloth as the Anglo groups that made radio special back in the mid-Sixties. Some critics have compared the writing of Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, Squeeze’s lead guitarist and vocalist, to the Fab Four for their blend of musical styles and cinema-like lyrical vignettes. Difford has no complaint with the description. “I take that as a compliment,” he says. “It’s a good comparison. There isn’t another group we’d rather be compared to.”
With their first U.S. release in 1978, U.K. Squeeze, (they’ve since dropped the U.K. from their handle), they found themselves lumped in with the new wave movement. The thinking of most people then was “Well, if it’s a new group from England, then it’s gotta be punk.” People couldn’t have been further from the truth. Squeeze’s sound was too catchy, too accessible, too polished to ever be mistaken for purple hair, safety pins, and torn t-shirts.
Difford says that the punk rap never affected the band. “Basically, we ignored it; I don’t believe in categorizing. I’ve always disagreed with people’s descriptions of the group. But at the time there was no other way of describing us.”
The band specializes in songs that catch the ear with their inventiveness and the mind with their story lines. Think of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” or the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon.” Not only were those songs great to listen to, but they were also great to watch as little movies. Cinematic clips from the Squeeze filmography includes “Goodbye Girl” from Cool For Cats, the story of a one night stand with a lady of suspect reputation, backed by a moderate Caribbean beat; “Pulling Muscles (From The Shell)” from Argybargy, watching the world go by while on a dissipated vacation; and “Piccadilly” from their current album, fast Side Story, a special date with a special girl that goes oh so well.
Difford states that the band doesn’t consciously try for such presentations.” It’s just a natural way of writing,” he explains, “I don’t think it can be any other way for me. I like songs like that, like Dylan’s ‘Lily, Rosemary and the jack of Hearts.’ It portrays images the same way a camera would.”
Difford jokes that the album was almost titled West of Eden and then talks of how Elvis Costello got involved as producer (with Roger Bechirian) of the album: “We met him in a bar when we were both doing T.V. shows. We decided that we quite liked each other, the similarity in the way we wrote things. He said ‘Let’s go into the studio for a week,’ so we did and it worked out well. We decided to go in for another week, then another, and then we ended up doing an album.’’
Costello was instrumental in getting Paul Carrack to do the lead vocals on “Tempted.” His voice adds a new dimension to Difford’s words, a blue-eyed soul treatment. The song is a departure from Squeeze’s usual image, and “that’s the exact reason we did it,’’ Difford explains. “It’s something that people wouldn’t expect. It’s also an introduction of Paul.as a new vocalist to the group.”
Carrack came on board when Jools Holland left to form his own group, Jools Holland and his Millionaires. Difford says that it was an amicable split. “It was quite apparent that it would happen. Jools is his own leader. I think that it’s been a blessing in disguise.”
Holland’s departure led to a search for a new keyboard player. He was a hard man to replace, being the center of their stage shows with his eloquent introductions of the band. Difford remembers that “we went through a bunch of keyboard players. Loads of them.” Pete Thomas, from Elvis Costello’s band, The Attractions, suggested Carrack who had previously played with Ace. “Pete said ‘Would you fancy giving him a try?’ So Paul came down and played, and that was that.”
The band has been touring America heavily in the last year. After completing East Side Story last winter, they came over as openers for the Elvis Costello tour. They are in the middle of an extensive American trip, and will return in the fall for one that will take them primarily to colleges.
Difford says that Austin, Texas; New York and Atlanta are among the band’s favorite stops. As much as they like Atlanta, Difford says that they don’t sell many albums here. The recent Agora show brought out a fervent gathering of Squeeze fans, but he feels that they can be doing better in this town. The blame is placed on the radio. “The radio is at fault in every market,” he says.
Has the band ever tried any kind of special promotion to garner radio play? “Like bending over?” he answers. “We haven’t done anything like that. We did one radio interview, but the guy was such a jerk that we decided we wouldn’t do anymore. I think begging and scrimping to those people 1s insane.”
Although as English as the White Cliffs of Dover, Piccadilly Circus and warm beer; Squeeze hasn’t been well received in their home country. “They don’t give a shit about us,” he says angrily. “We haven’t had much of a hit there since ‘Cool for Cats.’ We have had some chart singles, but nothing quite as big as that.” England is caught up in several interesting phenomena these days. It seems there is always a trend-a-week. The current rage is called “The Dressed Up Look” where concern is more on style than substance. Difford says that he can’t keep up with the changes. “Bands like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet are all crap. But at least it’s fun, as far as I’m concerned. They take themselves so seriously - but I find humor in it. That’s what makes England great - the music. But the kids are too easily influenced by all the fashions and movements, they are too easily manipulated by the music trip.”
No matter how strange things may get in Prince Chuck’s future realm, as the song says, “There will always be an England.” And as long as there’s an England, there will be English bands that bring honor to the word “pop.” Squeeze remains a part of a proud tradition.
It started with Lennon & McCartney, Ray Davies and Pete Townsend. It’s continued today with Elvis Costello and Squeeze. Tastefully written, artfully played British Pop will always find an eager audience. Given the right exposure, Squeeze could be a regular inhabitant of station play lists. Who knows, radio might even be fun to listen to again.