Squeeze’s journey: hits, struggles, and a 50-year reunion | Music | Entertainment

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Squeeze’s journey: hits, struggles, and a 50-year reunion (Image: Getty)

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the two bands who best chronicled British life were Squeeze and Madness. While the ska legends are generally considered a one-hit-wonder in America for Our House, their London peers Squeeze, best known for the toe-tapping song Cool For Cats, won over the hearts and sound systems of US fans.

Their Stateside success peaked in 1982 when they headlined New York’s most celebrated venue, Madison Square Garden, to a 20,000-strong audience.

Critics compared them with The Beatles and fans went crazy for the group’s lyrical references to The Sweeney and Clapham in classic hits such as Up The Junction and Labelled With Love. 

Yet when the band returned to the same arena almost 40 years later in 2019, their second performance was even more profound – in part because joint frontman Chris Difford couldn’t remember Squeeze’s first landmark US show due to his since well-publicised alcoholism.

Speaking today, Difford, 69, admits: “I don’t remember the early 1980s at all. I was a different, more troubled person then. Playing such an iconic venue again all those years later was very emotional.”

Difford, who has been sober since 1990, doesn’t regret his lack of memory at Squeeze’s success – “Not in the slightest” – but he laughs recalling trying to find proof of that first Madison Square Garden concert.

He explains: “A few years ago, I asked a photographer friend who’d been at that show if he’d got any pictures of us at Madison Square Garden. He produced photographs of our shoes onstage instead. My reaction was: ‘Er… okay. Thanks!’”

Success had taken its toll on drummer Gilson Lavis as well as Difford, and Squeeze split soon after that first New York concert.

The band’s other leader, Glenn Tilbrook, recalls: “I do remember that gig and our elation at the reaction we got. Squeeze was on the cusp of something massive, but we were also on the cusp of our own destruction. The band was not in a good place.”

“Playing there the second time round, I was so much more confident. It was great to perform, with everything that had gone on in Squeeze in between. I thought we’d destroy the audience the second time – and we did!”

To music lovers, the songwriting duo of Difford and Tilbrook is as celebrated as Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards. The dapper, bespectacled Difford writes the lyrics for wavy-haired, jovial Tilbrook who composes the music.

But, while their names and careers have been inextricably linked for 50 years, the pair freely admit they’re colleagues rather than close friends. Tilbrook has spoken of his frustration with Difford being emotionally distant, while Difford, in turn, has accused Tilbrook of being domineering.

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Right now, they insist they’re as close as they’ve been since they formed the band in 1974. They addressed their differences during another American tour last year after realising they wanted to properly celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2024.

“We’re in a good space,” smiles Difford.

“Together, we’ve worked out a lot of things in the past year. There’s been a turning point for my feelings about certain things concerning the structure of the band.

“We’ve reignited our ambition, which was important. And we’re never going to be 50 again and that’s an opportunity you have to grab with both hands.”

Tilbrook, 66, nods in agreement. “I don’t think we’ve become friends again. But our respect for each other and our ability to listen to each other has grown recently. There’s more respect than there’s ever been, which is the saving grace for our relationship.”

Sitting in the bar of the boutique London Bridge Hotel, the pair listen intently to what the other has to say, happily reminding each other of what their past south London landmarks have become: “That’s where the Ikea is now,” notes Tilbrook of an early venue.

The duo’s differences were there from the start. They met in 1974 after Tilbrook and keyboard player Jools Holland had already been playing together for more than a year. Their songs “weren’t very good,” admits Tilbrook.

Encouraged by his girlfriend to get help for his band, he answered a “Guitarist wanted” ad placed by Difford at a local newsagent – the only person to respond.

“Straight away, I was in awe of Glenn and his talent,” says Difford of his first encounter with his new bohemian friend. “Glenn had completely different friends to me. I’d come from a skinhead background. Meeting Glenn, I came into a different world that was softer, calmer and nicer.”

Tilbrook, equally, was blown away by Difford’s lyrics, enthusing: “Every song idea of Chris felt like it fell into my lap. It was beautiful. You couldn’t put a more perfect match together if you’d designed it with AI.”

It would take another four years of toiling around London’s tiny venues before Squeeze landed a record deal. Their self-titled debut album in 1978 featured Squeeze’s first hit, Take Me I’m Yours.

But their producer, guitarist John Cale of legendary rockers The Velvet Underground, wasn’t impressed with his young charges.

Difford laughs: “We’d written loads of songs by then but, when John came to our rehearsal room, he just didn’t like them. He said, ‘These are all love songs.’ John started throwing hand grenades of different ideas at me. “He told me, ‘Why don’t you write a song about being a sex master? Or being whipped by a prostitute?’ I was barely 20 and told him: ‘This hasn’t happened to me yet.’”

Tilbrook interrupts, joking: “Don’t worry, Chris has made up for lost time. How are the wounds coming along, Chris?”

Squeeze’s whirlwind success on both sides of the Atlantic included Cool For Cats and Up The Junction each reaching No 2, kept from the top spot by Art Garfunkel’s Bright Eyes and Are ‘Friends’ Electric? by Tubeway Army respectively.

The first blip came when Holland left Squeeze in 1980 to embark on a presenting career, going on to host landmark music TV shows The Tube and Later With Jools Holland. Squeeze’s manager Miles Copeland – brother of The Police drummer Stewart – had spotted TV potential when Holland introduced the band on stage at their gigs.

Difford says: “Jools’ introductions got longer and longer until he took 10 minutes to introduce everybody. It got a rapport with the audience going and I was happy to let Jools do the talking, as I was quite shy.

“Miles put two and two together, but I didn’t see Jools’ departure coming. I was very sad when it happened because I couldn’t understand why anybody would want to leave the band.”

Holland remains friends with his old bandmates, but the current Squeeze line-up doesn’t feature any original band members except Difford and Tilbrook. The latter reasons: “Squeeze is a band, but it’s always been the two of us at the helm. I was reluctant to admit that to myself for a long time, but that’s what it is. That’s not a lack of respect for the band now, which is the best we’ve ever had.”

That belief in the current line-up has partly inspired the unusual plans for Squeeze’s 50th birthday.

In addition to touring, they’re planning an album of new music – and another album of a series of songs based on Difford’s love of authors Damon Runyon and Raymond Chandler, which he and Tilbrook wrote in 1974.

“The ambition of our earliest songs outstripped the ability of the band in playing them,” explains Tilbrook.

Difford adds: “We used to rehearse at Greenwich swimming baths, which had some pretty tacky rooms underneath. When Glenn showed us these songs, we were all going, ‘How are we going to learn these? They’re really complicated!’ Here we are now, 50 years later, finally ready to play them. Having these two records on the go shows the belief we have in our songs, spread across mine and Glenn’s entire time together.”

Tilbrook still lives in South London, while Difford resides in rural Sussex.

DAME Joan Collins remembers The Beatles’ famous rooftop gig like it was Yesterday, but she has revealed she decided to Let It Be and leave before it ended – to escape overpowering drug fumes.

The Dynasty actress, 90, had a perfect view when the Fab Four put on the impromptu concert above their Apple Corporation HQ in London, on January 30, 1969.

As crowds gathered in the streets below, John, Paul, George and Ringo played for 42 minutes before the Metropolitan Police arrived and told them to turn down the volume.

Both men are happily married, with seven children between them. Their renewed respect means both are confident about their partnership’s future.

It’s a long way from those grotty Greenwich swimming baths, as Difford summarises: “I’m 70 next year. I’ve made mistakes in my life, but I feel like I can put those somewhere safe and not go there again.

“The difference between my life and my dad’s when he was my age is extraordinary. I’m so lucky not to just be going shopping once a week like Dad did.”

Tilbrook concludes: “I love what we do and that we’ve retained our enthusiasm. Me and Chris, we’re lucky that we still get to do this, without any cynicism.” Life in Squeeze is cool for cats all over again.

  • Squeeze’s 50th anniversary tour runs October 4 to November 22, 2024. See squeezeofficial.com for details. Fans are invited to bring food donations to the shows to support The Trussell Trust

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