The other night, through the usual circuitous channels, I managed to watch Take Me I'm Yours, a very recent BBC documentary on the band Squeeze. Like almost every other band that's ever existed, they've apparently reconstituted themselves for what I can't help but call the nostalgia market, many years after their last hit, and almost as many years since the record industry that sold those hits began its utter collapse.
Up front, I loved Squeeze. I'm not sure how well they did in the U.S., but the band was never off the airwaves here for at least three or four years at the turn of the '80s, when they were among the cleverest of bands haphazardly marketed under the banner "New Wave." The first I ever heard of them was "Cool for Cats," a cute, catchy tune, but one that had "novelty" written all over it, and I was happy to assign the band to the same bin as Splodgenessabounds and The Rezillos.
Until I heard this:
This was Squeeze at their most British - a story song straight out of Sillitoe, set in the east and south London (or Birmingham or Liverpool or Manchester) we'd learned to imagine thanks to those English films of the '50s and early '60s that captured a country where anyone who wasn't in the House of Lords lived in a moldy bedsit or shabby terrace house next to a bomb site under a sunless sky. The story was simple enough; a working class life whose trajectory spanned a handful of years between leaving school and realizing you'd run out of options. (The sort of story that would be told later, by Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, with considerably more venom.)
If you were raised working class, it was an old story, played out by family and neighbours, and especially by the older brothers and sisters of my friends. "I never thought it would happen, with me and the girl from Clapham," Glenn Tillbrook sings, the first line of the song plunging you behind the eyes of a young man bewildered by the possibilities his life has offered him, but by the second verse he's moved in with her, by the third they're pregnant, and by the fourth his meagre wages are barely enough to sustain his tiny family.
This was, for working class boys, Alternate Life Scenario A, and as the song comes to its sad conclusion, you can feel your heart tighten with a kind of preemptive dread - or at least mine did, a year from my sixteenth birthday, with this path waiting, perhaps, in my unrealized future. It didn't feel maudlin, though, and the pathos of Chris Difford's lyrics as sung by Tillbrook felt earned, even if they were, as Difford admitted, inspired mostly by one of those sunless movies, and by the BBC's topical Play for Today.
In a few deft lines Difford and Tillbrook painted a very vivid picture of the young man's giddy emotions giving way to weariness, and the love he had for his wife and daughter abiding despite the sorry outcome. It was hard to deny the poetry of a line like "The devil came and took me, from bar to street to bookie," especially since you'd seen some variation of them before at least once in your scant sixteen years, right down to the heartfelt rationalization and inability to take responsibility.
It was a great song, but almost radioactive with pathos, which is why I was grateful when they followed it up with the album Argybargy and a string of fantastically catchy singles like "Another Nail In My Heart," "If I Didn't Love You" and "Pulling Mussels (From The Shell.)" They were cleverly written and beautifully played, and suggested, at least for awhile, that pop music in the new decade dawning would potentially be playful and smart.
The BBC documentary is full of interviews with peers and fans of the band - people like Elvis Costello, Mark Knopfler, Nick Lowe and Aimee Mann, who marvel at the band's cleverness, their talent and musicanship, and especially Difford's lyrics and Tillbrook's voice. At one point Tillbrook, who did most of the music, plays from memory the first song he ever wrote, at 11, after dreaming the tune. It's audacious and sophisticated and recognizeably a Squeeze song, and for a moment you hate him.
The band's heyday takes up perhaps half of the hourlong documentary, after which I was reminded that they made albums after East Side Story and singles after "Tempted," "Black Coffee In Bed" and "Annie Get Your Gun." A lot of albums, in fact, but none of them had a single near as memorable as the dozen collected on Singles 45 And Under, the 1982 greatest hits album that anthologized the band before their break-up and reformation in the mid-'80s.
You can see that Difford and Tillbrook are bewildered at how the band's later incarnations, with eight albums between 1985 and 2010, never really made the same impression as their first four, recorded in as many years. Their friends and fans wonder why later records like Some Fantastic Place were completely ignored, but as you hear snatches of songs and watch clips from videos, the answer seems obvious.
Reflecting on highlights of their latter career, Difford recalls a song he wrote as a plea for help at the bitter end of his drug and drink addiction, and a reminiscence of his late brother, written during a period away from Tillbrook, while Tillbrook tears up as he remembers lyrics Difford delivered to him after the death of his first serious girlfriend, the one who encouraged him to answer the ad Difford put up looking for bandmates years ago.
When we hear the songs, however, they sound competent and tuneful, but decidedly drab. They are, to be sure, Diffordesque and Tillbrookian, but they have none of the punch or charm or vividness of their first dozen or so hits, and all while the quality of pop songwriting in general has gone into a screeching nosedive. Difford and Tillbrook seem certain that they're the best work they've done in years, mostly because they're deeply personal, and inspired by events in their own lives. And that, I think, is the problem.
I keep thinking of how easily you were drawn into a classic Squeeze song like "Another Nail In My Heart." After the pumping, descending riff caught your attention, the first words you heard were "The case is pulled from under the bed/She made a call to a sympathetic friend who made arrangements." The story had begun, and you were drawn into a domestic, as they say in Britain, its narrative unspooling on an exquisite melody. "Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)" was much less obvious - more a descriptive essay on summer vacations and the aspirant working class at play, painted with humour and achingly clever lyrics, with yet another quietly virtuosic guitar solo to provide brief intermission.
I have no idea that any of these songs were inspired by real events in the life of either Difford or Tillbrook; don't forget that "Up The Junction" was really just Difford's idea of kitchen sink drama put through a filter of memory and imagination. In the BBC documentary, he's quick to insist that "Tempted," an achingly soulful song about infidelity, was written when he was happily married, and untempted by the fruit of any other. He had simply made it all up.
Not surprisingly - to me at least - when we see the current version of the band performing their hits, they sound like cover versions. Time is not kind to performers, and while it's probably inevitable that the years will separate an artist from the person they were when luck, inspiration and skill conspired to produce their hits, it's a tragic truth that those years will separate them from being able to fully inhabit those songs again.
It's obvious in the film that Tillbrook has miraculously maintained his voice, and I doubt that the years have dulled Difford's powers of observation or skill with words, but it's also plain that, together or apart, they've been unable to repeat the feats of pop song genius they managed to pull off at least a dozen times when they were in their twenties.
It's not unfair to say that artists can be poor judges of their own work, and personal significance can be precisely that - personal, and impossible to communicate to an audience. With a bit of distance and intelligence, a critic might occasionally be a better judge of an artist's output, but when you're talking about popular art, the only barometer that matters is the public that makes it popular, and whose taste, averaged out over years and generations, is the only verdict that matters.