It’s a little weird to think that Squeeze have been around since 1974, the year of the first barcode, Watergate, the Rubik’s Cube, Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army and boxing’s Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa. The southeast London wordsmiths and masters of the beguiling popular ditty have had many incarnations since then, the two constants being Chris Difford, the lyricist and Glenn Tilbrook, the song composer and main singer. The band’s member timeline on their Wiki page is so complex it could be their DNA code. Jools Holland is long gone, as is Paul Carrack, but they have continued to tour, the last occasion being in 2013. For the record the other three band members right now are Stephen Large (keyboards); Lucy Shaw (bass); and Simon Hanson (drums). Another bass player, John Bentley (no relation) seems to have quit the band since the latest album was recorded. Recent guest musicians include Melvin Duffy on pedal steel, Dennis Greaves on guitar and Mark Feltham on harmonica.
Now they are back with their 15th album, a 12-track limited edition CD/vinyl/download and the first one consisting of new material in 17 years. Many of the tracks feature in the BBC2 comedy series of the same name, which is set in 1974 and stars Peter Kay with a Bolton-cum-Millwall accent as BBC DJ and writer Danny Baker’s dad. You couldn’t make it up. The album will be released on 2nd October. The vinyl edition is a double-sider with four additional tracks. There is also a nationwide tour starting on 25 September which TMB will be reviewing when it passes through Manchester at the Bridgewater Hall (12 October) – supported by Salford poet John Cooper Clarke.
On a technical note, Virgin/EMI refer to the album and the opening title track as ‘From the Cradle to the Grave’ while other mentions online omit the ‘From the.’ We adhere to the official version here.
Squeeze’s back catalogue is immensely impressive, including such huge hits as Take me I’m Yours; Cool for Cats; Up the Junction; Another Nail in my Heart; Pulling Muscles (from the Shell); Labelled with Love; Black Coffee in Bed; Goodbye Girl; and Is that Love? Every one with a melody to die for, many having achieved anthem status, and as I hinted in the Carter USM review a few weeks ago (CSFTD #5), some of them containing a fair slice of cutting contemporary social comment.
So how do the new songs compare? They seem to be much mellower, as if Messrs Difford and Tilbrook have become more serene with age. Or perhaps it is simply because the album was written with the gentle reminiscences and nostalgia of the TV show in mind. You won’t hear anything about a gang of villains in a shed up at Heafrow (Cool for Cats), or the devil taking you from bar to street to bookie (Up the Junction).
The title track, From the Cradle to the Grave, isn’t a new song as such, it featured on an earlier CD, A Pack of Four which they gave away as a bonus to buyers of a live album, and they’ve been playing it live for a couple of years while this TV concept was in production. Glen Tilbrook’s voice is clear – his diction always was good – but as ‘iffy’ as ever and occasionally off key. I don’t think he would claim to be the greatest vocalist Britain has ever produced but his style remains endearing. The song has a jaunty rhythm with more than a hint of Chas n’ Dave.
The second track, Nirvana, opens with an almost perfect copy of the opening bars of ‘I don’t like Mondays’ before lapsing into a soporific tale of a couple of empty-nesters’ search for middle aged Nirvana (not the band). It’s already clear that Squeeze’s ability to tell a story remains intact but so far the music lacks muscle.
Beautiful Game reminisces on soccer matches of the 1950s and 1960 days and the lifestyle that went with it in that imagined Xanadu when “The days seemed so much bigger” and “it was good to be alive.” “The tribal path led to the pub, where we debated how we’d won.” Or to put it another way, “Jumpers for goalposts, rush goalie, one nipper’s gone home for his baked beans on toast tea” as Ron Manager used to say on The Fast Show.
In the fourth track, Happy Days, the band (and presumably the cast of the TV programme) exit London on the open road for the coast, the song morphing into a gospel coda towards the end.
Fifth track Open continues with a gospel theme and has the first guitar solo, a slow Carpenters-style affair. If I read it correctly, though I’ll need another listen, it’s a song about a wedding ceremony. The first half of the album wraps up with Only 15, its title half-suggesting a first boozy party and associated fumbling sexual experience. He’s supposed to be in by nine (as you were then at that age) but ends up with his trousers around his head. It’s the most powerful track so far and much more like the Squeeze of yore.
In Top of the Form the hapless Danny’s school exploits are recounted, a place where the underachiever “served his time” before opting to stay at home instead and watch Starsky and Hutch on TV. The pace is cranked up for this song, the first one that could be described as ‘rock.’
With the violin-led ‘Sunny’ Tilbrook and Difford suddenly achieve what they are capable of for the first time on this album. Not so much for the tune, but the lyrics are sublime. It deals with young Danny’s progression into adolescence and the life choices he makes that will determine his future. He rides along the towpath (of the River Thames) past the (dockland) cranes that bow their heads (possibly at Winston Churchill’s funeral, but that would date it to 1965). He tries to play like Jimmy Hendrix, behind his back and with his teeth and learns that he “can fly,” which may be a drug reference. He’s a naïve drifter who drops out but ‘follows his genes.’ (Or that could be ‘jeans.’) If only Danny had known they would take him to 5 Live – 606.
By now I’m starting to compare Danny’s journey with that of Rael through the bowels of New York in Genesis’ ‘The Lamb lies down on Broadway’ and with that of Egghead C J de Mooi in his autobiographical voyage from Barnsley via London’s Cardboard City to quiz superstardom and the Kingdom of Egotism. I’m sure these two could even write a song about that. It would make for a good Eggheads question at least.
In Haywire, where it his hormones that are out of control and his temperature off the gauge, it is difficult to tell without a lyric sheet whether this is about a first serious love affair or time spent in a Private Shop. Answers on a postcard please. Then, in Honeytrap, Danny boy learns more about love, lust and trust, or the lack of it. This track is played at pace and sounds early on and towards its conclusion very much like something by The Shadows or the Tornados from the 1960s (think Apache or Telstar). That is very clever of Squeeze, and as a bonus it features a duel-off between guitar and what sounds like a theremin. I can’t wait to see this played live.
By the time of the penultimate track, the ballad Everything, time has passed, his “simpler life is in the past.” “All that’s left is dreams, walking down empty paths in search… of peace to fill my soul” but he only manages to dig himself a deeper hole. The debris of his life will never let him sleep. ‘Everything’ becomes ‘Everywhere’. We’ve all been there.
As the album closes it ends on a high note with Snap, Crackle and Pop, as he looks back on that life and is able to see only the good rather than the bad. This song’s lyrics are what I would typically associate with Elbow and that caused me to contemplate for a moment what a collaboration between them might lead to. Here’s a sample from the chorus:
God willing, I will love this day;
I’ve been giving my past away;
Now I’m living with the best of me;
And a picture of what my life used to be.
So we end up with a concept album that is the musical score to the film of the life of Danny Baker. Perhaps it isn’t what Squeeze fans were anticipating and it doesn’t fire on all cylinders, but it gets better as the album progresses and in at least some of the songs Tilbrook and Difford prove yet again that they still know how to pen a very high quality piece of music.
Total time: 44.30. Average track length 3.59.
©D J Bentley 2015