By Paul C. Focazio, The Independent Online
Earlier this month, the band -- vocals/guitar/lyrics Chris Difford, vocals/guitar/keyboard/composer Glenn Tilbrook, vocals/bass guitarist Keith Wilkinson, and drummer Kevin Wilkinson -- stocked American record shelves with a re-sleeved version of their latest effort, Ridiculous. When the album was first released overseas last November, lack of sufficient airplay caused interference in the project's success. Although the first single, "This Summer," went on to become Squeeze's first Top 40 hit in the UK in eight years, clear reception was still at a loss with the public.
Whether Squeeze was eluded by commercial success in Europe or in the United States, "It's extremely frustrating, but it's completely out of my control," said Difford. "After 24 years in the music business, I feel like I'm being treated like a child." While riding a wave of critical acclaim and chart-placing potential with Ridiculous, a feat unmatched since 1987's Babylon and On, Squeeze has had to face an uphill promotional battle.
Recently, "Electric Trains," a tale about life under the rule of pop nostalgia where everyone "from Julie Andrews to Jerry Garcia" pays a visit, was denied airplay after the BBC blacklisted it in favor of catering to a more youth-oriented format (or was it the use of the words "pubic hairs"?). "Heaven Knows" also suffered lack of consistant airplay. "If they don't think you're in the right age bracket," said Difford, "you don't get played. It's one of those situations where you have no control."
Despite the commercial hassles, Difford has kept a keen focus on what lies ahead. Since IRS Records, Squeeze's current company, closed their doors July 11, Difford seems more determined to deal with the financial aspects of the current U.S. tour and focus on honing his songwriting skills rather than contend with media commentary on the band's popularity. "We've never fitted in with any new record," said Difford, "and it's no different now." Striking a comparison between Squeeze and million-sellers such as Hootie and the Blowfish and Mariah Carey, Difford said with a subtle laugh, "We're the difference between a kit car and one you'd buy off the shop front."
A major band break-up followed the release of 1982's Sweets From A Stranger. Squeeze then embarked on an exhaustive tour including a sold-out performance at Madison Square Garden and an appearance on "Saturday Night Live," followed by a series of record company shifts. But with intellectually unstoppable composers as impenetrable to critical scorn as Difford and Tilbrook, Squeeze rolled past their hardships and rejoined in 1985, producing Cosi Fan Tutti Fruitti. Its successor, Babylon and On, was a refreshing departure from what Difford and the other members considered Cosi's "glossier sound," spawning two top 40 hits in the U.S., "Hourglass" and "853-5937."
In 1989, A&M Records, the band's company since its 1978 debut UK Squeeze, released Frank, a body of songs which British magazine Q hailed as "Squeeze's most winning work since East Side Story eight years ago." Unfortunately, sales didn't go as well as possible, so Squeeze left A&M for Warner Brothers, then shifted back to A&M. Eventually they ended up with IRS. And now?
"Here we are about to embark on three weeks of American dates and we don't have a record company who is backing us," said Difford, sighing a bit after rehashing the band's somewhat tumultuous career. "If we didn't have these shows to do, I think we wouldn't have come." In retrospect, Difford paralleled the whole situation as being "like walking with your feet tied together." But in support of the new release Difford and Tilbrook will perform a series of acoustic shows, including the one at Guild Hall, without the other band members because "financially it just didn't work." More tour dates will be added towards the close of the year, "but," according to Difford, "we have no plans to come over to the States with the full band."
Perhaps what Difford still finds most rewarding is the sheer pleasure of songwriting. "Writing comes from a very special place," he explained. "You don't have to travel very far to find it." Difford, known not only as half of a well-oiled composing machine but also as a lead vocalist for the band, said, "If I had my way I would have preferred to be more like Bernie Taupin." Taupin co-writes with Elton John, but is able to maintain more of a laid-back role in the process.
Although his chances of taking the back seat are highly unlikely, Difford will have to settle for being both behind the scenes and center stage. Nearing the 25-year mark with Squeeze, Difford appears to deal with his frustrations and personal tragedies through lyrical measures. Ridiculous is a circus tent serving as a showcase for the many fascinating poetic side shows of the Difford/Tilbrook craft.
For every catchy, lighthearted tune like "This Summer" there resides a stark social commentary like "Great Escape," a "sufficiently dark" vignette of a man's alcoholism. Inspired by a call-in show where females discussed the physical and mental abuse their intoxicated male counterparts inflicted upon them, the song takes root with the return home of the drunkard who subsequently beats and rapes his wife and later begs for her to return after she flees from his clutches. Difford, himself a recovering alcoholic of four years, noted several instances where theme-related matter has cropped up before -- Sweets From a Stranger is laden with alcohol and drug references, as are songs such as "Tough Love," which Difford noted in previous interviews as a piece inspired by former drummer and recovering alcoholic Gilson Lavis, and "Labeled With Love." As innocent as his words may sound, Difford proves his astounding talent as a lyricist by capturing tragic moments in pleasant sounding four-minute compositions.
Several tracks on Ridiculous underwent extensive production dissection in order to perfect their sound -- "This Summer," a compilation of a number of vocal overlays, is one such example. Although fiddling with songs too much "sometimes can overcook them," said Difford, "being in a band is kind of a democracy and you have to balance everyone's opinions. You have to tug the song in a direction which everyone likes."
Another such song is "Temptation For Love," a hauntingly beautiful offering which features guest vocals by former D-Mob member Cathy Dennis. Difford explained that he had met her at one of his annual writing seminars two years ago and that "she had such a fantastic voice."
The titles and cover art of Squeeze's releases have more to say about the band's commercial stance than one might think. 1982's greatest hits collection, Singles: 45s and Under, had nothing to do with the fact that all of the songs were once released on the 45 rpm format. Rather the collection of songs "have a depressing familiar ring to them, of getting to about 45 then dropping out again." The tortoise on the cover of Frank represented the slow ascent of the group, which was heightened by the cover art for Play, where the band is nestled in a flower pot, ready to sprout.
As for the title Ridiculous, Difford said with a shot of sarcasm, "It could be a wry look at our career. We've done 26 or 27 tours in the U.S. and look what we have to show for it." For 1997, Difford foresaw the possibility of writing a musical while keeping his lyric pencil extra sharp. Unlike many artists who compromise their morals to make a few extra dollars, at least the members of Squeeze can still say that their integrity was not "tempted by the fruit of another."