Another From the Archives: Squeeze's Glen Tilbrook
Earlier this evening, I finally got around to watching Glenn Tilbrook: One For the Road, a documentary of his 2001 solo tour of America. Instead of luxury limos and 100-foot tour buses, Tilbrook and his crew of four (including the film crew)rented an old RV that broke down more than a few times (the first time was just blocks from the dealership).
Watching the good-natured songwriter shrug off not only mechanical problems but a music business that has ignored great songwriters such as himself inspired me to pull out this old Tempest article from August 5, 1992.
Tilbrook was a great interview, and I wish I knew where the original tapes now lay as we originally chatted for close to 90 minutes. The show this interview was plugging was also one of the best to ever hit our town, and watching Tilbrook, Steve Nieve, and Pete Thomas sitting in with a country cover band hours after the show was the icing on the cake.
Why don't we get shows like this anymore?
The Midwest completely missed the punk/new wave resurgence in the late 70’s and early 80’s. While people in New York were rediscovering the three-minute pop song, most of this part of the country was mired in the corporate mentalities of Kansas, Journey, and Head East.
What this area was missing was a resurgence of the pop song, three minutes of clever hooks delivered with energy and passion. And Squeeze was the master of hooks. To parallel the original mid-60’s rock explosion, if Elvis Costello was the era’s Dylan, the Clash were the Stones of the time, and the Jam were the Who, Squeeze was certainly the Beatles of the early 80’s.
Now, 15 years later, Squeeze has survived through good and bad times. Despite personnel changes, label problems, and a two-year layoff in the mid-80’s, the band is still around, and its influence is heard in much of today’s music, from Material Issue to the Smithereens.
For the first time, Sioux Falls gets a taste of the magic of Squeeze, in a special intimate format that should entertain old and new fans. With the help of former Elvis Costello sidemen Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve, the band will be bringing a special “unplugged” format to the Jeschke Fine Arts Center tonight.
A few days ago, Tempest was proud to have the opportunity to chat with Glenn Tilbrook, the lead singer of Squeeze. While most veteran performers have a pretty jaded outlook towards interviews, Tillbrook was extremely gracious, full of wit yet serious about his craft.
Here’s what Tilbrook had to say:
Tempest: Who were your influences, and how did they affect your music career?
Glenn Tillbrook: I’ve always thought that influences, certainly in writing and performing, are sort of 50% of what you grew up listening to, your bedrock of influences which I think always stay with you, while the other 50% are what you’re listening to at any given time.
I grew up listening to things like the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. I grew up at a time when songs were very dominant in pop music, and I think that was a very big influence on me.
T: How did you meet Chris Difford?
GT: He put an ad in a local store window advertising for a guitarist for a band that had a recording deal. I replied, and he had been bluffing a bit. There wasn’t a band, there wasn’t a record deal. In fact, there was only Chris. (Laughs) We hit it off and started writing together within a couple of months after meeting each other. That was back in 1973.
T: How did the rest of the band get together?
GT: I had been playing with Jools Holland (original Squeeze pianist) before I met Chris, and I introduced the two of them after about six months of knowing Chris. So that was the moment the band started.
T: How quickly after that did you begin writing?
GT: Chris and I were writing individually when we met, but soon both of our strengths and weaknesses became apparent, and that’s when we linked up. Chris is an excellent lyricist, and I was better at tunes than he was. So that’s how we split the writing up, and that’s how we continued.
T: There’s a misconception in America that the British music scene in the 70’s was completely dead, and the Sex Pistols came out and inspired everyone to form a band. Obviously, that’s not true. What was the scene really like in Britain in the mid-to-late 70’s?
GT: It was interesting. Because we were quite young when we started, it took us two years to get three gigs. No one wanted to know about a bunch of 15-year-olds. When we started getting shows, it was supporting bands like Curved Air and Renaissance. That was still in the days when people sat down at gigs. Like at university shows people would be sitting on the floor, which was quite weird.
And we’d come out playing three-minute songs, and people didn’t know what to make of it. Everyone was playing long songs in those days, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It was an odd time.
Then there was this sort of “pub rock” movement, which started in about 1975, I guess, of which we were a part. This turned into punk/new wave, and I think we were seen to identify with the frings of that, although we were never a punk band.
T: Your first album was produced by former Velvet Underground member John Cale. Was that a wise pairing, and what was he like to work with?
GT: He was fantastic to work with. He’s one of the few people I’ve worked with who I’d describe as a “tortured genius” (laughs). He really was. It was a very good experience for us, mostly. I can’t say he was 100% in us; sometimes he’d fall asleep in the studio. Then we’d get him back by scribbling on his face (laughs again).It also paved the way for us to produce ourselves. By the time that John Cale finished the album, the record company said, “we don’t think there’s any singles there”, so we said “we think we can go in and do those ourselves.” In fact, the two tracks that we went in to produce, “Take Me, I’m Yours” and “Bang Bang”, ended up being the singles from the album. That sort of pointed the way for us for a while.
T: Argybargy is considered by many critics as the album where you grew up. Did you feel that you found a comfortable direction at that point?
GT: I think so. Cool For Cats, which followed the first album, was like our proper first album, because they had discarded all our songs and told us to write new ones, which we had dutifully done. Cool For Cats represented the band’s sound live as it had been at that time. Argybargy was more of a thoughtful album, and a bit more of a real record for us.
T: Around this time Jools Holland left, which started a pretty regular revolving door. Looking back, did the constant juggling hurt the momentum?
GT: I thought it did in those days. I don’t any longer think it does, because the heart of the band always revolved around the writing of Chris and I. At that time it was very upsetting, because I hadn’t accounted for the fact that anyone would ever want to leave. I can perfectly understand why, nowadays.
T: The next album, East Side Story, stands out for its wide range of styles. Was this a conscious attempt to break out of the regular routine?
GT: No, we had always done a very wide range of stuff, almost too wide. Our management said, I think very rightly so, “If you do all that stuff, people won’t know what to make of you. Just sort of narrow it down and expand later”. Elvis Costello, who produced that album, did that in a good way. There were some songs that I would never have considered played for the band that he pulled out and said, let’s use it.
“Labeled For Love” is a good instance of that, being sort of country influenced. I was never going to play that for anybody, but I was fast forwarding a cassette of demos to find one that I wanted to play. I stopped on that song and Elvis said “let’s do that one”.
T: What was Elvis like to work with?
GT: He was very inspirational for us, I think. He had a certain sense of direction and urgency that I don’t think we had, so that was very inspiring for us.
T: At this point, although you were huge in Britain, success in America was tougher to come by. When you finally did have a hit with “Tempted”, it wasn’t even sung by you or Difford. Was this frustrating?
GT: Not really, because Paul (Carrack) sang it in such a great way. I love that record and think he did a great job on it. I would have never sung it that way.
T: The press, however, was behind you from the very beginning. I remember one review around this time that basically stated you had yet to write a bad song. Do you think the rock press helped you out in those days?
GT: I think we’ve been fairly lucky that we had a good situation. I think that was very encouraging. It meant that when our albums weren’t selling overly well, that at least we had some encouragement from somewhere, that it wasn’t all going horribly wrong (laughs).
T: One thing that I’m sure got frustrating after a while was the Lennon/McCartney comparisons. Do you think the comparisons are valid, and how much of a bother did that become to you after a few years?
GT: It’s a very flattering comparison. I don’t see any connection, really, besides the fact that we’re British and a songwriting duo. To me, it would be valid if we were tremendously successful, but we haven’t been tremendously commercially successful. I think our writing style is ages away from their writing style. It’s a very flattering comparison. It was one that you had to consciously try to live down for a while. Now I don’t really think about it.
T: In the early 80’s, there was a musical based on your songs. How did that come about?
GT: After we’d done Sweets From a Stranger and toured, we had done five albums in five years and done a lot of touring, and I think we were all wiped out. It was a bit like being put in a dishwasher backwards so you come out of that process.
And we were still young. To be honest, at that time I felt we had done everything we could do. We had played Madison Square Garden, so we had reached that kind of level, at least on the East and West Coasts.We were just burned out. What we should have done was take a rest, but what we rather dramatically di was to say to the band, “that’s it, we’re splitting up”. So it was nice to get involved in a musical, and suddenly instead of five people to deal with in a band, you’re in a situation where you’re dealing with 30 people – the cast, the script writer, director, house band. It was a fantastic experience, but it also took up quite a lot of time. But it was very rewarding.
T: Around that time, MTV became very big, mainly due to its airplay of British pop music. Do you think you missed a big opportunity by splitting the band at this point?
GT: Who’s to say? At any given point you make a decision and you go in that direction.
T: Why did the band get back together, and did it seem like the old days?
GT: No, it didn’t seem like the old days, which was fantastic, because by the time we split up it was fairly miserable. We spent the last year before we split up not really enjoying ourselves. That’s a terrible thing to happen for a musician. To not enjoy what you do is just hell.
I had sworn that we would never get back together, but when we did (it) was for a small charity gig at a London pub. We didn’t rehearse for it; we just went in and played, and it was such tremendous fun that we realized at the time it would be silly not to get the band together again. It felt so good. We decided to structure it so we would have more time; that music wasn’t the only thing you do.
T: Your second album after reforming, Babylon and On, became a big success. Were you surprised after years of limited success?
GT: I was pleased with Babylon and On, because I think it represented what I thought the band was capable of at that time. It had our only real hits in America, which was gratifying after years of banging your head against the wall.
T: With Babylon’s success, one would have thought your next album would be huge, especially one as good as Frank. Why do you think that album didn’t do so well?
GT: It’s an album that I’m still very proud of, and we were unfortunate enough to release it at a time when A&M (their record company at the time) was being sold. Everyone at the label was insecure about their jobs at that point, and I’m afraid we were the men in the middle.
T: After signing with Warner Brothers, you reportedly wrote more than 30 songs for the Play album. Were you upset with the lack of support for that album?
GT: Anytime you have a record out, it’s sort of like making a baby, and seeing how it develops. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but it’s a very personal thing, and you put something of yourself into it. When it doesn’t happen, of course you’re upset. I have to say that I was pleased with the album, and I still think it contains some of our best stuff. What I don’t think it has, and why I don’t think it sold, is something on it that says “this is definitely a single”.
T: One of the more interesting things about that album is the liner notes, where the lyrics are arranged in a script format. Did they just happen to work out that way, or did you write some songs just to make them fit?
GT: That was the last idea of all, actually. Before we assembled the running order of the album, Chris and our A&R guy, Tim Carr, came up with the idea together. It sort of made it more interesting than just a straightforward lyrical layout. In a way I think it (lyric sheets) robs you of a bit of your imagination. I’m a big fan of radio plays or reading a book, because it creates a scenario that you imagine. I think it’s the same as listening to a lyric. And the difference between listening to a lyric and reading it is the same difference between reading a play or a book and watching a film.
T: Most people think that everyone in the music business is extremely rich, yet I saw an interview with you a couple of years ago where you said you had to go on tour to raise money to record Frank. After 15 years of releasing albums, are you set for life after music?
GT: (Laughs) That makes it sound like it’s boring. I like touring and playing live, and when I’m not touring, I’m playing in my house. I’m lucky enough to get paid for what I love. But it’s an expensive thing to run a band, and at that point there were five of us who needed keeping the year round, and when we’re rehearsing and recording. That’s the point of recording, to keep yourself afloat financially.
T: Over the years, you have made a name for yourselves by playing live. You said you enjoy touring, but do you think it keeps your music fresh?
GT: Oh yeah, like this tour we’ve got almost a completely different band. But what the band’s had, ever since we got back together, is the ability to absorb lineup changes and make it work in our favor. On this tour, Chris fell ill before the tour and we were thinking about whether to cancel it or not. But we decided not to because we got such a strong band with Keith Wilkinson and half of the Attractions (Elvis Costello’s band for most of his career) and it’s just fantastic. We all miss Chris very much, but the sound we’re making is fearson.
T: Is he out temporarily?
GT: Yeah, he’s got this lung infection and he’s taking care until the end of August.
T: What do former Attractions Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas add to your music?
GT: Both Steve and Pete are extremely gifted players, and they have an intensity that brings a lot to the group.
T: The “unplugged” acoustic format is nothing new to you. You and Chris have done a few tours before. What do you think it does to enhance your music?
GT: It’s fantastic to strip down songs and hear them in sort of a more naked form, without embellishments. That’s the whole appeal to me.
T: Do you think it brings out your songwriting skills more?
GT: It lets the songs breathe. It’s a less cluttered way of doing it. Although I have to say that what’s happening on this tour, with Chris falling ill, is that things start out very bare and it sort of grows throughout the evening until it ends up being an electric set. It gradually transforms itself, which is a nice way for it to be.
T: How are the audiences reacting to seeing the Attractions play with you?
GT: Brilliant! It’s some inspired company (laughs).
T: What’s in the future for Squeeze?
GT: After this tour, we’re finishing building a studio for ourselves. We’re going to make our next record in there. We’re starting in September.
T: As far as the current music scene goes, what do you listen to?
GT: I like the Teenage Fanclub album. Actually, I like the George Harrison live album, on the other side of the spectrum.
T: Do you hear a lot of your influence on today’s music, especially in the pure pop stuff like Teenage Fanclub?
GT: Yeah, there’s elements of us that you can hear in a lot of things. That’s nice. I’ve just been working with a guy who’s just been signed to a label in London, who actually grew up listening to us. He was seven when he first started to listen to us. Now he’s got a deal. Working with him and singing with him is quite amazing. He’s got his own thing, but he sounds like me as well. So singing with him is strange.
T: Any final thoughst?
GT: Just that we’re the most fantastic people to see live, and I recommend that everyone come to see us (laughs).