Collector interview with Glenn Tilbrook
ANDY DAVIS TALKS TO SQUEEZE FRONTMAN GLENN TILBROOK ABOUT THE BAND'S PAST AND PRESENT.
All the lead vocals on the album are handled by Glenn Tilbrook, which has produced a more laid-back, sophisticated sound. The trademark Squeeze melodies are still apparent, if a little buried under the production. By all accounts, though, "Play" is an excellent album which confirms yet again, if such confirmation were still needed, that the Difford/Tilbrook songwriting team is one of rock's great assets. I recently took the opportunity to speak to the Squeeze frontman about the new album, its commercial prospects and about the band's activites past and present.
While waiting for Tilbrook in the modest Squeeze office in Greenwich, I accidentally-on-purpose eavesdropped on a telephone conversation in which he hinted how the ideal status for Squeeze would be to be like Pink Floyd, hugely successful yet ordinary enough to be able to walk down a London street unaccosted. I suggested that this apparent bid for superstardom had something to do with the new album's American sound.
GLENN TILBROOK: To me the album doesn't sound American, it just sounds a bit more polished and I wouldn't equate polished with being American. When I think of something being American, I think of it as being slick, which I don't think this album is.
RECORD COLLECTOR: Have you ever wanted Squeeze to be the biggest band in the world? Have you ever wanted to be superstars?
GT: It might have been a passing fancy, but I don't think a lasting one. I'd like to be respectfully large. Dire Straits, I'd like to be Dire Straits, in terms of their sales. I don't think we're in any danger of being pin-ups. But I wouldn't want to lose that element of being able to blend in with my surroundings, which is what I have now, that I love, it's great.
RC: So the change in sound for Squeeze wasn't a conscious decision?
GT: It just happened. Though I think it is a departure. It's the first record we've made in six years with an outside producer, which I think makes a bit of a difference. In a way it is also down to song selection. We did have some more up-tempo stuff but we left the song selection to Tony Berg, the producer and Warners. We thought we'd put ourselves in their hands and see what they'd like to do with us.
RC: In the advert for the new album Reprise seem to be saying they're taking a gamble on Squeeze because they don't know how to market you.
GT: I can see their point. We don't slot into any category. I think we could fit into AOR, but we're not the computer read-out of an AOR band, by any means. In America we still get playlisted in the "New Music Charts" which is a never ending source of amusement to me. On our 9th or 10th album, we're still "New Music".
RC: But you're still emerging in the States, aren't you?
GT: Slowly. The cover of our last album "Frank", had a tortoise on the front which was a comment on the speed of our career. But "Play", happily, is another comment on our career- our heads are popping out of this enormous flowerpot and we are the band that is now being lovingly nurtured by Reprise, and we're ready to sprout!
RC: So you're philosophical about the speed of things in the States, and over here?
GT: Well, I'd either be philosophical or depressed.
RC: I was surprised, looking at your chart statistics, that you haven't always had massive chart hits. Your songs are well known but haven't always sold in huge amounts.
GT: That's why our singles album was called "45s And Under". People thought it was refering to the speed of the records but in fact it was the chart positions. They have a depressing familiar ring to them, of getting to about No.45 then dropping out again, which is why we called the record that. We're old hands at being failures.
RC: And yet that album got to #3. Do you consider a single a failure if it doesn't sell well?
GT: No. But our chart positions are failures. I'm very proud of our singles heritage. But obviously I think a lot of them could have done a lot better.
RC: Despite that, many people think of you as a singles band.
GT: When A&M get around to releasing another compilation, there's another batch of singles that people will discover they've known for a long while. I remember "Pulling Mussels (From A Shell)" being received with indifference, by audiences, a year after its release. People love it now.
RC: Why did you leave A&M?
GT: They left us, is the short answer.
RC: They dropped you because you weren't "shifting the units"?
GT: Yes, which is a bit disappointing, if thoroughly understandable. But we had this period with A&M in 1987, when they were squarely behind us and pushed us. It worked: "Babylon And On" was our best selling album- which may surprise some people- and "Hourglass" charted and "853 5937" did in America. But with "Frank", the last album we did with A&M, it was a real step backwards. They put it out and might well not have for all the push it got.
RC: Do you think being dropped has done Squeeze good in a way, and given you a kick up the backside?
GT: Well, I know that if they hadn't dropped us, we'd have left anyway. So it worked well for us. Reprise are right behind us. They're doing a great job.
RC: Talking about singles and chart positions, many of Squeeze's early singles were released in coloured vinyl. Was that A&M's idea or did you have anything to do with that?
GT: No, it was a pure marketing device, plain and simple. I thought it was great though, it brings a tear to the eye to think of them all. I actually like getting hold of a vinyl record, it excites me more than a CD or a cassette. In America, for instance, they're not even releasing a vinyl version of "Play", they've given up on it now.
RC: What about the 3D picture sleeve for "Goodbye Girl"?
GT: Yes, that was a good one. That was strictly A&M-generated but we were very keen to do that, it was a great idea.
RC: Another interesting sleeve is the one for "Labelled With Love". Why was it withdrawn?
GT: It was withdrawn because it was a dire design. I remember it well, blood red lettering seemingly chosen at random, a bit like a blackmail letter. Completely inappropriate for the song- not much of an idea. But in fact, interestingly enough, someone came up to me yesterday with a foreign picture sleeve, which they had out in Europe, which was the same one that we had asked to be withdrawn. So it got out somehow.
RC: Were any British copies ever released?
GT: Not as far as I know.
RC: Was "Take Me, I'm Yours" ever released on the BTM label in 1977?
GT: No, that was a different version that we recorded in 1976, one of the four tracks we recorded with a bloke called Fritz Fryer. We had a deal with, you say BTM, I thought it was RCA.
RC: I read that you recorded 28 tracks with RCA, with Muff Winwood, which were all shelved.
GT: Oh no, we only did two tracks with Muff Winwood. We did 28 tracks on our own, that was for BTM. And we did four for RCA.
RC: So what were the Muff Winwood tracks?
GT: At the time he was fresh from producing the Bay City Rollers. He gave us very much the same treatment as the Rollers. So I'm glad those tracks didn't come out. They were quite...different.
RC: What happened to the BTM release, then?
GT: That was a Miles Copeland label that went bankrupt or something, I think.
RC: So it never came out?
GT: No. I remember seeing it in the forthcoming releases and got very excited about it. But it was never to be, there were never any copies.
RC: Is it true that you named Squeeze after the last Velvet Underground album, one on which Lou Reed and John Cale didn't even appear?
GT: Yes! That was our perverse sense of humour, to name the band after a Velvet Underground album but probably their worst one.
RC: Were you great Velvets fans?
GT: Actually, Chris Difford was the one into the Velvets. He introduced me to them when I met him. I'd never heard anything like it, I thought they were great. I thought they had a large pop music side to them which was a bit neglected at that time, but which has subsequently appealed to a lot of people.
RC: How did you get John Cale to produce your first album?
GT: By a complete coincidence. I think he was- it's a very unromantic story- he had agreed to do us with a job lot of productions for Miles Copeland. Although, it has to be said, he produced the "Packet of Three" single and that worked out well so we decided to do the album with him.
RC: What was he like to work with, as apparently he can be quite difficult to get on with?
GT: Well...he was, quite. I have to say though, that he was one of the most creative people we've ever worked with. The guy is really, really talented...
GT: There isn't a but, except to say that he wasn't really interested in us when he was recording us. Some of the stuff he did, when he got enthused about something he'd be great and then his attention would wander.
RC: I've read that he wanted to call the album "Gay Guys."
GT: Yes that was his idea for it. Great, yeah get us off to a running start! He actually threw out all the songs that we really wanted to record for the album. He told us to write some more, so it was a very different album. In a way, "Cool For Cats", the album, is more like how our first album would have sounded if John Cale hadn't have produced it.
RC: Then "East Side Story" was produced by Elvis Costello.
GT: Well...at that point we were being managed by Jake Riviera (who ran Stiff and Radar Records, Costello's labels), so there's the connection. Elvis was keen and liked the records we made up until then.
RC: Did he have much influence on you when you worked with him?
GT: Elvis is a very inspirational person to work with. We all loved, and love, his writing and his stuff and to work with someone like that who believed in us was very uplifting for us.
RC: After the first Squeeze split, you and Chris embarked on your solo career as Difford and Tilbrook, but it wasn't too successful, was it?
GT: I don't know why it didn't happen. But certainly, we had one of the worst videos ever made for "Love's Crashing Waves."
RC: I didn't see that one.
GT: You're lucky! Actually as a piece of kitsch video, it's quite a good laugh; Chris and Glenn strolling down the beach looking forlorn. We had big long hair, long coats, staring into the sea.
RC: Were you keen to get back into Squeeze after that?
GT: No, I was keen to carry on with Difford and Tilbrook. We were ready to make another album, but I did miss what we had for Squeeze. I didn't know it until we played together again at a charity show in Catford.
RC: Now there's just the four of you, so what has happened to Jools Holland, again?
GT: It came to a point with Jools, around about the beginning of the year, where he had to make up his mind in terms of how much he was going to contribute to the band. He had been there, physically, but his mind seemed to be somewhere else for the last eighteen months that he was with us. No offense to him, that's just the way it was. He's got so much on his plate that he wasn't concentrating on the band. It was shape up or ship out time. So he shipped out.
RC: It was amicable though?
GT: Oh, yeah--if I make it sound otherwise it's just my unfortunate way of talking.
RC: So what's for the future, can we expect Squeeze to embrace dance music?
GT: I'd love to, I've got it in my bones. I'm not kidding. I'd really like to do that, but it's not something that is Squeeze's speciality.
RC: Are there any artists you'd really like to work with?
GT: I'd really like to work with Willie Nelson, but I don't think he's going to do that. A bunch of people who I'd love to work with, though, would be Dee-Lite. I think that would be great.
RC: You did actually work with Grandmaster Flash, didn't you?
GT: We did, yes! Surprisingly enough, the song was one we wrote for our musical "Labelled With Love". It was called "The Amazoon", and we sent it to Grandmaster Flash as it was a rap song. It worked very well, so well that Grandmaster Flash wanted to cover it and wanted us to go over and produce it. Which we did. We got a cracking backing track down and all the backing vocals done and then Grandmaster Flash entered in long and extensive litigation with Sugarhill Records. The whole thing split and it was never finished. It was a shame.
RC: You also had a stint as a DJ. Did you play any dance music?
GT: It was vaguely dance. I did the earky evening spot so I could play whatever I liked and didn't have to worry about keeping people on the dance floor. I was there until about 11:00 and then a proper DJ took over.
RC: How did you get into that?
GT: I got into it because I've always loved records, and playing records. So I thought what an ideal opportunity, rather than have people round my house, I can charge them money and I still get to play records to them. It's like being paid to enjoy yourself.
RC: Which is what you're doing anyway.