Squeeze: Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford

by Carl Wiser

In the early 1980s, Squeeze singer-songwriters Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook were compared to John Lennon and Paul McCartney - great musicians with a vast collection of catchy pop songs: "Tempted," "Up the Junction," "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)," "Cool For Cats" among them. Unlike the Beatles, Squeeze never hit it big in America, but flying under the radar has its advantages, as Tilbrook points out.
Glenn Tilbrook: In America, we've never been a top line act in terms of size. We've had our little bits and pieces in different markets, huge on the east coast, never big on the west coast. Nothing ever happened all at the same time. We've never had a record that really hit properly, so we never got to that level of the band. But I think people are much more familiar with us than they think they are. We play five tracks from our singles album and you'll probably know four of them. So in an odd way that gives us a longer span - there are still people discovering us all these years later. What's weird about coming back to Squeeze last year after an eight-year gap is the amount of young people coming to our shows now is incredible. A whole generation has discovered us. It means that what we did is still touching people in some way all this time later, it's a lovely feeling.

Carl Wiser (Songfacts): It must be nice to play these little theaters with great acoustics filled with people who are passionate about your music.

Glenn: Yeah, in my time I've done between really big places and really small places. The last eight years I've been playing very small places, clubs and stuff. First I was solo, and then my band the Fluffers. Three times in my career I've had to start again almost from the very, very ground level. And this century, let's say, I've really enjoyed it. It made me appreciate everything that I once had much more. It also made me appreciate the connection that I can get with the audience now that I couldn't get with Squeeze. And now with Squeeze, I've got the best of all of those worlds. I'm really just loving it. I'm enjoying myself now a bit more than I ever have.

Songfacts: Chris, how do you feel about the "New Wave" label that I always read to describe Squeeze over here?

Chris Difford: It's silly. Very silly. The only Punk band I knew was Iggy Pop and I didn't really know what New Wave was, but it came and it went very quickly. It never really meant anything to me. I think we're more like The Monkees than a Punk band.

Glenn: Yeah, we came up at that time. It's not a label I would give to us. I think we could be called Pop music. And I think Pop music at its best can be truthful and funny and honest. Make you laugh. I grew up on Pop music.

Chris writes the lyrics, Glenn comes up with the music and usually handles lead vocals. Here, they talk about the songwriting process and finding their talents.
Chris: When I was at school, I had a really good English teacher. He looked at some of the poems I was writing on the back of my mathbook, and he thought they looked somewhat interesting. There's always the type of teacher that picks up on something when you're at school, and he did that. Then he brought in a Bob Dylan album, and I listened to that, and it kind of all made sense rather quick.

Glenn: When I'm writing, I will always work, I'm so disciplined about what I do. It's one of the things I learned very early on. If I allowed it to be some craft where I'm working for inspiration, I think I probably would have written 30 songs by now. Instead I've written a couple thousand. Not all of them are good, but I learned - again, early on - that some songs would just come to you, and that would be great. Other songs you have to work really hard at. And that can still be great. Other songs you work really hard at, and they would be rubbish. There's all sorts of in between, you know. When I wrote music for "Tempted," that took me a week. I know that Bob Dylan quote that if it's not done in a couple of hours it's not worth it - well, not in my experience. Sometimes you can labor onto something. But sometimes writing music is like creating a piece of sculpture, you're sitting there chipping away at this block of marble. And you take a step back from it and see how you can change it, and see if you make it more beautiful. But the route to getting there isn't always clear.

Chris: You go into kind of moods and modes in your imagination that are normally dormant, and things just come up. Sometimes I sit down and kind of have a plot for what I'm going to work on, but most of the time it just sort of flows. For a lot of the writing that Glen and I did, there's no real rhyme or reason about how it actually came together. But it just comes through.

Songfacts: Glenn, do you come up with the music for all these songs before you look at Chris' lyrics?

Glenn: No, it's always in response to the lyrics. I always write to Chris's lyrics. And what's more, I made a habit pretty early on of never reading lyrics he gave to me until I sat down with the guitar or piano. So first response is what interests me.

Songfacts: Chris, has there ever been a song where he's put music to your words, and you just say, "Oh, no, that's not going to work"?

Chris: Probably, but I can't think of any examples. 99% of the time I've been real thrilled to hear what the music is.

Songfacts: How many sets of lyrics does Glenn get to choose from?

Chris: 20 or 30.

Songfacts: Glenn, how do you decide which ones to turn into songs?

Glenn: It's a gut feeling what you like. If Chris gives me a lot of lyrics, I write songs for the ones that I like the most first. The ones that strike me first, that's what I write with.

Songfacts: What's one of the songs that came really quickly to you?

Glenn: "Up The Junction" happened pretty quickly, "Some Fantastic Place." My job is to present it in a way so you don't confuse any lines of the lyrics, and musically build something interesting around it.

Many Squeeze songs have some distinctly British lyrics, including just about everything in "Cool For Cats," which Chris sings in a heavy accent. We asked Glenn about how audiences relate to their songs.
Glenn: All my favorite songs are quite specifically about things, people, events, stuff that seemed quite close to the writer. So if I listen to Randy Newman's songs, I'm not from L.A., I can't relate to what he's thinking. But I get immersed in his world, and the things I don't know, or I can't understand, I fill in the blanks. I think that American people do that with our songs, too. You might not know what a line is, but you get a mental picture of the events in the song, and then build your own world for it. Just like reading books or listening to the radio, they're drawing pictures. And I think I love people that do that. It's something I always try to do. That is maybe our mission statement.

Songfacts: Is it ever weird for you, singing somebody else's lyrics?

Glenn: No, never. It's a bit like playing cover songs - I don't feel like I don't like them, or I can't relate to them in some way.

Songfacts: The song "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)," how did you guys come up with that one?

Chris: That was inspired during our holidays - my parents sent us for this sort of holiday camp. And by the Small Faces - an English band that wrote very English lyrics. Like a post card snapped image of holiday world, really. Holiday life.

Songfacts: That was a specific place that you went that kind of you pulled those images from?

Chris: Absolutely, yes. Margate. It was written in the back of the van going from one park a night to another.

Songfacts: Glenn, what did you think when you saw the lyrics for "Pulling Mussels"?

Glenn: Songs to me are like diary excerpts, as musically when I hear them, I go right back to where I was at that point. And at that point, I don't know whether you'd call it an apartment, but it was basically just one room and a kitchen. And from my first royalty check I bought a piano, I bought a mini Moog, I bought a 4-track recorder. And that was all I needed, I was happy. So I'd just stay in the middle of the night and write and write and write, and that was great for me. It was really good. I was also smoking a bit of weed at the time, so everything was very slow. But "Pulling Mussels" and "Another Nail For My Heart," which we wrote within days of each other, were really, really slow. (laughs)

Songfacts: Chris, even though it was a hit in America, you don't like "853-5937," do you?

Chris: It's a very lame song. I liked it at the time, but you change your mind about how you feel about certain songs.

Songfacts: Where did the number come from?

Chris: It was Glen's telephone number.
Songfacts: Glenn, how did you come up with your other American hit, "Hourglass"?

Glenn: Some songs, you think, "I'm gonna play an instrument," and see what happens with that. When I was about 7, I learned to play guitar. I started playing piano a year before that, and I'm not an accomplished pianist. And I'm not the world's best guitarist, either, but I'm better on guitar than I am on keyboards. But when I write, I swap between the two all the time. On "Hourglass," I got a thumping drum machine. So I thought it would be fun to feed a lot of chords into the drum machine and play it without the knowledge of what they were. The freedom of the knowledge of what they may do is actually very liberating. I think writing is always about tricking yourself into doing something different, and that's just one way you can trick yourself.

Songfacts: Chris, what's one of the more personal songs you've written?

Chris: "Some Fantastic Place" is an example of a very personal song. It's about a friend of mine and Glenn who died of cancer. But she was very responsible for Glenn and I sort of sticking together as friends since I was a kid.

Songfacts: Glenn, what's one of your favorite Squeeze songs?

Glenn: "Tempted," because it was a sort of breakthrough song for us, in spite of the fact that it was a hit. It was our first song. It was when we grew up, really, as a band. When we finished it I couldn't quite believe it was us.

Songfacts: Chris, the song "Take Me I'm Yours," how did you get the idea for that?

Chris: I was staying at my manager's house (Miles Copeland) and his mother was or is an archaeologist. And she'd worked a lot in Egypt where Miles went to school. She had pictures and matching ornaments from that part of the world, and it inspired that kind of lyric. But it changed into a very different song over the years.

Songfacts: One of the songs I think is interesting, because it doesn't really have a chorus, is "Up The Junction."

Chris: I remember when we recorded that I imagined it would never be a hit and we'd have to take it off the album. And the record company said that they disagreed, and it was that second #2 record, so they said if the manager was wrong he'd have to eat his heart... Not a very tasty thing to be doing.

Songfacts: Glenn, tell me about creating a song.

Glenn: Chris and I - we have very strict ways of working - he'll do lyrics and I do music. That was pretty unbending in the 27 years we wrote together. I stopped writing lyrics when I met Chris, and when I was 40 I started writing them again. It was a big gap. I mean, initially I found it harder. I really like it now. For instance, with this record I'm just finishing up now with the Fluffers, it will come out in February or March of next year, me and the Fluffers did a lot of writing together. But I found that more often than not I think I've done predominantly more lyrics than I have done music. And that's a lovely place to be. You know, I've got a lot of things I want to say and a lot of things I want to express, and I have the language and articulacy to do that now. I'm discovering more about writing and collaborating now than I had done for a long time. It's a very different space to be in then with Squeeze. And the good thing about where we are now is I can really appreciate both things; both things are so different. Even though the Fluffers and Squeeze share three members - me and Stephen and Simon - within the bands, actually the bands are very different. Squeeze is a lot more structured, and I'd say it's a very professional band. There's a lot of excitement which is what I feel we've brought back to Squeeze from the Fluffers. On the other hand, the Fluffers is more market, it's more out on a limb, it's more improvisational within certain structures. And the Squeeze, professionally, they have brought certain things back to the Fluffers.

August 7, 2008. Learn more about Squeeze at squeezeofficial.com.
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 10

  • Sandra S. from Los AngelesWhen I was growing up, I heard some of Squeeze's songs and thought they were great. I don't remember buying their albums. I recently came across one of their songs "Hourglass" on the radio and revisited their songs. I think I've become infatuated with them decades later! As a die hard Beatles fan, I can see the comparison. I can't think of any comparable songwriters...maybe Elton John/Bernie Taupin. Squeeze is a class act and simply brilliant!
  • Michele from Rochester, MinnesotaYou gotta be cool to like Squeeze--so glad to see so many others enjoy these guys as much as I do!!
  • Roman from VirginiaAll these years later, I'm still turning young people on to Squeeze.
    Vastly, ridiculously underrated group!
  • Hornchurch from LondonDavid's right about 'Camber Sands'....& I agree FULLY with Joe Wall's comment about Squeeze music being an integral part of(my) the last 30 years !
    BBC.4 have just re-screened their Hitchin (Hert's) concert from 1982 (which I taped on VHS-cassette back then) & it still sounds sensational today.
    So many GREAT tracks they've put out over the years; Glenn Tilbrook is one of my All-time heroes ~ mainly for being able to craft & structure such SUPERB & emotive chord-sequences, allied to brilliant riffs, fills & melody lines = those things make him a living-GENIUS (for me) & that's before you take into account his excellent vocals & criminally under-rated guitar playing ! (such a shame their commercial-sucess didn't match their critical acclaim). BTW, GREAT article & interview above....many thanks.
  • David from UkIn fact it's: "They do it down on Camber Sands, they do it in Waikiki."
  • DarrenSqueeze were a big influence on me growing up in England in the late seventies. They have been compared to Lennon and McCartney which is a huge compliment, they have their own unique style, melody and lyrics are always interesting. Chris is a fine poet and writes lyrics about the ordinary things and makes them extraordinary. Glenn is such a talent, great singer and is responsible for the beautiful melodies that made Squeeze a big act in Britain. I have just finished reading Song by Song which are interviews with them both, telling the stories behind each individual song and is fascinating. I never got to see Squeeze as a band but I saw Glenn a few years ago and he was brilliant. The song Some Fantastic Place is my favourite, it was never a hit but is so personal when you know the story behind it, and it never fails to move me, i recommend anyone to give it a listen. Im sure, despite of what they say, they still have a huge following in the USA im certain they do in the UK, a very British band but a huge talent.
  • EdwardInteresting how he did not like being called New Wave because he thought of himself as a pop band and that New Wave was a genre that came and went quickly. It shows that there is a big difference in how New Wave is defined in the U.S. and the U.K.. In the U.K. it was more arty or poppy punk rock and was gone by 1980. Over here any white act that was not metal that started from late 1970's on was labeled New Wave. Bands like Duran Duran, The Human League,The Fixx, Human League were labeled New Wave here that are not labled as such in the UK. The term was was in vogue until the late 1980's here so it did not just come and go. And here it was a pop movement with roots in bubblegum ,disco and glam as much as punk.

    Any whatever you label them glad to see Squeeze back
  • GusThe opening line gives me goose bumps.

    "They do it down on campus and they do it at Waikiki!!"

    Thanks Glenn and Chris. I've seen Squeeze 3 times and I'd love to see them again.
  • Joe WallWhat a treat to discover this interview with two of the finest singer/songwriters of all time. I saw Squeeze so many times in concert, from their first-ever arena show at Madison Square Garden (A Flock of Seagulls was the opening act) in 1982 to seeing Tilbrook solo at a tiny club in Asbury Park, NJ called The Saint in 2003.

    To Glenn & Chris -- thanks. For over 30 years your music has been an integral part of my life and the lives of many of my friends. Unlike so much of the music we all grew up with -- including most of those awful 'new wave' bands -- yours sounds as brilliant as the first time it was heard on vinyl or cassette or CD.

    I'd see Squeeze again on its current U.S. tour but now live in Australia. If you come here, expect to see this Yank in the front row with a big dumb smile on his face.
  • NeenaAlthough Chris and Glen state that they were not a big in the US - I want them (Squeeze)to know that they were a huge hit with this American!!!

    I wanted my wedding song to be "If I didn't Love You, I'd Hate You!!!

    Unfortunately, I was vetoed!!

    Thanks for the update on the guys from Squeeze SF!! And guys thanks sooo much for all the great music you have given to us...

    Tomorow, hopefully it will be Black Coffee in Bed for me : )

see more comments

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