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The Likely Lads Of British Rock: Squeeze

From bittersweet songs about first love and wanking to lambasting the Prime Minister live on TV, Squeeze are the working-class band that cool cats still love.

It was a very Squeeze kind of political protest: warm and melodic, wry and witty, sunny on the surface but seething with rage beneath. Back in January, when Glenn Tilbrook realised his band had been booked to perform live in front of Prime Minister David Cameron on Andrew Marr’s BBC television show, the devil on the Squeeze man’s shoulder told him this was the perfect chance to launch a lyrical attack on Tory housing policy. A very British coup.

Later, when his anger subsided, Tilbrook shelved the idea as silly and unprofessional. But shortly before Squeeze were due to play, having seen Cameron speak about the bulldozing of council estates, he felt himself enraged again. Without warning the BBC or his fellow band members, he rewrote one verse of the song Cradle To The Grave, paying homage to his own council house background and lambasting politicians ‘hellbent on the destruction of the welfare state’. As he sang these words, he shot the PM a sly look.

“The great thing was I didn’t have a chance to be nervous, or make anybody else nervous,” Tilbrook recalls. “I didn’t tell anybody else. To be honest, I felt so angry that I just had to do it. I don’t think I’ll be confronted with that set of circumstances very often, which is also what made it so imperative to do it.”

Reaction in the BBC studio was polite. A few technicians and security men twigged what had happened, but not Cameron, who applauded the song heartily.

“It obviously went straight over his head,” says Chris Difford, Tilbrook’s long-time songwriting partner, with a grin, “because he came up to us afterwards and said: ‘Do you know what? I think that song’s going to be a hit…’ Ha!”

With a legacy spanning more than 40 years, Squeeze are one of the great London bands, their hit-packed history full of bittersweet confessionals about first love and teenage pregnancy, sex and infidelity, boozing and wanking. Raised on The Beatles, The Kinks and Jimi Hendrix, Difford and Tilbrook wrote their first songs in thrall to Bowie and Bolan, the Faces and the Velvet Underground. By the time Squeeze broke through in the late 1970s, their songwriting formula was perfect for new wave – punchy punk-rock energy mixed with sardonic lyrics and classic pop craftsmanship.

It’s February, a month after Squeeze’s headline-grabbing TV encounter with David Cameron, a pleasing reminder that these Britrock national treasures still have a dash of punky defiance behind their mellow divorced-dad tunes. The band’s studio headquarters is in Charlton, where Tilbrook grew up, close to the Thames and the O2 Arena. Difford was born in nearby Greenwich. Just down the road is Deptford, where Squeeze played their career-making early shows. This is the working-class South London heartland that runs through classic kitchen-sink mini-movie singles like Cool For Cats, Goodbye Girl and Up The Junction.

From outside, Tilbrook’s 45 RPM studio looks like a plain single-storey office huddled on the edge of a shabby industrial estate. But inside it opens up into a psychedelic junk shop stuffed with rock memorabilia, vintage movie posters, showroom dummies, gold discs and souvenirs of a four-decade career. 

Difford is here early, having travelled up from his family home on the Sussex coast. Squeeze’s principal lyricist since their foundation, the 61-year-old is the more reserved of the pair, with a deadpan manner and a dry wit. Tilbrook arrives late in a delighted fluster over his pet cockapoo’s newborn litter of six puppies. As the 58-year-old father-of-four explains, the emotional buzz is second only to having children.

With Difford and Tilbrook as sole remaining founder members, Squeeze are now deep into their third chapter, after four decades of hits and misses, depression and divorce, break-ups and breakdowns. Although the band have been active again since 2007, it took until last October for them to release their first album of new material in 17 years. Titled Cradle To The Grave, it’s a sumptuous collection of Beatlish music-hall flourishes, soulful midlife musings, and nostalgic namechecks for Bolan and Hendrix – vintage, velvet-lined Squeeze. But why the long wait?

“There’s no real answer, other than Glenn and I went in different directions,” says Difford. “We had solo careers, and all sorts of things that we needed to feel before finding ourselves again. It’s been a wonderful coming together. We’ve picked up where we first met really. We’re back in that songwriting flow.”

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