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Squeezing a Soundtrack 

Squeeze wrote the soundtrack to a childhood friend’s life.

Wednesday, Nov 18 2015
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At 61, Chris Difford knows that he shares an unusual, almost intuitive songwriting bond with Glenn Tilbrook, his longtime partner in U.K. combo Squeeze, and its later offshoot Difford & Tilbrook. And the process has always been very rewarding for both parties, dating back to Squeeze's first three quirk-rock classics, 1978's Squeeze, 1979's Cool For Cats, and Argybargy in 1980. "But I still don't understand how that magic happens," he admits. "And sometimes it's very painful as it does happen. But you go onstage and you see people react to something you've created, and it's an outstanding feeling — it's something I don't think you can get in any other form of creativity, really."

Difford also realizes that inspiration can strike like lightning, right out of the blue. And it's up to the performer to capture that ephemeral spark in a bottle when it happens, as Squeeze just did on Cradle to the Grave, its first album of new material in 17 years. He and his chum had been discussing recording a new band effort, but they were drawing a blank — they had nothing particular in mind. But after reading Going to Sea in a Sieve — the autobiography of his childhood friend, British TV personality Danny Baker — he and Tilbrook contacted him and discovered that Sieve was being turned into an actual BBC series called Cradle to the Grave.

"So the next thing we knew, we were being asked to be involved, and that was what gave us the focus to record this album in the first place," explains Difford; Squeeze (which also includes bassist Lucy Shaw, keyboardist Stephen Large, and drummer Simon Hansen, alongside Difford and Tilbrook's twin guitars and lead vocals) wound up soundtracking the whole show, then compiling those cuts for its comeback set. And Cradle just debuted at #12 overseas, the group's highest-charting disc ever outside of greatest-hits collections. "The series came first, then we bolted the songs onto the script. It was a really fortunate time for us, really — everything just fell into place."

Baker had lived a wild existence, starting with his late '70s days as a rock writer for NME, through his years as a BBC radio DJ and host of zany television programs like Pets Win Prizes. ("Which sounds almost surreal, doesn't it, like a Spinal Tap thing?" Difford notes in an aside. "But pets should win prizes — they've got a very dull life, haven't they?")

How does a composer chart the life of a living, breathing celebrity? "Well, because we grew up together, it was pretty easy," says Difford. "I was there half the time in my head, in the part of London where he and I and Glenn all lived, so it was very easy to dial up in our imaginations. So it was actually a lot easier than I'd imagined."

Cradle to the Grave opens on the banjo-clucking title track, and personal observations like "I know I won't be a slave/ To the mistakes that I made." A caravan-swaying "Beautiful Game" finds Difford lyrically imagining what it was like to attend local football matches with a younger Baker, and the pop-sculpted "Happy Days" freeze-frames a weekend holiday for its protagonist. "It's quite a simply vision, not one of my finest moments lyrically," Difford says. "But it's incredibly complex, musically, even though it sounds very easy."

A jangling "Sunny" and "Only 15" recall Baker's teenage insouciance. But they came to encompass Squeeze's nostalgic viewpoint, as well. "I can remember those days really well," Difford says. "Being that age, and the wonderful vista that one had in the imagination at that point — you could just go anywhere, with any relationship, and you never knew where it was going to lead. You never knew what was going to happen, from one day to the next," he sighs, wistfully. "And as you get older, those vistas become slightly smaller."

The TV producers offered Difford and Tilbrook carte blanche, which they relished. "It gave us an empty palette and we just mixed the colors the way that we wanted to, and it took the best part of five or six months to record the album, which is quite long for Squeeze," Difford says. They're justifiably proud of the end result — a hummable, minor-chord musing on mortality that not only nutshells Baker's story, yet rings true on a higher, more everyman level. "What we managed to do, it's universal, and I think we've done a good job," he says, adding that Squeeze fans are already happily singing along to the Cradle material.

The Squeeze chums also know when to give each other space, which might account for their continued success. Difford has tracked four solo sets, and moonlighted as the host of a traveling songwriting workshop, and as curator of regular "Songs in the Key of London" concert events, and he's currently finishing his own autobiography, ironically dubbed I Never Thought It Would Happen. "And I also mentor people, which I love — it's great to add a lot of strings to your bow," he says. "And it keeps me sane. At one stage in your life, being in the band is the end-all, be-all, but as I get older, I discover that there are a lot of other aspects to life that are interesting, too."

And the word 'mentor' is an understatement. In reality, the artist co-manages a red-hot young Irish group of R&B revivalists called The Strypes, whom he's gradually teaching the music-industry ropes. It's given him an eerie sense of New-Wave-era déjà vu. "Because The Strypes have the same issues as Squeeze had when we first started out," he concludes. "So I can hold a mirror up and say, 'Well, this is what happened to me with our second record.' And when they're in the studio, I can inspire them to take risks, but to always stick together.

"That's the magic of humanity — you can pass on the information you've been given to the next generation. And hope that they make a better job of it than you did!"

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Tom Lanham

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