Calling from the tour (“I am somewhere in New Jersey. That’s all I know.”), Tilbrook reflected on his nearly 40-year collaboration with Difford. They met in 1973 when the then-15-year-old Tilbrook answered an ad 18-year-old Difford had placed in a London shop window. The ad said a band with a record deal was looking for a guitarist.
There was no record deal. There wasn’t even a band. There was just Difford and his pile of lyrics.
“Chris was the first person I met that wrote songs besides me,” Tilbrook says. “When I met him, I loved the way that he wrote and I think he felt the same about me. … He was much more gifted lyrically than I was and I think my tunes were better than his.”
It proved a winning combination. On early albums such as “Cool for Cats” (1979), “Argybargy” (1980) and “East Side Story” (1981), Squeeze (which at the time included keyboardist Jools Holland, drummer Gilson Lavis and bassists Harry Kakouli and, later, John Bentley) spun tuneful, tightly composed vignettes. The songs brimmed with details of everyday life, Difford’s “kitchen sink lyrics” made sublime by Tilbrook’s sparkling melodies. Often, Difford’s lower voice provided a sandpapery undertone to Tilbrook’s soaring tenor.
The songs have always been unapologetically British, their plots unspooling in pubs and on windy commons. They reference tellies and tenners, borstals and bedsits. “Tempted” – the 1981 hit sung by Squeeze’s then-keyboardist Paul Carrack – begins “I bought a toothbrush, some toothpaste, a flannel for my face.”
Glenn, did anyone ever suggest you should maybe sing “A washcloth for my face” instead? You know, translate for the American market?
“No,” he says with a laugh. “For me when I was growing up and I was listening to Chuck Berry or Bob Dylan or Randy Newman, they were talking about American things I didn’t understand. I think people just fill in the gaps. … I’ve never felt the listener ever had to understand everything to get the big picture. And a little mystery can be charming, as long as it’s not too self-knowing.”
Squeeze’s best songs are about the small picture, pointillist pop that tells heartbreaking stories in three-minute slices. The word that critics once invariably applied to Difford and Tilbrook’s work was “clever.” Did the two ever tire of seeing that slightly damning word?
“I can really only answer that by saying I don’t think of us as being clever writers,” Tilbrook says. “I think that what we do is an attempt to satisfy ourselves. That’s really all you can do. …I remember in early Squeeze thinking ‘People are going to love this.’ I never understood why people didn’t. I find it hard to understand how comparatively simple things people seem to go nuts about.”