As good as it is, Squeeze's eighth A&M album, "Babylon and On," didn't seem like the answer to the British band's perennial sales slump.
Why should this one be any different? This quirky pop band, which will perform at the Universal Amphitheatre on Friday, is noted for intelligent lyrics and for approaching standard pop from odd angles. Lyricist Chris Difford, who works with composer and lead singer Glenn Tilbrook, has written some memorable songs. Effusive critics have compared them to the likes of Lennon and McCartney--even Gilbert and Sullivan. But when's the last time a G&S-like song was big on the pop charts?
"Babylon and On" was expected to follow the same old scenario--lots of critical acclaim, modest sales spurred by Squeeze's fanatical cult, but indifference from most pop fans.
Yet "Babylon and On" has zoomed into Billboard magazine's pop Top 40, buoyed by the success of the single, "Hourglass," which is in the pop Top 20.
Squeeze's keyboard player, Jools Holland, who's noted for his droll humor, thinks that the hit records have as much to do with the mechanics of recording as anything.
"We are a good live band," he explained. "That's what we do best. We just figured that out not too long ago. When we recorded this album it was more like doing a live album. It has the spontaneity and feel of a live album. It's the best Squeeze sound possible."
That's a musician's explanation. A more likely one is that this album is simply more accessible to the pop masses. This time, Squeeze isn't wearing its intellect on its sleeve. The cleverness of Difford and Tilbrook is still there. It's just not as high-toned this time. They've brought their highbrow pop down a peg or two while still supplying the songs with irresistible hooks and nifty lyrics. Though they'd undoubtedly never admit it, they were probably writing with an ear to getting radio play.
Holland responded predictably: "We're not a commercially oriented band. We've never tried that hard to have a pop hit. We make songs we think people will like, but we don't bend too much in the commercial direction. We're not going to do something just to sell records."
But Squeeze couldn't really afford another flop. It was still smarting from the failure in 1985 of "Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti," its first album after getting together following a 1982 break-up. It's easy to see why that one didn't attract a big audience. Most of the songs sound strained and mechanical. Also, the melodies were forgettable. Only one song--the lush, romantic "Last Time Forever"--really stands out.
Holland recognizes the flaws on that album, which he largely attributes to ill-advised production technique: "We did that album one bit at a time. One person did a bit, then another person did another bit. We pieced it together. We lost our spontaneity. It shows on the album. We couldn't do another like that. We had to do something different."
Squeeze, formed by high school buddies in London in the mid-'70s, split up in 1982. The roots of discord were planted when Holland left the band in 1980. He cited two reasons for his exit: "I wanted to do solo records. I wanted to work on my own. And I got tired of the work schedule. We never took a break. We'd be on tour for months and then we'd go into the studio and record and then go on tour again. There was never time to relax."
Holland left with mixed feelings: "It upset me to leave. We grew up together. It was like leaving your family." But sentiment wasn't strong enough to keep him from leaving.
"They were mad when I left," he added. "They didn't want to have to find somebody else."
They found a strong replacement in Paul Carrack, who played on "East Side Story" (1981), still generally considered Squeeze's best album. But Carrack didn't stay long. Soon, Don Snow replaced him. Though the music didn't suffer, the camaraderie did. "They said it didn't seem like a real band when they kept changing musicians," Holland said. "The foundation seemed to be falling apart."
Though the acclaim continued, record sales were still low. Difford, Tilbrook and drummer Gilson Lavis--the core of Squeeze after Holland left--weren't any happier. Accolades are nice but you can't put them in the bank.
So Squeeze split up. Personal conflicts were cited as the main reason, but Holland denied those suspicions: "We always got along. Even after I left the band I got together with them for a drink."
During the split, Holland fared the best. Though he fizzled as a recording artist, he scored as the host of a British pop music TV show called "The Tube." Difford and Tilbrook were a bust as a recording duo. Drummer Lavis became a cab driver. But during a reunion concert for a charity in 1985, they all admitted they missed Squeeze.
They decided to try it again--the lineup included Holland, Difford, Tilbrook, Lavis, bassist Keith Wilkinson and keyboardist Andy Metcalfe. However, the failure of "Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti" was a big disappointment. "Babylon and On" was a crucial album. Another unsuccessful album might have triggered another split.
"You can't go on forever making albums people don't want to buy," Holland pointed out. "We're not looking to be megastars with a string of No. 1 hits. We're not that kind of band. We don't do the kind of music that would make something like that possible, anyway. But we wanted to reach a wider audience. If we weren't getting anywhere, some of the members might have wanted to break the band up again."
Now people are asking whether pop superstardom is just around the corner for Squeeze. "I don't think so," Holland replied. "I don't think we're suited to be big rock 'n' roll stars. It's too much of a compromise. A compromise like that would ruin the band quicker than anything."