Interview with Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook
- Credit: Archant
New Wave icons Squeeze will be playing hits from their 45-year career at Cheltenham Jazz Festival in May, alongside rarities from their back catalogue and solo albums. Katie Jarvis spoke to Glenn Tilbrook: lead singer, guitarist and the man behind those classic melodies
The story is so oft-told, it’s legend. So oft-told that Squeeze aficionados must sometimes forget they weren’t actually there, they can picture it so vividly. You know, that moment when Chris Difford pilfered 50p from his mum’s purse and scrawled an ad seeking a fellow songwriter. Someone who might just understand his mad, all-enveloping passion for music.
He was 18 at the time. Fed up with school careers advice that laughed when he said he wanted to be in The Who; perfectly satisfied when he changed it to “Be a pig farmer”. It was semi-desperation that made him swipe 50p, the cost of sticking that ad in the tobacconist’s window.
So, OK. He made up the bit about being in a band. Also the bit about having a recording deal. Oh, and the bit about having a tour lined up.
You’ve got to think big.
Maxine, 15-year-old Glenn Tilbrook’s girlfriend at the time, happened to see the ad. She was the one who answered it on his behalf; she knew what it would mean to him. (Meant a lot to Chris, too. It was to be his only reply.)
1973 was a mixed bag, musically. As the ad sat waiting for Glenn in the tobacconist’s window, Pink Floyd had just released The Dark Side of the Moon; The Rolling Stones raised more than $350,000 with a benefit concert for the Nicaraguan earthquake victims; David Bowie collapsed from exhaustion after performing in Madison Square Garden.
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(On the other hand, Dawn was busy recording Tie A Yellow Ribbon, and Cliff came a disappointing third in Eurovision. But, still…)
Music meant something.
It meant everything to Glenn Tilbrook. His parents had split when he was five, and he’d pretty much raised himself in later years. Played truant from Eltham Green. The headmaster finally snapped when Glenn refused to get his hair cut above the collar. Infuriated (but slightly at a loss), he kept the recalcitrant schoolboy outside his office for three weeks before booting him out. The local press had a field day.
“Music saved you!” I say to Glenn Tilbrook, in the way reductionist journalists say these things.
“You could say that,” he replies, in his own, measured, way. “I would say that I was propelled by my love of it. And that it was difficult to not be consumed by it because of the way I felt. It was a purely instinctive thing that I didn’t even know I was building on.”
Well. He was there.
I’m speaking to Glenn Tilbrook on a Sunday lunchtime. (He’s generously shoe-horning me in before a two-and-a-bit weeks tour of the States. Back for Cheltenham Jazz. Then another – big – US tour in the summer.)
“So tell me about Cheltenham,” I ask. It’s funny: the jazz festival takes place pretty much bang on 47 years to the week since he replied to that fateful advert. I’m expecting him to wallow in nostalgia; to list the classics Squeeze will be playing on stage in the Henry Westons Big Top. Cool for Cats. Up the Junction. Another Nail in My Heart.
No. The classics will be played; but the talk is forwards.
“It will be our very first gig with our new bass player! A chap called Owen Biddle, who used to play in a band called The Roots. He’s a really nice chap. So that will be one distinguishing, future-perhaps quiz question.”
(Yep. There are plenty of distinguishing future-perhaps Squeeze quiz questions.
• Which year did keyboardist Jools Holland leave for a solo career?
• Which future hit did Glenn Tilbrook not even envisage Squeeze recording until Elvis Costello stumbled on it and said, “Stop there. I want to hear that track.”)
“One of the really great things about Squeeze is that it does alter its character according to who’s there. Recently, over the last year, we’ve had some of the best gigs we’ve ever had and the best responses we’ve ever had. So I know for a fact we’re not complacent; I know we’re getting better. That’s a really great place to be.”
How many Squeeze gigs there have been over a near half-century, I muse. Right from the early days of supporting Fleetwood Mac – bored Mac fans stuffing their faces with chocolate while Squeeze valiantly tried to catch their attention. Or that now-classic solo tour of the States that Glenn undertook in 2001 – after Squeeze split – crammed into a cut-price campervan instead of the usual suites and limos.
Ah, Glenn Tilbrook says. Gigging is gigging. Whether last year in Cheltenham, playing alongside Wilko Johnson. Or this summer’s tour with Daryl Hall and John Oates.
“We’re playing Madison Square Garden the week after next; but, equally, I might be playing at the Prince Albert in Stroud. What I have learned to appreciate always is you don’t want to let any of them go.”
Ha – brilliant! Rodborough’s Prince Albert.
“I wish it was my local; let’s put it that way.”
Jazz is probably the first music Glenn Tilbrook ever heard.
“My parents, when I was little, played a lot of jazz so I absorbed a lot without really knowing what was happening.”
Soon, he was developing his own tastes – eclectic tastes. Amon Düül – a German experimental rock band; Elvis, Fats Domino, Jimi Hendrix; Tonto’s Expanding Head Band…
Music – in all its forms – was the constant in a life where everything else was falling away. His elder brother, Roger, left home when Glenn was eight, leaving just Glenn and his mum – and she was struggling. He pestered for a guitar. And then got a piano from his aunt. School might have been anathema, but, from the age of seven, he instructed himself in his favourite subject.
“I was never amazed by it because it was pretty normal to me. But, when I look back now….” He pauses and – like many who had unfortunate starts – he defines how fortunate he was. “Here’s where I was lucky. I was lucky in that I absolutely naturally loved and was enthralled by music. I absolutely got it from ever since I remember. I didn’t know that everyone else wasn’t exactly like me. But I could hear things; and not only could I hear them, but I could pick up an instrument and, within a few years, I could play it and learn things just from listening to them.”
Aged 11, he dreamed his first song. Literally. “I woke up and learned how to play it – I still remember it. It’s a proper tune; I could hear it in my head as an arrangement – like a record.”
Aged 13, he met Jools Holland through a mutual friend, who told him, “You should meet this incredible pianist!” That first time, Jools tried to sell him a massively over-priced guitar. Didn’t put Glenn off, though.
“Jools was the first other person I met who could play. It was amazing to meet someone else who understood music in a similar way.”.
He’s still eclectic in his tastes. Nowadays, big influences include British rapper Stormzy, and spoken-word performer Kate Tempest.
He wouldn’t say things are better or worse nowadays – just different; but – for sure – when Glenn Tilbrook was growing up in the 60s, music was more culturally dominant. “And remained so, I guess, maybe even to the 90s; until it began to lose its footings. As I look back at it, it was a golden age: it was a golden age for people’s attention being put towards music.”
Music that once was capable of changing a whole culture: from politics to how young people gained an identity.
“Some of the most powerful music now – people like Stormzy and Kate Tempest – is quite political and really important. I think we’re living through some of the best music and best lyrics that have ever been. But they have their place in the culture and it’s not as central and dominant as it then was.”
So what led him to his own political moment? To that now-famous scene on the Andrew Marr Show – four years ago – when Squeeze was playing live on BBC One. The then-PM David Cameron had just finished speaking and was sitting listening to the band. The sofa was comfy; the words weren’t.
Instead of an innocuous lyric about time passing by, Glenn spontaneously changed the words:
I grew up in council housing,
Part of what made Britain great,
There are some here who are hellbent,
On the destruction of the welfare state.
Had he discussed it with the others first?
“No, I didn’t speak to anyone about it. I’d thought long and hard about doing it before we went on the show. And then thought: That’s ridiculous: don’t do it.”
So he geared up to sing From the Cradle to the Grave as a straight song.
“But when I heard David Cameron being interviewed… His use of language then – and the use of language, unfortunately, has got worse – was to talk about sink estates [in a way that] demonises. It’s a very dog-whistle phrase to say that these are rundown places where people not like you and I live.
“Well, they only get to be that way if they’re not maintained and funded. That’s how these things happen. It made me really angry and so it was sort of easier to do because that’s the way that I felt I had a voice at that time.”
At some of his recent gigs, Glenn has had food drop-points and collection boxes for The Trussell Trust, the charity supporting foodbanks around the UK. Plus he donated profits from his merchandise.
Full circle, really. And not in a good way.
Does it astonish him that the world he left – his childhood world of poverty and deprivation – still, astonishingly, exists?
“Yeah, it is; it is astonishing to me. And for sure it’s a matter of political will – I do know that much. Things don’t have to be the way they are. But, for whatever reasons, we seem to have slid into a state where people can be marginalised more. And I think that, because of my working-class background; and because of growing up on a council estate and a single-parent family – ticking all those boxes – I feel very wary of where people can go without a safety net. It can be pretty despairing. We could be doing better than we are.”
Squeeze’s songs have always had an element of social commentary; 45 years later, what story do they tell?
“What I find fascinating is that they talk about a world that has more or less disappeared. Those working-class people we wrote about – that we were ourselves – they’ve all gone. All of us. Turned into something else.
“I’m fascinated by looking through old photographs of places. All those people, those places, have changed; they’re just not the same anymore. Our songs are like that; they’ve gained a bit of resonance that wasn’t there when they were written.”
An old photograph in music.
Squeeze will play Henry Westons Big Top on Wednesday, May 6 at 8.30pm; 01242 850270; cheltenhamfestivals.com
[Note: Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Cheltenham Jazz Festival has been cancelled.]