Difford and Tillbrook | Difford & Tilbrook
Down in Dockland Deptford the men-who-were-Squeeze have started afresh. Pat Thomas catches a ferry, Jon Blackmore a likeness.
The news that yet another band has just split up is fairly common these days. Pop music has become so disposable and pop musicians so interchangeable that it's not worth the effort required to hold a band together. Generally speaking these pop obituaries induce little more than a stifled yawn. But there are, as always, exceptions.
In November 1982, riding high on the success of their album 'Sweets From A Stranger', Squeeze decided to call it a day — an announcement greeted with trans-Atlantic dismay. While never really scaling the heights which their critical acclaim, and indeed the esteem of their fellow musicians, would have suggested, Squeeze were certainly a well loved band.
The distinctive song writing abilities of founder members Chris Difford and Glenn Tillbrook played no small part in creating that affection. So, in 1984, how on earth could they re-emerge to be thought of as anything except ex-Squeeze men, Difford and Tillbrook?
"What I hope," asserts Glenn, "is that we can establish ourselves as something new, rather than the people who used to be in Squeeze. There's obviously going to be comparisons because that's our past and we can't escape it. Nor would we want to. On the other hand, I wouldn't want our success to ride on the coat-tails of what we did with Squeeze. I think this project stands up perfectly independently and would be able to establish us had we not done anything before."
Certainly every musician who has ever started over again has echoed those sentiments. In this instance, the project referred to is the forthcoming, but as yet untitled Difford and Tillbrook album.
Both men were obviously aware of the expectations of this first solo effort and the time and care taken to record the lp serves to illustrate the point. In fact, the basic album, as produced by Tony Visconti, took 5 weeks to record and was finished before Christmas 1983. A short gap passed, then in March of this year one E. T. Thorngren, an ex-Sugarhill Records house engineer, arrived in the UK to remix the whole thing.
I know what you're thinking. A man from the Sugarhill stable does seem an odd choice for a couple of south London lads not known for producing dance floor tracks.
The association began just after Squeeze broke up. Chris and Glenn were toying with writing stage musicals as a way of expanding their horizons without moving too far from the safety of what they do best. Their first production, "Labelled With Love," ran at The Albany, Deptford, for 14 weeks.
It was 'The Amazonian' a track from that musical, which caught the ear of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Soon after the pair were spirited off to New York to produce the track which should eventually surface as a single.
"At that time," recalls Glenn, "I really thought that the best music coming out of the States was coming from Sugarhill. And although it's a very sort of haphazard organisation, it's also a very interesting environment to work in. Completely different from anything we've ever encountered!"
Adds Chris, "Originally I wanted to do this album using the Sugarhill mob as a backing band. But the record company just wouldn't take the idea seriously. We met Eric in New York and basically he impressed us so much, that when we finally decided to remix the album, he sprang immediately to mind."
"The thing is," said Glenn, "working with Tony was really beneficial to us. He's got so many good ideas about arrangement and placement of instruments and vocals. But we were disappointed in his conception of the mixes. Also, our record company said they couldn't hear a single on the album, which is fair enough since they're the people selling it. If they don't believe in what they're selling then it will reflect in their performance. Certainly that's been one of the discoveries I've made over the last few years."
Eric may have been the obvious choice for Chris and Glenn, but A&M records, initially bewildered by the selection, took some convincing before they finally gave in. Remixing at Solid Bond studios took three weeks, and lots of patience, as Chris recalls.
"Paul Weller's people had just bought the studio and hadn't much time to fix things up. And there we were with this wildfire American engineer. He had to have everything going at the same time, all the time, which was not only difficult for us to cope with, but caused some problems with the machinery which wasn't up to much. Eventually he started bypassing the machinery altogether."
At one point they discovered a snare drum which had not been particularly well recorded. To recreate the sound, an amplifier was placed in the studio with a snare drum leaning against it. The original signal was passed through the amplifier at such a volume that it 'forced' the drum to beat and hey presto! a duplicated drum track.
Glenn continued, "Another time we were recording a country track which in the end didn't make the album. We'd done several takes and were getting close to the end of the reel of tape. There was just enough room for one more try which we did. About one minute into the playback, imperceptibly at first, the song began to change key upwards until eventually we sounded like Pinky and Perky. After a while we traced the problem to the ancient 24 track equipment that couldn't quite cope with being near the end of a reel of tape, and the tension was slackening off." They've fixed it now, thankfully.
One of the casualties of the length of time the album has taken to surface is their use of the Yamaha DX7 digital synthesiser. Chris and Glenn were among the first to have one in the studio last year. Since then, of course, the DX7 has been heard on albums by everyone from the mighty Duran Duran to the diminutive Nik Kershaw.
The results of the combination of Tony Visconti and E. T. Thorngren may seem hard to imagine. In fact, it works quite well. Glenn's vocals in particular have never been better — all credit surely to Visconti. The Sugarhill factor isn't as immediately perceptible, there's just a feeling that this is a more ballsy sound.
As Squeeze, Chris and Glenn never had the same producer twice, so they're nothing, if not, consistent. All this chopping and changing of producers might indicate that D and T are a couple of little Hitlers in the studio — yet both are extremely personable. So was it just an unlucky streak of 'musical differences' that has kept them producer-hopping over the years? Chris laughed.
"This could take a long time, there's a lot of producers to get through! I think we disagree among ourselves more than we do with our producers. And the times we have had disagreements, they've usually given in to our wishes. After all, we are paying the bills."
"No I dont think there's any reason for it" continued Glenn, "we're always on the lookout for a different perspective and new ideas. I think it's down to a willingness to experiment and feeling confident enough in someone else's ability to interpret your ideas. The longer I'm involved in the making of records, the more I realise the value of having a producer. I used to think of him as someone who got in the way and stopped things from being the way I wanted. The fact is that he helps them be more the way I want them to be."
There is another factor. Neither of the duo is particularly technically minded. Although they might have some pre-studio arrangements worked out in their heads, the contributions of the individual session musicians shouldn't be underestimated.
But just like the producer, the line up isn't permanent and there is, now, the unmistakeable air of authority about Chris and Glenn that comes from them being firmly in the driver's seat.
Glenn reckons you have to "listen to any musician's input. But the major difference now from Squeeze is that we are very much the bosses."
"Before we weren't really boss but perhaps would like to have been. Trying to maintain democracy in a band, particularly when you've had lots of personnel changes, can be very frustrating."
Both agree that the golden rule when recording an album is to go in with more songs than you're likely to need and keep writing until the album is finished ensuring the songs on the album are the best they can be. Their fruitfulness as songwriters is legendary and they now estimate the number of Difford/Tillbrook compositions to be close to the 1000 mark.
"But," sayeth Glenn, "speaking for myself, for every three songs I write, one might be quite good and the others will be, shall we say, of variable quality."
The treatment of the latest Difford/Tillbrook material is characterised by a heavy, consistent back beat which does take some getting used to.
One thing hasn't changed, though. Chris's lyrics remain wonderfully constant. His perception and expression of the human condition can make you squirm uneasily as you catch a bit of yourself in passing.
"I've been concentrating on simplifying my lyrics. I think there's a real art in simple songs, simple lyrics and that's what I've been working on. There was a time when I went through the pun lyric — everything was very tongue in cheek. Now I've swung away from that. I think people like an intelligent lyric that's human and easy to identify with. That's what moves me in a song. That's the only reason I write. Basically I'm just a quiet person who's got a vey big mouth — when it's shut!"
In America, the two of them have been lumbered with the tag of 'The Lennon and McCartney of the 80's.' It's a lazy label on which too many journalists rely.
"It's a bit" sighed Chris, "like comparing a modern playwright to Shakespeare."
One Two Testing - Jul 1984
Donated & scanned by: Simon Dell
Interview by Pat Thomas
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