30 Years Ago: Squeeze Find Unexpected U.S. Success with ‘Babylon and On’
Over their 40-year-plus career, pop masterminds Squeeze have had many peaks and valleys. Babylon and On, which was released on Sept. 15, 1987, decisively falls into the former category—although, at the time, it wasn't exactly a given that the record would be a guaranteed success.
For starters, Babylon and On was only the second LP principal songwriters Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford had released under the Squeeze moniker after reconvening the band in 1985. (The group had broken up in 1982.) The first record, 1985's Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti, performed decently, reaching No. 61 on the Billboard chart, but had its shortcomings. Among those pointing out the imperfections? Tilbrook.
"On the first album that we did after we got back together, Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti, we overdubbed all the way," he told Bud Scoppa with Darryl Morden of Music Connection in 1987. "And, to my mind, what we ended up with was a perfect record that was devoid of any feeling, any sort of spirit as a band. It wasn’t so obvious at the time, but then, when we toured behind the album and were playing the songs, they were all sounding much better than the record – so something was wrong there."
To right the ship, as it were, Squeeze took a different approach to Babylon and On, recording live in the studio. At the time, the band was well-suited to such an endeavor. In addition to Difford and Tilbrook, the lineup featured several Squeeze veterans—keyboardist Jools Holland and drummer Gilson Lavis, two core members of the late '70s years—and two newer members, bassist Keith Wilkinson and second keyboardist Andy Metcalfe. (The latter is well known for being the bassist for the Soft Boys and playing with/co-producing Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians albums.)
"We’ve always been a pretty consistent live band, and we’ve been inconsistent as far as our records are concerned – we’ve made some great records and we’ve made some records that haven’t been so good," Tilbrook said in Music Connection. "And the records that have been best are the ones we’ve actually all played on at the same time."
Added Holland, speaking to the Los Angeles Times: "We are a good live band. 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."
Working with producer "E.T." Thorngren (who had recently worked on Talking Heads' Little Creatures), Squeeze crafted a lush, diverse and characteristically hook-laden record. There are fresh and contemporary spins on their askew pop ("Footprints," "In Today's Room"), a sea shanty-like waltz ("Tough Love") and slightly dated soul-rock rave-ups ("Trust Me to Open My Mouth"). Difford takes lead vocals on the hopscotch-pop "Striking Matches," which features a chorus of prominent co-ed guest vocals, while T-Bone Wolk provides accordion accompaniment.
Babylon and On also spawned the Top 40 hit, the vintage soul homage "853-5937," a tune Difford and Tilbrook wrote together in the same room—a rare occurrence in Squeeze's universe. "For the most part, we write separately," Tilbrook told Music Connection. "Chris’ll go away to his environment and write lyrics, and I sit at home and write changes to them." This time around, however, Difford took a more deliberate approach to his words. "When I sat down to start writing for this album, I didn’t think of anything different apart from 'I’d like to simplify things a little bit lyrically,'" he told Music Connection.
"Simplify it but multiply it. It seems to have worked. And it seemed to me that I should broaden my subject matter somewhat; I don’t know whether I’ve succeeded, but that’s something that you always aim for."
One example of this breadth and depth was "Some Americans," a song based around the April 1986 U.S. bombing of Libya. ''It was a very scary time,'' Difford told The New York Times about the song's inspirations. "The day of the bombing I was supposed to do an interview for a London newspaper, and there I was, a writer of pop songs, doing an interview. It made it all seem very insignificant.''
Babylon and On's most notable song, however, was its lead-off track, the horn-peppered, pub-soul strut "Hourglass." With a motormouthed chorus that's a riot to sing— "Take it to the bridge, throw it overboard / See if it can swim, back up to the shore / No one's in the house, everyone is out / All the lights are on and the blinds are down"—and peppy grooves redolent of Madness, it's one of Squeeze's most danceable tunes.
"Our reference point was, what would Talking Heads do with this song?" Tilbrook explained to Music Connection, while adding that the original demo had a "disco-type beat" and "was the sort of song that Madonna wouldn’t have been uncomfortable with."
To the surprise of everyone, the song climbed to No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100, giving the band its highest-charting song ever. In true Squeeze fashion, however, the upbeat sheen masked lyrics rife with hopelessness and insecurities—as evidenced by imagery such as a stopped watch; a ringing phone and door knock unable to be heard; and nobody around to cushion a fall.
''In many ways, the song 'Hourglass' is about the crisis we felt looking ahead and seeing our chances for success running out,'' Tilbrook told The New York Times. ''It's one of the few songs Chris and I wrote together sitting in the same room.''
The fortunes of "Hourglass" also improved thanks to a fantastic video that played up the band's wacky side with optical illusions and camera tricks. "It’s been played a lot, and everybody you speak to compliments you on it," Difford told Music Connection of the clip. "When you meet fans after gigs, they say, 'Your video’s great.' They don’t say, 'Your album’s great.' So it’s the first thing they think of."
Still, having the high-profile video only helped Squeeze: Babylon and On peaked at No. 36 on the Billboard Top 200 chart in the U.S., and the group was playing venues such as Madison Square Garden. For Tilbrook especially, the experience was a tad bit surreal.
"I find it hard to stick my head out beyond the globe of the band, if you like, to be able to see where we’ve fitted throughout the last ten years, because I think we’ve bounced in and out of so many different categories," he said.
Having the pop crossover album in the U.S., however, "makes us incredibly highlighted as a pop band with a much younger audience than we had when we were over here with [1981's] East Side Story. That’s good, in a way, because it means we haven’t stuck to any particular bubble. Our audiences have always grown in two different directions – they’ve gotten older and they’ve gotten younger," he added. "Perhaps that is middle of the road, in a way."
Thirty years later, Squeeze still has quite a bit of goodwill in America. A new album, The Knowledge, is due on Oct. 13, and the band is slated for a U.S. tour starting in November. Babylon and On doesn't get much play these days, although on Squeeze's 2016 fall U.S. tour, shows frequently opened with "Hourglass."
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