Friday, 22 April 2011
53 Argy Bargy - Squeeze
Acquired : 23 December 1985
Tracks : Pulling Mussels / Another Nail For My Heart / Separate Beds / Misadventure / I Think I'm Go-Go / Farfisa Beat / Here Comes That Feeling / Vicky Verky / If I Didn't Love You / Wrong Side Of The Moon / There At The Top
This was my 21st birthday present from Helen. It was one that I'd always expected from her because she was a fan too (in fact the only other Squeeze fan I knew) and had long had a copy of the follow-up "East Side Story". Funnily enough though, I can't recall her ever playing this
This originally came out early in 1980 when I would still cite them as my favourite band and be perplexed that no one else seemed to share my enthusiasm or even think them worth much attention. It was their third album coming after a strange year in which they'd hit the number 2 spot twice with successive singles and yet seen their "Christmas Day " single ( admittedly not their best work ) bomb completely, not even making the Top 75. They'd also made little impact on the albums chart with the previous LP "Cool For Cats" getting no higher than 45 despite its big hit singles. In that sense they were similar to my first identified favourite band, The Sweet. This LP too was a modest seller reaching number 32 and only spawning one Top 40 single though there was the consolation of making the US charts for the first time where it peaked at 71.
"Argy Bargy" is the transitional album in their original canon before the split in 1982. It was the last to feature Jools Holland and captures them on the cusp between their original New Wave leanings and the more mature pop sound of later LPs. It's stylistically quite diverse and very disparate in tone moving from the jokey laddishness of "Vicky Verky" to the dour, pessimistic "Here Comes That Feeling" . Although, obviously , I didn't acquire it until some years later I feel it does reflect where the 15-year old me was at at the time coming out of childhood and having to adapt to a greyer adult world . That Squeeze were only partially successful at doing so is apt too.
The album kicks off very strongly with its two singles. The second, "Pulling Mussels (From A Shell)" peaked at 47 despite a Top Of The Pops appearance. The song is probably the best evocation of working class holidaymaking in pop referring to Camber Sands, home to a big Pontins holiday camp. The verses are observational while the chorus (and title) hints at the vital ingredient in the young male's holiday, sexual adventure. The music is tight new wave pop with a lengthy middle eight giving room for both Tilbrook and Holland to solo while throughout the song is driven forward by Gilson Lavis's thrashing cymbals. Glenn Tilbrook's blaring vocal handles the wordy lyric as expertly as ever while conveying a real nostalgic ache for the subject matter. And that might be the reason for its failure, the song evoking an unromantic past that the aspirational council house buyers of 1980 didn't want to recollect ; they wanted to "do it in Waikiki" and the likes of Ottawan were a more appropriate soundtrack. Or maybe it was because A & M had their hands full with the mega-success of The Police and were too busy fleecing the public with an expensive catch-up package of their previous singles at the same time as this one came out.
Then comes my favourite Squeeze single of all "Another Nail For My Heart" a melody-fest from start to finish which at least made the Top 20. The song is the sort of beer-sodden public lament for a break-up that Paul Heaton would make his stock-in-trade a decade or so later. Chris Difford's account of relationship breakdown is fitted into a tight keyboard-led arrangement which means Tilbrook has to stretch "arrangements" and "engagements" to eight syllables. The song's arrangement is odd in that his guitar solo comes straight after the first rather than second chorus. It's also rather similar to Hugh Cornwell's in No More Heroes ; in fact the whole song feels like a less aggressive take on The Stranglers's sound.
"Separate Beds" seems even more anachronistic than "Mussels" . In an age where you can be prosecuted for refusing to facilitate buggery in your own property the era of provincial prudishness evoked by the song seems more than a lifetime ago. The song is home to one of Difford's justly celebrated couplets - "Her mother didn't like me, she thought I was on drugs / My mother didn't like her, she'd never peel the spuds" - encapsulating everyday family tensions with wonderful economy. It's let down by a very awkward arrangement. The verses have a Revolver-era Beatles feel with Tilbrook singing like Macca and playing like George before Lavis beefs things up to the chorus where Difford comes in to harmonise and the instruments drop out apart from synth and drum machine. A dash of Hammond organ swell then takes us back to the Beatles again. It sounds stitched together and lacks any great melody to compensate.
"Misadventure" is a frantic blast of power-pop with an obvious debt to the Attractions, Holland aping Steve Naive's organ sound. It's a shaggy dog story of a Londoner lured by a hitchhiker into getting involved in drug smuggling and then getting caught - "Then they discovered a shipment of Moroccan / And said excuse me sir there's something you've forgotten". Tilbrook delivers this and other great rhymes with breathless urgency before giving way to a neat little cowbell and drum solo from Lavis.
"I Think I'm Go-Go " is a rather glum travelogue in three parts with Difford's impressions of Amsterdam and New York before a third verse about London. It's another unusual arrangement dominated by synth and strings with a creeping bassline then for the second verse sung by Difford himself it's just cello and drums which together with Difford's blunt bass tones make it strikingly stark. The unsettling coda with its odd synth noises (odder still when you realise they're coming from Mr Boogie-woogie himself) is impressive but would do better on a song with more involving subject matter.
Side Two doesn't get off to a great start with "Farfisa Beat" an ugly song about leering at girls in a disco (slightly leavened by Difford describing himself as "Five foot seven of heavy duty wear") with a sideswipe at the Mod Revival. There's a nifty little rhythm guitar riff but otherwise it's power-pop by numbers and not worthy of much attention.
"Here Comes That Feeling " isn't very inspiring either. It's Difford's only lead vocal on the LP and he's in character as a depressed-sounding actor in a murder play. At just over two minutes long and with no chorus it sounds like a character-establishing number from a musical wrenched out of context. The first few seconds cheekily ape Shine On You Crazy Diamond and both Holland and Lavis work hard to give it some kick but it's not very good and the band have rarely thought it worth a live outing.
The LP kicks back into life again with "Vicky Verky" a tale of teenage sex and petty criminality worthy of Ian Dury. The line "And sometimes he would treat her when he'd done his mother's meter" is deathless. Tilbrook switches to acoustic and adopts the same plaintive tone that made "Up The Junction" such a winner and the appearance of strings in the verse dealing with abortion gives it a real emotional kick. Holland also does his bit with a rinky-dink organ solo in the middle eight and if they'd wanted to release a third single this should have been the one.
There's an abrupt change of tone with "If I Didn't Love You" a dark song of domestic doubts made all the more disturbing by the realisation that the first verse is addressed to a child in the bath. Tilbrook and Difford share the lead vocal (perhaps at the former's instance) while Lavis and bassist John Bentley inject some muscle after the flowery intro. Tilbrook also throws in a slide guitar solo that's very George Harrison.
He then takes a back seat for "Wrong Side Of The Moon" his place as Difford's co-writer and lead vocalist taken by Holland. Unsurprisingly that means the electric keyboards get swapped for his trusty joanna although the song has more of a Northern Soul feel than boogie-woogie and Tilbrook is allowed to throw in a fuzz guitar solo. Holland's piano riff is infectious and the song is a likeable enough tale of transatlantic separation but as ever Holland's voice makes it sound like a number from The Muppet Show. When the band finished touring the LP Holland quit to form his own boogie-woogie outfit and thus was headed for utter obscurity until labelmates The Police asked him to front a documentary about the making of their new album in 1981 and a TV legend was born.
That just leaves "There At The Top" another song which wouldn't win Difford any plaudits from Harriet Harman with its sour lyric about a woman sleeping her way to business success. Lavis pummels away at the snare in similar fashion to Terry Chambers on XTC's Life Begins At The Hop and both Tilbrook's guitar and Holland's keyboard contributions would fit on an early XTC album. Tilbrook's melody gives the chorus a wistfulness implying doubt in the woman's mind that she has reached "the top" by such methods but that's perhaps looking for excuses.
So it's not the classic LP the first couple of tracks promised. It's interesting but flawed, the band pulling in too many different directions at once and another line-up change was just around the corner. The next LP (which never inspired me to get my own copy) did a bit better and won them some critical plaudits at last but major commercial success would always elude them.