Album Review – East Side Story

Next up in my series of albums that you may not have heard but should, it’s a gem of an album from British New Wave band Squeeze.  Folks in America will be familiar with Squeeze from their hit single “Tempted” (which appears on this album) as well as some  minor hits.  But by the time that East Side Story was released in 1981, Squeeze had already had two #2 singles in the UK (“Cool for Cats” and “Up The Junction”) as well as three other Top 40 hits.  Where other New Wave bands have faded into obscurity with sounds that seem trite and almost embarrassingly dated, Squeeze maintains a loyal following.  And their old songs still sound fantastic and fresh.   So what made them so good?

Simply put, Chris Difford (lyrics) and Glenn Tilbrook (music) were and are one of the better songwriting duos in pop history.  Bold words, I know.  But hear me out.    Jagger-Richards they are not.  Lennon-McCartney they most certainly aren’t (though we’ll come back to that).  And nor are they John-Taupin, Becker-Fagen, Leiber-Stoller or Goffin-King.   Those are the Mount Rushmore of songwriting duos.  But in that next tier you will find Difford and Tilbrook.  Their songs are lyrically brilliant, telling complex stories which within the span of three minutes can find a character moving from innocence to triumph to tragedy to acceptance (see: “Up The Junction,” “Vicky Verky,” “Labelled With Love,” or “Woman’s World”).  The lyrics are often delivered rapid-fire -and there are a lot of them.  So do not be ashamed if you can not keep up with them.

Their music is irresistibly hooky, and quite often conceals dark, emotional subject matter behind a wall of sugary pep.  Had they arrived 5-10 years earlier, the quality of their songs would have made them world beaters.  But arriving at the end of the punk era and thriving during a short-lived subgenre (before the whole lot was swallowed up by New Romantics and MTV prettyboys for whom song quality was most assuredly NOT important) their ability to make hay in the charts for a sustained period was somewhat compromised.

And there is one other thing.  Squeeze was one of the bands who, like it or not, was compared to The Beatles.  Not for the level of their success, or even their prospects for success, but for the way they sounded and for the quality of Difford and Tilbrook’s songwriting.  Difford possesses a very low singing voice, and Tilbrook a much higher one with a lengthy vocal range.  The effect, when singing together, is reminiscent of a Lennon-McCartney vocal mix.  And given the apparent ease with which they could turn out catchy pop songs, change musical styles and remain lyrically brilliant, its small wonder they were eventually saddled with that lofty (if mostly fatal) comparison.  But if there is one album which provides the perfect window into what Squeeze fans are on about, it is East Side Story.

East Side Story was Squeeze’s fourth album, coming after 1980’s Argybargy, which itself was no slouch.  For this project, though, Squeeze had production help from no less than Elvis Costello.  Although it is not a concept album the songs all have a similar lyrical themes -inertia, indecision, straying, then regret.  The perpetual adolescent who is the protagonist in the album’s catchy opening track “In Quintessence” could easily be the male counterpart to the hapless female subject of of “Vanity Fair,” “Mumbo Jumbo” and “Messed Around” on the second side.  The idea of uncertainty in relationships (and eventually acting out) is present in “Someone Else’s Heart,” “Tempted,” “Is That Love,” and “Someone Else’s Bell.”  And finally alcohol plays a major role in songs like “Heaven,” “There’s No Tomorrow,” “F-Hole” and “Labelled With Love.”  The songs I would like to focus on are “Piccadilly,” “Woman’s World,” Labelled With Love” and “Vanity Fair” as these are the songs that best exemplify the strong songwriting of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook.

“Piccadilly” is by far the album’s most upbeat song in terms of subject matter.  It is a simple story of a date between two young people, and all of the anticipation and nervous energy which leads up to awkward romance in the living room with mom and dad asleep upstairs.  Nothing groundbreaking there.  But it’s the incredible detail of the lyrics that turns this song into something special.

“Woman’s World” is the most Beatlesque track on the album, especially for the coda at the end which has a definite cliché Beatles sound (it’s one of those sounds that people always seem to associate with The Beatles, although I can not think of a single song that they did that had it -“Penny Lane” comes closest, I guess.)  The story is one of the better depictions of modern (for the early 1980’s) feminism that I can remember coming from a New Wave band -if not the only one.  It is a simple story of a housewife wearing the crown of the “kingdom of the kitchen” which she has been conditioned to think she should want.  Eventually she tires of this life and seeks her own independence.  The lyrics (as always) capture the emotion of the story perfectly.

Fed up with the glory she abdicates her title
Sitting at a bar stool she gives her day’s recital,
The family watch in horror
As she staggers up the hallway
Makes herself a sandwich
As they’re looking through the doorway,
She goes to bed
Leg by leg,
Nothing’s said
There’s no crown upon her head
there’s no kingdom.

“Labelled With Love” was probably meant to be a parody of Country & Western music.  Musically it sticks out on the album as it sounds like a proper country song.  And the lyrics contain popular country themes such as love, lost love and alcoholism.  But I think in this case the lyrics were just too good for a Country send-up.  Much like their 1979 masterpiece “Up The Junction” the subject turns from love, to alcoholism, to loss.  All told with evocative imagery that sets the scenes perfectly.

She unscrews the top of her new whisky bottle
And shuffles around in her candle-lit hovel
Like some kind of witch with blue fingers in mittens
She smells like the cat and the neighbours she sickens
The black and white T.V. has long seen a picture
The cross on the wall is a permanent fixture
The postman delivers the final reminders
She sells off the silver and poodles in china

Drinks to remember I, me and myself
Winds up the clock and knocks dust from the shelf
Home is a love that I miss very much
So the past has been bottled and labelled with love

During the wartime an American pilot
Made every air-raid a time of excitement
She moved to his prairie and married the Texan
She learnt from a distance how love was a lesson
He became drinker and she became mother
She knew that one day she’d be one or the other
He ate himself older and drank himself dizzy
Proud of her features she kept herself pretty

Drinks to remember I, me and myself
Winds up the clock and knocks dust from the shelf
Home is a love that I miss very much
So the past has been bottled and labelled with love

He like a cowboy died drunk in a slumber
Out on the porch in the middle of summer
She crossed the ocean back home to her family
But they had retired to roads that were sandy
She moved home alone without friends or relations
Lived in a world full of age reservations
On moth-eaten armchairs, she’d say that she’d sod-all
The friends who had left her to drink from the bottle

Drinks to remember I, me and myself
Winds up the clock and knocks dust from the shelf
Home is a love that I miss very much
So the past has been bottled and labelled with love

Drinks to remember I, me and myself
Winds up the clock and knocks dust from the shelf
Home is a love that I miss very much
So the past has been bottled and labelled with love

And lastly there is “Vanity Fair” which bears a passing resemblance to “Eleanor Rigby” in its full orchestration and lyrics (“keeps her eyebrows in a tobacco tin” is just close enough to “wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door” to qualify).  But rather than post another song’s lyrics in their entirety (which I would love to do) I’ll just post the following excerpt which perfectly sums up the main character, a girl of average looks and limited social graces who fails in her attempts to live the life of the “beautiful people”

She comes home late with another screw loose
She swears to have had just a pineapple juice,
Falls asleep fully clothed in her bed
With her makeup remover by her head.
She might not be all there
But her dream’s all vanity fair.

Now if these songs were really half as good as I said they were then why weren’t they more popular, and dammit why haven’t you ever heard of these songs?  Hard to say.  I didn’t discover this band until the late nineties.  Had they been an American band I suspect they would have had more of a chance here.  Like The Kinks their songs were distinctly British and it was, perhaps, too confusing for Americans to understand some of the references.  Or it could have been the limited influence of New Wave on the American pop single buying audience.  Or it could have just been bad management, bad timing, or a thousand other factors.  But for people who know, Squeeze, between the years 1978 and 1982 wrote more quality songs than most bands do in twice the time.  To fans like myself they stand as the yardstick against which all lyricists that followed must be measured.  And quite frankly I do not think that any pop band since their heyday has come close.  

But ours is a different age.  Profound lyrics are now the territory of rappers and hip-hop artists -not mainstream pop musicians (though there are some -Jeremy Messersmith comes to mind).  I am still holding out hope that at some point the adolescents that drive the pop market will demand the level of quality in lyrics that I hear in Squeeze.  Or perhaps the older generation can keep educating the younger set about good, quality artists from our youth and propel the new breed of lyrical torchbearers forward.  It’s not really the place of the thirtysomethings and beyond to influence the pop market.  But after all, “life’s an adolescence from time to time with us all, in quintessence.”

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