Friday, October 02, 2015

Walking on sunshine: Squeeze - Cradle To The Grave

One of the solid gold joys of my recent sojourn to the Med was the opportunity to devour the first two volumes of the riotously funny memoir by Danny Baker, whose abridged newspaper handle usually goes something like "DJ and TFI Friday writer", occasionally a reference to late night kebabs, Chris Evans and Gazza, or at their laziest, "that bloke off the DAZ ads" (though why never the tremendous mid-morning jewel that was Win, Lose Or Draw, I have no idea).

Baker is one of Britain's finest masters of the radio medium. His Saturday morning show on the BBC's 5Live is required listening, both for Baker's own non-stop banter, as well as the range of anecdote he elicits from Joe Public on topics as varied as "Don't Talk To Me About Combs!" and "Glove Compartment Archeology".

Baker is - if I may say so myself, and attempt to bask in a tiny bit of reflected glory - a kindred spirit. We share a love of Steely Dan, prog rock and football, and we both got a rung on the journalism ladder through the NME, though he went on to interview Michael Jackson, while I escalated the dizzy heights of reviewing Phil Collins and Sade concerts, though to this day I maintain that you've got to start somewhere, and at 16 years of age, that was plenty.

Going To Sea In A Sieve, the first installment of Baker's autobiography, charts the period from childhood to his arrival on national television, richly describing life in the bosom of his working class Bermondsey family and the rollicking wit and wisdom of his dad, Fred 'Spud' Baker (and the Only Fools And Horses-like greyness of the perks of being a dock union convener). And, through Deptford schooldays and his first job at the age of 15 in a fashionable West End record shop (encountering the likes of Marc Bolan, Elton John and members of Queen), Baker regails in his fortunes as punk fanzine scribe and his emergence at the NME, in the shadows of legends like Nick Kent, Charles Shaar-Murray, Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill.

Both Going To Sea In A Sieve and the equally hilarious follow-up, Going Off Alarming - which follows Baker through his television and soap-ad fame in the 80s and 90s - are warm and unapolagetically devoid of anything approaching the reality of an upbringing in one of London's less salubrious areas. Baker deliberately eschews the celebrity confessional, defying the convention of autobiographies exposing the grim episodes of youth. He had a ball, and it comes across as such. As he frequently says, without resorting to English modesty, he was a popular kid who became the life and soul. Even his 2010 announcement of throat cancer was delivered with whimsical good humour.

Father and son: Kay and Baker

I mention all this because whimsical good humour is the stock in trade of Cradle To Grave, the BBC TV adaptation of Going To Sea In A Sieve, with Peter Kay cast as Pa Baker, and which provided the inspiration for Cradle To The Grave, the first album of new songs from Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford in 17 years.

Picture: Rob O'Connor
Coming from Greenwich, a few railway sidings away from the Deptford council estate Baker grew up in, the pair share a similar outlook on 1970s south-east London (Difford and Baker both attended West Greenwich Secondary Boys School).

In Going To Sea In A Sieve Tilbrook saw the prospect of new music celebrating this shared heritage and, having known Baker since his days on the Sniffin' Glue fanzine (which shared an office with Squeeze's first record label, Deptford Fun City), offered to provide the music for the series, which was duly accepted.

"I read Danny’s book [Going To Sea In A Sieve ] four years ago," Tilbrook told Uncut magazine, "and thought for the first time that this might be a project Chris and I could work on." That, in itself, is quite an important statement. Tilbrook and Difford's relationship underwent considerable strain during a 'lost period' when personal problems - including substance addiction - came between them.

"We’ve grown up a lot in the last few years, musically," Difford says of their reformation of Squeeze in 2007. "We still love and own our past, but as musicians we needed to grow," resulting in the new material of Cradle To The Grave.

I doubt Tilbrook and Difford would warm to such a description as "national treasures": but given their place in the post-punk New Wave, and a catalogue of utter gems like Take Me I’m Yours, Pulling Mussels (From the Shell), Labelled With Love, the quintessential student singalong Cool For Cats, and Tempted, featuring the vocals of Britain's greatest white soul singer, Paul Carrack, Cradle To The Grave is, in the words of Tilbrook himself, "the most cohesive Squeeze record we’ve made".

It is, certainly, one of the most effortlessly enjoyable records I have listened to this year, a comforting, autumnal blanket combining Difford's lyrical wit and Tilbrook's classic English pop melodicism - not to mention their familiar octave-separated vocal harmonies - with a magpie's pilfering of different styles from here and from there.

Picture: Rob O'Connor

Sunny's Eleanor Rigby string intro touches on the first flushes of teenage lust and emergence into young adulthood, with its swirling synths recreating the hormonal maelstrom of adolescence, while Happy Days is a country-twinged Down To Margate celebration of a lads holiday (before the notion became stained by the vomit of Shagaluf disgrace) out of London and down to the English south coast, a gospel choir chorus adding to the rays of sunshine that burst forth.

Though the album wasn't written as the TV show's defacto soundtrack, its compositions complement the narrative with perfection: Top Of The Form clearly gets into the Baker school years, setting the scene of confrontation with a High Noon twang, while Nirvana's light nostalgia and hint of social commentary blends with the knowing irony of the song's sunny cod disco and its examination of Empty Nest Syndrome ("He quibbled with ambition, she fell into a rut").

The 'standard' version of Cradle To The Grave ends with Snap, Crackle And Pop, an unfailingly uplifting burst of energy that declares "God-willing I'm going to love this day!", emulating the relentless positivity of Baker's memoir, not to mention Baker himself.

But stick with the 'deluxe' edition: on four additional tracks, Squeeze open up with a rootsish, Wilco-esque country edge. The Nashville-noir Hangin 'Round, sung by Difford, a lively cover of the 1968 Jeannie C. Riley hit Harper Valley PTA, the delightfully woozy pysch-country vibe of Strange Effect, and the throwabout defiance of modernity that it is I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.

Perhaps because Cool For Cats, with its pop culture references, was seen as a bit of a novelty, or because Up The Junction was dismissed for its "Smash Hits soap opera" social commentary, Squeeze have never been given a fair crack of the whip. New Wave contemporaries, like Elvis Costello, Paul Weller and Ian Dury were lauded for their eclectism and their cool. But, along with another contemporary, XTC, Squeeze have contributed more to the roots and soul of Britpop than they get credit for.

Listen back to early Squeeze and then listen to Parklife, Different Class or I Should Coco, or more recently anything by Kaiser Chiefs. Difford and Tilbrook will be in there. Theirs is a songwriting enriched by their environment and its life.

There was something decidedly serendipitous about, first Danny Baker writing his memoirs (a third intalment will be out next year), and then Difford and Tilbrook deciding to get the Squeeze mojo going again. Because, forged in the chip shops and railway arches of London SE16, Cradle To The Grave marks a welcome return to one of Britain's finest groups, inspired by one of Britain's finest broadcasters. It's a pleasure to have you back chaps.

1 comment:

  1. Really nicely written piece, thank you