A few years back, I began collecting vinyl for the first time since I was a kid and immediately started scooping up my must-haves. After being directed to vinyl marketplace app Discogs, I hurriedly looked up the available copies of Squeeze’s East Side Story, which, when my listening medium of choice was CD, I probably played more than any other that I owned.
I found a copy in near-mint condition for $7.99. On the one hand, I was pumped to add such an essential for a couple cups of coffee. But as someone who loves this record with unwavering fidelity, the low price also felt like a slap in the face. Granted, there are supply and demand issues that affect these things—but still. And it hasn’t become any dearer, by the way; I checked again as research for this article, and it turns out that a near-mint copy of the album can now be had for all of four bucks.
You would think I’d be used to the disrespect shown to this brilliant band by now, considering the soapbox I’ve ascended time and again over the years to sing their praises to friends, colleagues, and anyone within my general vicinity is pretty much worn through. In their native England, the accolades and sales have been far more generous than they have been in America. But it still feels, to this listener anyway, like a case of an all-time great band still not getting their proper due. It’s not a case of their music being too experimental or abrasive, as Squeeze play a relatively straightforward brand of pop-rock music that’s as accessible as it comes. (I know what you’re thinking: “He complains about a lack of respect for them as he prepares to write about an album that the editors of this fine site have listed in the Top 100 ever made.” Just stick with me.)
East Side Story captured Squeeze in heat-check mode, to use a basketball term. First, the context: They had already proven their ability as purveyors of catchy new wave singles: “Slap and Tickle,” “Take Me I’m Yours,” “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell),” “Goodbye Girl,” “Up the Junction,” “Cool for Cats” and so on. They were unique in the way that the main composing team worked; Glenn Tilbrook wrote the music and Chris Difford the lyrics. (The partnership of Elton John and Bernie Taupin is another prime example of such a division of power.) You could argue that arrangement might have been their secret weapon, as Difford could pack his lines densely, knowing that Tilbrook would find the melodies to make it all work. Their harmonies also stood out: Tilbrook sang lead on most tracks, while Difford’s baritone would settle in an octave below him in a kind of reverse-Everly Brothers scenario.
As they prepared for their fourth album in 1981, they were met with the departure of original keyboardist Jools Holland, whose occasional turns as lead vocalist brought whimsy to a band that already had that to spare thanks to Difford’s everyday-bloke lyrics. His replacement was Paul Carrack, already a hitmaker with Ace who was deft on the keys and in possession of one of the most soulful voices on the planet. That weapon would be deployed only once on East Side Story, but the end result was the song that became their best known.
I’m talking, of course, of “Tempted,” in which Carrack’s vocal and Tilbrook’s guitar lines brought out a subtle R&B side to the band that they hadn’t previously demonstrated. (That’s co-producer Elvis Costello chipping in unrecognizable vocals in the second verse.) “Tempted” didn’t immediately become a big hit on either side of the Atlantic, but it’s a song whose reputation has grown over the years, a constant in ’80s alternative radio formats as well as in its placement in movies and TV.
The stylistic shift the band executed on “Tempted” proved to be a good indicator of what East Side Story had to offer, which is where we get back to the heat-check metaphor. Perhaps sensing that Difford’s lyrics were malleable enough to handle anything, Tilbrook started to venture into different genres as a foundation for them. It was risky to some extent, considering how locked-in Squeeze were with those adrenaline-rush, hook-filled, up-tempo killers. East Side Story doesn’t abandon that path entirely. Opening track “In Quintessence” rushes by breathlessly, while “Piccadilly,” “Mumbo Jumbo,” and “Is That Love?” also take those melodic turns at rollercoaster speed.
But the 13 songs on the album gave Squeeze the chance to stretch out a bit and see what they could do. Such a move is often a turning point for a band’s fortunes. Many groups falter when they try to deviate from their core sound, struggling to find their way without a stylistic compass to guide them. But armed with the strongest set of Difford/Tilbrook compositions by that point, the five-piece band (which at that time also comprised Carrack, bassist John Bentley, and drummer Gilson Lavis) gave fans a tour de force.
“There’s No Tomorrow” wanders about dreamily in art-rock territory. Closing track “Messed Around” coasts along on an amiable rockabilly groove. Sometimes the variety comes in just slowing down the pace to mid-tempo, which allows for Tilbrook’s melodies to breathe and Difford’s lyrics to come into sharper focus. “Someone Else’s Heart,” with Difford on lead vocal, falls into this fertile mid-tempo ground, as does the gorgeous Side A closer “Woman’s World.”
At one juncture, Squeeze pulls off a wild one-two punch, segueing on a dime from the avant-garde chaos of “F-Hole” into “Labelled With Love,” which sounds like it was pulled off some dusty country record from the ’50s. And then there’s “Vanity Fair,” which drops the rock instruments to recline on a gentle orchestral bed. As a prominent British songwriting duo, Difford and Tilbrook often received comparisons to Lennon/McCartney. If you’re going to follow that thread, consider “Vanity Fair” their answer to “She’s Leaving Home.”
Difford had always excelled on tales of romantic uncertainty and misadventure, and on that front he’s at the top of his game throughout East Side Story. “Tempted” finds the narrator trying to shake off a failed relationship during his travels, hinting at infidelities all the while. “Is That Love?” depicts a couple battering each other about with cruelty and still trying to keep it together. The pair in “Someone Else’s Heart” resort to reading each other’s diaries to find out their pasts instead of just communicating with one another. There’s rarely an outright happy or sad ending in a Difford song about relationships. In their place are honest explorations of all the gray areas that trip us up.
Other songs go the character-sketch route. The women Difford writes about come to life in all their dignity and sorrow: the harried housewife underestimated by her family and frustrated by her routine in “Woman’s World”; the would-be social climber whose best efforts constantly come up heartbreakingly short in “Vanity Fair”; the British GI bride left widowed by her drunken American husband and subsequently without a true home in “Labelled With Love.” These are short stories in song, the details of the lyrics and the twists in the melodies delivering the emotional punches without any of the manipulation commonly found in the pop music of the time.
I had the pleasure of seeing Squeeze a few years back, right before the pandemic started, and they’re still lights out live (even if the two leaders are now joined by an entirely different support system from the early days.) Two albums released in the last decade (2015’s Cradle to the Grave and 2017’s The Knowledge) contain the familiar mix of tunefulness, smarts, and heart, even if the point of view is a bit more nostalgic these days.
I’ve long since stopped trying to figure out why Squeeze isn’t more of a household name. I’ve even semi-retired my soapbox, at least in terms of proactively trying to get people to listen to them. But if someone should mention them in passing, perhaps after hearing “Tempted,” I won’t hesitate to tell them to check out the whole of East Side Story. After all, the price is right, and the music is masterful.
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THE most underrated band ever
I bought this album in 1981 when it first came out. I have played it many times since, and it has not dated. I agree with every word of this excellent review. Yes, Tempted is glorious white soul; and Woman’s World may be the best combo of melody and vocal that Tilbrook ever put together. But if you want a microcosm of what made Squeeze in that period so good, listen to Is That Love? A three minute pop gem tossed off effortlessly – it would have fitted into The Beatles’ 1963 output perfectly, and there is no higher compliment.