[Jefito’s Note: This week and next, I’m proud to be Idiot-ing alongside John from Lost in the ’80s. Aside from being one of this site’s earliest and most steadfast champions, John’s as smart as a whip and six times as funny — and he can Guide with the best of ‘em, as those of you who remember his Pet Shop Boys Idiot’s Guide can attest. This is one that many of you have been requesting for awhile now, but I think you’ll find it’s worth the wait — aside from the album tracks, I’ll be serving up some non-album treats over the next couple of weeks. Without further ado…-J]

U.K. Squeeze (1978)
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Jeff: When it came time to choose a producer for Squeeze’s first album, the band’s management hooked them up with John Cale, a decision that seemed brilliant on the surface — and surely helped get the group a deal with A&M — but ended up being something less than a match made in heaven. Realizing that their producer was a drunken mess, the band was quick to take advantage; when Cale passed out in the studio, they placed a pair of speakers on either side of his head, turned them up, and started to play.

When this failed to rouse Cale, Jools Holland took a marker and wrote “I AM A CUNT” on the producer’s forehead. Predictably, Cale was not amused when he found out; unfortunately for Squeeze, this happened halfway through the next day’s session, when Cale had the band at his mercy. He locked them in the studio, forced them to switch instruments, and told them that, until they could make it through a performance of “Amazing Grace” (yes, that “Amazing Grace”) that pleased him, he wouldn’t let them out.

It’s a long-winded anecdote, but a funny one, and it sets the tone for U.K. Squeeze — aside from being in a drunken stupor, Cale wasn’t terribly impressed with the band, and ordered them to come up with an album’s worth of new material for the sessions. The result is a set of songs that lacks the craftsmanship of later efforts. It’s still Squeeze — and, in the self-produced “Take Me I’m Yours,” the band came up with one of its most enduring tunes — and tracks like “Strong in Reason” (download) and “First Thing Wrong” (download) hint at what was to follow — but it probably isn’t the best place to start your collection.

Cool for Cats (1979)
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John: Now, here’s the Squeeze you possibly came to know and love — and if not, here’s a fine place to start. All the early hits are here: “Slap and Tickle,” “Up the Junction,” “Goodbye Girl,” and, of course, the title track. It’s almost like a run-through for the future greatest hits compilation Squeeze 45s and Under.

Serving as their own producers along with arranger John Wood, the band veers into novelty territory about half the time (has anyone really played the title track more than once for a laugh?) with tracks like “Hop Skip and Jump” (download) and “It’s Not Cricket” — hell, basically all the Jools-led tracks — but “Touching Me Touching You” (download) and “Hard to Find” are probably the closest the band ever came to New Wave, a tag the band was often undeservedly saddled with at the beginning.

Basically, you’ve got an album that matches the promise of its cover art; a goofy, retro-cool presentation with a few neat tricks underneath (take a close look at the “o’s” in the word “Cool” with the upside-down triangle shape). Meow.

Argybargy (1980)
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Jeff: Copeland had already proven himself a taskmaster, but when it came time to promote Cool for Cats, he stepped up his merciless campaign for Squeeze’s world domination, sending the band on one grueling run of tourdates after another. Given that they were already sick of the road before Cats was released, and had a relatively short amount of time to record its follow-up, it’s something of a wonder that Argybargy ended up as anything other than a total dud.

It isn’t a dud, of course; in fact, it starts off with “Pulling Mussels from a Shell” and “Another Nail in My Heart,” and even if the rest of the record can’t quite maintain that pace — Squeeze always was a singles band at heart — it still represents a well-crafted companion piece to Cool for Cats. A lot of this can be chalked up to Difford’s incredible creative burst prior to the Argybargy sessions — he wrote an estimated 45 sets of lyrics in a five-day period — but it also helped that Squeeze was enjoying a brief period of relative musical stability. With John Wood back in the producer’s chair, and John Bentley taking over for the musically limited Harry Kakoulli on bass, the band was able to relax and stretch out in new, if subtle, ways.

“Mussels” and “Nail” are the two big winners here, but aside from “Farfisa Beat,” there really isn’t much filler. “Separate Beds” (download) is particularly solid, and check out the signature Difford/Tilbrook vocal blend on “If I Didn’t Love You” (download).

East Side Story (1981)
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Squeeze - East Side Story

John: The band originally conceived this as a double album, but by paring the songs down to a single disc’s worth and settling on Roger Bechirian & Elvis Costello as their new producers (Dave Edmunds produced one track), Squeeze pretty much nailed down their masterpiece.

The Edmunds-helmed track, “In Quintessence” (download) kicks things off with a Motown-ish bang and may just be the best Squeeze single you never heard. With Holland’s departure, the band welcomed Paul Carrack to the fold and out went the quirky pub novelties and in came “Tempted,” Squeeze’s big American breakthrough, although not their first Top 40 hit (that would come quite a few years later). The three-vocal lead trade-off of Carrack, Tillbrook and Difford was quite new and welcomed.

The closest the album comes to a clunker is “Woman’s World” — Difford tries to paint a picture of a woman trapped in her domestic prison, but comes off a little patronizing in the process:

Press the button on the toaster
it’s a woman’s world
Tuck the sheets in on the bed
It’s a woman’s world
Take your apron from your holster
It’s a woman’s world
Shoot the crown off of your head
It’s a woman’s world

Thankfully, this is an aberration — it’s like bitching about “Lovely Rita” being the worst song on Sgt. Pepper’s.

The new producers pushed the band in surprising directions, most notably surrounding Tillbrook in lush strings and woodwinds on “Vanity Fair” (download), making those Lennon/McCartney comparisons more and more valid. The album is a pleasing genre-hopping affair, touching on Rockabilly, Motown, blue-eyed soul and New Wave. It would also be a notoriously difficult act to follow.

Sweets from a Stranger (1982)
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Jeff: As would soon become painfullly apparent, what the band needed at this point was a break; given the success of East Side Story, however, time off wasn’t in the cards for Squeeze. They went right to work on what was to become Sweets from a Stranger.

Well. Not right to work; first, they lost the services of Paul Carrack — who, understanding there would never be room for his songs on a Squeeze album, departed to resume his solo career. Carrack’s replacement, Don Snow, had no shortage of talent, but Carrack’s departure affected the band’s chemistry, and was a painful loss for both Difford and Tilbrook.

And personnel changes weren’t the only thing complicating the album’s birth. The band initially hired Gus Dudgeon to produce Sweets, but weren’t satisfied with the early results, and replaced him with Phil McDonald, who didn’t have the temperament necessary to dissuade Tilbrook from going off the deep end with early ’80s gadgetry and ill-advised experimentation (the most famous example being the use of an ocarina on “Stranger Than the Stranger on the Shore”).

The album’s long been regarded as a creative low point for Squeeze, but the songs, by and large, really aren’t all that bad; yes, the record has its soft spots, but it succeeds more often than its detractors might remember. Take “I’ve Returned” (download), for example — even if it doesn’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Squeeze’s best material, it’s still catchy. The album also boasts some wonderful string arrangements by Del Newman (check out “Tongue Like a Knife” [download]), not to mention a pair of great singles in “Black Coffee in Bed” and “When the Hangover Strikes.”

Still, it was a significant comedown from East Side Story, and Difford and Tilbrook decided to put an end to Squeeze. Their songwriting partnership, fortunately, would prove harder to dissolve.

Difford & Tilbrook (1984)
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Difford & Tilbrook - Difford & Tilbrook

Jeff: As it turned out, neither Difford nor Tilbrook really knew what to do on his own at this point, and when the idea of a collaborative musical was floated, they both happily agreed. The result, titled Labelled With Love, never expanded beyond a limited three-month run, but it provided an easy launchpad into what would become the Difford & Tilbrook album.

The continuation of Difford & Tilbrook’s partnership was good news for fans. Unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding the project were less than ideal; for starters, Difford hated Tilbrook’s new wife, who became heavily involved in non-musical aspects of the project, but more importantly, both men had started dabbling in illegal methods of self-medication. Between Difford’s cocaine-frosted lyrics and Tilbrook’s heroin abuse (and his continuing fascination with studio gadgetry), Difford & Tilbrook never stood a chance.

It still has its moments — most notably the Gamble/Huff-by-way-of-Hall/Oates “Love’s Crashing Waves” (download) and opening track “Action Speaks Faster” (download) — but ultimately, the album was too hastily written and too poorly produced to transcend Difford and Tilbrook’s personal problems.

By all accounts, they fully intended to continue working as a duo — but after reuniting the Argybargy lineup for a benefit concert, and discovering how much they’d missed Holland, Gilson, and Bentley, they decided to hoist the Squeeze flag again. Of course, Squeeze being Squeeze, Bentley found himself axed for Difford & Tilbrook bassist Keith Wilkinson by the time the reunited band hit the studio; all the same, hopes were high for the next album.

Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti (1985)
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Jeff: There are a lot of missed opportunities in Squeeze’s history, and possibly none of them are as frustrating as Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti. Though Difford and Tilbrook’s relationship was as volatile as ever, the reintroduction of Holland and Gilson to the equation could have — should have — been enough to paper over the cracks. Under different circumstances, it might have been; unfortunately, no one will ever know, because rather than taking the time to assemble a complete album of new material, the band rushed into the studio with producer Laurie Latham.

Even if you ‘ve never heard Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti, given the year (1985) and Latham’s previous work (which included Paul Young’s No Parlez album), you can probably guess how airless and synth-laden it sounds. Tilbrook has expressed frustration at the fact that the band recorded essentially nothing together during these sessions — it was all overdubs and click tracks — a frustration shared by many who’ve listened to the album.

John: It’s not a total wash, however. “King George Street” (download) is as classically Squeeze as it gets, and “Last Time Forever” (download), while a poor choice for a single, is a standout album track. Both songs just deserved to be on a better album. Luckily, this was rectified years later when they were chosen for inclusion on the band’s “Greatest” album. As far as Cosi goes, put it down and step away from the import CD bin slowly.

Babylon and On (1987)
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John: Hey, remember when Jools Holland left and took the novelty aspects of Squeeze with him? Well, Jools is back, so say hello to “Hourglass,” Squeeze’s biggest American hit and quite possibly its most annoying since “Cool for Cats.” Not enough schtick for ya? Try “853-5937″ (download), Squeeze’s only other American Top 40 hit and one that no one seems to remember. One quick listen and you might recall why we all forgot.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Babylon isn’t horrendous, it’s just disheartening — your heart breaks realizing this is the Squeeze the majority of people are familiar with. For example, did you know that in Game 5 of the 1986 Championship Series, Red Sox Bill Buckner hit a single that started a ninth-inning rally that kept the Sox from getting eliminated and got them into the World Series that year? But what does everyone remember? That’s right, that damned baseball bouncing between his legs a few games later.

That’s pretty much how I feel about “Hourglass” and this album. Squeeze did so much more worth remembering than this.

Before you abandon all hope, listen to “Footprints” (download) and hear a glimmer of what Squeeze was capable of, even surrounded by a wall of drum machines. And there’s a shoutout to “The Flintstones”! Bonus!

Frank (1989)
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Jeff: Overdue for a roster shuffle, Squeeze went through another change between Babylon and Frank — Andy Metcalfe left, replaced by Matt Irving — but otherwise, this album was recorded during an unusually stable period for the band, and it shows. Holland’s playing, in particular, is arguably the best of any recorded during either of his tenures with the group. For the first time in close to a decade, a Squeeze album sounded like the work of an actual band.

Helping matters was Tilbrook’s insistence that the group scale back its operations. After the drawn-out and expensive sessions for Babylon and On, working on Frank was a massive comedown; the studio was a low-budget British outpost, meals were provided by a friend of the band, and co-producer Eric Thorngren had to deal with ants in the board. Happily, the results were looser and more organic than anything Squeeze had committed to tape since East Side Story — and the songs were up to the challenge.

The album’s sales didn’t reflect its quality, and Frank’s release presaged a period that saw the band losing both Holland and its deal with A&M, but still, the album captures a musical unit at or near its peak. It isn’t without its filler, naturally, but tracks like “Peyton Place” (download) and “Love Circles” (download) are among the group’s finest.