Surely there must be a bit of friendly rivalry amongst all great songwriting teams? We know Lennon and McCartney kept each other sharp throughout the 1960s with their competitive, constantly outward-reaching creativity. But the dynamic within a host of other teams is much less clear. Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook are the much-lauded songwriters responsible for 15 albums of original material with Squeeze. Do they have a sense of competition in their writing? In our Finn versus Finn post we assessed Neil and Tim’s various separate and combined contributions to Split Enz, Crowded House and the Brothers Finn records, as well as their solo material. But it’s not possible to divide Difford and Tilbrook the same way. Unlike say Partridge and Moulding who wrote their XTC contributions solo, or even Lennon and McCartney who really only wrote as a duo on the first few Beatles albums, Difford and Tilbrook have always written their songs together, though not in the same room. As they’ve recounted in many interviews, Difford would typically deliver a sheaf of scribbled pages to Tilbrook who would then work out the music. Thus if we want to assess these songwriting partners separately we’ll have to forgo their Squeeze catalogue and rely on their solo work. Luckily we’ve got roughly four albums apiece, with each kicking off a solo career when Squeeze downed tools (for the second time) in 1999. Let the game begin!
I must say at the outset that I was a bit worried about Chris Difford’s ability to compete here. Let’s face it, it’s the tunes people hum in the shower. The lyrics? Well I don’t think anyone just recites them as poetry. As the guy on the lyrical side of Squeeze’s songwriting, a lot would ride on whether he could drum up melodies as catchy and memorable as those we’ve become accustomed to from Glenn Tilbrook. Well, I’m happy to report that Difford rallied some clever tunesmiths to his cause. He even handles both music and lyrics on his 2003 debut I Didn’t Get Where I Am, which builds on the jazzy and country pop elements apparent on the 1984 Difford and Tilbrook non-Squeeze album with tracks like “Tightrope” and “Playing with Electric Trains.” By 2008 The Last Temptation of Chris put the sound back on more Squeeze-ish poprock footing. This time songwriting with former Bible frontman Boo Hewerdine, the familiar kitchen sink themes are here on “Broken Family,” “On My Own I’m Never Bored” and “Fat as a Fiddle.” By 2011 Difford is vibing glam pretty seriously on “1975” from the cleverly titled Cashmere If You Can. Personally, I love the rollicking feel of “Back in the Day” on this record and Penguin Books-inspired album artwork. 2018’s Pants goes all music hall, a bit reminiscent of the Cool for Cats sound on songs like “Round the Houses” and “Vauxhall Diva.”
Tilbrook got the solo games going first with his 2001 album The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook and it’s arguably the most Squeeze-like release from the duo working separately. With songwriting contributions from the likes of Aimee Mann and Ron Sexsmith perhaps that’s not surprising (though 9 of the 15 cuts are solo Tilbrook numbers). The Mann/Tilbrook cut “Observatory” is a killer, definitely hit single material. Though I’m also partial to “Parallel World,” “Morning,” and “I Won’t See You.” Three years later 2004’s Transatlantic Ping Pong kept the Squeeze vibe alive on hooky numbers like “Untouchable” and “Neptune,” adding some Nashville comedy on “Genitalia of the Fool” and a catchy instrumental with “One for the Road.” The 2008 Binga Bong EP and 2009 Pandemonium Ensued are credited to Glenn Tilbrook and the Fluffers but they don’t shift from the solo formula too much as evident on cuts like “Once Upon a Long Ago” and “Relentless Pursuit.” Tilbrook’s last solo album is 2014’s spectacular Happy Endings. The songwriting is strong and the delivery is charming, strongly acoustic with lovely vocal flourishes on the catchy should-be singles “Everybody Sometimes” and “Peter.” The artwork is pretty cool too.
If pushed I’d have to say I favour Tilbrook over Difford in this going-solo songwriting competition, but only by a hair! Difford impressed and surprised with me his willingness to go off-Squeeze-script on his first solo album as well as deliver dynamic singles like “1975.” Not surprisingly, Tilbrook has a load of could-be hit singles here, particularly on his first and last solo albums. Of course, as always, there’s no need to choose. I think I speak for all Squeeze fans when I say, we all ultimately prefer to see the lads writing together, a faith definitely rewarded with the two most recent Squeeze albums, 2015’s Cradle to Grave and 2017’s The Knowledge.