Six years into their latest reunion, Squeeze are braced for the crucial stage where Madness now stand: writing new songs that can match their best.
This Pop-Up Shop tour is also an attempt to find a brave new business model for the shattered record industry they’ve returned to. Debuting new songs during the gig, the band’s core duo Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook then man the stalls to sell and sign instant CD mementos, T-shirts and tea towels.
Squeeze start with a 1978 single even they reputedly dislike, “Bang Bang”, but are soon debuting their first new songs in 14 years. “Tommy” is a play for today from their old South London stomping ground, about a racist, humiliated English teacher who takes a violent “little paranoid excursion” to the local off-license.
“Top of the Form” is a memoir of careless 1970s schooldays. Set to a ska lope, its verses layer on the writer’s current middle-aged respectability – success, or betrayal? - and longed for family dinners which his “memory cradles”. These uncluttered, clean-hitting narratives are the sort of literate pop learnt at the school of Ray Davies which once used to chart.
Tilbrook (music, and these days some lyrics too) still has his high, soulful voice, while Difford (chastened, utterly realistic lyrics of betrayal and comeuppance a speciality) mostly hangs back on the sidelines, an anonymous observer in shades.
It’s their hits which make the show, of course. “I said to my reflection, let’s get out of this place,” Tilbrook sings on “Tempted”, one of a suspicious quantity of songs about the undignified retreat of unfaithful men which Difford’s life at the time will easily decode. “Up the Junction”, that triumphant summation of a failed affair from drunken fumble to divorce remains the pinnacle.
What looks like 1970s home movie footage of a South London street gig shows the hungry young men capable of such urgent attack. Other, ceaseless video footage, though, distracts from songs which hardly need such decoration.
When Difford walks past me, strumming “Goodbye Girl” on the way to the merchandise stall, he’s sweating and grinning, adrenalin pumped by this new manoeuvre. Otherwise, the show’s effects try too hard to move with the times. The old business model of singing great songs to a passionate crowd who know every word like the names of their children still suffices.