It may not be known as one of their all-time classics. But the 1987 single “Hourglass” instantly converted me into a Squeeze fan.
Formed in South London in 1973, Squeeze features two singer/songwriters: Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook. Their chemistry and ability to write clever wordplay eventually earned them the title of “the New Lennon and McCartney.” With a rotating cast of band members, the group recorded their debut EP, Packet of Three, in 1977. Produced by Velvet Underground member John Cale, it experienced only modest success in the U.K. But their second album, 1979′s Cool for Cats, spawned singles such as the title track and “Up the Junction,” both highlighting what Squeeze’s website dubs their “witty kitchen-sink lyricism.”
They eventually crossed over to the U.S. as part of the British new wave movement, finally achieving stateside success with the song “Tempted” (featuring future Mike and the Mechanics vocalist Paul Carrack) off their Elvis Costello-produced album East Side Story. The irresistible slice of British pop reached number 49 on the Billboard charts, but went on to become a beloved ’80s classic.
While they continued recording (and briefly broke-up), Squeeze did not significantly crack the U.S. charts again until 1987, when they released Babylon and On. Heralded as a return to their straightforward pop-rock craftsmanship, the album featured “Hourglass,” which scored an impressive number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100. The accompanying video received frequent airplay on MTV (back when they actually aired videos), helping to propel them to their greatest U.S. success.
The “Hourglass” video first introduced me to Squeeze. In between the latest videos by George Michael, Genesis, and Whitney Houston, this rocker stood out from the pack. The blaring saxophone, the heavy rock beat, and Tilbrook’s clear, slightly raspy vocals immediately grab the ear, and Tilbrook and Difford’s trademark close harmonies burn the catchy chorus onto the brain: “Take it to the bridge, throw it overboard, see if it can swim/Back into the shore, no one’s in the house, everyone is out/All the lights are on and the blinds are down,” they sing.
This rapid-fire chorus adds to the general tension present in the song, exemplified in lyrics such as “I feel like I’m pounding on a big door, no one can hear me knocking/I feel like I’m falling flat to the floor, no one can catch me from falling.” Tilbrook adds that there is no chance for escape: “We could abandon the ship, the lights are on but no one is there.” Despite the paranoid tone, the band joyously plays on, the bongos and saxophone adding quirky, jumpy shades to the song. The complex bass line is another highlight, lending just a touch of funk to Squeeze’s sound.
After hearing the song, I was instantly hooked. Soon after watching the video I purchased my first Squeeze album, Singles 45′s and Under. This excellent collection introduced me to songs I never heard before: “Black Coffee in Bed,” “Pulling Mussels from a Shell,” and “Slap and Tickle,” among many others. Even with this stellar catalog, Squeeze retains only a cult following in the U.S. rather than mass popularity. After seeing them live back in 2008, I am still at a loss as to why they never topped their “Hourglass” chart success.
Although “Hourglass” may not be considered Squeeze’s best single (AllMusic states that Babylon and On contains “some moments of inspiration, and the near-novelty of “Hourglass,” unfortunately [is] not one of those moments”), it remains one of the 80′s most memorable, distinctive songs. In any case, I will always be grateful to “Hourglass” for introducing me to Tilbrook and Difford’s immense — and underappreciated — artistry.