From Bar to Street to Bookie

A few weeks ago, BBC Four screened a typically well-crafted documentary about that most quintessential of London bands, Squeeze. Squeeze: Take Me I’m Yours traced the group’s origins and formation in south London, the comings and goings of various members and the relationship between its principal songwriters. Chris Difford and Glenn Tillbrook have been the only ever-presents throughout the band’s career and have been responsible for the majority of Squeeze’s output during this time. They spoke about how their relationship changed over the years and how they came up with some of their most popular songs. It proved to be a nice companion to Jim Drury’s Squeeze: Song by Song from 2004, in which Chris and Glenn went into the songwriting process in even more detail. The film and book made me seek out these songs again and, in particular, the one I think might be their finest three minutes: Up the Junction

The junction of the song’s title refers to Clapham Junction, a train station in Battersea in south London. Over two thousand trains pass through the station every day, making it one of the busiest in Europe. The song is a snapshot into the lives of a couple of Londoners, and uses local idioms and placenames to situate the action firmly in the English capital. Despite this, the song was written by Chris in a motel outside New Orleans while Squeeze were touring the States. He took his inspiration from Bob Dylan’s narrative songs and the BBC’s Wednesday night plays to create a song far removed from your average three-minute pop song. Not only was the finished song missing a chorus, it didn’t even have a refrain or any repeated lyric. In fact, the title of the song doesn’t make its appearance until the very last line. However, it did feature a catchy keyboard hook and a witty use of half-rhyme on each couplet that more than made up for its deviations from normal song structures. Their manager at the time, Miles Copeland, urged the band to add a chorus as he felt it was destined to become just an album track. Fortunately, the band and the record company disagreed and the record-buying public weren’t put off by its lack of chorus, either. The single climbed up to number two on the British charts in July, 1979, but failed to dislodge Tubeway Army’s Are “Friends” Electric from the top spot. It was the group’s second successive number two, following the exact same placing for Cool for Cats in April that year *

The song’s title and inspiration goes back to 1963 and the publication of a book by Nell Dunn. Dunn was born into an upper class family in London. In her early twenties, she relinquished her privileged background and moved to Battersea, where she worked in a factory for a while. Her experiences led to her writing an episodic collection of stories called Up the Junction. It was published in 1963 and won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize that year. The short book features tales of thievery, premarital sex and abortion in 1960s Battersea. Dunn’s Up the Junction formed part of a cultural movement of the time that became known as “kitchen sink drama”, a term that was later applied to some of Squeeze’s songs as well. This term applied to certain kinds of literature, film and theatre that attempted to tell the stories of people whose voices had been silenced up to this time: the working class. All these stories tended to be set in tiny, cramped homes, and chronicled the characters’ working, family and social lives. Consequently, the most common settings were council houses, factories and pubs, and the language used was most often colloquial, heavily accented and regional. This use of language and setting made it easy to adapt these novels and plays for television and cinema and Dunn’s Up the Junction made it to both the small and big screens before the sixties finished

In 1964, the BBC commissioned a series of original made-for-television drama that went out on Wednesdays after the main news broadcast. These films provided opportunities for up-and-coming writers and directors to bring more challenging stories into British living rooms. Director Ken Loach began his groundbreaking work here and caused quite a stir with his 1965 adaptation of Up the Junction. The 72-minute film attracted an audience of 10 million viewers and, at the time, a record 400 complaints. Despite scenes depicting a backstreet abortion, most viewers were unhappy about the film’s colourful language and mild sexual shenanigans. Critics didn’t like the blurring of fact and fiction, which included documentary footage of an interview with a doctor who argues for the legalisation of abortion to prevent the unneccessary deaths of mothers. A feature film appeared in 1968 that was directed by Peter Collinson from a script by Roger Smith. It told the same story as the book and the television play, but its attempt at social realism was less effective than the earlier efforts

Manfred Mann
were the first band from the south of England to make it onto the US singles charts and it was they who provided the soundtrack to the 1968 film. It featured a psychedelic title track by the band that bears no similarity to Squeeze’s subsequent hit. It’s even got a chorus! You can check it out below for yourself, along with four versions of Squeeze’s song. Unsurprisingly, it’s the band’s most covered song and has been interpreted by nearly as many American acts as British ones. The British bands have tended to be ones known for the strength of their melodies and lyrics and include a faithful rendition by Travis, a ragga version by The View, a slowed down take by The Hotrats (featuring members of Supergrass) and one I couldn’t find by Jim Bob from Carter USM. English thrash metal parodists called Lawnmower Deth and American “punks” Goldfinger both do speeded up metal versions that don’t work at all. It’s also been performed by a songwriter named Jonathon Coulton and They Might Be Giants

Glenn Tillbrook usually sings Chris Difford’s words in Squeeze, but Difford gets his chance when he’s solo. You can check out his own version from his 2007 South East Side Story record. Ade Edmondson is a comedian who also fronts a punk folk band called The Bad Shepherds. The group play punk and new wave tunes using folk instruments and their downtempo version of Up the Junction from 2009 appears on their Yan, Tyan, Tethera, Methera! album. Oregon’s Decemberists are another bunch of punky folkers fronted by Colin Meloy who deliver a lively interpretation from 2003. I’ve only come across two versions of Up the Junction by female singers. Londoner Lily Allen doesn’t bother changing the gender on her rather nonchalant performance, but Beth Madden does and then some on her radical departure from the original. She accompanies herself on piano and cello on her classical take on the Squeeze classic. It’s one of 17 Squeeze covers available as a free download called Take Them (They’re Yours) from the Coverville blog. Altogether now: “I never thought it would happen/With me and the girl from Clapham” …

Up the Junction – Manfred Mann

Up the Junction – Chris Difford

Up the Junction (Squeeze cover) – The Bad Shepherds

Up the Junction (Squeeze cover) – The Decemberists

Up the Junction (Squeeze cover) – Beth Madden

*Cool for Cats peaked at #2 on April 4th and was kept off the top by Art Garfunkel’s Bright Eyes, the year’s biggest-selling single, which was on the first of its six-week stay at the top. Cool for Cats and Up the Junction each sold around 500,000 copies. 1979 remains the biggest-selling year ever for physical format singles sales in the UK

3 thoughts on “From Bar to Street to Bookie

  1. I haven’t really sung any other Squeeze songs, mostly singing big choral pieces at the moment. May give Labelled with Love a go at some point.

    • Thanks for the song, Beth! I never really thought of the story from the girl from Clapham’s perspective before listening to your version. I liked the way you lenghtened the time in the incubator from 30 minutes to several hours. I think that’s a lot more realistic ;-) Have you tried your hand (and voice) at any other Squeeze songs? I’d love to hear your take on Labelled with Love

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