Despite the masterful execution of the final product, East Side Story could have been even more interesting if Jake Riviera had his way. After all, the flamboyant manager—who managed not only Squeeze but also Elvis Costello (and apparently gave the formerly Declan McManus that controversial stage name)—proposed that the band make a double album in which one side is produced by Costello, another by Dave Edmunds, a third by Nick Lowe, and the fourth by Paul McCartney. While it seemed like a pipe dream at the time (particularly, McCartney’s involvement), all parties were willing to participate; sadly, though, some scheduling conflicts made it impossible.
It’s hard to tell how differently East Side Story would’ve turned out if Riviera’s wish had come true (a sort of power-pop take on The Clash‘s London Calling comes to mind), but it’s not unfathomable that it may have turned into an inconsistent mess. Whatever the case, Costello and Roger Bechirian ended up producing the bulk of the album—now a single CD—with Edmunds producing one song, “In Quintessence”. The results were phenomenal and yielded one of the most expertly-crafted (and perhaps unjustly underrated) albums of the ‘80s.
With Costello on board, Squeeze were able to take their already impressive songwriting skills—courtesy of vocalist/guitarist Glenn Tilbrook and guitarist Chris Difford—up a few notches while vastly improving their overall recorded sound. Their first three studio LPs (Squeeze, Cool for Cats, and Argybargy) contained a wealth of unforgettable singles, such as “Take Me I’m Yours”, “Cool for Cats”, “Up the Junction”, “Goodbye Girl”, and “Pulling Mussels (from the Shell)”. However, they had yet to make a complete album that hung together consistently rather than serving as filler between singles.
That’s not meant as a slam against their previous producers. Specifically, Velvet Underground founder John Cale, who produced Squeeze’s debut album and their 1977 EP, Packet of Three, is certainly no slouch. But, retrofitting Difford and Tilbrook’s Beatlesque compositions into a dark, snarling punk atmosphere seemed incongruous and failed to serve the songs. They seemed to edge closer to the right sound on the two following albums, but producer John Wood—known for his work on the British folk scene with Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, and John Martyn—was still not quite the right fit.
Enter Costello, whose role on East Side Story was closest to that of a creative advisor while Bechirian handled technical duties. In Graeme Thomson’s Costello biography, Complicated Shadows, Bechirian notes, “Elvis sat there and pontificated a lot about this, that, and the other, and I got on with getting the stuff down and rallying the band.” It’s also possible that Costello, whose recording sessions for his fifth album, 1981’s Trust, likely overlapped with this album, was understandably distracted and couldn’t be bothered with twiddling control room knobs. Regardless, his influence loomed large over the members of the band, particularly in terms of songwriting. Difford and Tilbrook were already gaining a critical reputation as a New Wave take on Lennon and McCartney; they just needed their George Martin.
Besides containing 14 terrific songs filled with nuance, texture, and almost novelistic storytelling, East Side Story—recorded at Eden Studios in London in late 1980 and early 1981—seems almost overstuffed with musical genres but never in an overreaching or ill-fitting way. Leaping out of the gate is “In Quintessence”, which, despite Edmunds’ production duties, wears Costello’s influence immediately. Borrowing a riff from Costello’s “Temptation” (itself borrowed from Booker T. and the MG’s “Time is Tight”), lyricist Difford spins another perverted yarn—apparently somewhat autobiographical—with typically poetic references to masturbation. “In the corner with his book and tissue / All he can do is pretend to miss you / Closes his eyes as he sees her body / Pulls funny faces, and that’s his hobby.” A quick, jaw-dropping solo accents the frenetic take on Memphis soul from Tilbrook, whose sweet tenor is matched only by his deft guitar skills.
It would probably be enough if East Side Story contained only caffeinated soul tributes in the nature of “In Quintessence”, but one of the many strengths of this album is the sheer amount of musical diversity Costello and Bechirian were able to conjure out of Difford, Tilbrook, bassist John Bentley, drummer Gilson Lavis, and their newest member, keyboardist Paul Carrack. For instance, “Someone Else’s Heart”, sung by Difford in his traditional pub-worn croak, is a dark, minor-key slice of indie-pop.
It may be completely intentional that it’s later countered by with the sunny strut of the similarly titled “Someone Else’s Bell”. Speaking of Carrack, conventional wisdom would dictate that replacing Jools Holland and his boogie-woogie piano hijinks with the former vocalist and keyboard player from Ace (known for the 1974 soft rock classic “How Long”) was a disastrous choice. Yet, Carrack slides into the role beautifully, so whoever had the bold idea of approaching him for the gig must have had a sixth sense that it would work. Although Carrack shines in plenty of other places on the album, the single “Tempted” alone makes a strong case for his inclusion in the band.
Ah, yes, “Tempted”, certainly the best-known song on this underrated gem of a record. While it was only a modest hit at the time, its video fell into heavy rotation when the brand-new MTV launched months later. Since then, it’s become a standard of film soundtracks, television commercials, and drunken karaoke nights. It’s easy to see why, too, since the song is instantly lovable. It’s a sleek soul/pop classic with Carrack—at Costello’s suggestion—taking lead vocals in the first and third verses and sharing the second verse with Tilbrook. (Costello also makes a cheeky cameo.) As always, Difford’s pen wittily describes life and love as only a young British bloke can: “I bought a toothbrush, some toothpaste, a flannel for my face”, the song begins. “Pajamas, a hairbrush, new shoes, and a case”. Only Squeeze, with Carrack at the mic, could make a to-do list sound so catchy.
Soul melds into other genres on East Side Story, such as on the percolating “Picadilly”. It’s another one of the band’s terrific new wave novellas, detailing a frantic night of love and lust in London that comes complete with wonderful lyrical details: “A man behind me talks to his young lady / He’s happy that she is expecting his baby / His wife won’t be pleased / But she’s not been ‘round lately”. The closing chorus is also priceless, as would-be lovers accept their sins and give in to fate (“Like Adam and Eve, we took bite on the apple / Loose change in my pocket, it started to rattle / Heart like a gun was just half of the battle”).
That breathless night on the down leads to the languid psychedelic exercise “There’s No Tomorrow”, in which distorted piano and a lazy beat seem to underscore how the previous song’s antics turned into the beginning stages of a hangover (heavy drinking is an extremely popular topic for Squeeze). “Heaven”—a much different song stylistically, as it’s really a peppy slice of pub rock sung primarily by Difford—covers a lot of the same subject matter (drunken sailors having the time of their lives while casually downplaying the next day’s consequences).
While the members of Squeeze undoubtedly looked up to Costello and felt deeply inspired by his presence during the making of East Side Story, one gets the impression that they’re anticipating his future musical experiments. The dramatic, cinematic flair of “F-Hole” crashes into the drunken country ballad “Labelled With Love” as if it’s predicting Almost Blue, the country covers album Costello would begin working on a few months later. The gorgeous, ethereal “Vanity Fair”—which consists of Tilbrook’s vocals backed only by lush strings and woodwinds—is not unlike the orchestral fussiness of Costello’s Imperial Bedroom or his string quartet-backed Juliet Letters (albums that would come out in 1982 and 1993, respectively). It’s entirely possible that Costello was using the East Side Story sessions to workshop his own future projects.
“Vanity Fair” mines lyrical territory that’s all over East Side Story: beleaguered women trying to cope in impossible situations and a sexist world. Working her fingers to the bone, the song’s unappreciated protagonist ends the day in true Squeeze fashion—by getting blind drunk. “She comes home late with another screw loose”, Tilbrook sings under a groaning orchestra, “She swears to have had just a pineapple juice / Falls asleep fully clothed in her bed / With her makeup remover by her head”.
The shimmering, midtempo “Woman’s World” (arguably the most underrated song on the album) tells the story of a perfectionist housewife who eventually cracks under the pressure of ironed sheets and gleaming appliances: “Fed up with the glory, she abdicates her title / Sitting at a bar stool, she gives her day’s recital / The family watches in horror, as she staggers up the hallway / Makes herself a sandwich as they’re looking through the doorway”. Later, the hiccuping rockabilly of “Messed Around” recalls a woman’s misadventures a bit more comically: “She rips her skirt and tears her dress / Climbing over his garden fence / Mud on her mourning as tears still fall / She’s in no mood for his love at all”.
A British woman who marries an American servicemember during wartime makes up the sad tale of “Labelled With Love”, a tune that finds things predictably ending badly after years of Stateside unhappiness: “He, like a cowboy, died drunk in a slumber / Out on the porch in the middle of summer / She crossed the ocean, back home to her family / But they had retired to roads that were sandy”. Two more frenetic, hook-stuffed songs (the Beatlesque single “Is That Love” and the clattering “Mumbo Jumbo”) round out the 14 tracks on East Side Story.
While their first three albums were filled with enough wonderful moments for any self-respecting band’s discography, it was East Side Story that showed the band truly turning a corner. They made plenty of great music after that landmark album, particularly 1982’s Sweets from a Stranger (which contained the unimpeachable classic “Black Coffee in Bed”); 1985’s weird, synth-heavy Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti (which brought Holland back into the fold); and Babylon and On, the 1987 album that gave them their first U.S. Top 40 hit, “Hourglass”. They still tour, too (although Difford and Tilbrook being the only original members who remain).
East Side Story is an album regularly referred to as a classic, but the fact that it doesn’t have the same mainstream familiarity as ‘80s mainstays like Thriller, Purple Rain, So, or Graceland is unfair and, frankly, a bit puzzling. The album may be too inherently “British”—an inexplicable crutch that also prevents artists like Paul Weller from breaking into the American market. However, if everyone who loves Lennon and McCartney would give the equally gifted team of Difford and Tilbrook a try, the musical riches of this exceptional album will truly give it the adulation it deserves (even after 40 years). So, belly up to the bar, pass the bottle and let Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook tell you a story.