Monday, 14 September 2015

In which I ask Squeeze an awkward question...

There's a question that I have to ask. I came up with the question but now I'm not sure it's any good and the people I'm asking might not want to answer it and it might be awkward and embarrassing and all that might appear on national radio.

I'm walking down a low-celinged beige corridor with strip lighting and worn out carpet. Despite the austerity of it, it has a comforting, welcoming feel. It's the BBC of old. Not the New Broadcasting House that we're all familiar with from the Beeb's own brilliant W1A but the beautiful old former ice skating rink Maida Vale Studios.

It's a lovely old building that the BBC owned before the original Broadcasting House. But it's a property which I fear will be on the list of things that Director General Tony Hall lets go as part of the corporation's funding cuts. I've been here a few times before many years ago as some of my bands recorded sessions here for John Peel. No doubt there will be plaque dedicated to him on the wall of the luxury apartments that will inevitably be built on the site.

I'm here for the recording of one of Radio 4's Mastertapes. It's a series of interviews with artists about their breakthrough album, which my friend John presents and to which he has invited me. He did this because he knows how much I like the band he's interviewing today: Squeeze. Just like this blog, Squeeze are very much back after a lengthy absence. Unlike this blog however, they're already on the A list at Radio 2. Bet their A&R man is happy. As Pavement once sang: I know him and he is.

The Mastertapes format consists of an A and a B side and during the B side the audience get to ask questions. I'm a lifelong Squeeze fan and South East London veteran. If you search for Squeeze in the tabs on the right you'll find the tale of when I watched them writing a song at my friend's house - or did I? You'll also find how I briefly worked with Chris and Glen when Aimee Mann recorded a song with them. Oh yes, previous form on Squeeze? Tick. So I had confidently suggested some questions for John to ask during his interview but instead of marvelling at my journalistic prowess he's sentenced me to asking one of my own terrible questions. He gives me a card which looks like this with the question written on the back:

It's just Chris and Glen who are being interviewed and the room is full of men and women of a certain vintage - like the ones I described at that Wilko Johnson Rough Trade event in a previous blog: lots of ear hair, jowls and loose fitting black Levis. I've recently turned fifty so I am very much in the same demographic. Fortunately, without those jeans. Glen, as he told the assembled throng is now 57 so he's hopefully leading us all towards a dignified last few decades. Here I am in my own jeans and young person's T shirt in front of the stage in Studio 3:

For my fiftieth birthday last year, I actually went to see Chris and Glen at the Union Chapel in London's fashionable Islington. The crowd there were the same as described in the previous paragraph but with a frisson of media confidence and success. As I sat down on my pew (yes, pop pickers, it is actually a chapel!) I listened to the voices around me chatting excitedly about the imminent show. A voice cut through from behind, a throaty cockney fella with a deadpan delivery: "Blimey, no one's avin' a drink in 'ere! Why can't you get a bleedin' drink? I'm parched!"
A similar voice responded, only it was female and, if possible, throatier, "Calm down, there's a bar upstairs! You can't 'ave everyfink! It's a blinkin' church! You can getchaself a drink upstairs later!"
Were these two for real? It was like they were Mike Leigh characters. I turned round and, I kid you not, it was Paul Whitehouse and Kathy Burke.

This is the only image I could find of Whitehouse and Burke together. It's from the Slobs appearance on game show "Call Me a Wanker".

Back at Maida Vale, Chris and Glen talk about the album East Side Story and play Tempted, Labelled With Love and Is That Love? It is impossible not to get a bit dewy eyed about the whole experience. John points out how many of Chris' lyrics have to do with bathrooms and ablutions and Chris actually looks like it's never occurred to him before. Glen, just like old friends always do, leaps into relentless piss taking: as they stand for another performance his partner's guitar strap is giving him problems  "not clean enough for you?" asks Glen innocently.

And then it's time for the audience to ask questions. I hold my card apprehensively. Other audience members are all starting with an unnecessary introductory bit of flattery about how great East Side Story is ("Greatest album ever made", says one young punter) or how great the new album is (it is actually really, really good, just as good as the Danny Baker inspired series Cradle To Grave it soundtracks). Being a seasoned pro (after all I'm interviewing every week on the Podcast, right?) I tell myself I have no need of this. Be confident  - after all, I've researched it, I already know the answer to my question:

As I read the question to myself I realise that it's been poorly worded and I'll need to change it a bit to make it sound less like Lennon was shot just outside of the building where they were working. While I'm doing this, a married couple are getting loads of laughs with their list of Squeeze urban myths "All true!" laughs Glen. The audience are loving the banter when suddenly John introduces me, "Next question is from former A&R man turned writer, Ben Wardle" And I find myself falling into the flattery trap immediately:
"I just wanted to point out that Glen is wearing a great pair of blue suede shoes that radio listeners sadly aren't going to appreciate..." Actually, this is a good segue, the lighthearted tone is being kept afloat. The laughs die down and I ask the question. The atmosphere immediately changes. Chris and Glen look very serious. Shit.
"Yes, it was a very sad day," says Glen, "We didn't record anything"
OK, I think, now they'll tell the story about producer Elvis Costello suggesting they spend the day playing rock and roll classics and how cathartic it was and how maybe somewhere there are some tapes of those sessions...
"We just went to the pub," says Chris flatly.
"Yes, we were devastated and we just wanted a drink" says Glen.
There's a pause. That's it.
"I think Nick Lowe may have popped in," adds Chris helpfully.
Sound of tumble weed etc.

When the shows go out later this year (December, I think) I suspect my own particular mastertape will end up on the cutting room floor.

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