Squeeze and Hot Chip are both great British pop groups. But they never defined a scene. Their ambitions extended further than being hailed by a few hundred people in bleeding-edge clubs.
Squeeze piggybacked on punk, but they were quite evidently never a punk group, even if they dressed up as one. They were of the street rather than the art school, but they had no interest in gobbing, and Chris Difford was able to turn vignettes of everyday London life into three-minute comic dramas. (Perhaps he had more in common with John Sullivan — another south Londoner whose characters combined humour and pathos in his scripts for Only Fools and Horses — than he did with Joe Strummer.) They took musically not from the Stooges and the MC5 and Roxy Music, but from country and R&B and soul and rock’n’roll, which meant they were one of the groups — like the Pretenders — which older audiences were able to like as well.
Hot Chip emerged out of new rave, a mid-Noughties confection that was briefly so fashionable you risked severing limbs on its bleeding edge. But where most of new rave’s leading lights proved to be mere apparitions, Hot Chip just carried on getting bigger and better, because their songs were simply too strong to be ignored, reminiscent both of 1980s acts who combined acid house with proper songwriting (I bet they have a more than a passing fondness for the first album by Inner City) and, especially, Pet Shop Boys at their housiest. And, like Squeeze, that enabled them to appeal beyond the club kids to an older audience — Ally Pally had a substantial contingent of fortysomethings who had got rid of the kids for the night and decided to bosh some pills for old times’ sake.
As they finished their set, with the sublime ‘I Feel Better’, lasers strafing the crowd, a middle-aged man with pupils like dinner plates grabbed my arm. ‘Isn’t this bit AMAZING? It’s AMAZING!’ Yes, it is, but I’ve parked at the bottom of the hill, so I’m not quite in the same state to think so.
Squeeze have never quite done it for me — don’t know why, they should do, given how far up my street are they — but I wouldn’t deny they were often sublime at the Albert Hall. Even Squeeze refuseniks like me would accept that ‘Labelled With Love’ is one of the best British pop songs of the past 60 years, a gorgeous melody married to a lyric so perfect you want to wrap it up in cotton wool to make sure no one dares change a word. ‘Pulling Mussels (from a Shell)’ remains the best, smartest song about cunnilingus in seaside holiday camps, albeit not competing in a crowded field. And some of the less heralded songs — ‘Third Rail’, ‘King George Street’ — revealed pleasures that had eluded me on record.
Difford is a miles better lyricist than Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, just as Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook is a miles better singer than Taylor. But it was Hot Chip’s show that was more compelling. Partly that’s circumstance — they are still a band on the rise, so the crowd was there to participate, not just observe. But also it’s because Hot Chip have an open-heartedness about them that I find lovely. As he has grown older, Taylor has shed the archness of songs like their breakthrough, ‘Over and Over’, and sings instead about simple emotions — about realising he has met his life partner in ‘One Life Stand’, about finding hope in love in ‘Melody of Love’ — which the rest of the band respond to with joy. They looked like a bunch of fellas on a stag weekend to a cheap hotel in an expensive resort, and they danced like it, too.
Hot Chip’s status as one of the great British pop groups might be disputed — I doubt there are many milkmen whistling ‘Ready for the Floor’ — but that’s not their fault; it’s because of the atomisation of music that means you can now play to 10,000 people without being a household name. But they’re great. Just like everyone says Squeeze are.