In high school, I worked as a lifeguard for the municipal pool during the summer months. The managers were usually a few years older than the guard staff, so every year they would come back from college during summer break and tell us how awesome university was while tempting us with their driver’s licenses and breaking out some bullshit pool hierarchy whenever we underage drinkers asked for a hand in buying some booze.
One of the things that they did share with us was the occasional mix tape featuring “college music” and other tracks from what students supposedly listened to while they were away from home, their cabinets filled with plastic Chinet plates, Graffix bongs, and copious amounts of Everclear grain alcohol.
Their music taught me that my concept of college life was completely off. I mean, how can you explain one manager’s love of Phil Collins and Supertramp? There was obviously nothing remotely smokeable coming from that dude’s dorm room and nothing to indicate that he was actually putting that collegiate independence to good use.
But another manager did have a few challenging tapes that he would bring to the pool, some of which actually fell outside of the idea of “mainstream.”
One afternoon, he popped in a cassette in the pool’s primitive stereo system that pumped music over the weatherproof speakers and provided customers with the hourly routine pool checks, where we would force everyone out of the pool at the top of the hour and see if we missed any dead bodies sinking to the bottom of the pool.
Playing a personal cassette over the p.a. system was a big no no. We were under some vague instructions to leave the radio tuned to the local top 40 station as it was enjoyed by more customers. But hear me when I say that after an afternoon, twirling your whistle in 90-degree Iowa humidity, the last thing you wanted to hear was Michael Sembello‘s “Maniac” four times during your shift.
So it was a great relief to hear a foreign, yet familiar sound of a Beatlesque guitar coming from the tinny fidelity of the pool’s all-weather speaker. It was hard to make out the words, but the voice sounded similar to that of John Lennon’s, singing about “Squinting faces at the sky / A Harold Robbins paperback.”
The record—Squeeze‘s Argy Bargy—continues to serve as one of my own musical clarions to announce the summer solstice. It is the closest that the band got to their well-deserved Fab comparisons while managing to point to a direction that may have ultimately transcended those lazy associations.
The song I heard that day, “Pulling Mussels From The Shell,” and the track that kicked off side two, “If I Didn’t Love You,” are the two most recognized gems from Squeeze’s primary songwriters, Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrookn. They may have been college radio favorites at the time they were released, prompting my manager to tape a copy of Argy Bargy for his own collection, but the rest of the record was full of wonderfully smart pop songs that the manager agreed to let me tape with his dual cassette dubbing unit.
The source tape was his TDK SA90 cassette, which I used as well for my copy. It was a little more expensive than the cheap blank cassettes that I used, but I figured that the dude was in college, so he must know that chrome-oxide tapes sounded better than those normal bias ones.
The second-generation tape hiss wasn’t too bad, and I attributed it to the bitchin’ high-bias tape I bought and the treble-killing Dolby B noise reduction that I used during the high speed dubbing process. Upon playback, I noticed something weird during the awesome song “Vicki Verky,” a great slice of up-tempo acoustic Beatlemania towards the end of the album.
In the middle of the song, the Squeeze composition suddenly dropped out and I could hear the familiar refrains of a Beatles song playing backwards for about 15 seconds. Always up for a game of Beatles trivia, I determined the vocal part of the chorus was none other than George Harrison and the song in question was “Love You To” from Revolver. How it ended up on my tape is a mystery and why it plays the segment backwards is one of life’s mysteries.
But it gave my dub copy of Argy Bargy character and I kept that cassette even after I properly got my own copy on CD many years later.
What isn’t mysterious was how Argy Bargy managed to cross-generational boundaries. A few years later, I became one of the managers of that municipal pool, and one of my first acts as a big shot was to put in that tape of Argy Bargy, just like old times. Years later, one of the female lifeguards remembered that tape, and evidently inquired about it after I played it. She got the annunciation wrong, but I understood her perfectly when she asked if I could make her a copy of that “Argee Bargee” album that I used to play at the pool during the summer.
There was also my own father, who became a fan of Squeeze after allowing me the opportunity to play Argy Bargy in the car on our way to a short getaway one summer. To get through an entire album without my father advising, “Let’s listen to something else now,” was a rare event, but it was even rarer to have him request, “Put in that Squeeze tape!” when we ended up on the beach off a lake where my aunt and uncle lived in Illinois. Maybe the Fab melodies got to him, or maybe it was just the after effects of the lake that cooled the nuclear power plant nearby.
I think it’s the melodies; they’re as fresh today as they were thirty years ago. The melodies are the reason you’ll still catch a one of their most popular classics while shopping for groceries. In fact, “Pulling Mussels From A Shell” came up the other day while the iPod was on shuffle as I was cooking dinner.
“That’s where I’ve heard this song from!” my wife announced, explaining that the song would frequently play at her store’s music channel, causing her to break into a spontaneous, “And I feel like William Tell,” in front of her co-workers who weren’t as familiar with the work of Squeeze.
The truth is, everyone should be a bit familiar with them, and I hope with additional spins of Argy Bargy my wife won’t begin to think of her place of employment the next time she hears their songs.
Because Argy Bargy is great enough that it should be honored with worthy memories. In fact, the band themselves point that out during “If I Didn’t Love You” with a line that has pretty much served as the Cliff Notes of my own musical obsession: “Singles remind me of kisses / Albums remind me of plans.”
A lot of both were created with this frequently overlooked gem.
Video: Squeeze – “Pulling Mussels”