Title: Up The Junction
Description: single; album track, Cool For Cats
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1978
It’s hard to convey to the youth of today how vital Smash Hits was at the end of the 70s. In an age so pre-digital “sharing” meant literally lending things to other kids, we would pass copies of the fortnightly pop-words magazine around in the playground, eager to discover what our favourite bands of that post-punk/disco era were actually singing. Imagine it, young people of today! To care about what artists were singing! And to have no immediate method at our fingertips of finding out from one fortnight to the next!
The lyrics to Up The Junction, the third smash hit from this glowering bunch of posers from a place called Deptford, appeared across a full page in “ver Hits” – as it was not yet self-mythologisingly known – and what an unusually lengthy and involved rearrangement of the English language it was: each verse a chapter in a story and no chorus, no repetition, no deviation or hesitation. Just a minute: thinking about it, their previous hit, the snarlier Cool For Cats (which I’d exchanged pocket money for), didn’t really have a chorus either beyond the line “co-oo-ool for cats”, and it too had beguiled my fragile teenage mind with its literate turns of phrase and its Sweeney imagery. Who were these clever blokes who looked like they were trying so hard to disguise their cleverness?
In the mid-80s, by which time I’d gone off to art school in faraway London but retained my devotion to Smash Hits, my path almost crossed with that of Squeeze, when one of our visiting tutors at Chelsea School of Art (headquartered in Wandsworth, a borough I’d first heard about through Cool For Cats when London was a foreign field) made a head-turning request. Could I write out the lyrics to the next Squeeze album, Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti? His name was Rob O’Connor, and he ran his own design company which specialised at that time in LP sleeves. Honestly, we with a pop sensibility worshipped at his self-effacing feet, especially when we discovered that it was his handwriting on the sleeve of the Banshees’ Kaleidoscope album. You should know that my handwriting was mannered and cartoony in 1984, hence the speculative calligraphic commission. In the event, my lyrics (and I really did write them all out, by hand) went unused. But it was close. And I got paid.
It is not to in any way denigrate or underestimate the deceptively intricate power of Squeeze’s musicianship – something hard which they made look easy – but the lyrics were always the thing for me. The very fact that Glenn Tilbrook, who wrote the music, engineered such a witty yet moving job of singing the words, which were written by Chris Difford, makes Up The Junction a sort of definitive encapsulation of what made – and makes – their Lewisham Lennon/McCartney symbiosis one of pop and rock’s essential services. The lyric – a three-minute kitchen-sink drama – would be severely diminished without the singer, and the singer would self-evidently just be humming without the lyric. (I know Difford sings it himself, solo, but I hope he would agree that Tilbrook’s rendition is heavenly.)
You know sometimes when you have to just shut up and reproduce the lyric, like Smash Hits did in 1978?
I never thought it would happen
With me and the girl from Clapham
Out on a windy common
That night I ain’t forgotten
What audacious rhymes. What Davies-esque evocation of the capital via place names.
I got a job with Stanley
He said I’d come in handy
And started me on Monday
So I had a bath on Sunday
Although we subsequently learn that the job with Stanley involves working eleven hours, we discover nothing more specific about the nature of the work. But we don’t need to. As for the delicate crux of this cautionary tale …
She said she’d seen a doctor
And nothing now could stop her
More fatalism. Tilbrook’s lilting tones are so free of animosity or self-pity, so devoid of judgement or blame, you’re inclined to sympathise with both parties, especially when he vouches:
I put away a tenner
Each week to make her better
Writing short stories is hard. Any short story writer will tell you that. To do so in verse, in rhyme, and in half-rhyme (“tenner”, “better”), is harder still. “And when the time was ready, we had to sell the telly”? Heartbreaking. “She gave birth to a daughter, within a year a walker, she looked just like her mother, if there could be another”? This is a man declaring his love for a woman who until recently he was referring to as “the girl.” And yet, two years later – and it really is like a country song now – she’s “with a soldier” and he’s going “from bar to street to bookie.”
It’s only at the bitter end – and bitterness takes that long to rise to the surface – that our South London protagonist admits he’s “up the junction”. The song’s title is also its punchline, its killing joke, its crowning glory. This is a London A-to-Z of emotion.
Having almost skipped over this band’s virtuosity – a trait hugely unfashionable in the white heat of New Wave – I will throw a bone to seasoned pro Gilson Lavis, whose exactitude from the drum stool lent both weight and a lightness of touch often simultaneously to the many timeless hits of Squeeze. Such an asset. Maestro Jools Holland, an uncontainable personality who dipped in and out as his parallel broadcasting career flourished, was closest to Squeeze’s only other permanent member, and he and Lavis came together in the 90s and are still going strong in the Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. That’s two lasting relationships from one band of brothers.
I find it’s easy to forget how good Squeeze were – that’s how good they were. But they were the equal as a British singles band to Madness, or the Kinks before them, or Blur after them. They were what a fortnightly pop-words magazine in the steam age was invented for.
5 thoughts on “Squeeze, Up The Junction (1978)”
“It’s hard to convey to the youth of today how vital Smash Hits was at the end of the 70s.”
Oh, I dunno. I’m roughly the same age as you, I loved music then and still do, but to my recollection I’ve never read a music magazine in my life and I can’t say I feel like I missed out.
Then it would be even harder for you to convey to the youth how vital Smash Hits was!
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I read every single issue of Smash Hits from the first one, until one week they explained to their readers who Kate Bush was. I realised I was older than I had thought. (This was probably around the late 80s, mind you. I was actually young.)
As for Up The Junction: this is simply one of the best lyrics ever; not only a heartbreaking story beautifully told, but with a degree of difficulty introduced, as you say, by the use of different rhyming techniques. (And, I think, alliteration and assonance.) Don’t know if Squeeze were ever better than this, although I’d be prepared to argue for Tempted, musically at least.
Brilliantly simple on the face of it but one of the most moving songs you’ll hear.
For more Smash Hits nostalgia go here:
A warning though: You could lose yourself to 1983 for a long while in there. And 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981 etc…
I would like to thank Tim for the shout-out to my Smash Hits archive: I apologise to everybody whose productivity has decreased dramatically after stumbling upon it.
I am ashamed to admit I wasn’t aware of this site until today, but I look forward to reading through the archives. This is a great page to start, because Smash Hits and Up The Junction are intrinsically linked in my memory. In June 1979 I went to Coleraine with my Mum and some aunts and, in Gardiner’s bookshop, I saw Smash Hits. Donna Summer was on the front cover: she wasn’t my cup of tea, but the inside front cover contained the lyric to Up The Junction. I was still new to pop music and was fascinated with how lyrics worked, so I was excited about having words in my hand like that.
All these years later, it’s exciting to know that people are stumbling across the archive and getting a kick out of either rediscovering the delights of early Smash Hits or discovering for the first time what a great read it used to be.
Oh….and thanks for highlighting the importance of Gilson Lavis to the success and continuing appeal of Up The Junction!