Songs We Take For Granted: Squeeze – “Tempted” (1981)
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 23, 2008
The truth is discovered
If “Tempted” is the only, or one of the only two or three Squeeze songs you know, you’ve probably heard it from people more reliable than me–it’s not Squeeze’s best song, nor is it even particularly representative of the band’s catalogue at large. But what you might not know already is that “Tempted,” despite being the song that is by far the most associated with the band, was not the band’s biggest hit upon its original release–in fact, it topped out at a paltry #49 on the US pop charts, and was far outclassed by later hits “Hourglass” and “853-5937.” If you’ve never even heard of those two songs, don’t feel too bad–“Hourglass” was mostly a hit due to its nifty trompe l’oeil video, Squeeze masterminds Glen Tilbrook and Chris Difford loathe “853-5937,” and neither is featured on the band’s most popular hits comp, Singles (.45s and Under). But it shows that the continued pop culture presence of “Tempted” isn’t chalkable to simple 80s nostalgia–more people really like the song than you might think.
That said, it’s true that “Tempted” is not Squeeze’s best song–“Cool for Cats,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Up the Junction” and even second-most-well-remembered Squeeze song “Black Coffee in Bed” are all much better and much more interesting. Nor is it particularly represenative of the band on the whole–Squeeze were never the edgiest of new wave bands, but “Tempted” practically puts them in Michael McDonald territory, which while not a bad thing in itself, does discredit to the quirky, nervy energy of the majority of their singles discography. But I also don’t think it deserves to be relegated to “stupid hit that the band’s real fans can’t stand” status, either–it’s a simple, immaculate little pop song that deserves exactly the place in pop history that it currently occupies.
I guess what was the stumbling block with me and “Tempted” for so long is how un-new wave (and really, un-80s) it sounds. Because it’s not a new wave song, it’s a blue-eyed soul song to the very core, and a beaut of one at that. Squeeze are such a bunch of goofy white guys by nature (seriously, check that “Hourglass” vid if you have any doubt) that I didn’t realize until very recently just how close to Stax/Volt “Tempted” and “Black Coffee” are. But if you slowed ’em down a bit, put a little grit in the rhythm section and got someone not quite so British to sing the lead vocal, you’d have an Otis Redding record on your hands. The rest of the ingredients are there–the grooving organ lines, the heavenly backing vocals, and the simple, plaintive melodies. Think Al Green doing “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” and you’re pretty much all the way there.
And the lyrics, which I previously thought were kind of banal–well, yeah, they are sort of banal, but in a much more charming way than I realized. The song was written in the least ambitious of circumstances–Tilbrook jotted down the main ideas based on what he saw passing in a cab once–and it’s reflected in the mundanity of the lyrics, which provide a perfect base for straying once the song gets to the more satisfying Temptation of the chorus. Plus, there are certainly clever lines to be had (“I said to my reflection, ‘let’s get out of this place'” is a wonderfully basic and imagistic way to express a feeling everyone has had in a place they didn’t belong), and hearing producer Elvis Costello (who, possibly inspired, would suit up for a similar crossover soul excursion a few years later with “Every Day I Write The Book”) baritone his part of the second verse is a definite treat.
Of course, it’s the chorus that keeps the people coming back. You remember all the commercials, of course–Burger King, Fruit of the Loom (especially bad with the punniness) and most recently, Heineken, all trading on the fact that the song is probably the pop song most simply associated with the casual joy and guilt of temptation. And that’s the key–the song doesn’t pass any sort of judgement on the act of temptation, with temp singer Paul Carrack (who is something like the Forrest Gump of MOR British pop) sounding equally excited, conscience-racked and bored by the concept (and none too much of each). It’s a relatively blank slate of a pop song, allowing listeners to project what tone they will on it.
It doesn’t make it the most scintillating of listens, which is why it’s at least understandable for Squeeze fans to be somewhat resentful of the song’s overinflated place in the band’s catalogue. But really, the travesty isn’t that “Tempted” remains as popular as it does, it’s that the rest of the band’s singles don’t. Viewed instead in the context of all of 80s pop music, “Tempted” doesn’t pretend to be any more or less than it is–a sweet, transmutable little song with a hell of a chorus. May it be used in Levi’s and Dairy Queen commercials for the next 20 years to come.