John Bentley: Still Cool

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Harry Paterson meets John Bentley of Squeeze

You’ll know Squeeze, of course, one of the UK’s most influential and iconic pop acts. A slew of hits, right out of the box, starting with ‘Cool For Cats’ and taking in ‘Up The Junction’ and ‘Labelled With Love’ ensures the band’s permanent place in the new wave pop firmament. It was a genuine treat, then, to speak with the band’s bassist, John Bentley. He’s articulate, warm and enthusiastic – one of life’s genuine nice guys.

We kick off with John filling in his remarkable backstory. “I joined the band in 1979. I was with them for about four years. As far as I’m concerned, I think I’ve had the best of Squeeze. I’d only been in the band for two weeks when we released ‘Cool For Cats’. Obviously I had quite a long break, and then when we reformed in 2007, we went from strength to strength – headlining festivals which we’d never done before, playing in America, doing TV shows like Ellen DeGeneres, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and all this sort of thing, playing to millions of people. I’ve really had the best of it, in my view. I think I’m a bit of a talisman for them; whenever I join things seem to go quite well!”

For all his commercial success, Bentley is low-key regarding his own undoubted talent. “Technically, I’m probably not the best bass player they’ve ever had but, you know, when you’ve got a band there’s a sort of chemistry, isn’t there? It’s just the way [Squeeze’s main songwriters] Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook write their music. I lock onto it and I think I supply what’s needed, as opposed to what I might want to play myself. I play what I think serves the track best.”

He adds: “When I joined the band, there was Jools Holland and Gilson [Lavis, drums] and Glenn. They were all over the music. There was a lot going on. They were very strong and Gilson, with the fills that he did, there was this sound. He’d go over the end of a bar and into the next one. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to fit in somewhere’. I usually look for the lowest notes to play and then I throw in a bit of Andy Fraser when I can.”

Bentley counts the legendary Free man as one of his biggest influences. “He’s a huge favourite of mine. I’ve read a lot of interviews with bassists in your magazine, and quite a lot them seem to cite Andy Fraser as an influence. He was quite sparse. I thought it was amazing that on ‘All Right Now’ he didn’t even play the bass in the first verse! There’s just guitar and drums and he didn’t even come in until the chorus. How good is that? It’s a fantastic example of how to use space.” Another favourite is Norman Watt-Roy. “I remember trying to learn ‘Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick’ to play with a covers band and it’s not easy.”

John Bentley

In terms of gear, John’s a Markbass loyalist. “I’ve got an endorsement with Markbass. I couldn’t use anything else. I really like it. It sounds great. I use a combo, a CMD102P. It’s two 10-inch speakers with a 300-watt amp, which is absolutely brilliant for little gigs. When I play with Squeeze I add their big cab, a 151HR: when you put the two together you’ve got 500 watts, which is enough to play the really big stages. I’m very happy with the sound of that. Instrument-wise I’ve still got the Fender Precision, which I used on East Side Story (1981). It’s a 1961. I still use that for recording and if I do any recording for anyone else, anyone that wants that sound. I’ve got a spare, a Music Man Stingray, which is an original 1976. That’s kind of funky: it’s got a really punchy sound. I generally use it as a spare but sometimes I’ll play it all night if I fancy it. I’ve recently bought a Kala U-Bass; it’s one of these little ukulele basses. When Squeeze does their acoustic set I pick up the U-Bass. Everyone comments on what a brilliant sound it is. It comes across a little like a double bass. It’s got rubber strings. It’s really weird technology: when you pull the strings it’s like a bow and arrow. You literally pull ’em, like you’re aiming a bow and arrow.”

This leads us to John’s new album, Based On A True Story, a vinyl-only release. He explains, “I’m always writing songs, so I picked the best 14 – and the reason I did that was that all the Beatles’ albums had 14 tracks. I hadn’t formally decided to do the album on vinyl until I got a call from a guy at the record company and he offered me this deal and said it was going to be exclusively on vinyl. I thought that was great! I’d always wanted to have a proper 12-inch vinyl record. All the albums I love – the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills & Nash – and there’s my album next to them, part of that history.”

The first of Bentley’s solo albums to contain lyrics and eschew the instrumental-only format, Based On A True Story – featuring liner notes by Glenn Tilbrook – is out now on Plane Groovy. All the cool cats are grabbing it…

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