Chris Difford on his new autobiography and overcoming addiction to claw his way back to the top
- Credit: Archant
As a member of the 1970s new wave band Squeeze, Sussex-based guitarist and lyricist Chris Difford found fame on both sides of the Atlantic. But by 1997 the band was on the rocks, and he was broke. As he publishes his autobiography, he speaks to Angela Wintle
Chris Difford and his longstanding Squeeze bandmate Glenn Tilbrook know a thing or two about grabbing the headlines. Take the time in January last year when they were invited to play the title track from their 2015 album, Cradle to the Grave, on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show.
Observing that the main guest that morning was one David Cameron who was appearing live to justify his government’s decision to demolish more than 100 old council estates, Glenn improvised some waspish new lyrics in which he railed against “the destruction of the welfare state”. Chris drily observes that Cameron, seemingly unaware of the biting new song lyrics worked into the last verse, congratulated them after the show and said, “I think that song is going to be a hit!”
Predictably, the media went mad for the story, although Chris claims Glenn’s decision to amend the song came as a complete surprise. “Suddenly I found I was a hero on Twitter because people knew I was the lyricist of the band and assumed I’d been the one sticking it to the PM,” he says. “I suggested to Glenn that I should go on social media to explain, but he disagreed, so I was high-living people for days afterwards.”
Cradle to the Grave, an upbeat, nostalgic collection of songs full of pithy observations about growing up in 1960s and ‘70s London, marked a triumphant return for the band which had endured lean times in the preceding two decades. The title track, played over the credits of Peter Kay’s hit BBC Two sitcom of the same name, was inspired by the first volume of broadcaster Danny Baker’s autobiography, Going to Sea in a Sieve.
Rave reviews and a successful UK tour followed, and their new single Happy Days was playlisted for the first time in years on Radio 2. Later that summer, they performed on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury which Chris describes as a dream come true. “I got to hang out with Johnny Depp, rubbed shoulders with David Beckham and introduced my wife Louise to Brad Pitt, who said he was a huge Squeeze fan.”
Now Chris, 62, has brought out his roller coaster autobiography, Some Fantastic Place, in which he describes his unlikely rise to fame and fortune from working-class beginnings — and how he dramatically lost it all again, courtesy of some archetypal rock star excesses.
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As a member of Squeeze, Chris notched up three top five hits with Cool for Cats, Up the Junction and Labelled With Love, and during the peak of their popularity he and Glenn were hailed as the heirs to Lennon and McCartney’s throne. “When Up the Junction reached number two in 1979, we were selling 15,000 records a day,” he says. “If I was selling that number now, I’d be Adele.”
Like Adele, he has also made his home in Sussex — first in an eight-bedroom farmhouse set in 700 acres in Rye; latterly, in Brighton and Hove. Earlier this year, however, he and his wife bought their first home together near Firle, at the suggestion of their local priest, the Rev Peter Owen Jones.
“Peter rang to say there was a property for sale near the village and he thought we should go and see it,” says Chris. “Most property in the village is owned by the Firle Estate and houses rarely appear on the market. We saw Peter’s call as a Biblical sign, so we told him we were on our way. Within two days, we had the house under offer.”
Chris’ bucolic existence in the heart of the South Downs is a far cry from the gritty upbringing he describes so vividly in his memoirs, a close-knit community of terraced houses and prefabs near Greenwich Park, south-east London.
The turning point in his life came in 1973 when he took 50p from his mother’s purse and placed an advert in a shop window appealing for a guitarist to join his band. “As it happens, I had no band. I also said I had a pending record deal and a tour lined up. I had neither deal nor tour.”
The only person to respond was Glenn, a shy but talented guitarist who would go on to become Chris’s closest collaborator over the next 40-plus years.
“Glenn was locally famous for having been kicked out of school for refusing to cut his hair, and had been in the local paper,” he grins. “He seemed similar to me in many ways. I think we were both a bit lost — musical, but with deep, distant dreams of stardom.”
They worked on new material and after a few years of rattling up and down motorways from one dingy venue to another, eventually found themselves appearing on Top of the Pops. Chris describes the early years of Squeeze, when Jools Holland was on keyboards and they were trying to avoid turning into another punk band, with joyous intensity. In contrast, the years of hit records seems to have flashed past in a tedious and endless loop of recording and touring.
His memories are also soured by their initial recording contract which effectively signed away the rights to all their songs, masters and copyright, never to be returned. “We were young, we didn’t know any lawyers and f15 a week each seemed a great deal at the time.”
Nevertheless, at the height of Squeeze’s success he still enjoyed a healthy wage packet which he spent on Concorde flights, lavish hotels, designer clothes and endless sports cars. His spending addiction came home to roost when he was made insolvent for three years in the 1990s.
All this also came on top of a severe drug and alcohol dependency which left him broken and suicidal. With a little help from Elton John, Chris went into rehab, sobered up and embarked on a new career, firstly managing the young pop group The Strypes and then his boyhood idol Bryan Ferry, while continuing to perform with the latest incarnation of Squeeze.
The biggest turnaround in his fortunes came when he met the love of his life, Louise, while performing on a Radio 4 comedy show. “Looking across the room I saw the most attractive smile I had ever seen. For a moment I was lost,” he says. “I thought I could spend the rest of my life with that woman.” And he did. He proposed on Firle Beacon and they were married by the Rev Owen Jones on a wet and windy day at St Peter’s Church, Firle, in April 2013, surrounded by friends who included Peter Kay and Danny Baker.
“I’m so lucky to have met Louise and to have her by my side,” he says. “She supports me in ways I would not have thought possible.”
After decades when happiness evaded him, he has finally found contentment and new-found success with Squeeze. “It’s as though our songs and our journey have found their place back in people hearts and minds, and I am feeling so excited about the future and what that might mean,” he says. “They say a cat has nine lives... I feel like I’ve had many more.”
Chris Difford is bringing 'The Acoustic Book Tour' to Hailsham on 18 March 2018. See full details here.
Some Fantastic Place: My Life In and Out of Squeeze by Chris Difford is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at f20. New Squeeze album The Knowledge is out now.
My favourite Sussex
• Restaurant: Cin On Italian Bar and Kitchen in Brighton’s North Laine. It’s cramped, but their authentic Italian dishes and welcoming ambience are worth the lack of elbow room. More local to me is the brilliant Flint Barns on the Rathfinny Wine Estate in Alfriston. It’s always busy and always good.
• Pub: I’m not a pub man these days, but my local, the Ram Inn at Firle, is the place to go for gossip and delicious Sunday lunch. I’d also recommend the Griffin Inn at Fletching for a good seasonal menu.
• Shop: Our local shop, the Village Stores at Alfriston, stocks wonderful produce. I particularly like their freshly baked bread and Folkington’s cranberry juice.
• Place to visit: A visit to Charleston, near Firle, the home of the Bloomsbury group, is always an enjoyable experience. The presence of artists Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and their circle is still palpable today, and it’s situated in a breathtaking spot in the crook of the downs.
• View: The views while walking from Firle Beacon, where I proposed, to Seaford never fail to lift my spirits and fill me with happiness.
• Sussex celebrities share what they love most about the county - Some of Sussex’s best known personalities have revealed in the magazine what they most love about the county. Here, we compile their stories, favourite restaurants, pubs, shops, views and places to visit