Interview: Chris Difford, Squeeze
- Credit: Rob O'Connor
Squeeze is one of the headline acts at Cornbury’s ever-popular music festival this summer. Katie Jarvis asked Chris Difford how it is that, four decades after they started out, he and Glenn Tilbrook are still really cool for cats
Reading Festival, 1978. The standpipes of two years ago are dripping into six-pack-fuddled memory; but here in Reading the sun is still burning with an intensity that scorches every nostalgic summer of youth.
In the UK charts, Frankie Valli has politely outgroved the Commodores’ Three Times a Lady from the number-one spot with a disco-beat Grease.
On the Richfield Avenue festival site (special weekend tickets £8.95), there’s not a poodle-skirt in sight: the bubblegum pink of Rydell High School has been stomped into the mud by the angry blackness of an anarchic Doc Marten. (“Grease” is most definitely not the word.)
A crowd of 15,000 watches as Paul Weller smashes up a sound-system and Jimmy Pursey weeps as groups of pogoing, safety-pinned Mohicans smash up each other.
…And then, on the Sunday, Squeeze plays.
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“Compare and contrast,” I say to Chris Difford, as if introducing an A level topic (Compare and contrast the life of a pterodactyl to that of a modern-day bird). “Take me back to a Squeeze gig – say, Reading 78. How you felt on stage. What your emotions were...Then on to, I dunno [the choice is infinite], Glastonbury 2016. Compare and contrast.”
Because 40 years on, long after the punks had aggressively safety-pinned the holes they ripped through society; long after that old dinosaur, Anarchy, became extinct, Squeeze is still soaring: the latest album, The Knowledge, was released last year to great acclaim, accompanied by a tour of the US; this year, it’s Australia, plus some headline UK festivals – Oxfordshire’s Cornbury amongst them.
“Yeah,” Chris Difford says, in a Reading flashback I can almost see. “What I remember is being in an environment filled with people who were drinking...And angry about seeing a band like Squeeze, who just played three-minute pop songs and were from south London. There was a fair amount of aggression.”
Ha. Fairly daunting, then?
“Well, it always was in a support role, which we did a lot of in those days. Fleetwood Mac, for instance. Every time we went to play our set, we’d be confronted by a load of Fleetwood Mac lookalikes completely bored of watching Squeeze. They’d be sitting there eating chocolate, waiting for Fleetwood Mac to come on. It was the most depressing thing.”
“If you balance that with Saturday, Glastonbury, main stage, 2016 – completely different. Completely different from that horrible experience, to one of love and nurture and peace and wonderfulness.
“A feeling of ‘We’ve made it’ I suppose.”
Don’t get this wrong. It’s not that Squeeze – as I assume you already know – was ever Val Doonican. Or even Dire Straits (who practised downstairs from a flat Chris once rented on the Crossfields Estate in Deptford: “To me it sounded like they were knitting,” he writes in his highly entertaining autobiography, Some Fantastic Place).
If you want edgy, there’s Chris the young skinhead – the Combe Avenue Killers, as he daubed on a shed on his south London estate – who helps mug an old lady walking a dog on Blackheath. All he gets for being rash [tra la] is a pack of Polos, a couple of quid and a bitter realisation that gang-life isn’t for him.
Then, after some great school careers advice,
(“What do you want to do?”
“Be in The Who.”
“No, I mean, what do you really want to do?”
“Err...Be a pig farmer?”), he took 50p from his mum’s purse and put an advert in a shop window for a guitarist to join a fictitious band. Maxine, Glenn Tilbrook’s girlfriend-at-the-time, saw the ad and persuaded Glenn to call a number that rang a green plastic receiver in a prefab hallway. Chris Difford’s mum answered, perched on a velvet chair next to the phone table. “Christopher,” she called. “It’s for you.”
And that is the moment of conception of Squeeze. The next Lennon & McCartney.
Yep. If you want to read a book about the 60s, 70s, 80s - and before and beyond - then pick one by a lyricist. You can taste, smell, touch, hear, see vivid descriptions of Chris’s childhood: the sweetness of peat burning on Aunt Ginny’s fire; the earth of his dad’s allotment; the sweet smell of custard creams baked at the nearby Peek Freans factory against the gross dog-biscuits made down on Blackwall Lane.
“Everybody who’s had an education in this country can smell the dinners they had to have at school,” he appositely reminds me.
It’s captivating; almost more mesmeric than the later chapters telling the story of how a band that plugged away through the haze of smoky pub venues suddenly started selling records by the barrel-load.
Chris Difford came, he says, from a happy home. Not a rich one materially, but a loving one. It’s true that therapists who’ve treated him in his adult years have never unearthed memories of family trauma. Yet many of his descriptions are of silences. Like when his mum got too friendly with a policeman-colleague; or when his parents moved into separate bedrooms, and watched TV from opposite ends of the sofa.
Which makes me wonder. Makes me speculate, I tentatively suggest: were the incredible – often poignant - lyrics that he began to write in his bedroom ways of filling those silences? A less painful way of delving than spilling out thoughts on a professional couch?
He answers my observation generously.
“I think that’s very, very true,” he says. “I’ve managed to exorcise a lot of domestic situations within the walls of the songs that I’ve written – so there’s a bit of self-therapy there, I guess.
“When therapists are trying to dig deep to find reasons why you’ve become an alcoholic or a drug addict [which, as he honestly relates, he did with a passion], I don’t think they’re looking at the silences in a relationship. They’re looking for much more aggressive behaviour, which simply wasn’t there. A lot of family life was just filled with ease and love, really, because there wasn’t much else.”
Besides which, silence wasn’t all bad, he adds. Because it gave him space.
Space? As in what?
“The fact that I could go to my room and play guitar and find the ambition to be in a band. None of that was difficult because I had loads of room; there weren’t the distractions that there might be today. The TV, for instance, was only on between teatime and 11 o’clock. There were only three channels. So there were huge gaps in the day to fill with imagination.”
No books, either – other than a desert-island collection of the Bible and a few unread encyclopaedias. Instead, the words came from the Beatles (“Storytellers”), Donovan and Dylan. King Crimson – “Although they were living in Fantasyland, that kind of prog-rock lyricism was fascinating to me; it gave me the ability to write”; and the complexity of Lou Reed’s word-weaving-weft over a warp of simple chords.
There are some great stories in Some Fantastic Place. Some brilliant anecdotes.
Some stripping away of glamour and the uncovering of a good old bit of reality.
Some of it is delightfully bitchy (though never, somehow, unkind. Chris Difford comes out of it all as a pretty nice bloke).
Bumping into Gary Numan in a corridor and noticing how bad his make-up was. (The fact that Are ‘Friends’ Electric kept Up the Junction off the number one slot is neither here nor there.) Staying at Phil Lynott’s mum’s B&B, where she held court all night and served beans on toast at 4am. Playing pinball with The Ramones and having a beer with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein (“we never got to the stage where we were sending each other postcards”) Playing at Lou Reed’s birthday party, where Divine and Andy Warhol were two of the few people there. (Why ‘few’? He annoyingly doesn’t say.) Being pinned against a wall by Paul Weller’s dad, who wrongly accuses him of stealing mics.
One of the funniest, most vivid portraits is of Mr Supercool himself, Bryan Ferry, for whom Chris worked for a while. Lyrics didn’t just have to be genius; they had to be grammatically correct: “’Let’s see now, does martini have a capital M or a baby m in this case?’ Pencils had to be sharpened to length. On one occasion, Bryan’s guitarist, Mick Green, had a heart attack on stage and was saved by two doctors at the show. “Bryan didn’t seem to notice it happen behind him and carried on singing.”
Hilarious; but deeply affectionate.
“Hugely,” he tells me. “There is no greater inspiration. You couldn’t understand where he was taking you but, lyrically, it was in a new way. Imagine: his records were in the charts at the same time as Agadoo. And I know which one I’d rather listen to.”
And there’s Elton John – more Chad Varah than Marie Antoinette – who was always on the end of a phone when Chris was fighting his addictions.
What a poppet, I say.
Umm. A poppet.
“He’s an incredibly gifted person, who lives with the difficulty of being who he is by giving it back to everybody all around him. As complicated as people may think Elton John is, he’s not like that. He’s very easy-going and very loving.”
You’re very honest (both to me and in your book), I say to Chris Difford. Alarmingly honest, at times. Kind of endearingly honest, too.
I can hear him shrug.
“A lot of other books about people in the music industry seemed to just be bullet-points about their lives. For me, a book has to be a little bit more than that.”
Amongst all the relationships, the make-ups and the break-ups (and he’s now happily sober and married to Louise), there’s one relationship that stands out above all the others. That with the other (consistent) half of Squeeze. Glenn Tilbrook. The other half of classics such as Up the Junction, Take Me I’m Yours, Goodbye Girl, Cool for Cats (almost a folk song capturing, as it does, a disappearing south bank Cockney).
Glenn Tilbrook – smooth and high and sweet to Chris’s lower octaves.
During those four decades, they’ve split, had solo careers, got back together. How does he find writing with Glenn now, all that water under the bridge?
“Well, for the last two albums, we’ve come closer together; Glenn’s contributed lyrically to them both, whereas before that wouldn’t have been the case.”
Doesn’t he ever feel: Hang on! Lyrics are my territory!?
“There was definitely a bit of that at the beginning. It was a bit of a sore point. But, you know, we’ve recorded 15 records, so it would be churlish of me to say, ‘No, this is my football. You can’t play with it.’ That’s not the sort of person I am. I hope.”
He’s hugely looking forward to playing Cornbury this summer, not just because it’s “a wonderful family event”; nor just because Soho Farmhouse is a Cotswold stone’s throw away. “You can go and have lunch, drive across the road and you’re back on stage!”
But because he loves the people behind it. “Super people. They’re really loving; they love music; they’ve been through their ups and downs. I was at Cornbury last year with Jools Holland [who was Squeeze’s original keyboardist] and that was one of the best shows of the summer.”
But back to Glenn – one last question. Because it made me laugh – made me astonished – to learn that Chris doesn’t even know where Glenn lives. Is that deliberate?
“It’s not deliberate. It’s factual.”
Is it important for them to have separate lives?
“I have no idea,” he grins. “But I’d love to be invited round to tea!”