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A Life In Song: Chris Difford of Squeeze Talks To Tootal Blog

As a member of one Britain’s best-loved bands, the Squeeze co-founder Chris Difford has made a lasting contribution to Pop music with songs such as ‘Cool For Cats’, ‘Up The Junction’, ‘Labelled With Love’, ‘Hourglass’ and ‘Tempted’.

His new autobiography, Some Fantastic Place: My Life In and Out of Squeeze reveals the highs and lows from over four decades of music making, and is every bit as clever and witty as you would expect from a lyricist of his calibre.

Chris talked to Tootal Blog about some of the music that soundtracked his life, both hits he has written and songs that inspired him.

Prince Buster ‘Al Capone’ (from Fabulous Greatest Hits, 1968)

On the Blackheath estate where I grew up, being in the skinhead gang was seen as very important. Ours was called the Combe Avenue Killers. I know the skinhead scene was synonymous with racism but our gang had huge respect for Jamaican music, so the black kids we’d go clubbing with were good friends. We’d go to the Savoy Club in Catford on a Sunday, or we’d get a Watney’s Party Seven and go to a Tamla Motown party. I had the Fred Perry shirt – which I still like to wear in the summer months – and the tonic trousers. I can’t say Prince Buster has ever been an influence on my lyric writing. For a start, I couldn’t understand half the words.

The Who ‘Magic Bus’ (Polydor single, 1968)

I saw The Who play The Valley, the old Charlton Athletic ground, back in 1976. At this time I had hair down my back and the local gang had become hippies, though they were violent hippies. That was just the way on our estate. It was competitive and aggressive.

My abiding memory is hanging around backstage and talking to the support band, Little Feat, answering their questions about South London. The Who were amazing, inspirational. I sung ‘Magic Bus’ all the way home. I saw a lot of bands at The Valley. Lou Reed played there, and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, who built a wall on stage years before Pink Floyd thought of it.

Squeeze ‘Take Me I’m Yours’ (from Squeeze, 1978)

Squeeze in 1978 (L to R): Gilson Lavis, Glenn Tilbrook, Chris Difford, John Bentley, Jools Holland

This was a really exciting time for us. We were making records and we were on Top Of The Pops. John Peel got us into the BBC Maida Vale studios to do some sessions for him. John Cale produced our first album. I loved his work with the Velvet Underground and I still listen to albums like The Academy In Peril and Fear – all the dark stuff.

About 30 years later I recorded a version of this song with Jane Birkin; an interesting woman. Every thing she said had some kind of reference to Serge Gainsbourg. You’d say something like, “Pass me the ashtray” and she’d say, “Serge used to have wonderful ashtrays”.

Small Faces ‘Lazy Sunday’ (from Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, 1968)

There were two boys on our estate who were into The Who and the Small Faces. We would bounce off their parents’ sofas with tennis rackets, singing along to ‘Happy Jack’ and ‘Lazy Sunday’. That image of being in a gang, travelling round the country in a van, generally being in a cool band. They were my role models.

The Squeeze single “Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)’ was inspired by going to Margate on holiday as a teenager. We saw the Small Faces play in the local social club while we were there. I tried to imagine how Ray Davies would write a song like this. I met Ray years later – a very enigmatic man. It was during my nine-year separation from Glenn. Ray said ‘Does if feel like someone’s not standing on your foot anymore?’

Elvis Costello & The Attractions ‘Boy With A Problem’ (from Imperial Bedroom, 1982)

One evening, I was having dinner with Elvis and his then wife Mary, and he said “I’ve got this song that’s only half finished, see if you can do anything with it”. So he gave me the tape and though I felt a bit daunted he loved what I gave him, he didn’t change a thing.

Elvis is actually touring the Imperial Bedroom album once again, in the U.S. at the moment. I heard a recording of him performing this song a couple of nights ago. It still sounds good.

Difford & Tilbrook ‘Love’s Crashing Waves’ (from Difford & Tilbrook, 1984) 

Squeeze songwriting partnership; Chris Difford (left) and Glenn Tilbrook in 2015

I don’t remember much about making that album. Glenn and I weren’t talking to each other. However, I listened to the album again recently and I think it sounds really good. I’m often like that with our albums, it’s as though I’m hearing them for the first time probably because I go to another place when I’m writing the lyrics – I was going to call the book “Off With The Balloons”.

I’m working with Jools Holland at the moment. He said to me, “I hope you’ve managed to get in character. You should be wearing a cravat whilst you’re writing this one”.

Elton John ‘Duet For One’ (from Duets, 1993)

1992 I went into rehab. The head counsellor was called Beechy, a softly spoken man from Belfast. I was in his office one day when he handed me the phone, and on the other end was Elton John. He became my sponsor. Such a nice man, he took his role so seriously. I had to ring him every day, even when he was on tour in somewhere like China. Somehow his secretary would get a number to me and I would have to call him.

One night he asked me if I would write him some lyrics, so I faxed some over to him and the next day he invited me to his home. He wrote the music in less than five minutes, we drove to a studio and the whole thing was recorded in an hour. That’s the way it should be done. Again, rather daunting following in the footsteps of a master like Bernie Taupin.

Squeeze ‘Some Fantastic Place’ (from Some Fantastic Place, 1993)

50p well spent: “Guitarist Wanted: Must Be Into The Beatles, Kinks, Small Faces…”

I think this might be the best song we have ever written. I cried when Glenn first played me the finished song, it was so beautiful. And the title – of both the song and this book – sums up where I am now. When Glenn and I first met in our teens, it was all down to his girlfriend Maxine. I paid 50p to put the ad in the sweet shop window but she made the connection. Without Maxine there’d be no songs about people who live in Clapham. I owe it all to her and this song means so much to me.

Roxy Music ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’ (from For Your Pleasure, 1973)

As a twenty year-old I was obsessed with Roxy Music’s records. I even took Bryan Ferry’s first solo album to a hairdresser and said I wanted my hair like his, lagoon blue! In 1997 I was employed as his ‘Lyric Doctor’ to help him write songs. It might be the best job I’ve ever had. It was well paid, I was living in a hotel in Kensington, I would chauffeur Bryan around London, I got to have lunch at Alistair Little’s restaurant in Notting Hill or to be Bryan’s dinner date at Cibo, though we would eat in silence, we had nothing to say to each other.

Paul Weller ‘Sweet Pea, My Sweet Pea’ (from Heliocentric, 2000)

At the end of the Nineties I had a studio built at my home in Rye. I called it Heliocentric after the Helios mixing desk I’d got from Basing Street Studios. Paul Weller spent a month there and named his album after my studio. My abiding memory is of him and his band smoking so much that the fire alarms would be going off all the time. Our local fire brigade was made up of volunteers, mainly nearby farmers. I had to keep apologising for getting them out of bed in the middle of the night.

Supergrass recorded there too. They bought so much youthful energy and named a song after my daughter Grace, which thrilled her to bits.

Squeeze ‘Happy Days’ (from ‘Cradle To The Grave’, 2015)

“Don’t worry, Chris. We’ll get you a nice new silk scarf like Glenn’s.”

Jeff Pope was producer of ‘Cradle To The Grave’, a new sitcom based on my old school friend Danny Baker’s memoirs. Jeff would say, “I need a wedding song” or “I need a summer song” but the scripts kept changing so not all of the songs we wrote made it to the screen. ‘Happy Days’ was a radio hit and we got playlisted at Radio 2 for the first time in years.

Peter Kay is a lovely, gentle funny man. I invited him to introduce me when I played a solo gig to 150 people at the Arts Centre in Oswaldtwistle. He talked for twenty minutes then finally introduced me as Glenn Tilbrook from Squeeze!

The Strypes ‘You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover’ (from Snapshot, 2013)

I love working with them. I love their enthusiasm and their passion. It takes me back forty years; it’s like watching early Squeeze recording sessions. I can also see the same challenges I witnessed in Squeeze. Everyone was so excited about The Strypes when they first appeared and they were thrust into the limelight though their label, Virgin Records, have been very good to them.

The band asked me to produce them but they are that good; they set up their instruments, I pressed record, they played and that was it. One day, twelve great songs.

Some Fantastic Place: My Life In and Out Of Squeeze by Chris Difford is out now in hardback and audiobook, published by W&N. https://goo.gl/icRHEJ

To coincide with the autobiography Edsel Records are releasing Let’s Be Combe Avenue: Demos 1972 by Chris Difford on CD and Download. Details at https://goo.gl/s7EmHU

The new album by Squeeze The Knowledge will be released on CD, Vinyl and Download by Love Records on 13th October 2017. Details at https://lnk.to/SQUEEZE